“It’s different for you,” insisted my friend. “You’re someone who is planning on making a career out of your faith.”
It was early February and the two of us were sitting in our favourite café in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a place where we’d shared many a café con leche and were currently having brunch. The discussion had turned to the Church’s teachings on marriage, divorce and human sexuality. To my friend, who is neither a Christian nor a Catholic, these doctrines seemed old-fashioned at best and medieval and oppressive at worst. Her comments came as a response to my attempts to explain that a romantic relationship does not represent the pinnacle of human happiness – union with God does. She wasn’t buying it.
I didn’t have the heart to point out that a vocation to religious life or the priesthood is not a career and shouldn’t be perceived as such. What I did try to emphasise was that no, it’s not different for me. The call to make God one’s ultimate source of joy, peace and security is not something which is reserved for those who’ve heard and answered the call to a life of celibate chastity. Rather, it’s the invitation which the Lord extends to all humans and the inheritance of all Christians.
When I first started attending Catholic Mass back in late 2016, I was surprised to learn how few of my new brothers and sisters seemed to have realised this wonderful truth. At the weekly post-Mass gathering for coffee there was an awful lot of talk about a great many things – book clubs, upcoming holidays, work, the politics of the parish – but not much of Christ Himself. And I really, really wanted to talk about Jesus. But when I did, people would look at me as though I was naïve or a bit strange. I found it all rather confusing.
What’s wrong with book clubs, holidays and careers? Nothing! These are good gifts from God. So too is a holy marriage, a baby, a university education, a beautiful home, a well-kept garden. But we invariably run into problems when we pursue these things over and above union with the One who longs to be the Beloved of our souls. The first commandment tells us that our God is a jealous God, while St. James points out that the Holy Spirit ‘wants us for Himself alone’ (James 4: 5).
‘I only wish you were able to tolerate a little foolishness from me’, writes St. Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthians. ‘But of course: you are tolerant towards me. You see, the jealousy that I feel for you is God’s own jealousy: I arranged for you to marry Christ so that I might give you away as a chaste virgin to this one husband. But the serpent, with his cunning, seduced Eve, and I am afraid that in the same way your ideas may get corrupted and turned away from simple devotion to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11: 1-2).
Our world appears to be suffering from an anxiety epidemic, with anxiety disorders being among the most commonly reported mental health complaints. It’s no wonder. Almost half of marriages now end in divorce. The job market is becoming increasingly competitive; easy access to higher education means that a Bachelor’s degree no longer distinguishes a person. It’s not uncommon to see people with Master’s degrees serving lattes and cleaning toilets (I know. I was one of them not long ago). House prices have spiralled to the point that most young people don’t stand a chance of being able to buy their own home – and those that manage invariably end up saddled with hefty mortgages. And just when we thought austerity was behind us, along came the novel coronavirus, obliterating the world economy and prematurely ending thousands of lives.
Surely this is what Jesus was talking about when He cautioned His listeners against building their houses on sand. When we allow our peace and joy to rest on the shifting sands of life, it’s all too easy for our house to come crashing down when the storm hits. Rather, like the wise man, we need to learn to build upon the rock.
“Peace I leave you,” said Jesus to His disciples in the parting discourse, “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14: 27; emphasis mine). The word Jesus used was ‘Shalom’. This ancient Hebrew word is most commonly translated as ‘peace’, but in reality it means so much more than that. Shalom is not something which can be bought. It is wholeness, satisfaction, security, rest: the deep, unshakeable peace and tranquillity which comes from placing God at the centre of one’s life and surrendering totally to Him. It’s a peace that rests, as we are encouraged to do at Compline, on the ‘eternal changelessness’ of God, rather than on anything external or temporal.
Shalom, then, can only be found and maintained by daring to fall deeply in love with the God of Israel. The second we start wanting anything more than the God whom, by His Spirit, we already possess fully, we lose it. This is the secret, and its one which all of the saints understood well. In fact, I would argue that it’s impossible to become a saint without it. It was the knowledge of this secret that inspired St. Paul to write: ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8: 38-39).
Let’s conclude with some well-known words from Saint Teresa of Avíla:
‘Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.’
by Lucy Stothard