Holiness in the Ordinary

Commencent Address. Holy Family Home School Class of 2024.

 

“Has there even been a people who heard the voice of the living God,

speaking from the midst of fire, and remained living?”

 

That’s Moses, speaking to the Israelites. Deuteronomy 4:33. We’re going to hear those words this coming Sunday, in the First Reading. I’ll explain a little later why they are important for us today.

But first: Holy Family Homeschool Class of 2024, Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, Friends and Teachers. Congratulations on your high school graduation!

Being with you tonight makes me think of my own graduation in late May of 1989. There was a commencement speaker that day, too, but I can’t tell you a single thing he said. Not a word!

I have to say: that makes me feel better about speaking here tonight – pressure’s off!

 

A Search for Vocation 

Here’s a thing about graduations.  They stand as a kind a doorway into life’s major steps. You’ll do things after graduation you’ve never done before.

That was certainly true for me. When I was in high school, I didn’t have the blessing of your education so rich in the knowledge of God. I came to faith late, in a secular university; and come graduation-time, I found myself with a gnawing question that – likely – you have already answered:

Does God exist? And if so, what would that mean for my life?

I didn’t think a career would answer this question, so I set out on a journey. I crossed the ocean. I traveled to France. I took a train down south, from Paris to Grenoble; then I hopped on a bus to a tiny mountain town, called St. Laurent du Pont – St. Laurence of the Bridge. There I stepped out – full of hope. I looked up and saw, off in the distance, the stone-faced, snow-tipped Chartreuse mountains rising toward heaven. I took a cab in the direction of those mountains, up a narrow mountain road; the door creaked as I got out. I trekked the rest of the way and headed towards a wooden monastery door. There was a steepled Church visible behind it. I knocked.

I carried a question to that monastery door. You could paraphrase it like this: did I have a vocation?

It was a foolish question.

You see, I misunderstood the idea of vocation. As though one might have a vocation there in a monastery in the mountains, but not back in the city that I left behind.

I had to labor and search for several years in those monastery walls. I had to return home. Labor there fore several more years, as a layperson, until I finally got hold of the truth that deep spiritual vocation is NOT the lot of the religious alone.

I now know that my vocation was always right under my nose, under my very breath. I had simply missed it.

I wonder: might some of you be sitting here tonight with a similar misconception?

 

Misunderstanding Vocation

After all, there are many ways to misunderstand the idea of vocation.

Have you ever thought, for example, that only a priest, deacon, sister or monk have a Christian vocation that is vital to the Church?

Has that thought made you feel your path is less important to the Kingdom?

Do you feel, as a result, that you can pretty much do whatever you want spiritually, professionally, relationally – because, hey, in the eyes of the Kingdom I’m just a layperson, I really don’t matter that much?

Siblings of the Class of 2024 – I have a question for you! Does it seem to you that the Kingdom only comes into play when you are around Church – and not when you share or don’t share your clothes or your toys; not when you do your chores or leave them undone; not when you forgive or harbor a grudge?

And Parents: do you sometimes feel a bit too much the weight of practical concerns and worries? Mortgage, educational costs, clothes, cars, health and dental insurance, monitoring cell phones, planning for vacations, weddings, retirement? Do you sometimes feel that a vocation is a luxury? That it’s hard to pay what might be owed to the Kingdom when there are so many other debts whose deadlines are far more pressing?

Grandparents, with the bulk of your parenting and working duties now done, does your concept of vocation start to align, just a little, with that fellow in the Gospels who said: “I have all that I need. My barns are full. My children grown. Come, let’s eat, drink and be merry!”

Well, what if I told you there was a conception of vocation that might have us all think differently about these things?

What if I told you that the weight and the wonder of holiness is relevant to all of us – no matter our age, no matter the school we attend, no matter the work we do or the bills we owe, no matter whether our children are out, or nearly out of the house?

What if I told you that, to a person, every one in this Church is called to be a priest? And that the Class of 2024, and everyone gathered here tonight, is called to be a Kingdom of Priests?

Each of you. In your student life, soon-to-be-working life, sibling life, mom or dad life, grandparent life. You are all called to be priests.

Now, why do I say such a thing? On what authority?

 

Vocation in Scripture

Well, let’s take a tour of the Scriptures.

Travel with me – not to France but to the wilderness of Sinai. To Exodus 19. We join Moses and the Israelites, fresh off their departure from Egypt. They have come to a wilderness at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Tired from their journey, they pitch their camp. They huddle under tarps and warm themselves by the fire. Moses ascends the mountain and the LORD says to him, give my people this message: “You have seen,” he says, “how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples, though all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Ex 19:1-6)

A Kingdom of Priests. This is God speaking to all the Israelites through Moses. Now, we know quite well, from the rest of the story, that this people, as yet, are anything but holy in their faith and conduct. They are regular people, on a journey to God. People like us.

I mean, if they had cell phones back then, those Israelites might have been scrolling around the campfires – I said scrolling not strolling! Certainly the kids might have been surfing Instagram while Moses was on the mountain talking to God. Yet God calls them a Kingdom of Priests.

Isaiah echoes this marvelous truth. In Isaiah 61, he calls all the people – not just the religious class –  “Oaks of justice, the planting of the LORD to show his glory . . . You will be called, he says, “Priests of the LORD, Ministers of our God.” (Is 61:3-6).

There is that concept again: Priests of the Lord – everyone!  Is that just an Old Testament idea? What does the New Testament say?

We turn to 1 P Chapter 2: Peter, the prince of apostles, addresses regular Christians in the Church of Rome. “Come to [Christ],” he says: as “a living stone…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…[For] you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people his own.” (1 P 2: 4-5,9)

You are a royal priesthood. We’ve heard that phrase before but have we really let it sink in?

John, the beloved disciple, has a similar thing to say. Addressing the entire Church in The Book of Revelation, chapter 1, John writes: Jesus Christ “has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father;” (Rev 1:6.) and then again, in Chapter 5: You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:10)

There’s that same concept: a Kingdom composed of Priests – every Christian is called to be a priest.

But what about Paul?

Well, Paul is interesting because he doesn’t use the Greek term for common priest the way other writers do. But he describes the same inner reality. Every disciple, for Paul, is a ‘fellow citizen with the saints’ (Eph 2:19), a ‘temple of God’ (1 Cor 3:16), a  λαος περιουσιος, laos periousios (Titus 2:14 – a term I have often thought is mistranslated and is more like: a people precious to God’s heart, a people like Him in essence), a people called to ‘continual prayer’ (Thess 5:17), called to offer, not bread and wine as a sacrifice, but their ‘bodies as a living sacrifice,’ in a lay form of what Paul calls ‘spiritual worship.’ (Rom 12:1).

Sounds like a priest doesn’t it? It does because it is.

So to recap: we’ve heard from Exodus, Isaiah, Peter, John, Paul – and they all speak of the call to the priesthood given to every member of the people of God. But what exactly does a priest in this universal sense do?

Let’s hear directly from Jesus on this one.

In Luke, Chapter 10, a scholar of the Law comes up to Jesus. Asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus confirms the man’s reading of the Law: that one should love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength. And that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself.

I would say this is the job description of the common priesthood.

But the legal scholar isn’t satisfied. He presses Jesus. He wants to know: ‘Well, who qualifies as my neighbor?’ In response, Jesus tells a story which you know well: the parable of the Good Samaritan. But have you noticed a curious fact? Note what Jesus says about the priesthood here. For the first man to come down the road, in Jesus’ story, is a priest. He sees the wounded man by the side of the road and passes him by. Next comes a Levite – a Levite is also a member of the priestly class. This Levite sees the beaten man and passes him by also. It’s not until a third man comes down the road that we see an example of compassion for one’s neighbor. And that third man is a Samaritan. Now you need to understand: Samaritans were children of Abraham, but they weren’t in communion with the Jewish people. Jewish people wouldn’t even talk to them. It was like the relationship between Catholics and Protestants at our worst. Yet this Samaritan sees the wounded man, draws close, and is moved to compassion. He stops to care for him. And you know the rest of the story.

But what is Jesus’ trying to say about the priesthood? This man, this lowly non-priest (in the formal sense) is the only one in the story who acts as a true priest. How so? Because his whole-hearted love for God is revealed in the love he has for his wounded neighbor.

Such love – to God and neighbor – is the core charism of the common priest.

And this is a lesson for us: graduates of the Class of 2024, God calls you, not so much to a state of life as to a state of loving in whatever state of life you choose. Love is the priestly life.

 

A Road to Love

Love. But how do I ascend to love?

Here I would point you toward the living waters from which love springs for the common priest. And I leave you with an invitation and a challenge.

The Word of God is the well where you will find the waters that irrigate the heart of the common priest. The Word conveys the interior thought and love of the heart of God. It is that holy element, that mirror of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, by which the human heart enters into communion with God’s heart, with the three Persons of The Trinity. Jesus himself said so in Jn 14:23. Proverbs 2:4,10 says the same thing in the language of the Old Testament. The lay priest visits this well every day.

Here’s my invitation – build an altar of the divine Word in your homes. Create a prayer corner and a mini-altar where you enshrine the Word of God in your living space. Be a priest of the Word in your dorm room, in your apartment, in your future home.

Here is my challenge – it’s specific. I challenge you to vow tonight, as your first act as a graduate, that henceforth not a day will pass that you do not spend at least 5 minutes in the Word. If you already read the Word 5 minutes a day, then vow to do so for 10 minutes; if already 10, then 15.

If 15 is already your practice, then here’s a harder challenge. Perhaps it’s time for you to learn about the 1700-year-old Scriptural practice of prayer called Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is the Holy of Holies of the lay priesthood. It’s the place where the common priest can call down the Holy Spirit from above to ignite the kindling of this world into a flame of the Holy Trinity.

And here we return to that word with which we started: “Has there even been a people who heard the voice of the living God, speaking from the midst of fire . . . and remained living?” Deut 4:33.

Well, those who faithfully practice Lectio Divina can say: “Yes – and I am one of them! I hear each day the voice of God from the midst of the fire of divine life and love that is the Holy Spirit.” I let that Word be light of my will and my actions. And, as Robert Frost would say, it makes all the difference.

So, if you are so inspired, find a way to make Lectio your own. If you don’t know how to do that, I learned this method of prayer from the monks and teach it for free via a weekly email group. Send me an email if you’d like to be added to the list (neal@mybrandstrength.com).

 

Light Where There Is Darkness

I leave you with a brief story.  There’s a man in Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 5. He lives in pagan territory, the land of the Gerasenes. He is a Roman citizen; Mark doesn’t name him, but to make this story a bit more personal, I do. I call him Marcellus. Marcellus has fallen prey to every dark spirit of his pagan land. Legions of demons have come to possess him and cause him terrible harm. He has become the kind of man society shuns.

But Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee; he lands on the Gerasenian shore; he encounters Marcellus. He looks past his chains and scars and peers deeply into his soul. He frees that man – frees Marcellus – from his Legion of demons. Once free, Marcellus stands dumbstruck, gazing at the brightness of sun dancing atop the surface of the Sea of Galilee, feeling the soft breeze as though for the first time. He has never in his life known such love, such freedom. There is a story of pigs running down the cliff, but that’s not our focus here. Our focus is on what happens as Jesus leaves Marcellus’ town.

Marcellus pleads with Jesus: can I stay with you? Can I dwell with you? Can I be numbered among your disciples? Essentially, can I be a priest among your 12 priests?

Class of 2024, does anyone remember what Jesus says? Does he say yes?

He says no.

But in a way he says yes. For he sends Marcellus – sends him! like an apostle! – sends him back into the heart of pagan culture, among those who know nothing of God. He sends him to be a herald of the Gospel. A light to the Gerasenes! He sends him – this pagan man – to be a priest in the sense we saw in Exodus, Isaiah, Peter, John, Paul and Luke.

Tonight, he sends you.

Right into the heart of the work world or the college world that await you. As a plumber, an electrician, a nurse, a teacher, a college student, a lawyer, a doctor, a sister, a priest or a stay-at-home Mom. There to participate in the priesthood and to manifest the love of Christ, a love that shoots like reverse lightning, from earth to heaven; a love that responds like a healer to the needs of those on earth.

Yes, like Marcellus, Jesus sends you: because He calls you –  not so much to a state of life as to be a priest in whatever state of life you choose.

Say YES to this call. And a flame – from the heart of the Trinity – will light up this world because of it.

May 24, 2024.

 

Neal Tew was born and raised in Cincinnati.  He earned a BA in English Literature from Harvard College and an MA in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America. After graduating from Harvard, Neal spent three years in a monastery. He calls that his monastic degree. 

The lessons he learned there – compiled in the book, The Gospel Life – continue to shape his life as husband, father and working professional.  Neal is the President of Brandstrength, a boutique marketing firm for mid-size companies.  He pursues his writing career in the early mornings.  His second book, Scarlett’s Wing, translates the message of the Gospel into a parable for children. A forthcoming book, Coach Dad, reveals how the path of coaching and fatherhood can be a vital way to instill human and Kingdom values in our children. Neal lives in Cincinnati with his wife of 22 years, Katie, and their four children. 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Holiness in the Ordinary

Commencent Address. Holy Family Home School Class of 2024.   “Has there even been a people who heard the voice of the living God, speaking

Take. Eat.

Jesus, the Passover Lamb, gives his disciples a way to enter into communion with the Father and the Son. This is the fulfillment of the Promised Land.

The Least Of My Brothers

His heart goes out to him. He stops what he is doing. He gives him his time. He treats him like family. He binds his wounds.

The Unseen Wedding

What kind of bridegroom brings a wedding feast with him while he travels about at night?

Faith Like A Mustard Seed

“I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mk. 9:24) It is the perfect prayer, the perfect way of responding to this revelation that a prayer of deep faith can move that which seems immoveable.

Deep Waters

In today’s story, Jesus draws Simon Peter from his day-to-day tasks to the deep waters of an encounter. Christ’s glory breaks through the ordinary and Peter is changed.

Transfigured

The same transfiguration of humanity in the Father’s love that happened to Jesus on the holy mountain can happen to us. It is what we were created for.

The Veil of the Impossible

Do you ever feel like God has asked of you what is impossible? That you are facing the impossible and somehow God has left you in this situation? You are not alone.

Links