Friday, October 31, 2008

More discernment! (Updated)

I had another monastery-related thought today and it exploded into a massive entangled web in my mind. Let's see if we can't sort this out.

One dimension of monastic life that has always been attractive to me is the element of "smallness" that is included with it. I recall seeing in the St. Meinrad bookstore a volume by the title, "A Boring Life," which I cannot seem to find on Amazon or on the Web for some reason (we joked at the time that Br. Thomas must have authored it). But the key is that, while I always wanted to share that divine encounter of my young experiences with more people, that did not translate vocationally into me becoming a public figure.

Even as a teacher, I falter at governing a classroom of 26 students; and I am the Incarnation of Awkward at the much vaunted "Teacher's Talent Show" (at which I have signed on to attempt to sing Sinatra). I never cared to see my name, face, or person reach the consciousness of more than my circle of friends. Whatever I have to share with the world, it isn't my persona; like Paul, I guess, I am a little man behind big words. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I would hate to be a church's "pastor". What a horrendously "famous" person!

I do enjoy two things. I enjoy working with people on a small-scale level. And I enjoy sharing thoughts in writing with large anonymous audiences. I enjoy feedback, but not accolades; I love seeing the fruits of my work; not necessarily awards or recognition. I like compliments and validation; I hate public praise.

There was a time not so long ago when I was told that all of this was a symptom of a low self-esteem. Now I can stand as an adult and say: that's ridiculous. It is true that I needed to learn to be liked. Over the last couple of years I have been proven wrong in my hypothesis that no person would would actively seek my company. No, people do. But it is also not the case that, therefore, I am cut out to be a public figure.

This is an area in which I have fooled myself since high school. Since the 11th grade I built up a persona of being a very public, charismatic person--someone made for speaking before large crowds, persuading audiences, giving impassioned speeches and so forth. I staked no small part of my identity on this notion, that I had a preacher in me, and that God was calling me to be a "light to the nations," just so.

The problem is twofold. First, while yes, I do feel energized by an audience and it gives me a new excitement about the material, it is still a draining experience. To be a teacher--to guide students through an experience that they will ponder and integrate--requires not short bursts of excitement, but a meticulous program of activities and assessments. This is not the place to profess a string of insights that excite me. This is a demanding, one-man educational machine; a self-contained, self-sufficient society; incorporating discipline, management, governance, recording, facilities maintenance; and after all is said and done, a meticulous program of activities and assessments. I am not as responsible as this. I am no king, governor, or lord. I disclaim all pretenses to being a pastor, to having this kind of authority. Take it away, I beg you! I hope never to be in this situation again, even while I understand how it is sometimes unavoidable. I would much rather be the beneficiary, or low-level servant of this network than its master.

Let me say: When I left the seminary, I was relieved to be back in the pews and no longer in the sanctuary. Now as a teacher I find myself in a "sanctuary" of another sort--and all I want now is to get out from this position of height and authority. I am no pastor of souls! I am no magister!

The second problem is that I do not have your "garden variety" bad work habits. For as long as I can remember I have had a murderous perfectionism that, far from enabling me to live perfectly, instead fills me with dread at the thought of doing the simplest, easiest things. "Now, it can't be as bad as all that. Everybody procrastinates; it's normal. All you need is a day off." You Do Not Understand. I am not able to function normally without help. I am an escapist. There is no such thing as "just one drink" for an alcoholic, and there is no such thing as a "little escape" for me. The more momentous the task, or the more inner voices saying "you should, you should, you should," the more sensitive the trigger.

I realize that this is an issue that I cannot ignore. In the short term--as long as I cannot take the heat--the solution is to get out of the kitchen. I function best when I am put to work at low-level and routine responsibilities. I take pride in doing quality work in areas that are necessary but not high-profile. I long to disappear behind the scenes and work for the good of many, without the pressure to fundamentally change any person's life (at least in a direct way).

Wherever I am called, I believed I am called to smallness. I do not believe that would change, even if I were pressed to take on leadership--such as in a family, or in a classroom. It would not change even if I conquered the anxieties that burden my efforts. I hope it would not change, even if I had a name on a published book--though I can understand one reason authors choose pen names.

I do not want to be told that my desire to disappear into anonymity is disordered; I do not want to be told that, no, I am wrong, I am destined for "great things".

A couple of commenters have told me that they are reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux. I am not sure that I can be fairly compared to her. For one thing, St. Therese's smallness was based on a life of prayer that was fervent even before she entered the community. My prayer flags like an old flashlight. I don't know that humility is the root of my desire for smallness, so much as a desire for relief from the pains of public life, or a kind of fatalistic despair at the efforts of the average work day. World-weariness is not humility.

But perhaps I am weary because I am truly not where I belong. I do not "jibe" here; there is friction; there are blisters that have developed from jamming someone of my disposition into a niche he was not built for. There might come a time when I am ready for heavy and difficult responsibility, but perhaps my preparation for such a time is now being stunted by noise and confusion. Perhaps I need to incubate--to rest, but not to be lazy; to find peace, but not sedation; to find quiet, but not sleep.

Where is God in all of this? Unmoving, unchanging, forever calling, knowing me more than I know myself, patiently waiting my arrival to the life he has prepared. That I have only mentioned him now is both a testament to the dearth of prayer in my life, and also to my confidence that he is always there and always works regardless of whether he is explicitly invoked. But if Jesus Christ called me by name, and led me to a path whose sufferings and consolations were the instruments to save my soul, what would that path look like?

The path is not a separate thing than the search for it; it does not begin for me at the age of 27 or 29, but I have been on it already for some time. Perhaps the trajectory of my path so far is a part of the message--just as Christ took fishermen and made them fishers of men. So what am I now, that will be continuous with Christ's call?


The RebelProfiler said...


Matt of CG said...

So what I saw was a facade? You were pretty damn' convincing, let me tell you.

When you were pacing effortlessly about in the chapel telling us of the value of the absolute nature of life in the Parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man I was watching you with the intensity of a profiler. Your body language, your stride, your breathing, your eye contanct, the cadence and inflection of your voice.

There were fleeting instances of pausing which lent urgency and gravity to your words, but on the flip side I could tell that with the level of articulation you were speaking, a 'dress rehersal' was accomplished somewhere.

I appreciated that. In your demeanor I was able to surmize as to the limits of your capacity and so the nature of your sense of humility in that you were impelled to prepare first before speaking.

I felt so terribly common, so ridiculously duplicitous in my fear of reprisal, in my intimidation of being held accountable for what escapes my lips after experiencing you that day.

Whether you believed in yourself or not, the truth of what you were saying surpassed any of your shortcomings and came out looking like Providence, in the same way the purity of the Eucharist in a properly conducted mass surpasses the shortcomings of the preist who served it, though he was steeped in iniquity.


"And so now I see that, wherever God calls me, God calls me to smallness."

Tee hee hee. Are you sure about that Benedict? Go ahead to your cave, my guess is that God's just gonna end up pestering you out of it. :D Who really knows, but God?

With a sly smile on his face, Fr. Kevin Clinch told me that while in the seminary he wrote a paper on St. Jerome - The Irascible Hermit. I wonder if he still has it? I've heard you two in the sacristy before (There was some 'Back to the Future' stuff goin' on in there. It was like Fr. Kevin was talking to his younger self.) and if you ask for a bit of his time, I assure you, he wouldn't be inconvenienced in the least. Go ask him about.

Matt of CG said...

To the rebelprofiler: AHHHHHHHHH HA HAH HA HA!

Br. Thomas said...

It's "An Unexciting Life," by Michael Casey.

Your post makes me think about Therese of Lisieux' "little way."

David said...


I've discovered your blog only recently and to be honest, am not really sure how I got here. I don't know if you take questions but I was wondering about what you've been saying about your prayer life. I'm studying theology at the moment and in the classroom can be fired up by God, learning, drawing closer to Him, and then I get home and struggle to kneel beside my bed, let alone to pray. Do you think that it's somehow of God...? Is it just a discipline, a habit we need to force our body into...? How to change...?