Always the Last to Know: On the Glory of Opaque Self-Awareness

The Anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26:10-13): “Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”
The Anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26:10-13): “Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’” (photo: CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since it belongs to the supernatural order,
grace escapes our experience (CCC 2005).

At the time, I thought I was going to save the world. Young, single, male, and totally on fire for my faith, I was convinced I was bound for the seminary and a lifetime of service as a priest. (No need to thank me, God.)

First stop: World Youth Day. Denver. 1993. I’d already moved to Steubenville to start a pre-theologate program at Franciscan University, but my pastor, Fr. Ed Madden, asked me to consider a brief return to Boulder that August to assist with the pilgrim influx. “We could use the help,” he told me, and I readily agreed. Given everything Father had done for me, I was delighted for a chance to demonstrate my gratitude. Plus, it gave me an excuse to get in on the WYD furor, and I expected to chum around with other future seminarians.

As it turned out, I was too busy to get near much of the action in Denver. My old parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus, is a big one with lots of space to plop down sleeping bags, so naturally the Archdiocese sent us a largish number of pilgrims, and I had my hands full. We hosted groups from Germany, Mexico, and a big one from Liechtenstein and Switzerland that included their bishop, Wolfgang Haas. We had teens camped out in the school, young adults in the church basement, and a prelate in the rectory. Volunteer parishioners helped with food distribution, although it was sometimes confusing to coordinate deliveries from McDonald’s with the pilgrims’ itineraries. There were buses coming and going, doors to lock and unlock, questions to be answered, details to be ironed out. What’s more, this was the pre-iPhone era, so I had a pager – a pager, remember those? – and I kept it turned on 24/7 throughout the entire week. That turned out to be a good thing, because it beeped at me night and day to intervene on behalf of our foreign guests.

As the week concluded and the dust settled, as the pilgrims were departing or preparing for departure, my main contact from the Liechtenstein group asked me to join them for a last gathering in church basement. I was a bit confused by the invitation, and I was still trying to manage all the buses and leave-takings, but I showed up anyway. There was Bishop Haas, speaking to the group in German, smiling, and looking at me. I didn’t know what was going on, and then suddenly there were cheers and people pushing me forward. It seems that the bishop was singling me out for praise, enumerating my contributions to their successful pilgrimage, and the group was applauding my efforts. I thanked the good bishop and his flock, but I was embarrassed by the recognition. It took me aback, for I’d only been doing my job after all – merely responding to calls and running errands, keeping a lid on things just as Fr. Madden requested. Besides, I was planning to be a priest – that was a real heroic feat, I thought. How about some recognition for that?

Nonetheless, God had other plans, as he often does, and I met and married Nancy in Steubenville the next year. Then, God blessed us with a son, and me with a job, and we were off and running in our married vocation. Work, bills, work bills; dishes in the sink, trash to be emptied. Mow the lawn! Rake the leaves! “Honey, the baby has a fever” – a 2 a.m. run to Walgreens for more Tylenol; “I forgot to tell you about the Spring Program tonight” – slippers off, shoes on, dart to the school auditorium. Potty training, basketball practice, “Dad, can we go driving tonight? I need more practice.” Sure – grab the keys.

So much for saving the world – so much for doing something spectacular for God…as far as I know. Which isn’t very far, for I tend to think in terms of big doings and making a mark. God has another standard in mind, however, and he’s constantly re-directing our attention away from ourselves, from our works and their effects, and inviting us to rivet our gaze on himself. Not only does he discourage us from chasing after what the world values in terms of accomplishment – that is, what we tend to value: the spectacular – he doesn’t even clue us in to what we might actually be accomplishing according to his divine scale. And that’s all to the good, for once we’re aware that we might be doing holy things, we almost certainly cease to do so – it’s a delicate balance.

Here’s a picture of what I mean courtesy of the BBC’s Doctor Who. In an episode that revolves around a visit to a Paris museum for a Vincent van Gogh exhibit, the Doctor uncovers an ominous mystery, which itself leads to time travel and an invisible alien monster – pretty typical stuff for Doctor Who. In the end, though, there’s a remarkably moving scene in which the dejected Van Gogh, seemingly a failure and convinced he will not amount to much, transports to the 21st century and the Paris exhibit.  He wanders around, mesmerized by the display and the obvious devotion of those who’d come to see it. At one point he overhears a curator comment that Van Gogh was “the greatest painter of them all,” and the artist is reduced to tears. It’s like George Bailey in reverse: Instead of a glimpse of the world minus his presence, Van Gogh is depicted observing the true impact he actually was to make – and he is genuinely astounded.

Isn’t this what we see in Matthew 25? “When did I see you hungry and feed you; sick and visit you; naked and clothe you?” By God’s design, we are blind to when we’re accomplishing truly great things – the overweening pride would otherwise crush us. Besides, our standards (and the world’s standards) are not God’s standards at all. If we reach the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter stamps a visa on our eternal passport, we’ll be flummoxed I suspect. “Who, me?” we’ll say. “Really – I get in? Was it for my years of selfless service – for that charity I established or all those missionary trips I went on? Is it because I was such a humble and industrious worker, or maybe all the sacrifices I made for my family?”

Nope, probably not. More likely, it’ll be that time you were silently patient with an overtaxed store clerk when you wanted to complain; that moment on the bypass when you might’ve given into your irritation with the tailgater, and made it easy for him to pass instead; the times you smiled when you felt like frowning; when you were secretly generous in small, hidden ways without a second thought. It’ll be the succession of fumbling little offerings and extensions, hardly noticeable on a human scale, but huge in heaven. In any case, all these claims, big and small, could only happen in cooperation with divine grace in the first place, and since grace is a free gift, there’s only One who can take full credit – which the flummoxed saint-to-be won’t begrudge one little bit.

Recently I caught Fr. Rich Simon on Relevant Radio extolling his deceased boss and hero, Archbishop Cardinal George. “The great men I’ve known,” said Fr. Simon, “have no idea they’re great. God alone is great as far as they’re concerned.” Let that be our aspiration as well: To seek greatness solely in God himself, and to carry on in our daily affairs as if he’s the only one who’s really paying attention. Without a doubt, he surely is, and it’s no secret that he loves us beyond all telling.