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The Existential Cost of Love PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 10 September 2007 06:05
I’m sorry for my vestigal postings this past month. It has been a wonderfully rich and fruitful summer and God has blessed every endeavor tremendously. I am so glad that we did it all, but it has also been totally absorbing, stretching, and very hard work. But over the past few weeks I have been meditating on a subject that I’m going to try and put into words: the Price of Love and Vocation.

The conversation about the Called & Gifted gifts discernment process going on over at Koinonia seems like a good place to start.

Chrys commented on Fr. Gregory's original post:

the workshop appears, as you say, intriguing. Having considerable experience in both the Charismatic and Church Growth movements (during my Protestant days), some of it looks familiar - and is vital to a fully functioning church. My only caveat is the distorted manner in which we tend to take up our "mission." Soooooo often (o.k., almost always) people became identified with their mission; the ego wrapped up in their special gift. Always glad to have people involved, but invariably their faith and their function became confused. (I was hardly exempt, lest it appear otherwise.) The offering becomes tied up with the sense of self and the validation of our value to God. I'd be curious to see if they address this.

To which I replied:

What you describe is a very common occurrence in the *early* stages of discernment and of the spiritual life. It is so common that I always address it at every workshop I teach. I describe it as "the temptation to use our gifts to meet our own needs".

Since charisms are always for OTHERS as we emphasize over and over, conducting covert negotiations (I'll give you my gift and in exchange, I expect you to do X for me)or "tax-collecting" is a distortion. But misusing a gift does not invalidate its proper use as Irenaeus observed in the second century.

The solution is not to be cease to value and discern the gifts and the facilitate their discernment but to openly acknowledge this very real and pretty universal phenomena which is corrected as we grow in trust of God and in the discipline of detachment. Which is another reason why discernment should be conducted within the Christian community where these sorts of common spiritual issues can be dealt with in a straight-forward and compassionate manner.

From the perspective of "a long obedience in the same direction" I have not found that the exercise of charisms and prayer/spiritual disciplines are at all at odds with one another. That's because accepting the charisms we have been given for the same of others is a very demanding form of self-giving, of asceticism, if you will.

All vocations and all gifts, however wonderful and divinely empowered, demand sustained sacrifice and growing dependence upon God to bring to fruition. They always involve saying "no" to other good things. Many of us don't think long and hard enough about the cost of bringing any work of love to completion in a fallen world. To answer the life-long call for the sake of others that comes with a charism is both joyful beyond words and very demanding.


Perhaps it is because the Institute just celebrated her 10th anniversary but I've been meditating upon the experience of the past 17 years since I received my call. My conclusion would have to be Dickensian: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I can hardly put into words how astonishing, fulfilling, fruitful, and graced a journey it has been overall or how demanding, relentless, exhausting, and heart-breaking large parts of it have been. People are sometimes surprised that I don't answer with simple one word enthusiasm when asked how I'm doing. That's because "good" or "fine" doesn't begin to cover the waterfront.

In this, I don't imagine that I am different from most intentional disciples (and/or parents!) in mid-life, maxed out and overwhelmed by our commitments and vocation(s). (Most of us have more than one vocation or work of love to which we are called).

It is always infinitely more complicated and cross-grained to actually live a vocation than to dream about it or even say "yes" to it at the beginning. And how many of us begin to withdraw our "yes" in small or large ways when the inevitable, chronic struggles and pain associated with any significant work of love begins to rear its ugly head. How many of us feel that there is something wrong with us, with our discernment, with our situation, with our faith, when the price of love in a fallen world comes due? (Here I am not speaking of the sort of suffering which is not an intrinsic part of our vocation(s) and should move us to appropriate change.)

Rolland and Heidi Baker of Iris Ministries are intimately familiar with this reality. In my 11 part article on Independent Christianity that I blogged in May, I wrote briefly about their remarkable work.

In 1995, the Bakers, who both have PhD's in theology, moved to Mozambique – the poorest country on earth. They were offered a crumbling orphanage by the government but no other support. The Bakers took it and 10 years later they care for over 6,000 orphans. In their spare time, they have planted over 6,000 congregations among the poor in 10 African nations.

Rolland wrote movingly in July of their personal and spiritual poverty in the face of the staggering challenges of their call:

Our four years in Pemba have been tumultuous, intense, filled with demonic attacks, violence, threats, opposition from the government, discouragement, theft, loss, disappointments, failures, staff turnover, and the constant, unrelenting demands of extreme poverty and disease all around us. It almost always seemed that our capabilities and resources were no match for the challenges we faced every day, resulting in a level of chaos and stress that literally threatened our health and lives. Intense witchcraft and a lack of exposure to familiar standards of right and wrong made our work in this very remote part of the world seem all the more impossible. Heidi and I remember many times when we did not know how we could continue, often wondering if we really had good, lasting fruit that was worth the sacrifice.

We are often asked what the overcoming key to our ministry and growth is. We don't think in terms of keys or secrets, but in the simplest truths of the Gospel. We have learned by experience that there is no way forward when pressed to our extremities but to sacrifice ourselves at every turn for His sake, knowing nothing but Jesus and Him crucified. We must die to live. It is better to give than to receive, and better to love than to be loved. We cannot lose, because we have a perfect Savior who is able to finish what He began in us, if we do not give up and throw away our faith.

In years past we did not think we could identify with Paul like this, but now we understand more of what he meant: "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

A witness to a 2005 presentation by Heidi Baker in Toronto summed up her message this way:

She took the passage of the angel Gabriel's message to Mary and preached on the inherent difficulty of carrying God's call on your life to its completion. Using illustrations from her own life and ministry, she effectively made the point that God's calling is neither easy nor comfort-laden but is filled with great difficulty and the humanly impossible. Thus it is a burden which God asks you to carry, a seed which he places within you which you must then carry and nurture to its completion regardless of the cost to you, your relationships or your reputation. When the Holy Spirit overshadows you (or Mary or I), and places within you the seed of God's Word for your life, you can bet that the cost and inconvenience will be significant and that the path to its completion will require utter reliance upon Him.

Coming to the point of actually hearing the Holy Spirit's (specific) Word for your (specific) life is a very important journey in itself. But once that (specific) Word is received an entirely new journey begins. And that journey promises to be the most difficult and exhilarating of any you can possibly take in your lifetime. It is the journey toward utter reliance upon the power of God and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit's ministry to others through that dependence.

Many lay Catholics, in my experience, regard this sort of language and life experience as “non-Catholic” or “Protestant” or at best, only for saints. But aspiring to great things for God and others is for all the baptized and a great virtue in Catholic understanding. As I wrote in “The Disciplines of Hope” for the Siena Scribe in 2003:

Magnanimity is the aspiration of the spirit to great things. St. Thomas Aquinas called it the “jewel of all the virtues” because the magnanimous person has the courage to seek out what is great and become worthy of it. Magnanimity is rooted in assurance of the highest possibilities of our God-given human nature.

When I first encountered the idea that “aspiring to greatness” was a Christian virtue, I had difficulty taking it in. Aren’t Christians supposed to be humble and to avoid trying to be something special, to minimize and even belittle our abilities and achievements, to avoid ambition, and to prefer anonymity? Even the idea of having charisms distresses some Catholics. Believing that God might do something really important and supernatural through them somehow seems to lack humility. One 84-year-old Scot told me in his lilting brogue, “I couldn’t have charisms; it wouldn’t be humble!

To allay such fears, we can recognize that humility is magnanimity’s necessary partner, the attitude before God that recognizes and fully accepts our creaturehood and the immeasurable distance between the Creator and his creation. But neither does humility stand alone: without magnanimity, we don’t see the whole of our dignity as human beings. Magnanimity and humility together enable us to keep our balance, to arrive at our proper worth before God, to persist in living our secular mission, and to persevere in seeking our eternal destiny despite apparent frustration and failure.

Magnanimity empowers us to aspire to whatever remarkable vocation God calls us to but the virtue of fortitude ensures that we finish the journey well. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ put it:

Fortitude is “the important commodity of enabling us to carry to successful conclusion the most difficult tasks that are undertaken in the service of God. There are two forms of courage implied in this gift of fortitude: the gift to undertake arduous tasks and the gift to endure long and trying difficulties for the divine glory.

At every Called & Gifted workshop, I quote Venerable John Henry Newman’s words:
“God has determined . . . that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, he calls me by my name. He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness and he means to give it to me.”

I believe every word as did Newman. But, outside the Garden, our journey to that greatest happiness, always requires the Holy Spirit’s gifts of magnanimity and fortitude, no matter how blessed or apparently awful the particular circumstances of our unique journey may seem to outsiders.

When I encounter adult Catholics who seem strangely unmarked by the existential cost of love and mission, I can’t help but wonder if they are in a state of arrested spiritual or personal development. Have they truly said “yes” to Christ? Have they truly said “yes” to the loves and calls that God has given them?

At the heart of every life long, God-given vocation is the same mystery of love, joy, and pain that Christ himself embraced:

‘For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.’

Hebrews 12:2
 

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