Going Beyond

You’ve begun to live the spiritual life in earnest. You say your daily prayers and make your daily meditation. Is there more?

The more we have to do is the most of everyday: the little things in-between that make up the majority of daily life. Now that we’ve learned how to sanctify moments of the day with prayer, can we do the same with the more numerous moments taken up with the details of living? It’s the same as asking whether in God’s eyes the work of taking care of our bodies, making a living and making a home, etc., has any value at all. Or do only the explicitly consecrated moments of my day count before Him?

Those who know St Josemaria (and really all the saints) can give the right answer: Most certainly do these things matter. Not all matter equally, granted, but all matter. We are formed spiritually to see the mundane things of the day as the raw material for growth in virtue and in holiness. All agree to this in theory. All are inspired by St Josemaria’s eloquent saying that heaven and earth merge within the Christian heart when we carry out with love “the most insignificant everyday action,” because it is then that “that action overflows with the transcendence of God.”

But really? The transcendence of God shines through me when, with God’s love in my heart, I tie my shoes, drive to work, wash the dishes? I see nothing transcendent about any of this. Doesn’t this sound a bit like Tom Sawyer selling chances to whitewash the fence—a concocted excitement made contagious by the power of suggestion?

It’s good that we get these reservations out in the open, because it is precisely in trying to convince ourselves of the value of our daily tasks that we might go off track, thinking that spiritual value equals spiritual consolation or an exalted feeling of holiness. Not so. And this is not what St Josemaria or any saint promises. Much less is it promised to us by the Lord.

While it is very true that the numberless duties of the day can be met in ways pleasing or displeasing to God, we cannot expect to have a continuous sense of what is being accomplished as we accomplish them. We cannot expect to feel an increase in love or grace even as we increase the intensity of our labors. This does not mean we will never, or should never, feel rewarded by the good we do. A sense of completion is very important, even prompting St Josemaria to say on several occasions how he wished there were a special blessing for the final stone placed into an edifice, to accompany the ritual blessing provided for a building’s first stone. Perseverance matters. Our Lord speaks of our salvation in terms of perseverance, as does St Paul, so we shouldn’t underplay its necessity.

Everything hinges on the word “transcendence,” as used by St Josemaria to characterize the good works of good Christians. Transcendence is not glamor—that is, the appearance of glory with none of the substance. It is not an aura of greatness about us or any special feeling we get when doing good. To transcend means to go beyond the ordinary, the mundane, and to evoke the divine in what we do. And how the divine looks in practice cannot be better illustrated than by the Lord’s own directives regarding the motives of the disciple’s conduct, much of which stems from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).

Our actions will give off an aroma of transcendence, or otherworldliness, if we act without calculation—so as not to be seen and praised by others. The lack of calculation means that we should not let our left hand know what the right is doing—a hyperbole really aimed at avoiding a conscious awareness of doing good in a way that attracts attention to ourselves. When each hand knows what the other is doing, so to speak, there is measure, display—a whole array of motives. But the simplicity demanded by the gospel requires that good be done because it is good, not for the praise that might accrue to us.

A saint sees the good that needs doing and does it because he sees it as another opportunity to let God shine through him, to unleash another wave of divine love in his environment. That love, more than anything else, disposes people around us to turn to the Lord or to be more open to Him if they are presently closed off.

Then there is the spirit with which we work. Do we give off an air of anxiety—not intensity or vigor, but of fretfulness, worry, agitation? The Lord spends a significant part of the Sermon teaching us to avoid anxiety about the things of this world—even about necessaries such as food and clothing. He counsels trust and detachment instead. Working with unhealthy anxiety tends to result from someone pinning his self-esteem on the success or failure of his task. In a sense, he puts too much into it. It is no longer service rendered to God but a service done for boosting one’s sense of self.

Our work cannot long support multiple motives. One will eventually falter; the pressure will be too great to sustain. And we can either amend our motives at that point or quit. The quitter is one who wanted a payoff he never got. The saint, when he discovers a false motive, is not surprised, but humbly corrects himself and continues on.

Lastly, might I suggest forgiveness should characterize our dealings with others with whom we work? To be disposed to forgive reflects a soul imbued with the presence of God. He is a soul whose self-knowledge is deep enough to know that he himself needs the mercy of God more than every once in a while. Rather, he feeds on mercy from moment to moment. He praises the divine mercy habitually. He rejoices to share the gift of forgiveness with others, for their faults both small and great.

If our daily work would allow the “transcendence of God” to overflow, it must be characterized by these simple qualities: a lack of self-interest or ambition, a lack of fretfulness and worry, and a readiness to forgive. Said more positively, we are looking to cultivate selflessness, trust in God, and a merciful heart. Being a fictional boy with very different priorities, Tom Sawyer got Aunt Polly’s fence painted with gullible passersby, each of whom was looking to get in on the action, to buy a little fun. He is one of the cleverest and most lovable hucksters in American Lit.

But we are the light of the world. To let Christ shine through us, our transparency must be absolute, natural, simple and deep. What Jesus asks of His disciples in their conduct cleanses the soul from the inside, allowing His warm brightness to glow in us. And although we don’t attend to our duties to draw people to ourselves, let’s not be too surprised if they do come to us to find out what power makes us and our works so good and beautiful.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019) and Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith (Scepter Publishers 2020). Father's latest book is Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel (Scepter Publishers 2021). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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