They went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day. (John1:39) When I decided to enter the seminary and even many times as a priest, I have been asked why I would do such a thing with my life. While those who are confused are often non-Catholics or non-Christians, sometimes the question has come from Catholics. They’re baffled to find someone in their right mind freely choosing a life of celibacy, obedience, and simplicity. Beyond that, I now get questions about my current assignment of studying philosophy in Rome. If I don’t get questions about living in Rome or comments about how (unnecessarily) impressive it is that I’m studying philosophy, then I usually get questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy. Some of my brother priests, as only brothers can do, raze me about how great it must be to have a 5-year Roman vacation. In short, whether it’s my vocation to the priesthood or my training in philosophy, my life might seem pretty useless.
Now, most of it is in sincerity or in good fun, but there can also be a subtle under-current of thought, which is sometimes not so subtle…that implies that we MUST work; we must be useful; we must do something with our lives; we must make it worth someone’s money or time. This is the utilitarian mentality that says: everything you do must be useful for something else. Make something! Do something! Produce something OR ELSE! We know the effects that’s had on the value of life, especially in the womb, and among the elderly.
For myself and those here with me in Rome who are studying for the um-teenth year after getting our first college degree, we seem completely worthless. I sit around reading and studying all day thinking about the meaning of life! As some of you know, I’ve spent two months working on a paper on the idea of beauty … so I just sit around thinking about beauty…WORTHLESS! If it isn’t my studies, it’s my priestly vocation in general, because of which I spend about 2 hours in prayer every day…AND that clearly leads to no tangible results or products! SO…I’m useless! An unproductive member of society, living my bourgeois life! Taking advantage of the generosity of others!
Couldn’t we say that we see the same thing in the readings today with Samuel (1Sam3:3-10), John and Andrew (John1:35-42)? Samuel spent his young life hanging around the temple in Shiloh when he likely could have been using his energy and talents to “do something with his life.” John and Andrew could have been out fishing with their fathers, but they’re standing around. The critique, therefore, of the likes of Nietzsche and Marx seems fair when they argue that religion produces useless people…or they’ve erred on fundamental point about Christianity and about our humanity! Actually, one of their rank actually understood what even we as Catholics sometimes miss. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an early socialist and the modern “father of anarchy”, in a text trying to convince others of the need to be useful, was trying to undermine the only real enemy: Christianity. “On one day in the week servants regained the dignity of human beings, and stood again on a level with their masters.” While his goal was wrong, his assessment of the commandment of rest on Sundays was spot on! In fact, it was something so important for God that He made it a commandment with a footnote!
Remember the Sabbath day—keep it holy. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
SO yes…there is a day on which everyone is to regain their dignity, but that doesn’t mean the other six days are for working like a machine! Rather, that one day of rest is meant to remind us of the dignity that we always have! And what is that dignity? That we are sons and daughters of the Eternal Father! That we are created in His image and likeness, redeemed by the Precious Blood of God the Son, and destined for eternal life with Him…a fact that remains true always! As St. Paul taught the Corinthians: you are not your own.
We are not made to work like dogs only to be useful and produce things in and for this world. We are created to “know, love, and serve God in this life, so as to be w/Him forever…” Thus, we should be taking time to be “useless”, “un-productive”, “waste time”. It’s more important and necessary than mere servile labor! Speaking about modern erroneous understandings of freedom and truth, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI describes God as:
“…being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit). Yet man is in the image of God precisely because the being for, from, and with constitute the basic anthropological shape. Whenever people try to free themselves from this, they are moving, not toward divinity, but toward dehumanizing, toward the destruction of being itself through the destruction of truth.” (see Truth and Tolerance, 248)
God is obviously relational; the Members of the Trinity are distinguished by the way in which They are related to One Another, but this relational character is ALSO fundamental to man. As Benedict wrote, it constitutes “the basic anthropological shape”; to do otherwise is dehumanizing. If it’s true, therefore, that we are created to be for God, from God, and to be with God (& it’s true!), then the young Samuel sleeping in the Temple at Shiloh, waiting upon God is fully human! John and Andrew spending their time simply being with Jesus makes them fully human. Our giving time daily to simply be with God makes us most fully human.
AND it’s not reserved to a privileged few; it’s the common right of all! Because it makes us most fully human, it’s something we all need in order to be ourselves. This is one of the main thrusts of Cardinal Sarah’s newest book, The Power of Silence. He powerfully discusses this very point: that we need to have silence in our lives so that we might give room for communing with God. More than that, however, we are also most fully human in living a life for God, that is, to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life for the sake of being with Him in the next life. To know Him requires devoting time to study, using our intellect to understand more fully our Creator and the work of His creation. To love Him means to engage our will in choosing that which is most pleasing to Him. To serve Him is to employ our whole selves in working to bring about His Will, as St. Paul says, to glorify God in your body.
These things all flow from the starting point and lead to that final goal: simply being with Him. Thus, we must regularly spend time – some might say “waste time” – with God. That’s where it starts … that’s where it ends! As the Pope-Emeritus wrote in Deus Caritas Est (36-38): Prayer, as a means of drawing ever-new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbors, however extreme. … It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work.
During the holy season of Christmas, I greatly enjoy sitting in the Church before the nativity scene amidst the twinkling of Christmas lights on the trees, just marveling at the depths of God’s love for us, manifested in the Incarnation. As we begin the season of Ordinary Time, we are encouraged to carry that sentiment with us throughout the year, namely, that the first thing a disciple needs to do is to simply be with Jesus Christ!