Our present circumstances have left me feeling very stuck. I feel some paralysis and malaise over the experience of not really moving forward, not really doing anything productive, constantly planning to do things, waiting for my working life to begin anew. Of course, my life contains work right now, but it’s work that feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern, work designed to keep things afloat until things can really start happening again. And I’m finding it difficult to pray in this time, because I just feel stuck.
I suspect many of us have similar feelings. The United States right now is a country ravaged by two sicknesses: a global pandemic and the violence of racism. Both are huge and intractable problems. Both simultaneously demand a response and seem to swallow up anything most ordinary people are capable of doing, to render our best intentions and actions impotent in the face of these deadly plagues. Actions, like protesting, that might help us to face one problem might play right into the hands of the other in a horrible lose-lose situation. We are in a position of having to trust the judgment and skill of our leaders, many of whom have proven themselves to be unworthy of that trust. So the question arises: when we feel paralyzed, when we feel impotent, when we feel stuck, what is God’s call to us?
God calls us onward, and there are layers to this call. We often think of it in terms of our careers or hobbies, and it can include those, but it extends much broader and deeper. On one end of the spectrum, we all share one ultimate, eternal vocation: union with God and communion with one another. On the other end, God’s call is not something we plan for in the future, but what we do right now, in this and every moment. God’s call does not cease. It is from this truth that we Brothers, in our Rule of Life, have described God’s call as “continuous, abiding, and progressive.” Our vocation, then, is endlessly constant and stable, and also endlessly responsive to the changes and chances of our present moment.
How, then, might God be calling us at this time? There is a huge variety of specific acts, specific works, that God calls us to do, and from the example of the Genesis narrative of Adam, being placed in the Garden to tend to it, we see that humans are called to work. But we are not created for the purpose of work. We are not, fundamentally, doers of things, means to some end. God has made us out of love for us, not because some cosmic chores needed to be done. As Christians, Christ’s life is exemplary for us, and he frequently refused opportunities to accomplish impressive feats, often preferring to pray in private over public deeds of power. When he did perform miracles, he often instructed those who received his aid not to tell anyone. Several examples of his healings show a dichotomy: Jesus gets exasperated at those who approach him primarily asking him to accomplish some deed of power, often using words like “faithless” to describe them. But when people approach him, not because of what he can do, but because of who he is, and trusting that “who he is” is enough, he seems surprised and joyful, praising them for their faith.
Trusting Jesus for who he is points us to a truth about ourselves: we need to trust who we are. There is ample time for doing. Indeed, it’s no virtue to shun holy works. But good works are the good fruit of the vine; they are not the roots. In this culture especially, it is extremely easy for us to identify ourselves with our work, and when it is hampered or taken away, to experience a very wide and yawning gap in our lives. But we aren’t our work. Our work may be good, even sacred, but who we are is far more important, far better, far more sacred. We are bearers of the image of God. This is true in all things, forever. No particular work, no matter how holy or heroic, can of its own accord give us our lives. When we begin to think this way, we can descend into an idolatry of good deeds, an insidious tendency to build our own moral resume, and there will never be enough.
This isn’t an easy message for me to swallow right now. I want to do things. I feel ready to do things. Not to plan, not to talk about, not to meet, but to do. And I’m frustrated by the reality that I can’t. Not yet. And, I suppose, those feelings are not, themselves, wrong. But when I find myself despairing over the lack of doing, feeling worthless because of the lack of doing, that’s when I’ve begun to identify myself, and God, and others, as means to an end, as tools of accomplishment, as things. I want to do good things, but idolatry of the good is just as much a sin as any other idolatry.
Perhaps you’ve felt this way too. It’s hard, but you aren’t alone. When everything around us seems to be failing, when we feel paralyzed and unable to meaningfully affect the world, when we so deeply long to see good in the world and the fog just doesn’t seem to lift, that is when trust in God is more important than ever. We will move past this, because God has chosen us as his dwelling place. We will get through this, because the Church’s mission of bearing witness to the union of God and humanity does not falter. We can persevere, if only we remember who God most fundamentally calls us to be: ourselves, bearers of Christ in the world, not by virtue of particular accomplishments, but because of the love with which God has made us.