22 October 2013

Living a Life of Departure

Blessed John Paul II
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Two weeks before petitions for solemn vows were due and two months before my class was scheduled to take solemn vows, I find myself sitting in the student master's office for yet another Come to Jesus talk. These talks had become a regular feature of my three years of studium formation; and this time, Fr. Michael, the Student Master, was really not happy with me. After six semesters, three summers, and countless dinner table conversations, you'd think that by now he would've been used to my peculiar sense of humor. But looking across at his pinched face and gritted teeth, I could tell that his training as a tax attorney and Patristics scholar had done nothing to prepare him to deal the weirdnesses of an over-educated 38 year old redneck-convert from Episcopaganism. I knew before he spoke a word what the topic of this exhortation would be: my complete lack of docility. I was unprepared to embrace the life of departure that every Dominican friar must be willing to live. In other words, I would not gird my loins nor would I light my lamp. The master would return from the wedding and find me sound asleep, snoring loudly.

What is a life of departure*? What does it have to do with remaining ready for the master's return? A life of departure is a life lived in constant readiness to move, a sort of perpetual vigilance against getting too settled in, too snug and comfy with who we are and where we are serving. As itinerant friars, Dominicans live lives of departure quite literally. I've been professed for 13 yrs and I've lived in five provinces, three countries, and nine or ten cities here and abroad. In one academic year, I logged almost 60,000 miles of air travel! That's Dominican life. But what would a life of departure look like for the laity, or for diocesan clergy? Notice the tension in our gospel story. The servants are girded. Lamps are lit. They wait for the knock on the door. Even though they aren't doing much, they are wound up to spring into action when called. Just being ready, always ready to answer God's call is holy work. Being ready to snap into sweat-inducing labor at a moment's notice means that we cannot rest too long or too soundly; we cannot dig down our roots too deep; we cannot let yesterday's work haunt us nor tomorrow's work worry us. Whatever comes next when God calls is what we are charged with doing. A life of departure is a life lived right at the edge of expectation, right at the brink of just letting go of everything for the love of Christ.

In fact, a life of departure is a life lived by just letting go of everything—everyTHING—for the love of Christ. For the sake of his name, and in his name, to be constantly ready to jump at his Word, we let go of our long-range plans; our packed schedules; our assessments of failure and success; our competitive comparisons with peers. We cannot properly gird ourselves or light the lamps if our hands are busy with the work we think is vital. Now, of course, we need plans, schedules, assessments, etc., but they cannot be allowed to become the measure of our availability to serve. Patience, perseverance, docility—all of these are not only better measures of service, they are also better tools for serving the Master. A life of departure, a life of constant service is a life lived in the eternal shade of God's wisdom. Who can honestly say, “I know it all already”? Or even worse, “I know enough to get the job done.” Knowing is not serving. And knowing just enough and no more rewards ignorance. To serve—in Christ's name—means letting go of what we think we know, and being ready—always ready—to be moved by divine wisdom from the comfy pretense of Knowing All to the hard reality of Loving Others. 
As servants, we wait upon the return of our master. Loins girded. Lamps lit. When he returns, he will serve us. And from his service, we will learn what it is to die. . .to die for love of him.

*I borrowed this phrase from Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

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