May 24, 2012
Recently, I discovered a quote from Blessed John Henry Newman that is quite timely. As I reflected on it in preparing for ordinations later this month and next, I thought about my seminary formation, which fostered a spirituality very similar to the one expressed by Cardinal Newman. Actually, since this is the season of confirmations, ordinations, graduations and weddings, it is wonderful advice for all experiencing these thresholds of life.
From the beginning of my seminary formation, I was attracted to the concept of being on an adventure and being open to priestly assignments with a conviction that within this ministry I would uncover God’s plan for me.
Blessed John Henry Newman is known for his conversion to the Catholic faith and as an intellectual who was a leader in the Oxford movement. He was named Blessed just last year, though he has been admired for some time. In fact, the “Newman Centers” on college campuses have long been named for him.
Born in 1800 and reaching the age of 90, he wrote this reflection in 1848. Here is a portion from Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Hope in God—Creator. (For the entire section, click here.
God knows me and calls me by my name. …
God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission — I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
Somehow I am necessary for His purposes …
I have a part in this great work;
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
I recently reviewed research about Catholic schools and the priorities of parents of school-age children. One of the most interesting findings is the deep desire of parents to ensure that their children do well in life.
What parent would not have the fondest hopes for his or her child? Doing well in life makes great sense but is subject to vastly different interpretations. One level might be the purely material. We all know, however, that those who focus only on material wealth often are not the happiest people.
Putting together this desire of parents for their children and the meditation from Blessed Newman, I propose a threefold prism to understand and appreciate what “doing well in life” means at its deepest level. The prism includes Blessed Newman’s advice about a “definite service” as well as a less familiar part of the popular Serenity Prayer.
First, “doing well in life” means discovering and developing one’s unique gifts. At Confirmations, I often preach that all young persons have been given unique gifts. Uncovering these gifts can be the way they will embrace their anointing as temples of the Holy Spirit.
At this year’s commencement for Catholic University of America, Cardinal Timothy Dolan spoke of the “Law of the Gift.” In essence, he said that love is not so much a feeling but rather the giving of a gift to another … the gift of self in a sacrificial way. Uncovering the gift of self meant to benefit others is the first step of vocation discernment.
Secondly, “doing well in life” means embracing an adventure in which we discover our vocation to serve. True happiness in this life involves service. I look back at the commitment of my mom and dad, who embraced raising five children. All my siblings would agree that their love for my brother George, who was born with Down syndrome, distinguished their love. In hindsight, I suspect they would have been very comfortable with Cardinal Newman’s prayer.
Finally, any measure of “doing well in life” involves the end of our life and a desire built over the years for eternal life. We hear little these days about heaven, hell and eternal life. Yet, it has always been true that the great test of our living well is being prepared to die well.
A familiar prayer expresses this well: the Prayer for Serenity made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous but written by Reinhold Niebuhr. Most can recite the first part: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
However, I find the second part, though less familiar, even richer: “Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen.”
Thus a well-lived life will come about with these three simple understandings: discovering God’s gifts for you and not worrying about the gifts of others; seeing a “definite service” as the core of God’s plan for you; being reasonably happy in this life and yearning for the supreme happiness in the next. With these approaches, “doing well in life” is an exciting adventure in discovering your God-given vocation.