The Role of The Laity

Continuing our adult faith formation series at St. Thomas Apostle on The Church and the Modern World (see prior posts here, here and here, I gave a talk last evening on Vatican II and the Role of the Laity.

Prior to Vatican II, there was a tendency to view the laity as a passive body. Church meant hierarchy and the laity were not seen as having an active role on the work of the Church. Vatican II sought to change that view, characterizing the Church as the People of God, which is made up of lay as well as clergy and religious. (“We are the Church.”)

Yet, despite the fact that it effected a sea-change in our understanding of the role of the laity in the Church and in the world, we hear very little about the Council’s teachings on this matter at the parish level. Thus, Bill Nolan and I thought it an important topic to include as part of our series, with the goal of encouraging participants to think more deeply about their vocation as laypersons in this post Vatican II world.

I began by talking about what the Council said about laity and then moved on to discuss some of the ways the Council’s teachings have been translated (and sometimes misinterpreted). I also talked about some of the challenges of our living up to what Vatican II asks of us. As usual, we left time at the end of the talk for people to engage in some small group discussion and questions and answers.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 35:51.) I refer in my talk to excerpts of several documents that I distributed to participants at the beginning of our session; that handout is here.


Following One’s Path

I just finished reading Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy. Both because I have benefitted in the past from Chittister’s writing and because part of my own calling is helping my law students with their efforts to discern vocation, I enthusiastically accepted Image/Random House’s invitation to review the book. My enthusiasm was warranted.

One of the things we always stress to law students and alumni who participate in the semi-annual weekendvocation retreats we offer at UST is that discerning vocation is not a one-shot deal, but that we are called to different things at different times in our lives. Chittister’s book is written with the same understanding that “life is a series of choices”; the book is aimed not only toward young adults determining what to do after they finish school, but to middle-aged people who recognize the need for change in their life and to retirees who no longer have to think in terms of a “job” in ascertaining who they will be in the world. That is does also underscores something else Chittister stresses in the book – it is never too late for us to grow into all we can be.

The assumption – or I should say, truth – underlying the entirety of the book is that “everybody has a call to something.” Whether we call it “the priesthood of believers,” the “will of God for us,” “co-creation” (her examples) or any other name, “[w]e have each been both with particular gifts of mind and soul, of body and brain, of personality and skill that we are meant to use for the greater good. There is no such thing as not having a call.”

There is so much valuable in this book, both for discerning one’s own vocation and for those of us whose ministry involves helping others discern their vocation. I’ll just share a few ideas here, hoping to whet your appetite.

First, in addition to the important distinction between real passion and addiction I wrote about the other day, Chittister also draws a useful distinction between commitment and enthusiasm, which we have a dangerous tendency to confuse – dangerous because mistaking “initial enthusiasm for commitment is exactly what leads so many peple to fall off int he middle of a project.” Enthusiasm is wonderful, but commitment is what we need to forge on when our work ceases to feel good. And her definition of commitment is a good one; she defines it as “that quality of human nature that tells us not to count days or months or years, strugggle or effort or rejection, but simply to go on utnil the work we have come to do is done, whether the need is finally, completely, finished or not.” (That definition itself is good to sit with.)

Second, Chittister addresses the temptation to make choices either too quickly or too slowly. Staying “on roads long gone purposesless” becasue of fear of change and a desire to stay with the familiar is deadening. But equally problematic is being “too quick to leave a road,” simply because the way foward is not clear. Reminding me of much of the thrust of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, she reminds that our search is a continual “process of making spiritual choices between the good and the better, the holy and the mundane, the essence of life and the costmetic” and that the decisions “are hardly ever clear.”

Third, Chittister (who speaks of each of having one call, albeit with different variations) provides a useful elucidation of seven dimensions of authentic call. These provide an important aid – a good outline of things to consider – in any discernment process. When advising people choosing among particular options, I always recommend an Ignatian method of discernment. I will continue to do so, but I will also offer Chittister’s dimensions, which offer a wonderful resource for prayerful discernment of call. In a similar vein, she ends the book with “three clues and three cautions about what it means to discern what we are meant to do in life if we really want to do the will of God.” They are a nice supplement to her dimensions of authentic call.

This is a book I suspect I will both give to others as gifts and come back to frequently myself.

The Thing You Can’t Not Do

Some days are just an embarrassment of riches. Yesterday was one of them. At Weekly Manna, our speaker was Rev. Nancy Brantingham, Associate Rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina. Following that was the second part of the two-part program I organized on Interpreting the Bible and Ascertaining Religious Law, which today included a dialogue among Rabbi Norman Cohen (our presenter at the first part of the program two weeks ago), Fr. Dan Griffith, Mark Osler and me.

I’ll doubtless have something to say about the second of those in the coming days, but a few words about Nancy’s talk, which was on the subject of discerning vocation, a subject about which I’ve spoken and written quite a bit.

Nancy said many things about vocation that resonated with me (and used some of the same quotes I use when talking about vocation). But what I really loved was one simple statement she made: One’s vocation is that thing that one can’t not do.

The first thing that came to my mind when she said that was my daughter, Elena, and her singing. When she was in high school and singing with the Minnetonka Chamber Choir, the director once observed that the girls in the choir sing because they can’t not sing. When Elena told me about a particular piece of music she will be singing in a recital toward the end of this school term, she said it wasn’t one that she was originally assigned to do by her voice teacher. But she asked him to play it for her anyway and when he did, her immediate reaction was, I MUST sing this song. As she explains, when she hears a piece of music that touches her like that, she feels she has to sing it.

There are many thing my daughter can do…and do well. She writes. She plays piano. She is a go player, a taekwando black belt, etc. But she can also not do many of the things she is capable of doing well – and still be who she is.

However, she can’t not sing. She couldn’t not sing and still be fully who she is.

If you can picture in yourself or someone else what I can see in the relationship between my daughter and her singing, you can understand that vocation is not just one among many things we could be doing…something we fall into because it is convenient. Vocation is an expression of our deepest self. It is that which we can’t not do.

For God’s Sake

The other day I was back and forth with my friend Richard on e-mail about something. After I wrote a message explaining why the subject of our conversation was important to me, he responded, “Well, that and, you are an attorney, for God’s sake.” “Literally,” he added.

Although his intended use of “for God’s sake” in his sentence was as an exclamation for emphasis, I smiled at my friend’s wonderful afterthought. Although I am no longer a practicing lawyer, there is accuracy to the meaning conveyed by his phrase when one omits the comma from it: I am an Attorney for God’s Sake, as I am a Law Professor for God’s Sake, or a Retreat Director for God’s Sake, or any of the other descriptions I may use to explain my various roles.

If my life belongs to God, then there is no part of my life that is separate from my discipleship. Everything I am, everything do, is a response to God’s call. Everything I am and do is for God’s sake, for the furtherance of God’s plan for me and for the world.

And the same is true for you.

Who are you for God’s sake?

Kingdom, Inc.

Yesterday morning our focus on our vocation retreat weekend was on recognizing our gift. We opened our session by praying St. Ignatius’ Suscipe and so startted with the acknowledgement that “Whaever I am or possess, you have given to me.”

Jennifer Wright, who was leading the morning session, began by suggesting that one reason we have difficulty recognizing our giftedness is that we tend to think in terms of praise and blame. When we do, we think focusing on our giftedness is boastful or prideful. However, when we recognize that all of our gifts come from God, then we realize that the gifts themselves are not about us and are not justification for praise or blame. She gave the example of getting a blouse for Christmas – that the blouse is beautiful itself has nothing to do with us. What warrants praise is not our possessing a gift, but what we do with it.

As a vehicle for focusing our attention on identifying our gifts, Jennifer hypothesized a company – Kingdom, Inc. You, she said, are the HR Director of this company, trying to implement the business plan of its owner – to manifest God’s Kingdom on earth. The business goal is that God’s will be done on earth.

The HR director has interviewed many candidates, conducted all sorts of personality tests and it now making decisions about what to do with new hires. The questions Jennifer asked us to address about the candidate in question were:

First, what tasks/functions should we assign him/her?

Second, what development/training/supervision/mentoring will s/he need?

Third, What challenges/potential provlems should we look out for?

The candidate (no surprise) was oneself. And so we spent some time in quiet reflection on how we would answer each question about ourself.

Although I’ve done many reflections on giftedness, this was the first time I used this formulation. Based on my own experience and the discussion we had afterward, it was a very good vehicle for the retreatants. So I would encourage you to try it.

Sloth and its Antidote

Yesterday, UST Law School welcomed Michael Schutt, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Law School Ministries. I have known and admired Mike for a number of years and so was delighted when he told me he would be in town and would have time for come for a lunchtime conversation with our students. His theme was Law, Calling and the Drudgery of Law School.

During his talk, Mike identified four challenges or difficulties we face as Christians in the legal profession (and in training for that profession) and their antidotes. The one with the most (at least initially) counter-intuitive antidote was sloth.

We tend to think of sloth as akin to laziness – sitting on the couch flipping the remote rather than doing our work. But the more dangerous sloth, Michael suggested is a spiritual sloth, which he described as recognizing the good and virtuous and ignoring it because we are so wrapped up in our work that that which we recognize as the good gets put aside. What Mike was describing was captured well in a comment made to me recently by someone I admire a great deal: he observed that he found himself of late attending to the immediate more often than the important. We can get so caught up in our business that we lose sight of where our attention ought to be placed.

Hence, said Mike, as strange as it may sound, the antidote to sloth is Sabbath – taking time in contemplation, stopping our activity. Describing something like the Ignatian examen, he suggested the students take at least ten minutes each evening where they completely “unplug” and sit and do nothing. He suggested the contemplate the events of the day, looking at where was the good, the virtuous, and where the good was lost sight of. As someone who frequently recommends to people that they engage in a daily examen, I was happy to have the students hear this advice from him as well.

Thanks for being with us today, Mike.

Christians in a Secular World

Yesterday, Bishop Lee Piche, auxiliary bishop of the Minneapolis/St. Paul diocese came to the Law School to celebrate Mass and to have lunch with some students and faculty. He and only some brief prepared remarks, choosing to reserve the bulk of the time at lunch for student questions.

One of the questions asked by one of the first year students, someone just starting to think about what might be her place in the law, was whether there are certain areas of the law that are “off-limits” for Catholics, types of legal practice that Catholics should stay away from. She wondered, for example, whether Catholics should avoid things like divorce law.

Bishop Piche was firm in the conviction that there is no area of the law that is “off-limits,” that faith-filled, holy persons are needed in all areas of the law. With respect to her example of divorce, he observed that while the Church is opposed to divorce, it recognizes that some marriages can’t be salvaged and that it is important to have lawyers in that situation who can render compassionate and loving advice that takes into account the best interests of the family (especially children).

I think the general point is an important one. It is easy to think that certain jobs are the “good” or “right” kinds of jobs for spiritually, socially-minded people to have. But there is no area of the world – of legal practice or any other place – that can’t be a venue for spreading Kingdom. And, indeed, some of the least likely places might be the places a Christian disciple can do the most good.

Part of discerning vocation is discovering where each of our wonderful and unique gifts can best be put to use for God’s plan of salvation. And to discern correctly, we need to have a broad view of what the possibilities are, and that not all “proper” vocations look the same.

Finding Purpose in Your Life and Career

Our first year law students are in Orientation Week at the Law School. As part of that, I offered a mid-day reflection on the theme of Finding Purpose in your Life and Career. Since I like to think of law school as a three-year process of discerning who the students will be int he world, it seemed a good topic for them to reflect on during these first days of their life as law students.

I talked about the meaning of vocation and about the difference between “discernment” and “deciding.” I also talked about three questions (which I borrow from Michael Himes) that are useful in helping to filter out other voices from the call of God as they move through the discernment process. The questions are: What are my gifts? What brings my joy? and What does the world need form me?

After my talk, I invited the students to spend some time reflecting on the first of those questions: What are my gifts? After that period of reflection, we had some small group sharing and then a discussion among the whole group.

You can access a recording of the talk here. (The podcast runs for 21:01). You can find all Creo en Dios! podcasts here.

Spiritual Gifts

I am at Holy Spirit Retreat Center, where I am co-faciliatating a weekend vocation retreat for law students. We offer this retreat twice a year, and it is always a wonderful experience.

Saturday morning, our focus was on recognizing our gifts, one of the necessary aspects of discerning vocation. At one point during our session, we read and talked about Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. (It is a beautiful passage and if you haven’t read it in a while, take a look at it.)

There are at least four importants interrelated points that come out of that reading for me. The first is that our gifts are given to us by God. That is a very helpful thing to remember, as it helps keep us humble. When I think of my talents and gifts as “mine” it is easy to puff up with pride when I do seomthing well. But if I remember it is not all me, that the source of my gifts and talents is God, I can use them with greater humility.

Second, our gifts are given to us for a purpose. God had something in mind in gifting each of us. Not owning our gifts, not using them for the life of the world, is an act of profound ingratitude.

Third, each of us has been given different gifts. As I said to the students yesterday: there is no other person who has been given exactly your set of gifts and talents. And that means that if you don’t share your gifts, the world is deprived of something that cannot be made up for by someone else’s contribution. If you don’t use your gifts, the world doesn’t get them.

Finally, all of our gifts are important and in God’s shcme of evalution, no one part is more important than another.

We finish up here this morning and return to the Twin Cities, where our first year students begin their Orientation on Monday morning. Please keep them all in your prayers.

Glass Halo

For a college English major, I spend far too little time reading novels these days. Between my legal reading and reading relating to various retreats and other programs I’m preparing for, I find precious little time for reading anything else other than a newspaper. Happily, I responded positively when my friend Maria asked if I was interested in reviewing Colleen Smith’s first novel, Glass Halo. I was hooked from the first pages and started and finished the book while we were traveling this past weekend.

The two primary characters are both incredibly wounded people, one from an abusive spousal relationship that ended very badly and the other from alcoholism – the first a woman who is a lapsed Catholic and a stained-glass artist and the second a priest whose alcoholism has contributed to temptations that jeopardize his vows.

I always find it difficult to write a review of a novel, wanting and needing to say enough to encourage a reader to pick it up, but wanting to avoid saying so much as to destroy the pleasure of allowing a plot to unfold as one reads. So let me simply say several things about this well-written and compelling book.

First, the author does a wonderful job of conveying the raw emotions of her two main characters, whether it be fear, desperation, longing or love. And not just conveying, but inviting an empathy even when one might find something to criticize in the behavior of one or the other.

Second, Nora’s (the stained-glass artist) journey from sadness and solitary non-life to a place of peace and even happiness is beautifully and movingly told, as it Fr. Vin’s emergence from temptation and re-dedication to his priestly vocation.

Third, the book invites us to grapple with Nora with some hard questions about vocation and about sacrifice and encourages one to work through the important task of distinguishing what is from God vs. what is not from God (reminding us that doing so is much more complicated that determining whether something feels good).

Finally, and in a completely different vein, I have to add that I enjoyed learning so much about stained glass making and restoring. I was as drawn into the technical details of Nora’s work as I was into her spiritual and personal journey.

A beautiful story that I highly recommend.