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Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared.” –Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
There is a class at Harvard in which all MDiv students (those earning degrees in preparation for ministry) must recount their “spiritual autobiography” for those in the class. I’m told this process of vulnerable sharing, listening, and exchanging feedback can take many class sessions. Yesterday a friend told me about his recent experience of presenting his autobiography, wherein he admitted to his classmates that he is unsure about whether ordained ministry is actually what he pursue upon the completion of his degree.
“Well, would that ministry utilize your gifts?” they responded, “What are your gifts?”
My friend said he hesitated in his response. He felt uncomfortable claiming the (many, really extraordinary) gifts that he possesses. He said this felt out of character, and counter-cultural to both his faith community and the decorum of where he was raised.
Although the two of us come from different hometowns and denominational traditions, I imagine myself responding similarly was I placed in his position. I, too, experience the tension between a sense of real, genuine humility, on one hand, and the importance of recognizing one’s skills for discernment and effective ministry, on the other.
Recently, I have not only been confronted with this tension in my friend’s story, but also in the writing of Teresa of Avila. The professor who assigned her book, The Interior Castle, for this week’s reading warned the class: “Teresa has an extreme tendency toward self-deprecation—it can be quite disturbing, but just push through!” Sure enough, within the first few pages of the book she had already made it quite clear to the reader that she, herself, is useless, and only writes out of obedience to God and her monastic order.
As I have read on, however, it has become clear that Teresa was blessed with extraordinary gifts, as a mystic and as a communicator of those experiences for the betterment of others. Even as she communicated an extreme, self-deprecating humility, she must have written out of an undeniable knowledge of her giftedness. This is evident in one of her rather ironic warnings against the danger of a false sense of self-knowledge:
If we are always fixed on our earthly misery, the stream will never flow free from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. I would be looking to see if I’m being watched or not; if by taking this path things will turn out badly for me; whether it might be pride to dare to begin a certain work; whether it would be good for a person so miserable to engage in something so lofty as prayer; whether I might be judged better than others if I don’t follow the path they all do. I’d be thinking that extremes are not good, even in the practice of virtue; that, since I am such a sinner, I might be a greater fall; that perhaps I would not advance and would do harm to good people; that someone like myself has no need of special things…Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His Saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make once based and cowardly.
Like Teresa, I realize that every person is blessed with unique gifts, and that I should celebrate this by sharing my gifts with others rather than letting fear and false humilities get in the way. The kind of humility that Teresa implores (perhaps in a self-directed message!) is a humility that does not deny giftedness. It acknowledges God, and it acknowledges the giftedness of others, but it does not prevent one from the sense of peace and joy that comes with doing what one is really good at!
How can I foster this sort of life-giving humility? How can I let go of the false, fear-inducing humility that so easily distracts me from my gifts? And how can I help others do the same?
It is very likely that you know the story of Jesus walking on water—the one where his disciple, Peter, hops out of the safe sailing vessel to join his Rabbi atop the waves. When Peter starts to panic and sink, Jesus scolds him, asking, “Don’t you have faith?” If you’re like me, and probably most of us, you understand this story as a message about faith in Christ. If Peter trusted Jesus, he would have been able to miraculously walk on water just like his teacher. With faith in God, all things are possible.
The super hip American pastor, Rob Bell, has another interpretation of this story, however. In one of his super hip movie shorts, (one of the Nooma series), he cites Jewish rabbinic history to charge that Jesus’ question about Peter’s faith was not actually a question about faith in his teacher, as we often assume. Rather, Jesus was asking Peter, “Don’t you have faith in yourself? Faith that you can actually be like me?” Rob Bell suggests that by inviting all of humankind to be Christian disciples, disciples like Peter, Jesus was essentially communicating the radical message that God believes in us—in our ability to live good lives, and to live up to our individual callings. “Don’t you have faith Peter? I called you out here because I believe in you.”
I felt like Peter walking on the ocean today in my philosophy of religion class. As I looked up from the intimidating German names on my syllabus to the pensive faces of my anonymous classmates, and back down to those famous German names again, my faith waned and my heart began to sink.
I can’t do this. Why am I here? What was I thinking? I was drowning in self-doubt.
The thing is, I have read most of these German philosophers and theologians before. In fact, I have worked with these thinkers in classes in which I was quite successful. My fears were not rooted in a rational suspicion about my abilities as a student of philosophy and theology. They were not rooted in wise precaution. I have become self-aware enough to recognize my demons, and I know that low self-confidence is one of them. No award or grade or pat on the back has dissolved them thus far. It is going to take a deep form of self-work.
In the meantime, I find myself clinging to this fresh interpretation of that old biblical tale. Jesus has faith in me—to love my neighbor as myself and to turn the other cheek, ways of life that are simply much more difficult and demanding than the things I encounter in the classroom. If Jesus believes in my potential to do those things, then surely, it is worth having faith in my gifts as a student.
Jesus believes in me, and with time, hopefully I can too.
Yesterday I sat on the steps of Harvard Divinity School with Tim, a learned, enthusiastic lawyer who has returned to grad school to study church history. Guided by Tim’s astoundingly well-rounded studies, our conversation weaved in and out of a number of topics, including our faith lives and religious traditions–he, a practicing Mormon, and I, a practicing Catholic.
In an effort to gain insight into my personal convictions, I think, Tim asked me an interesting question: “If you were instantly declared Pope, what would you change about the Catholic Church today?” I laughed along with Paul, another lawyer and fellow Catholic student at HDS who had joined in our conversation. What a question…
My response sort of surprised me. Had Tim asked me what kinds of reform I would like to see in the Church, I would have confidently recited the well thought-out list. But that is not what he asked. “I couldn’t possibly initiate all the changes I’d like to see,” I told him. “And, honestly, I probably couldn’t initiate even one of them right away if I was magically elected Pope.” I was being absolutely honest, and it was hard to admit this to Tim, and to myself. “We have a global church and a history spanning thousands of years. If even the smallest thing is going to change, a lot of work and time must be invested into helping people make sense of these shifts from within the faith tradition. If something “new” is going to happen, we have to use the old authorities–scripture, doctrine, liturgy, etc.–to help people at all levels of the Church make sense of it within the context of their religious identities and communities. Otherwise it won’t mean anything to people. It won’t stick. It will be confusing. We have to help people make sense of it religiously before we implement it.”
This is why I want to be a theologian. I know I may never see very tangible progress in the type of Church reform that I think is right and just and good, but I think that teachers and writers and ministers and theologians can do work now that helps people make sense of the potential reforms we will not witness, in all likelihood. This work must happen if, one day, the average person is going to think of a married or female priest in a Catholic way, for instance.
On numerous occasions I have been asked to articulate what I’d like the Catholic Church to look like, but Tim brought out another, perhaps more complex and pressing, question–how? How is the Church going to look like that? And for that matter, how did the Church end up looking like it does today? How do individual paradigm shifts, or major institutional reformations, occur? If you’ve got any of these figured out, please let me know…
Adam said, “I’ve wondered why a man of your knowledge would work a desert hill place.”“It’s because I haven’t the courage,” said Samuel. “I could never quite take the responsibility. When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name–but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease. But it’s nice for a mediocre man to know that greatness must be the loneliest state in the world.”“I’d think there are degrees of greatness,” Adam said.“I don’t think so,” said Samuel. “That would be like saying there is a little bigness. No. I believe when you come to that responsibility the hugeness and you are alone to make your choice. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other–cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad to chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other? None of my children will be great either, except perhaps Tom. He’s suffering over the choosing right now. It’s a painful thing to watch. And somewhere in me I want him to say yes. Isn’t that strange? A father to want his son condemned to greatness! What selfishness that must be.”
Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look/ Skip to the final chapter of the book/ And then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took/ to get us where we are this far/ But the question drowns in its futility/ And even I have got to laugh at me/ No one gets to miss the storm of what will be/ Just holding on for the ride…
–From “The Wood Song” by Indigo Girls
Last Wednesday evening I had the privilege of speaking to a theology class at Santa Clara University during a short trip there. Since the course focuses on the subject of vocation and most of its students are graduating seniors, I was pleased when one of the students confessed her struggle to search for a job that will support her financially, and simultaneously fulfill her genuine desire to find personal meaning and purpose in her career path.
Her comment begged for a response, and I was eager to give one after spending four years at SCU among numerous friends who wrestled with this very predicament. I told her that it is important that she consider the type of lifestyle she wants to sustain just as she considers the types of careers she wants to pursue. These go hand in hand in real life, but they are infrequently juxtaposed in talk about vocation at SCU. I also told her that sometimes we come into a less than ideal role and make must choose to make it our vocation; if vocation is “finding our personal calling by aligning our gifts and aspirations with what we see as the deepest needs of our world,” as SCU puts it, sometimes that means finding a “calling” in the workplace we are in and simply make it a space of meaningful work.
Finally, though, I told her how I have personally dealt with the tension of finding a sustainable lifestyle and a meaningful career: I have chosen to sacrifice certain things in lifestyle to make my life’s vocation my career. Not everyone wants this, or can do this, and I feel fortunate that I have had the necessary opportunities so far.
I want to do academic theology and writing, so I have arranged my commitments such that I can pursue them. This comes along with a certain lifestyle, and I know that it runs the risk of potentially racking up a lot of loans and enduring a trying job search. But it is worth it for me right now.
While I said that (and meant it!) on Wednesday, the days since have brought a lot of struggle with the way I have chosen to live my life right now. After a little over four months in Los Angeles, I pack up soon for a few months in Seattle, then a new life in Boston come September. I am moving around due to incredible work and schooling opportunities—but it is difficult to be such a nomad sometimes. I am aching for stability in community, friendship, and environment right now. Every romantic relationship I have had since high school has turned into a long-distance situation due to the pull of schooling and work on my part, or the part of my significant other. And no matter where I am, I am calling or emailing friends who now reside in their respective cities due to their own pursuits in work, schooling, or relationships.
Who am I to complain, right? That’s what I tell myself sometimes. I am amazed at my good fortune. My family rightfully teases me about my (seemingly) glamorous traveling lifestyle. Yet even the blessing of pursuing my vocation comes with certain sacrifices. Throughout my childhood I dreamed of heading out of my hometown to explore the greater world with an exciting career—but now there are moments when a small part of me envies my friends who have stable jobs, apartments with real furniture, Sunday night dinners with mom and dad, and Friday night dates with their significant others. And sometimes I worry: Am I really aware of all that I am sacrificing for this? Is it really worth it?
A consoling internal voice reminds me that I cannot honestly see myself living out any other of lifestyle and vocation than the ones I have now. I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be content. But that doesn’t mean the costs of all this don’t make me sad or lonely sometimes. They do.