The Lord Was in the Gentle Whisper (1 Kings 19)
I am an old leaf about to fall. From my window I can see the April buds and jolted to realize I am not among them. They all have a summer and a fall before them while my spring and summer are behind me and my fall is already here. Only winter remains. Lately it is difficult even to remember my spring, so far removed from it am I!
It doesn’t matter the season, for a vital fact pervades them. From pre-pubescence there a bifurcation of consciousness. One focus is the awareness, even the knowledge, of the world around me and available to me, and the other an awareness (even a knowledge?) of a Real not in the world or of the world. I would like to claim that these foci are universal among beings like me, for that is what I do think! But such claims in our day produce clashing reactions, only one of which I desire. I do not like to be told that the Real does not exist, though in one sense that is true.
The fact of the matter is that from the outset I belonged to two “worlds,” the world of things to which I am destined by physical nature and to which I am attuned by the gift of body, and a second “world” which is strange to my body and even to my soul. That second “world” or “environment” is what I call God, and the best definition I can come up with is “the Real which isn’t a thing” or the “No-thing.” So I keep on experiencing a world of things which sometimes I can understand AND I keep on experiencing a “No-thing” which is oddly available and present and which constitutes a “world” of its own which I cannot for the life of me understand. What the atheist calls nothing I reverence as “No-thing.” Of course my religion and my Christian hope tell me that No-thing is my Father, but that’s another subject. Suffice it to say now is that the most important judgment I’ve made in fifty years is that God is No-thing but not nothing.
Now the source and objective of the several vocations I have had in this world of things is the real-er world of No-thing. As I look back now, an old leaf, I can see that God pulled me or better, attracted me to, a way of living in this world of things and of others like me. All through life this No-thing dominated, softly to be sure, like the tiny breeze that blows the leaf, not at all like a Big Bang. No question but that I am responsible for the choices I made, but still there wouldn’t have been these choices made had not that breeze been blowing. Through those choices, seemingly contradictory at some points, the two worlds interpenetrate one life, one leaf.
Being a Catholic Christian by inheritance, culture and conviction and the will of God, I chose to be a priest, putting myself in the world of clerisy because by being there I would be closer to the strange world which so attracted me, the Real world. I spent nearly thirty years trying to make a life of clerisy but I failed to live up to its this-worldly standards and had to quit. I lost my way in it and found my way out. And throughout the struggle to reconcile these two worlds I constantly besought my God to allow me to return to the world of what I thought of as “ordinary.” In 1978 He did. And I then found that He was there, in the ordinary, awaiting me. May He be praised forever!
Now I must confess that, like Francis Thompson, there have been various sorts of infidelity on my part in both vocations, that is, the Real is every bit as real in both and every bit as disturbing, for it remains transcendent to both clerisy and the ordinary life of family and marriage and livelihood (teaching, in my case) and immanent in each, and I remain every bit as this-worldly with all the limitations of a thing among things. When I stood at the altar as a priest I would frequently be overcome by the reality of God and his presence and frightened by the joy, and felt forced to run from it for fear of being tricked. To this day when I stare at the gesso stone crucifix in my man-cave, and when I watch my wife working the garden or my two sons and their ladies on their visits, I wonder with silent joy, “How can this be for me!,” and know how unworthy I am of them by reason of my acerbic temperament and laziness and self-absorption. The later joy continues the earlier. No one earns such love and kindness as I see in Jesus crucified and in my family and in my work. Such love and kindness is born not just of flesh but of No-thing as well! How do you measure up to that or to the priesthood and to the Christian standards for vocations, even ordinary ones? You can’t. Or at least I can’t. Gratia gratis data. So a vocation is a call to be what you can’t be no matter how hard you try. Get used to it, whether a priest or a teacher or a husband and father. It’s a gift.
In the end I am brought to witness to the kindness of the Real who pulls on me still and sometimes even prods me, that came before me and will be after me, who gives me life and gave me two wonder-filled lives, who wants for me what I can’t produce. In the end I am happy with what the breeze has borne. It will yet bear the old leaf away but, as I can see from my window, there are more leaves to come and the breeze is blowing them, too.
William M. Shea, firstname.lastname@example.org