The Better Portion in a Confused Life
Life is a funny thing, always pitching things at you, and with lots of curves. Few of us get to predict in any detail how our lives will unfold, though anyone reading this has the opportunity to determine what his life’s ultimate end will be. After all, in the final analysis it is our union with Christ that matters. But I’ll still say it again: Life is a funny thing.
Twists and Turns
To those of us with limited vision (I mean everybody but God), one of the most peculiar features of life is the twisted paths by which important problems are resolved. People go through these twists and turns all the time in response to such significant sources of anxiety as vocations, means of livelihood and personal health. A friend of mine has lyme disease but it took the doctors so much work to diagnose it that, in the process, they found he had an early stage of cancer, and they were able to treat the cancer successfully. An employee had an auto accident. In the process of thoroughly checking her entire body for damage, the doctors discovered that she had cancer as well. We don’t know the outcome yet, but we’re praying. It is astonishing how often apparent health problems can turn into health blessings.
Again, the same is true of vocations and careers. One could write a book documenting the strange circumstances under which various persons have met their future spouses, often in the midst of dismal situations that have suddenly opened up bright new horizons. One could write a second book about people who studied for the priesthood but ended up married, or those who sought marriage for a long time only to end up as priests or religious. Anxiety over how to earn one’s income is another significant source of unusual stories. In my own case, I started out teaching college history, switched into publishing, was driven into computer consulting, and (so I hope!) will finish up primarily as a writer. Each of these shifts was accompanied by disappointments and even fears. Why is God permitting this or that problem? Doesn’t He see the trouble I’m in? Is God dead? Blind? Sleeping?
Or perhaps He’s just off His rhythm. I like to joke that the greatest proof that God is eternal and outside of time is that He manages time so poorly. Or so it always seems to us, um, “at the time”. In reality there is no such thing as luck or coincidence. Everything is encompassed in God’s Providence. Our lives are all orchestrated in a score which, paradoxically, takes full account of our liberty. But it is a score we cannot read and it is being played for the first time, so we never know what is coming next. At odd intervals, though, most of us are privileged to look back at our own history and suddenly see why things happened the way they did – or at least see a part of the reason. Generally this means we’ve glimpsed something of God’s plan for us (or for someone we love), and we enjoy a moment of satisfying understanding: “Oh,” we exclaim, “NOW I see.” And we realize that the whole process was not only unexpected (which we had already figured out) but unexpectedly purposeful.
Sometimes too we get to enjoy a moment of intense satisfaction that things are as they are. More often than not we preoccupy ourselves with whatever the next little problem is, turning it into a bigger problem principally by the fact that we’re upset about it. But there are those days on which we feel, however fleetingly, that we know our place in God’s creation, and feel privileged to fill that place. Whatever form they take, these “aha” moments are gifts of grace that help us to grow in our awareness of and appreciation for Providence—our awareness of and appreciation for the magnificent and incontrovertible fact that God knew and loved us before we were conceived in our mother’s wombs, and that He has numbered all the hairs on our heads (Jer 1:5; Lk 12:7).
But, But . . .
But we see so little and so briefly that we are soon upset again by some fresh circumstance which (we ought to know by now) is really just a routine turn in a perfectly charted path. The lesson we need to learn is not that the way will be straight and smooth (it won’t) or that we won’t have to suffer (we will) but that God will get us safely to our destination if we will only let Him drive. Saint Paul tried hard to teach this to the Romans: “We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (8:28). Are we not called to be saints? If things don’t work together unto good for us, the mirror will begin to look like a “wanted poster”.
For a reason I cannot explain, all of my own personal “buts” dropped away for just a few minutes this morning as I prepared for Mass, which is actually the little spiritual experience that occasioned this essay. My wife had driven in separately to get in the confession line. When I arrived and walked across the parking lot toward the church, I noticed that it was a beautiful day, and I remember thinking (very piously) that it was a fine thing to start a beautiful day in exactly this way. Entering the church, I was momentarily discomfited by the fact that Barbara was not in our usual pew; I quickly scanned the various confession lines (which to me always seem interminably slow) to assure myself that she was still patiently awaiting her turn behind all those other people who probably had no business being there. (Perhaps you know the feeling.)
But after about fifteen minutes of prayer, suddenly there she was, kneeling down beside me, both of us where we were supposed to be, together, just before Mass began. It has almost always been like this for the past fifteen years since our children were old enough for school, and indeed it has very often been like this over the entire thirty-seven years of our marriage. We’re just beginning, perhaps, to have a track record. There is, of course, a spiritual danger in becoming too psychologically dependent on one’s spouse. (There is potential spiritual danger in every attachment short of God.) Many of us will have our spouse props knocked painfully out from under us before we die. Still, there was something altogether right and good, for a few brief moments, in knowing that things were just as they should be for us, right now, in this place, at this time, preparing to receive Christ Himself.
Did I mention that it took me six years to convince Barbara to marry me? Thus has an investment I feared to lose already brought a six-fold return. That’s another story, to fit alongside the always astonishing challenges of raising our six children, and of course my strange career. Then there was the time I found myself in the hospital having a stent put in an artery, watching it on a television monitor, and thanking God that I lived at a time when such operations are routine. In any case, single or married, priest, religious or lay: Each reader could tell his own delightfully snarly tale. The point is not to predict the details, for we learn often enough that those are much better left in God’s capable hands. No, the trick is to learn to recognize and to love the Father’s plan at its very heart, for His plan for each of us is just a particularly well-suited way of making us His adopted son or daughter through union with Jesus Christ. For this reason, each of us really does have the opportunity to determine what our life’s ultimate end will be simply by accepting a gift, the gift of adoption in Christ.
But if you’re at all like me, you’re most often too preoccupied with other things to bother about such gifts. “Lord,” we say instead, “don’t you care that my sister (my brother, my parent, my child, my boss, my government, my health, my circumstance) has left me to cope alone? Then tell her (him, it, them) to help me.” But Our Lord invariably tells us something instead. He tells us that we “are anxious and troubled about many things”, whereas only “one thing is needful.” We can read the story again in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10. And while we read, we might well ponder: Why do we usually make such a fuss? Why is it so hard for us to choose the better portion?
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