|The Soul's Flight - Janmot|
In the last light of what had been a gray day, small buds, like tender promises, could be discerned on the tips of some branches, but most were still bare as they lifted their naked arms, as though in supplication, toward the blank slate of sky. I sat on a bench on the bike path, observing all this as day changed to dusk, for I had leisure for such a pastime. I had just retired. It would be more accurate to say I had just resigned, abruptly, impulsively, with a mix of anger, fear and exultation, but it was the exultation that filled me on that first evening of my new life.
For decades, I worked as a local news editor for a daily newspaper. Whenever I was introduced to someone, the question was asked: “What do you do for a living?” My answer allowed the questioner to gauge my probable wealth, social status, education and whether he was in a superior or inferior position to me in any of these respects. But it told him nothing about who I am. And the fact is that after years of identifying myself by my job, I had come frequently to forget who I am.
All of us who get tangled in the toils of Mammon tend to forget who we are. We do certain things, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, and we come to believe that what we do defines us. Only with difficulty and on certain occasions can we separate our form from our function and see ourselves truly: as divinely created souls with a supernatural destiny. God did not make actuarial agents or stock brokers or auto mechanics or computer programmers. He made men. The great cathedrals of commerce are not His dwelling place, nor did He design newsrooms or business offices or the thousand and one dreary enterprises that sap the energy and drain the joy from countless lives. These instruments of degradation are our creations; our self-inflicted modes of tedium and torture. But how can we escape? How long ought we to endure? Sometimes the situation can grow so dire that, at whatever worldly cost, we must summon the courage to walk away, or else risk forgetting the look of our own faces.
|Tower of Babel - Bruegel|
How many people do we see in these financially dolorous days who have spent a lifetime in some irksome occupation for the sake of building up their investment portfolios and IRAs and 401-Ks and real-estate holdings, only to see it all evaporate? With their money gone, their jobs gone, who are they now? Who do they see when they look in the mirror?
I am no longer a local news editor, nor was I ever one in the sense that such an occupation defined me. Now, when I tell someone I am retired, the next usual question in about what I used to do for a living, and the old persona is again fixed upon me. In the future, when asked what I do or used to do, I think I will answer: “Nothing important” or “Nothing worth talking about.” In this way my true face, however it may appear, will not be hidden behind the mask of my former profession.
I could, of course, simply answer the question about what I do by saying, “I am working out my salvation.” Such a response would doubtless obviate many tedious conversations. If the questioner persisted, I could then talk about matters of genuine interest to me and we might come to know one another, rare occurrence in most social intercourse. But the fact is, few people want to know who you are, or even who they are. It is much simpler and safer to keep life humming along on a superficial plane, or so it seems.
Amid the voluminous rhetorical twaddle of American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, there appears a line that has become famous because it resonates with an enduring truth: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Recall that desperation comes from despair, which is the loss of hope. Hope in what? In God. Men cannot be sustained by a hope that is not theological.
Thoreau recognized that there is implanted in the human soul by its Creator a desire for truth and beauty that makes the commercial and social round that circumscribes the lives of most men deeply unsatisfying. He sought his escape by turning to nature. Yet, he only lived in his cabin in the woods for two years: just long enough to gather material for his book. If what he wrote were true, if contemplating the flora and fauna of the forest were sufficient for the human spirit, he would not have returned to the town, nor would he have bothered to write his book. But nature is not sufficient for the human spirit. Man can no more be sustained by nature than by artificial distractions. Perhaps that is why devout environmentalists are always seeking new causes and usually appear so intensely unhappy. How can a Divinely created intellect rest content to expend its gifts on saving the piping plover or protecting the habitat of the gray tree frog?
It is the world of work where most try vainly to find fulfillment. This preoccupation with keeping ceaselessly busy is sometimes called The Protestant Work Ethic. I think this is a telling phrase. Are Catholics comparatively lazy? And why is work an ethic, which is a secular or philosophic term, instead of a moral virtue, which is proper to religion?
The agnostic has never committed himself one way or the other on the existence of the deity or the meaning of life, but he is a true believer in work. It keeps one busy and thus prevents serious consideration of all the important questions. And as the Protestant is inevitably an agnostic – for what else can the principle of private judgment mean other than a refusal to commit to an objective truth – he finds in work his refuge from the controversial ultimate questions. And, of course, he has an inherited bias from his Calvinist forbears that worldly success, accomplished through diligent toil, is a sign of election. This he maintains, even if he gives it a secular interpretation. And so, he has an ethic, rather than a virtue.
|"Time, Death, Judgement"|
- Frederick Watts
The Catholic, however, is aware that work began when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise. That Adam and his descendants have had to eat their bread in the sweat of their brow is a punishment for sin, as is the degeneration and death of our flesh. The Protestants often curiously forget what’s in the Bible. We were not meant for work, but for contemplation. The purpose of grace is to restore us to the prelapsarian ease in which our primary occupation was to see God in the image of our souls. To make that which is a punishment for sin an idol to be worshiped is a denial of the Divine intent of creation. The Catholic must never forget that his ultimate vocation is sainthood, and it is the occupation of the Saint to look at the face of God. God does not care what we do, but who we are. What works can we offer Him? What does He need from us? What are our profit and loss statements in the economy of salvation? Or the size of our house or the cost of our furnishings? We often forget, in this land of waning opulence, that Scripture tells us love of money is the root of all evil. Yet, our culture would make poverty the root of all evil and wealth the highest virtue, whose universal attainment has become the engine of social organization.
Of course, it is no light matter to disentangle ourselves from the toils of Mammon, where we find respectability and luxury. After a while, we come to rest there as in our natural home. It is restraint, sacrifice, any form of denial or deprivation that appears strange and unnatural to us.
I had long hated my job, and this I had in common with many men. I was angry with myself, with the world, with my superiors. I was also afraid of losing my job; afraid to have less money, less security. So I lived in a ceaseless round of anger and fear until such an existence became intolerable. A breaking point had been reached. Every atom of my being revolted at the thought of walking through the door of that dingy news bunker again and doing what I had done for a quarter century. It seemed to me that dying was better than living under such circumstances. I think many of those men who go berserk reach that very conclusion, but they cannot see any alternative but death. The thought of poverty, the disapproval of their family, the loss of their love, the black uncertainty of a future that offers nothing but more of the same despair drives them to murder-suicide. It is not difficult to understand. On the contrary, it is surprising that incidents of mayhem are not more numerous.
Of course, I resorted to prayer in my time of trial. But prayer did not make the situation more endurable. Quite the reverse. There are times when we ask God for something and his answer is an emphatic “No.” I can honestly state that I assiduously applied for heavenly aid, which appears to have been denied. I kept descending into deeper circles of hell.
The night before I sent in my letter of resignation was the night of my weekly two-hour Eucharistic adoration at a local church. This church has sustained perpetual adoration for almost 15 years. The parish coordinator has difficulty finding adorers for the early morning hours, so I volunteered to fill the 1-3am slot each Thursday. I am almost always alone. I admit that I enjoy the intimacy of being the sole worshiper and my quiet time is seldom disturbed, but it was that night.
At about 2am, the door of the church creaked open and I heard the shuffle of footsteps moving slowly up the center aisle. An old man, raggedly dressed in several layers of clothing – the uniform of the homeless – made his way toward the sacrament as I watched him with apprehension. Then, he dropped to his knees on the hard tile floor, pulled a Rosary from his pocket and began to pray silently. Surprised but relieved, I resumed my own meditations, or tried to, but my anxiety over my job made concentration almost impossible. It seemed I would have no peace until I made a decision about quitting. I knew in my heart that I would have to quit, but I struggled vainly against that certainty, for I also knew the domestic strife and financial difficulties such a decision would encompass. As I was reviewing my situation mentally for the thousandth time, the old man pocketed his Rosary, bowed to the sacrament, then approached me.
“I’m sorry to have to speak here,” he whispered, with a nod to the monstrance. “Could I have a word with you in the back of the church?”
I followed him to the vestibule, where he explained to me that he had dedicated his life to praying for the unborn. He also spoke in a rambling way about his devotion to Saint Alphonsus Liguori and to Saint Pio, then told me that he intended to spend the night in a prayer vigil to end abortion but that he had walked a long way to get to the church and was tired and a bit sleepy. He needed a cup of coffee to stay awake and fulfill his intention and asked where he could get one in the neighborhood at such a late hour. The nearest place was a 20-minute walk. I gave him directions and he headed toward the door, until I called him back.
“If you promise to stay in front of the sacrament, I’ll drive to the place and get you some coffee. It will only take me a few minutes each way.”
“Bless you, sir. Bless you,” he said. “Large, black, no sugar. I’m diabetic.”
|St. Joseph - Tissot|
He then shuffled back to his place on the tiles and I went to get him his caffeine boost. When I returned, I gave him the coffee and resumed my place of meditation in the front pew. He went to the back of the church and remained there until the woman that relieves me arrived at 3am. I assured her that the old man was all right, as far as I could tell, and that she should not be concerned about him. As I was leaving the church, I nodded toward him and he gently attached his hand to my sleeve as I passed, stopping me in my tracks. He stood and faced me, took my hands in his and said, “You know, you can have sorrow in sorrow, or joy in sorrow. I think you’ll have joy in sorrow.” He let go of my hands, sank back into his pew and turned his gaze toward the monstrance.
I did not sleep the rest of that night. I passed from room to room. I debated with myself. I prayed. I typed a letter of resignation, deleted it, typed another, filed it, paced some more, reread my letter, then stepped outside as the sun was rising. I rarely see the sun rise, as my work has made me a creature of the night, and the newsroom where I used to labor is a windowless cinderblock bunker, where night and day, sun and rain, winter and summer can find no entry. It is always the same, harsh, dirty warren of cubicles under the relentless glare of fluorescent lights. As I watched the sun turn the gray horizon into a crimson blaze, I thought of the ancient poets. How seldom had I seen “rosy-fingered dawn” during the decades of my drab internment in the newsroom. I also thought of the psalm: “This is the day the Lord has mad.” Yes, I thought, and He did not make it for me to waste it in misery.
I went back inside and, with a fatal tap on the keyboard, sent my letter of resignation; then, as the world began its bustle and business, for the first time in many days, I felt peace and fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke, I recalled what I had done and panic gripped my heart. No job. What would it mean? Money problems? Probably. Should I get another job? Who would want me, at my age and with my limited talents? And do I want another job? No. I simply want to be who I am, and there is no place in this world of work where I can show my true face, which is the only face I will hereafter show.
I lay back and recalled the old man of the night before. I had had sorrow in sorrow while I worked. Now, I would likely have joy in sorrow. Fiat voluntas tua (Thy Will be done). It was indeed the day the Lord had made, and I was a man He made to live in the day, in the light. Gloria tibi Domine (Glory to you Lord).
|"His Madonna" - Rosenthal|