The thread that ties it all together

| Jonathan Liedl | September 3, 2020 | 0 Comments

Brescia, Italy – The metal statue of St. Philip Neri in church Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pace by unknown artist. iStock/sedmak

At the end of August, a couple nights before a good friend’s wedding, I had a chance to take part in his “dedication.” The dedication is a practice of the Community of Christ the Redeemer lay group, of which his now-wife is a part, during which a man is affirmed and advised by other men as he prepares to enter into married life.

When it was my turn to offer an affirmation, I noted what many of us knew: This friend’s life had not followed a “normal trajectory.” It had included a profound conversion in early adulthood, a move across the country to Minnesota to explore life with a priestly fraternity, multiple times in and out of seminary, and was now taking on a definitive character as he embraced the vocation of marriage.

To some, this kind of journey through life might appear disorienting, as if there was never a clear goal in mind, vacillating between such radically different states of life as celibate priesthood and marriage. However, to those of us who know this man well, and know how the Lord sometimes works, it’s clear that he was always after the same thing: selflessly serving the Lord with everything he had. Throughout his journey, throughout its different seasons and shades, this was the thread that tied it all together.

The Church has another name for this thread, this common element: holiness. A major theme of the Second Vatican Council was that the universal call to holiness is the primary vocation of every baptized person. Granted, God leads us into permanent “states of life,” like priesthood, marriage and consecrated life, from which we can love in a more concrete and “given” way. But often we only reach our “Big V” vocation by being faithful to the daily “vocation,” or calling, to personal holiness, and by following that thread where it leads.

I remember being struck by this truth last year at this time, watching biopics on Italian saints as part of my orientation to life in Rome. What was significant was that, though these saints had different vocations — Giuseppe Moscati, for instance, was a lay doctor, while Philip Neri became the founder of a priestly congregation — I could detect the same thread of holiness in each of their lives. Though the state of life differed, the dynamic that animated them seemed the same.

St. Philip Neri, in fact, is a compelling example of this kind of fidelity to God’s daily call above all else. Though he came to Rome as a young man in 1533 to study for the priesthood, he soon shelved these plans and committed himself to a life of prayer and service as a layman. It wasn’t until 1551, after a group of laypeople had formed around him as their spiritual father, that Philip accepted the urgings of his confessor and was ordained a priest.

From a worldly perspective, a life like Philip’s may seem hackneyed and haphazard. But what was constant was his faithfulness to God’s call; his fidelity, in the words of a local priest, “to what God had put into him”; and his willingness to be bold in following.

For some of us, following God’s pull will look less dramatic. The choice of a vocation or a spouse or a career or a religious community will be rather straightforward. For others, the only clear constant will be our openness and surrender to the Lord, as he leads us down an unconventional path. (For my part, my effort to follow this thread has led me to take a step back from seminary, hence the change in my photo and tagline).

God does want to lead us to a stable state of self-giving love. But we can only reach this place by being faithful to him here and now. He is the needle that pulls the thread, and cooperation with him and his love is the thread that holds it all together. The sanctity of our lives, then, is not primarily a work of our own doing; nor is it an external plan imposed upon us, which we simply need to “stick to.” What we are tasked with is simply being faithful to what the Lord begins, sustains, and brings to completion within us.

I pray that you and I will be bold in following where he pulls.

Liedl lives and writes in the Twin Cities

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