Sleeper, Awake!

Today I was treat­ed to a tru­ly excel­lent homi­ly, one that spoke direct­ly to me in a way that made me sit up and take notice (at least as best I could with a sleep­ing baby in my arms and my low­er back seiz­ing up). It felt like a wake-up call to me, a small clar­i­on exhort­ing me to sleep no longer, but awake, and be about the Lord’s work.

The scrip­tur­al read­ings were note­wor­thy on their own, and my heart was begin­ning to stir with­in me even before the cel­e­brant strolled down to stand in the nave, the Book of the Gospels clasped under his arm, to deliv­er his remarks. The thrust of all three read­ings was that the life of a prophet, the life of a dis­ci­ple, the life of a Chris­t­ian, is not an easy one. No news flash there. But the three read­ings — from Jere­mi­ah, the Let­ter to the Romans, and the Gospel accord­ing to Matthew — came togeth­er so cogent­ly for me that I could not but feel that I was tru­ly being spo­ken to, spo­ken to in a way that was famil­iar and strange and fright­en­ing and reas­sur­ing and unde­ni­able. It was good.

And I did­n’t real­ly need to wait for him to “break open the Word” for me, either; the words pret­ty much broke them­selves wide open on their own. “Do not mod­el your­selves on the behav­iour of the world around you,” Paul admon­ish­es in today’s sec­ond read­ing, “but let your behav­iour change, mod­elled by your new mind. This is the only way to dis­cov­er the will of God…” (Rom 12:2). In the first read­ing, the prophet Jere­mi­ah launch­es an intem­per­ate j’ac­cuse at the God who “duped” him into broad­cast­ing an unfail­ing­ly-unpop­u­lar mes­sage. “The word of the Lord has brought me deri­sion and reproach all the day,” he com­plains. He has obeyed the call he received, and it has brought him a world of hurt. And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus begins to pre­pare his apos­tles for the truth that even He must suf­fer as an inte­gral part of His mission.

In many regards the homi­ly was a pret­ty stan­dard response to this type of scrip­ture read­ing. The priest made some com­ments about how the life of a prophet entailed “speak­ing truth to pow­er” (a sort of stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of prophe­cy in many eccle­si­as­ti­cal cir­cles). He spoke of the Chris­t­ian life being one of inher­ent suf­fer­ing, a suf­fer­ing we should not mere­ly resign our­selves to, but instead seek out, “take up our cross” and active­ly labour for the king­dom of God. It was all good stuff, but noth­ing I had­n’t heard before in some venue or anoth­er over the years. But today it res­onat­ed with­in me, and I won­dered, not just idly but in earnest: why am I not speak­ing truth, not even to those in pow­er, but to any­one? I have a new mind, I have put on Christ, I know that I am a child of God. So what am I doing hid­ing my light under a bushel?

I imme­di­ate­ly recalled sit­ting in a plush seat in Orches­tra Hall on a blus­tery Octo­ber evening back in 1997. Next to me was a friend from high school that I had not seen in over a year. She and I had shared a music stand in the high school orches­tra, and we had shared many won­der­ful con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing our musi­cal part­ner­ship. That I had a bit of a crush on her had gone unno­ticed, or at least unre­marked. And now here we were, two young adults, catch­ing up on each oth­er’s life before a con­cert. I, of course, was now a sem­i­nar­i­an, which she was under­stand­ably very curi­ous about. She asked me how I knew I want­ed to be a priest. My reply remains one of my most vivid mem­o­ries of that era of my life. “It’s not about what I want,” I told her; “it’s about what God wants.”

I recall that she was bemused by this out­look — she agreed with my caveat that “Maybe it’s a Catholic thing” — but she seemed to under­stand that I tru­ly believed what I was say­ing. And I did tru­ly believe what I was say­ing — even if I was still pret­ty much in the dark about what pre­cise­ly God did want of me — and, look­ing back sev­en years alter, I still believe it. Voca­tion is real, and the path of dis­cern­ment is tricky, but it is also grace-filled, and ulti­mate­ly, if fol­lowed faith­ful­ly and sin­cere­ly, it leads to inner peace and true happiness.

But am I liv­ing that belief? No. Just now I had to scrape — not blow, scrape — the dust off my bibles to look up the vers­es from today’s litur­gy so I could quote them here. Near­ly six years ago I deter­mined that I was not being called by God to serve as an ordained min­is­ter in the Catholic Church. Two years ago this May I mar­ried, and I believe with all my soul that this mar­ried state is part of my voca­tion. But one’s state in life — mar­ried, sin­gle, ordained — is only part of the voca­tion­al expe­ri­ence as I under­stand it. The oth­er part is what you do with that state; what you do for good, and for God. And I have been noth­ing but spir­i­tu­al­ly indo­lent for far too long now.

What on earth are you doing for Heav­en’s sake?” was a catchy lit­tle tagline that enjoyed a fair bit of pop­u­lar­i­ty when I was in sem­i­nary. I came across it print­ed on a prayer card just the oth­er day. But behind the trite­ness lies a pret­ty pithy con­cept: Christ expects His fol­low­ers to change the world, to make it a bet­ter place, every day in every way, until the clock runs down on this show we call life and as many souls as pos­si­ble make it through to live thereal hap­pi­ly ever after. It’s real­ly not a bad touch­stone for the Chris­t­ian life. It can lead to a whole lit­tle cat­e­chism for me, like the one I ran myself through sud­den­ly this morn­ing: how am I effect­ing pos­i­tive change in this world? how is the world a bet­ter place for my liv­ing in it? how am I show­ing myself a fol­low­er of Christ? The answers I came up with were pret­ty weak, if I do say so myself.

In my ongo­ing intro­spec­tion on the sub­ject, I am struck by the fact that at no point in my spir­i­tu­al malaise that fol­lowed my exit from sem­i­nary did I ever lose my faith, as the say­ing goes. I nev­er felt like maybe all this reli­gious stuff was just bun­combe, that maybe God was just a social con­struct to make us feel bet­ter about our­selves, and all the oth­er angsty whiny exis­ten­tial­ism that seems to come eas­i­ly to peo­ple when they abrupt­ly drop off a high­ly reli­gious track and realise they are all alone with no one to lean on but, well, God. Even as frus­trat­ed and bit­ter and lost as I felt in those lone­ly days and weeks and months after I left my pro­ject­ed path to the priest­hood behind, it just did­n’t occur to me to doubt the verac­i­ty of every mys­tery I had held to be true. They were still true — I just was­n’t ter­ri­bly con­cerned about them at the moment.

I lived like this for two years or so (although it felt like a lot longer), until I met my wife and began the slow crawl back to some­thing resem­bling a life of faith. I still have a long, long way to go, and today’s homi­ly was a mighty jolt to my spir­it­less com­pla­cen­cy. It is not enough, the priest declared, to accept suf­fer­ing, to put up with the hard stretch­es in our lives. In my soul I know that it is not enough any­more to believe casu­al­ly and qui­et­ly. As a Chris­t­ian, I need to look for, to find the hard road that I am called to walk down, and when I find my nar­row path I need to take up my cross, to active­ly embrace it as an act of will, and walk with it as far as I can, even to my own Calvary.

Now to find my road, and take up my cross.


  1. This is almost exact­ly the sort of thing I want to be writ­ing: intro­spec­tive reflec­tions of a respectable length that are root­ed in my per­son­al faith and steeped in the com­pli­ca­tions that my reli­gios­i­ty brings me. I won­der now if I can make it a habit to bring these pieces to life.

  2. Good stuff, old man. Per­haps you need­ed those years of com­pla­cen­cy. With­out them the homi­ly that affect­ed you may have just been anoth­er homily.

    I applaud the intro­spec­tion. The chal­lenge becomes how do you use your intro­spec­tion to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing to some­one else, make them feel the way you felt after the light turned on.

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