Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thoughts in a coffee shop

As is my custom, I have found a coffee shop with free wifi near our new house so that I can write in the early morning before returning to my own research (I'm currently writing a paper to be presented at the October meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary-USA, but more on that another day). One of the interesting things about where I am writing is that it is a gathering spot for area school teachers. This means that, if I "very, very quiet," (to borrow from Elmer Fudd), I can hear bits and pieces of conversations about how classroom teachers see education in America--or at least here in eastern Ohio.

What is most interesting is that the teachers speak about their students with real affection and concern. Certainly there is the expected complaints about the students, and more frequently about the higher ups in the school's administration, but in the main the teachers speak about their students with warmth and love for the children entrusted to their care.

As I have been listening, I have begun to think a bit about not only my own life, but the larger society in which we live.

Very early on in my counseling career, I discovered two things almost simultaneously. First, I was very good at counseling and therapy, I had a gift, a vocation, if you will, to the work that transcended mere technical mastery. Second, very few people around me had a vocation to the work. Absent from their work was the warmth, affection and love that I hear in the voices of the teachers around me.

This sense of vocation--or more precisely the absence of a vocational commitment--is one of the things that I think causes us the greatest difficulties in our society. Not to romanticize, but when our work becomes purely a question of economics, work becomes increasingly eroding both of our own dignity and of the dignity of those with whom we interact.

The lack of a higher purpose, a higher vision, to our work means that work becomes merely a means to fulfilling our own , often transitory, desires. Think for example of the current collection of presidential hopefuls--how many communicate a sense of vocation to public service? Precious few I think. And likewise for most of us our interest in this or that candidate reflects our own desires for at least the semblance of power through our support of them.

I can't help but think of the men in Utah who lost their lives trying to rescue trapped miners who were themselves in all likelihood already dead. Who I wonder is really is more fit for leadership, profession politicians who see public office as a means of acquiring personal power at public expense, or teachers who love their students or miners who willingly risk their lives to honor the memory of their co-workers?

As I reflect on current events (both those that do and don't make the news), I am struck that the best of what is done here in America is done by the teachers here in the coffee shop, or the miners in Utah.

David Bentley Hart in his book The Beauty of the Infinite, points out that when as Christians we point to the Empty Tomb and say that "Christ is Risen!" we are issuing a challenge to the rulers of this world. We are not simply criticizing them, we are challenging their dominion. This is inherently a political act and one that will inevitably bring the Church into conflict with the world that has rejected Christ and the Gospel.

As a priest, some of my role models are those men and women I met when I first started working in mental health back, well back longer ago then I care to admit (where have 30 years gone?). I don't mean those whose commitment to the profession was merely technical, but those men and women whose work reflected their own sense of vocation. It was their vocational commitment to care for those suffering from mental illness that made them courageous, generous and even sacrificial, in their work with people most of us would cross the street to avoid. And it was their deep personal commitment, that made it possible for me to recognize a like possibility in myself.

What is so disheartening when we read the newspaper, or watch the news on television, is not bad news--not shootings and wars and starving children and disasters natural and man made. All of this, and more, is real and tragic to be sure. But what does us in, is the absence of any evidence of higher calling in the voices, actions and policies of those who we have entrusted to lead us and to guide us through the periods of "bad news" and "hard times."

It should not be such with those of us who carry that Name which is above every other name.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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