Wednesday, May 26, 2010


St. Philip Neri (feast day today—26 May) was known for “aphorisms”—short, pithy sayings that were rather like proverbs in their intent (especially those found in the Biblical Book of Proverbs). A selection of them was offered as a meditation today in Magnificat, and one in particular struck me:

Not everything which is better in itself is better for each man in particular.

I suppose some people may think this obvious—a truism of sorts. But how many of us chase after what seems to be beneficial for others (and seems desirable “in itself”), never considering that we are not “others.” How many of us find ourselves following career paths because they are expected of us, especially if our Fathers or Mothers enjoyed that career. The most superficial glance at British history will show that simply being the son of a king does not make you able to be a good king yourself. Edward II and Henry VI, for example, would have been far happier, far better off, and probably longer-lived, had the throne not been part of what was expected of them…

This is really a meditation on the meaning of vocation. In order to know who and what I can be as a person, I have to have a realistic knowledge of who and what I am, and how I came to be what I am. This takes serious and in-depth introspection—real soul-searching—to find out what my memories are, and how they have shaped me (for better or for worse) into the person I am now. Only then can I ask myself the intimate question, “Given all that I have experienced and all the choices I have made, and what it all has made me to be, for better and for worse: given who and what I am now—what life-style, what vocation, what career is truly suited for me, to make me authentically happy and allow me scope to exercise my unique gifts?” Sometimes, by the way, brokenness can be one of these “unique gifts”—think of people in AA ministering to other alcoholics…

It might mean becoming a Trappist monk; it might mean becoming a surgeon; it might mean having eight children; it might mean working for NASA—it might mean a hundred thousand other possibilities. And we need to choose one, not because it seems to work for others, but because it is right for me.

This brings me to the greatest of all Oratorians (after St. Philip, of course!)—John Henry Newman. He knew no Catholics as friends; he had scant experience of the Catholic Church in practice. But his theology led him to the doorstep of the Church, and as he agonized about his future, he wrote:

The simple question is, Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die to-night? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion? (Apologia Pro Vita Sua)

We all know the answer Newman finally arrived at to these questions, but the key is that he was not advocating a universal antidote but a specific prescription—for himself.

We all have back-stories (as TV show producers refer to them). We all are the sum of our experiences and choices up until this point, making us who and what we are. We all need to ask, “OK, God—given all this—what would you have me do?”


  1. Given all my past experiences and choices...I am truly afraid to ask that question....I might not like the answer....All I can say now from the depth of my soul,... "Thy Will Be Done", because my own will has led me down some pretty cr--ppy paths...
    I enjoyed reading the article...Thank You

  2. Never mind how you got there: the issue is who are you now, and what are you able and willing to do/be as a result, for the glory of God and the building up of the Kingdom?

  3. Thank you....How difficult it is to truly know our own hearts and agendas. Do we put ourselves out there for the building up of the Kingdom? or is it for some personal selfish reasons? I have heard people say "I've done/am doing so much here and there and this and that", and I've gotten so much out of it, as though it's to do about them, and not about the glory of God. I can see myself falling into this trap, so I'm constantly reviewing my actions and agendas. How easily we can fool ourselves, and yet, it is very highly probable that we don't fool others.

  4. The danger of fooling ourselves (called "rationalization") is precisely why things like Reconciliation and Spiritual Direction are so critical: by bringing in an objective external person to the party, you can (presuming your honesty and sincerity) reduce the risk of kidding yourself.

  5. It's been my hard learned experience that Spiritual Direction seems to be reserved for the privileged.

  6. Dear Anonymous: You touched a heartstring with your sad comment re"Spiritual Direction seems reserved for the privileged". I don't agree with that conclusion. Why don't you come join us on Wednesday mornings after mass - 9:30 to 11:00 A.M. 'Lectionary Sharing'. We go over the following Sunday's readings, have clarifying discussions, and many times it's just sharing viewpoints, such as your heartfelt concerns, with others that helps us feel renewed. Do think about it.

  7. Dear newer pathaways,
    I sense your sincerity and you have my heartfelt gratitude for extending this invitation, however; I am unable to participate in any events that take place Mon-Fri during day time hours. I would love to be a part of this group. May I just say that I detest the use of smoke and mirrors. Again, I thank you for this invitation.