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When I lived in DC I met a man from Colombia, a numerary in Opus Dei. He was just passing through, which seemed to be what he did in most places. He said he loved the single life, because he could be like Gandalf — at home everywhere and nowhere, always on some mysterious mission, led only by the spirit.

I thought of him last night, when I got too idle and stayed up too late, and as a result lay in bed Thinking About My Life.

And, surprise: my life started to look like a trap, a dead end. Here I am, no wife or children tying me down, nothing really keeping me but the job. I could be anywhere, do anything. And what do I do? I stare at glowing rectangles for a living.

Shouldn’t I be in South America somewhere, courting Lady Poverty? If I don’t get to get married, shouldn’t I become the vagabond/saint/crimefighter/sage I always wanted to be?

Maybe. This kind of thing is equal parts Catholicism and Hollywood, half St. Francis and half Zorba the Greek. You know the trope I mean, right? Rick Moranis/Martin Short/Zach Braff1 stumbles through life half-awake, too mediocre even to know how mediocre he is, until Michael Richards/Dennis Quaid/Natalie Portman2 bursts his quietly-desperate suburban life wide open, breaks all the rules, and Shows Him How To Live!3 Breaking Free4 is the one of the greatest 21st-century virtues.

But then there is St. Francis, who as far as I’m concerned got the whole trend started, so disgusted with his worldly living-and-partly-living and so in love with Christ that he drops it all at once, strips naked right there in the piazza and never looks back. There’s Jesus’ words in the Gospel: I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.

Then add these two to the voices in my head. St. Teresa of Avila: God walks among the pots and pans. Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima: Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.

The hard truth is that I don’t have to go to South America to be a saint. I can do that here, among the pots and pans and glowing rectangles of my life, by striving to remain fully awake, fully alive, living each moment in the presence of God. I can strive to love everyone I meet, not with my own love but the love of Christ — a love that isn’t always romantic or thrilling, that sometimes feels like drudgery, but only because its glory is hidden, like the glory of Christ was hidden on earth. Love in action means love where and when you are, not in the dream of some beautiful Elsewhere.

It doesn’t mean the vagabond’s life is out, it just means I can’t force the issue. Sometimes fear keeps you from going where you’re meant to go. And sometimes it keep you from staying where you’re meant to be.

1 Yech.
2 Yech again. I can hardly tell you how muchly-much-much I hated Garden State. Except the wallpaper scene was pretty good.
3 Or maybe…Breaking Bad??
4 I’m sure I could have picked better examples than My Blue Heaven, Innerspace, and Garden State, respectively, but these are the first three that came to mind, despite (or because?) I haven’t seen any of them in years. But it occurs to me now that Frank Capra reverses the trend: It’s a Wonderful Life is all about serving God where you are, staying open-eyed and grateful. Arch-sentimentalist though he may have been, Capra put his finger on it.

12 thoughts on “St. Elsewhere

  1. Rosie

    Thanks, this was very helpful. It’s very easy to get sucked into that idea of _doing_ something _important_ with your life, which always means something exotic and romantic.

    I love how, in It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart is obviously doing the right thing by staying in his boring town and working at his boring job, and he is happy with his life, but he isn’t completely satisfied all the time. He knows he’s doing the right thing and he can see good coming from it, but he can’t help having moments of thinking “what if I had followed through on my original plan” or “what if I had taken my friend’s offer and become rich,” and he’s obviously struggling with being poor as well. It’s a good reminder that, even though he has discovered that he can live out his vocation in a very ordinary sort of life, it’s not going to _feel_ rewarding or exciting or satisfying all the time!

    Reply
  2. Liz

    We live in a small, mostly poor, rural county in Minnesota. A lot of people I know go on missions to Belize or Africa….and those are noble things. But I’ve always thought there was plenty of mission work right here. Plenty of despair and chaos that needs hope and light.

    Loving the people right here seems tough enough for me on most days.

    Reply
  3. Ron

    I think the challenge for all of us is to find God, as St Teresa wisely said, “among the pots and pans”. To go off to far-away places, while a very good thing if that is our calling, is to miss God at home, at work, at our local parish, in the “stuff” of our everyday lives.

    One of my favorite Gospel stories is that of the risen Lord meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The Lord met the disciples as they journeyed on the road, downcast because their Lord had been crucified and all appeared lost. Jesus explained the scriptures to them, causing their hearts to burn within them (v.27,32), and breaking the bread for them, when “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (v.30-31). He was revealed as he shared simple food with them.

    May we be the presence of the Lord for all those who journey through life with us. More humbling as I see it, is to allow others to minister to us, to be the presence of Jesus for us. May we recognize him in the people and the food of our everyday lives, as well as the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

    Reply
  4. Perpetua

    Thanks, Steve. I loved this post but it is late and I am too tired to respond coherently. :) God bless you for writing.

    Reply
  5. Dante

    Blessed Mother Teresa used to tell people who wanted to give it all up and go to India: Calcutta is all around you if you have the eyes to see…

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  6. viego pobre

    i agree that it is a universal temptation, that seems to follow us all out life, to think that the “grass is greener on the other side” or to fall into “if only I was ……..(fill in the blanks)….i would be better and more real! yea, right.

    that being said, it is also very important to remember there are different seasons of our lives and each has its own rules. younger adults are still seeking their calling in life and need to listen and discern deeply where God is calling them. what makes our daily life important is that it is the place where we have been called by God to live out our life in Christ.

    so we listen with a deeper heart to where God is calling us, our unique vocation, we give ourselves to it, and then it is a matter of being faithful to the call and the gift we have made of ourselves to our unique vocation.
    so, it seems to me there is this inner dynamic of listening and discernment, commitment to a concrete call (marriage, celibacy, religious life etc) then faithfulness to this call in the concrete situation God has placed us.

    so it seems to me, that yes we can be a saint in any vocation, but it has to be the unique call God has given to us and one we have embraced and accepted and then allow our life of faithfulness to form, shape, and transform us into the the fullness of Christ that we have been predestined for ……by our daily life as it unfolds and we prove our love by the generosity of our faithfulness to where God has called us. IMHO

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  7. Br. Gabriel,OP

    Discover what gifts God has given you (like preaching in this medium for instance) and join a Confraternity or Third Order (Like the Lay Dominicans for instance). I have always felt that the single life should always be consecrated in some way. It provides an intentionality to ones single life.

    Reply
  8. Julie

    “Sometimes fear keeps you from going where you’re meant to go. And sometimes it keeps you from staying where you’re meant to be.”
    Is that an original? Great, great quote!!!

    Reply
  9. Caitlin

    Elsewhere is far worse temptress than most. I was recently reminded that we ask God for our daily bread. Not tomorrow’s bread, not Columbian bread, just feed me here, today.

    Reply
  10. Peter M

    Mother Teresa also said that she had never encountered such poverty as she found in the affluent west; that is to say, spiritual poverty. To witness in our secular culture is not as romantic, perhaps, as going off and working in the slums, but maybe God gave some of us first-rate educations and the ability to communicate eloquently for the sake of those all around us who are suffocating for lack of God.

    Reply
  11. Amanda

    I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head yet again. A saint is one who does the greatest things in the most common way. It’s beautiful and great in the most normal of ways.

    Reply

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