Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Terrifying Vocation of Being Oneself

I've been thinking about something the Lord first spoke to me a long time ago. The time was the very early days of my attending Mass, more than a year before I entered the Church. The place was "my parish," which I had chosen simply because two nuns who were well-known in charismatic circles were members there. The precise occasion was seeing one of them leave her pew after Mass had ended that morning. I was feeling extremely overwhelmed by the sheer weight and intensity of this new, bewildering universe I was entering. I felt like a bobbing dinghy surrounded by ferries on chains with centuries of history of set and predictable travels. I wanted to do what God wanted of me in this new world, but I was less than clueless about how to proceed.

What God said to me when I saw Sister was "If you want to serve, simply, be yourself."

That was 18 years ago.

This theme has re-echoed in my life many times since then, and in my mind, in my heart, there is something in this that is unique to my Catholic experience. Previously I had believed that becoming holy meant somehow becoming someone I was not. I believed that transformation in Christ meant becoming, for example, extroverted or suddenly developing new capacities and talents that had been foreign to me. Or that at least such would be the end result for me of holiness. I had a basic misunderstanding of God's opinion of my humanity. And therefore, at various times when I would again hear God saying this in my heart: "I want you to be yourself," I would feel utter dread. Terror. Like I was being asked to do the impossible -- to believe that God accepts me exactly as I am, and to do the same myself.

In high school a friend gave me a coffee mug that I still have. Amid a group of normal looking penguins stands a grinning penguin in boxer shorts with hearts on them. The mug says "I Gotta Be Me!" I realize that in many ways I am walking paradox. For example, I am both very open and will tell just about anyone anything, and yet I am very reserved and often say nothing to anyone. In a similar way I have always been the odd man out, willing to be different (as my high school friends knew), and yet taking steps that are uniquely my own is fearful to me to a degree.

This reality struck me when I saw it in someone else just a few days ago. I went to a concert and art presentation by an artist and his family. The family sang a variety of Christian praise music acapella and the artist, Fred DelGuidice, shared slides of his portraits and talked about his work and his vision for a renaissance in the visual arts in the Catholic Church. At first, I admit, I was trying to figure this family out. Isn't it weird, after all, for families to go about singing together? Ok, they mentioned that the parents were reverts of five years to the Catholic Church; that much explained something to me. (I can relate to certain types of Protestants doing this, and reverts all the more.) But as the man shared about his life as an artist, I began to understand. He stressed how his life was one of faith. He and his wife have five children, and as he put it, if we the audience knew what he earned as an art professor we would be stunned. And yet, God has always provided for them and they've never missed a meal. But he repeated frequently how it seems crazy to trust God this way. He and his wife are not so far away from that bobbing dinghy feeling, and they bobbed with their whole family. It seems crazy to trust God that way. It seems crazy. He tried at first for a "safe" career, he tried to take the sane path his parents advised. But he said he knew if he didn't pursue art, if he didn't follow the Lord, if he didn't take these crazy risks, he would be miserable.

I feel that, and have felt that at many junctures in my life. I think at heart the issue is not so much that we ourselves feel the risks of following what God gives us are crazy. It is that we either fear or we know that others will perceive our choices that way. Been there, done that. Lots of times.

There's more, I think, that I want to say on this. But for now I'll let this stand as one complete thought, and wait for another opportunity to write the next.


Suzanne said...

This is the heart of the matter, isn't it? You'd be amazed at how many people have recently confided in me that they feel different from others -- "too" different -- and that they don't know otherwise than to be the way they are, and yet they want to belong. To be truly ourselves and yet not to feel like strangers and aliens, mercy is needed: the capacity to tolerate the difference of others, or allowing space for the other to be himself. This isn't possible without Christ. Unity and communion cannot come from finding others like myself (with the same political beliefs or the same taste in music or the same hobbies or the same love of literature, or the same job or the same parenting philosophy, etc.) and sticking with them -- because there will always be some aspect of their character that threatens me because they are NOT like me, in the end. It's far better (and more honest) to acknowledge from the beginning that we are not alike, that we're wildly different -- and to see the miracle of our being able to stay together for what it is -- a miracle and a gift that we can't give ourselves. This is true for all friendship, even the ones that don't explicitly acknowledge Christ as responsible for their love.

Marie said...

While everything you say is true, it isn't really how the heart of the matter (of this post at least) strikes me. The terror isn't primarily a matter of social acceptance or fitting in. Imagine a big group of people all getting their life directives from the Lord on note cards. Twenty-five folks over here have cards that say "tend your vineyard." Thirty over hear get "raise your sheep." Several get "build walls" and several get "teach reading." And then one person gets "Stand naked in the city square for two weeks, and then jump off a cliff. I'll catch you. Then, when everything is ready, go to the palace and try to behead the king." The question is not whether that person will still be invited to the BBQs thrown by the vinedressers and shepherds. It is a question of how to trust that this directive is really from the Lord. And He just says "Obey, and you'll see."

That's the terror.

Suzanne said...

Well, there is reality and then there is how we feel about reality or how we perceive it. In reality, each person's card says something equally impossible/challenging/frightening. In reality, God doesn't want you to do anything other than tend his vineyard and feed his sheep (in the end -- even if this means standing naked, etc -- its all in the interest of caring for the vine/sheep). Your impression is that everyone else has these other "easy" things written on their cards -- but this is false!