On a recent trip to Austria for a medical meeting, I was surprisingly and thankfully “knocked over the head” three times by the Holy Spirit in a trio of Viennese churches called St. Peter’s, St. Stephen’s, and the JesuitenKirche. Presumably God wanted to emphasize a few points of his Gospel message that I, being slow-to-learn, had not integrated well enough into daily life. In the spirit of sharing, I offer the experience in brief divided into 3 separate encounters as they occurred, which could be read on separate occasions.
Encounter 1: St. Peter’s church, located on side streets of Vienna, is moving even at first glance due to its sheer beauty. However, what really struck me was the message of devotion to holiness for laity. The holy card most prominently displayed in stacks throughout this church showed Saint Josemaria Escriva. As the founder of Opus Dei, this saint’s movement, which was misrepresented in The DaVinci Code, calls simply for holiness in everyday life by everyday people. The prayer card read: “Grant that we may choose holiness through daily work and the ordinary duties as a Christian. Grant that we also may learn to turn all the circumstances and events of life into opportunities to love and serve the Church and all souls with joy and simplicity, lighting up paths of the Earth with faith and love.” As I left Mass and walked into the reality of everyday life, the sounds of pigeons, beggars, and vendors stood in stark contrast to the glitter and gold I had just witnessed. Here, right here, is where we are all called to make a difference. We know this, and we talk a good game and think ourselves somehow “adequately kind” because we act in a giving manner during easy days when comfort and satisfaction abound. For me, though, standards for my own behavior rapidly plummet when I am tired, stressed, inconvenienced, or rushed. What happens, for example, to our “lighting up paths” for Christ when we have to wait in a long line, get cut off in traffic, or don’t get a good night’s sleep? These are the moments through which holiness is tested, yet we persist in giving ourselves a “pass” because we did well “yesterday” or sanctimoniously judge ourselves doing “better than the next guy.” And how do we muster the audacity to doubt the ever-present goodness of the Father just because we witness suffering in the life of family or friends, loss of job, or an agonizing relationship? Shouldn’t we instead work daily to build reserves of faith that will allow us to retain clarity to praise Him even more for loving us enough to allow pain to mold our weakness and immaturity into more lovable creatures? And our service is to be measured by millions of tiny interactions that occur in the context of our everyday life, especially, as we are told so often, the actions seen only by God that we do intentionally because of our love of Him.
Encounter 2: My journey continued the next morning as the sun rose to reveal intense winds and dropping temperatures. Through narrow alleys and along the quiet streets of Vienna, I made my way to St. Stephen’s, a landmark built originally in 1160. This astounding medieval church extends well over a football field in length. No picture even begins to do it justice. Nevertheless, I pasted a shot of the exterior for you below. As in many European cathedrals, there were so many side altars that it took me a while to find the small corner where about 40 of us gathered to receive the Eucharist. The first reading was from Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:16-25. For brevity, I am shortening the passage and using italics to emphasize what struck me “19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23…25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” This struck me as if I’d never heard it before. We are always talking about the mystery of God’s ways and using this as an excuse for our blindness. We claim that “if we only understood God and His mystery,” that it would be easier to remain on task in the little things of daily life (emphasized over and over by Jesus and the specific point of devotion for married and single lay folks emphasized by Saint Escriva). Instead, we are either welcoming pride and self-love as strident companions, about to do so, or asking forgiveness for recently having fallen prey. The Swiss mystic, Fr. Maurice Zundel, wrote that our self-love is so tenacious that it will die about a quarter hour after we do. If we would but digest this reading, it would be apparent that God has revealed to us all we need to know. The truth has been made clear, and we are thus without excuse! So what is this truth? Why are we here? For an answer, let us revisit Saint Ignatius’s Principle and Foundation: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this save their souls. Cut to me walking out of St. Stephen’s into the chill of the day. I looked up at a statue of St. Sebastian, riddled with a dozen arrows, and prayed to do a better job with the plain and clear duty of praising Him joyfully and in thanks for my vocation as a husband, father, and physician.
Encounter 3: The final component of my Austrian schooling speaks to the adage that physical shape of the cross begets an outward expansion beyond self that will paradoxically return to us more than we ever give. A year ago, a friend of mine found out that his wife was cheating on him. He and their marriage quickly became unglued. I had the good fortune of serving as a confidant for him as they worked to save the marriage. He thinks I helped him, but I know that he helped me more. To extend my friend’s blessings to me, the morning after mass in St. Stephen’s, he texted me with the unsolicited message that the JesuitenKirche (Jesuit church) in Vienna was a “must see.” Although it is only a few blocks from St. Peter’s and St. Stephen’s, I would have missed it for sure had he not guided me there. On the map of Vienna, the other two churches are notably displayed, while the Jesuit church was signified by a mere cross on the paper. It is perhaps the most glorious of the three, if that is possible. As I entered the stunning church, a baby was being baptized, surrounded by family and friends. So as not to interrupt, I sat near the back, prayed, and eventually opened up a C.S. Lewis book I’d been reading. Lewis draws on the message of the Englishman William Law, whose book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) was so influential to the likes of Lewis, Whitefield, and Wesley. He recounts this statement by Law, “If you will stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” Wow. There it was again, stated clearly. Law’s point is beautifully complementary to that of both Escriva and Paul: we have the mental technology to get this right! Here is where over-thinking can get you in trouble. An excess of theologizing about Christ often leads to us getting things in life out of balance (i.e., ignoring the Martha for the Mary). Success as a Christian (turning oneself completely over to Him and disregarding self) is not predicted by age or intelligence. As Law says, and building on the others, we know what we need to know but lack sustainable intent. We can, if we so choose, live our lives joyfully in thanks for His grace to us regardless of today’s or tomorrow’s circumstances. If we are not resolute in this, then pride will take over, and bitterness and vanity will kill our progress.
There is only one answer for us in the pursuit of thoroughly intending to follow a more direct path in walking with Christ: prayer. Ravi Zacharias, in his “Let my people think” podcast recently made the comparison between prayer and a GPS device. As soon as we go off the “best route” towards our destination, the GPS device recalculates and directs us back to the correct road. Prayer does the same thing. In our approach to the day-in, day-out small events of life, prayer will help us remember to lose self-love and focus attention on all those around us whose halos we continually miss because of our self-gaze. Two remaining sayings from this Viennese journey keep echoing in my mind. The first from my Grandma Alice, who regularly told my Grandpa, “Ralph, you have to become small to be big.” The second is never to become angry or resentful about pain, for as CS Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” If He is bothering to shout, you can bet we need to listen. Only then will we consistently “light up paths” for Him in the here and now.
For any who reads this, let it be clear that you’ll frequently witness my public failings along these lines. I ask you, please, to call me to task. Perhaps you can merely whisper to me, “Vienna.”
Ad majorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God),
Wesley Ely, MD, MPH
Vice-President of the Nashville Guild of the CMA