Every January, the Dominican student brothers are sent out to various locations to preach and encourage others to consider a vocation to the Order of Preachers. I had the blessing in this, my first year as a student, to spend a weekend preaching at my alma mater, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the occasion of their Patronal Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. So that the fruits of this experience are not lost (and at the request of those who asked for material from my preaching), I share with you here a made-for-the-web version of my reflection.
My reflection begins with a slogan well-known by the Aquinas College community: "IT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD." This catchy phrase was what caught my attention when I was making the decision as to which college to attend. However, since my days as an eager high-schooler, I found there to be some ideas implied by such a slogan that may be unhelpful for the Christian life.
"It makes all the difference in the world," when used in the context of a major decision to be made, implies that “it” will be the only way, the grand decision that will lead to happiness while all other options lead to disaster. While I do concede that everyone faces choices that will forever shape their lives, I believe part of faith in God is being prepared to have our plans, dreams, and expectations overturned or fulfilled in unexpected ways. Such was the case with my discernment to the Dominicans.
"It makes all the difference in the world" also capitalizes on our obsession with productivity and perfectionism. College students are especially bombarded with this message: be involved, drink deeply, build your resume, be a leader, ace your classes, find out what you want to be when you grow up, save the world, be well-rounded, be charming, become famous or at least important! The promise is that in all this, you will find happiness. However, as Christ emptied on the cross teaches us, no amount of glory and good works will fill our deepest longing, which is for God. If these personal, material successes are the prize we seek we’ll always be disappointed when nothing comes along that meets our expectations.
Thomas Merton expresses this point so beautifully:
“One of the chief obstacles to this perfection of selfless charity, is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drain every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us -whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need. Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”1
The reason we lose sight of that "one thing" we need, is that we harden our hearts to God. Perhaps we are ignorant to the many ways God is speaking or perhaps we are too afraid, tired, confused, or obstinate to listen. Especially when it comes to discerning our vocations, we need to be receptive to the words of God coming to us from prayer, the words of others, and from our knowledge of ourselves. However, we'll only really come to "know" our vocation by acting--that is, by doing it! St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of how discerning God's will is not about digging around for some hidden treasure hiding deep within; rather, it's about being attentive to everyday signs and ultimately about making real decisions with integrity. And whatever our individual callings may be, we are all called to be models of Christ and prophets speaking to and about God to a world that needs to hear it.
If we're going to model our lives on that of Jesus, we should see primarily in Him a man with an undivided love for the Father. For Christ, that singular attention and devotion truly made all the difference in the world! If we can avoid being distracted by anything other than God, we will hear God's voice, even in the most ordinary and unexpected places. We'll see the face of God in our peers, friends, families, teachers and mentors, in strangers, the rich and the poor, the people we can’t stand, and in ourselves. Are we humble enough to know who we are and are not, and more importantly, who God is?
If we’re honest about this question, then we are able to really pray, as we bring to the altar our daily anxieties, brokenness, and decisions, our ambitions and failures, our desires and apathies, daring to hope in faith that we will receive in return that which has made, makes, and will make all the difference in the world – God…Jesus himself.
We can then pray with our brother, St. Thomas Aquinas:
“Almighty and ever-living God, I approach the sacrament of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Lord, in your great generosity, heal my sickness, wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. May I receive the bread of angels, the King of kings and Lord of lords, with humble reverence, with the purity and faith, the repentance and love, and the determined purpose that will help to bring me to salvation. May I receive the sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood, and its reality and power. Kind God, may I receive the Body of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary, and so be received into His mystical Body and numbered among his members. Loving Father, as on my earthly pilgrimage I now receive your beloved Son, under the veil of a sacrament, may I one day see Him Face to face in glory, who lives and reigns with You for ever. Amen.”2
1. Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Chapter 7.
2. St. Thomas Aquinas', "Prayer Before Communion."