Thursday, 28 August 2014

Good works, good works, everywhere! And all my time did shrink.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

~ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge's famous poem has these memorable lines of the mariner surrounded by his abundance, yet stranded also because of it, for the water was useless if not drinkable. I have found that much the same can be said for ministry: opportunities abound, even more, they are in excess. And so we are stranded, with good works in every direction we look, but until we take a step, make a commitment, it remains mere potentiality. The mariner can distill the water, but he must take a portion of the sea, he cannot distill it all. So too can we Christians take a portion of ministry as our own, and by doing so do what is good and right, but we cannot do anything if we simply gaze at the plenitude of possibilities for ministry.

There is good to be done in almost any walk of life. Doctors and medics who heal, lawyers who can be advocates for the unjustly accused, priests who can administer the sacraments, social workers who provide all sorts of services, missionaries who provide the Gospel in a manner particular to their calling, politicians who work for the common good of society, natural fathers and mothers who care for their children, contemplative religious who take as their own the yoke of prayer, teachers who educate the young...the list is probably as long as there exists people. There is a lot of good to be done in the world. No one person, however, can do all these things.

If we try and take all of them upon ourselves, we will surely fail. Certainly, one might object, one can be more than one of these professions: one can, for instance, be married (with duties to one's spouse), with children (with parental duties) a doctor and missionary, all in one. I have met such people. Yet even these unsung heroes cannot do everything, they simply do more than most. What remains - and this is clearly evident to the man I know who does combine those professions and vocations, since studying medicine is hardly a weekend hobby - is to commit. A bucket full of water can be taken to be distilled, not the whole ocean.

I want to write about two things in brief: first, how do we pick? I give St Ignatius Loyola's answer. Second, what then do I pick?

What then shall we do?

For Christians, as I explained when I went discussed vocation briefly here, deciding what to do is about discernment, discerning the will of God who knows how best to include us in the unfolding of salvation history. The problem we come to when figuring out what ministry to engage in, however, is that we already have as a premise that the choices are good. We already know what is wrong, and not to be involved in such activities. We have to distinguish, somehow, between good-and-meant-for-me and good-but-not-meant-for-me.

St Ignatius has a profound answer, which would be hard to summarise here. The way I understand it, his answer is threefold: first, a holy person makes holy decisions, so our first step should be to strive in everything to be holy. Second, Following the will of God produces feelings of consolation, and opposing it produces feelings of desolation. These are terms are used in a very specific way in the spirituality of St Ignatius, they do not refer simply to feeling good (consolation) or feeling bad (desolation). For this reason, I will at most touch on them briefly, in connection to one of the central insights of St Ignatius, which is (thirdly) that our deepest and holiest desires accord with the will of God for us.

Before alarm bells go off, this is not a sort of "prosperity discernment," whereby I declare whatever I want to be God's will for me to get. "I want some chocolate? God must want me to have chocolate." - not exactly, sorry. I am going to extrapolate from Ignatius' insight into a new form of language which may be clearer (hopefully without being unfaithful to St Ignatius). Our common desires, for pleasure over pain, having a full belly, being well rested, indulging our whims, can be called first order desires. Our second order desires are our desires of what we want our first order desires to be. Third order desires are about what we want our second order desires to be, and so forth.

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this division, which is far from being his human will pulling one way and his divine will pulling another. It is a deeply human problem. On the one hand, the natural inclination to avoid pain makes Jesus want to avoid the cross. On the other, his deeper desire is to want whatever the Father wants. His surrender of the will ("not my will be done, but yours") is an act of a high order desire. It is here where St Ignatius places that convergence of God's will and ours.

Let me give an example that is not explicitly moral: my conflicting desires between checking Facebook for the fifth time this hour or doing my coursework. My desire to procrastinate, I assure you, is strong, and Facebook provides an infinite venue for it. Still, I could hardly say that checking Facebook is a particularly deep desire, in fact, it pops up more regularly precisely because it is a superficial, surface level desire. Deeper down, hidden somewhere, I want to do well at university, and in fact, deeper down I thoroughly enjoy my university work.

If it is true that my deepest desires accord with God's will, noting that idea can certainly be misunderstood and perverted, then it follows quite clearly that holy people make the right choice the holier they are. Part of what the stain of original sin does to us is disorder our desires, so what is fundamentally good is perceived as peripherally good, and what is peripheral (at most) is fundamental. So part of undoing that stain and once more being sanctified, being holy, is to re-order our passions so that the true, the good and the beautiful are sought in their right hierarchy. It is not bad, for instance, to be concerned with oneself, it is healthy and good. Yet narcissism is a perverted form of self-concern which comes from placing oneself as the highest good. All sin results in some way from a disordering of these desires, these passions. This message, which could be expanded to fill a book, can be summarised as follows: holy people make holy decisions because their deepest, holiest desires are given centrality.

What then shall I do?

Now it is time for some introspection. What is it that I desire most deeply, what moves and motivates me more than anything else? I have sort of begun to answer that question with my series of blog posts, still unfinished, on what influences my theology. Vocation is an obvious one, but that is almost a given here, other than to note that most profoundly I want to do what God wants me to do. Grace for me implies, at least in part, that I have a deep desire for reconciliation, a point that will become clearer when I write about another crucial element of my theology, which is the focus on communion. This focus of mine on communion also implies that I have a deep desire for community, more than that, covenantal community, or in other words, a community that is based on a bond of sacred kinship. For the Christian, this bond is based on the reality of baptism.

Two other concepts, one I already wrote about and another yet to come, are central to my thought: incarnation and mission. Incarnational ministry, as I view it, is a form of ministry which makes the minister renounce what makes them above those ministered to (where by absolute I might mean, for instance, that a rich person renounces wealth to minister to the poor) in a way that imitates the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ "and dwelt among us." Last but far from least, mission is a central motivating concept for me. It is for every faithful Christian really, since Jesus came proclaiming the good news, St Paul pronounces woe on himself if he does not preach the good news and up to today the apostolic authority entrusted to the Church by Jesus has continued to say such things as "the Church exists to evangelise" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI).

That might sound overly intellectual, but it is really quite important, not least because to some extent my innermost is really quite intellectual anyway, perhaps to the point of being (overly) cerebral. Community, incarnational (sometimes called "intentional") community, witness and proclamation of the Gospel. These are all key. If I did not engage these, I would be being false to my vocation. I could name a few others (resurrection and truth are both exceedingly important), but I will skip them for brevity.

Changing modes for a moment, what about people's physical needs? The spiritual is important, and anyone who says otherwise is simply mistaken, but so is the corporal. Are corporal works of mercy something I am called to? Absolutely. Most people, if I may dare to generalise, probably are. Still, what variety? There are diseases to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, hungry to be fed, the socially marginalised to be included, and so on. The list is long. So what am I meant to do?

I genuinely do not know. There are certain issues I perceive as injust, and yet I do not find myself called to work in those areas. For instance, as it stands at the moment, I do not think I am called to work in political activism for the sake of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' rights. I am far from claiming it is an unworthy cause, it is simply not my cause. Similarly, whilst I have been to all sorts of rallies, marches and vigils for the end to the murder of children in the womb, it is similarly not fundamentally my cause. Still, nobody who knows me can really say that I do not care about these things. On the other hand, there are some issues where I am compelled to do something: homelessness, hunger, de-humanising poverty, slavery both physical and otherwise (like substance addiction), social marginalisation because of such stigmas as related to race or mental health illness, among others.

To that effect, I have begin discerning committing to various apostolates that deal with these issues, and am involved already in several. To the extent that I can identify key issues, and since engaging with the corporal ones is clearly compatible with engaging in the spiritual ones (which, because they effect eternal consequences, I am compelled to give pre-eminence), it would seem that my problems are largely solved.

That would, I think, be to go too fast. Whilst there is a sense in which I will always have a certain autonomy of will, in a few years time I will be taking not one but two vows of obedience, where I consecrate my will to God via my superiors and the Pope. I find that a comforting thought. But whether comforting or not, I am not sure in the long term what sort of ministry I will be involved in. I can only discern the next two years.

This will involve, as far as my eye can see, continued involvement in soup kitchens and including whoever I meet who seems to lack community. It will involve continued service in the Newman Society at UQ, and Frassati Australia. It will hopefully involved, though I have just started doing so, being involved with outreach initiatives of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It will hopefully involve working with initiatives of the Waiter's Union, soon. All of this, whilst not neglecting that my primary state in life as it stands is that of student at university. These are my buckets of water.


  1. Discernment is a gift, pray for it.

  2. This is so interesting to read and something that I really relate to.

    Knowing how to serve is a struggle for me. So many opportunities for good works abound, both corporal and spiritual acts of mercy and I want to do so much of it. So many important ministries exist and I struggle to be discerning with my time and energy. If I fill my life with too much busyness and not enough prayer, no matter how good the works are, I won't be choosing the better part. Similarly, if I fill my life so that I am distracted from or even in order to distract myself from the current vocation I have been given (teaching), I won't be choosing the better part. It also comes back to a struggle with persistence!

    The image of distilling the bucket of water rather than the entire ocean is very beautiful.

    How you read Story of a Soul yet? It ties in closely I think to when St Therese, drawn to do many things, ponders her vocation.