One of the beautiful realities of personhood is that we are all different. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that these unique differences in each person express the multifaceted reality of God himself in who’s image we have been created. How boring life would be if this were not so! Like various flowers placed together in a beautiful garden, so is each person gathered in the Church.
United together, we all have various gifts to offer in service of God and the community. Many such gifts were provided to us primarily for the advantage of others and the building up of the Church. In other words, they are often not for us, but for others. St. Paul wrote to the early Church about the importance of recognizing our own gifts and listed examples for consideration (1 Cor .12; Rom. 12). Practically speaking, how are we to uncover these and put them to use?
Most certainly we should pray and ask God to reveal them to us along with the reason we have been given them. We can also use other tools to help us discover our gifts. Here are some questions to prayerfully consider: What do people compliment me about? What comes easily to me? What do I like to read about? What would keep me up at night reading or studying? What gets me up early in the morning excited? What activities give me energy? These questions allow us to identify our skill set and what we are passionate about. After considering these we can see what service groups or opportunities are available to us. Possibly we will find that no opportunities match our gifts and if so, perhaps we could create one! There are many unmet needs and unconsidered possibilities within the Church and just maybe we are meant to fulfill or discover them. If we don’t, who will?
Cardinal John Henry Newman said it best when he wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission…”
Another tool to help discover your gifts is the Spiritual Gifts Inventory provided by the parish which matches individuals to specific opportunities.
This Sunday marks the final two weeks of Lent, which the Church calls Passiontide. During the season of Lent, the Church requests that we “do with less.” Churches are not ornamented with flowers. Music is to be a bit more subdued. In the Mass we do not say the Gloria nor do we say “alleluia.” During Passiontide, we begin our immediate preparation for Easter by doing with even less. Today, the statues are draped in purple veils. Even the statue of the Sacred Heart is veiled during Passiontide. Only the crucifix remains unveiled. During the Triduum, which consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, we lose even more. After the Mass of the Lord’s supper in the evening of Holy Thursday, the altar is stripped of its clothes and left bare until the Easter Vigil. On Good Friday there is no Mass, only the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion. Holy Saturday is even more subdued with no liturgy until the Vigil after nightfall. Even the Easter Vigil itself begins in darkness until the lighting of the Easter fire.
In various settings recently I’ve been asked about some of the paradoxes of our Christian faith. I’ll share a few of them and then examine what they mean. A student brought up the great commission that Jesus gave at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”) and then asked how monasteries conform with this explicit mission given by Our Lord. Monks live in monasteries and most do not actively engage in spreading the Gospel. How do the two align? Or consider the Church’s insistence on the dignity of marriage while also insisting that celibacy is to be greatly valued. This we’ve been discussing recently in our young adult Bible study on First Corinthians. St. Paul holds both out as worthy of respect in chapter seven of his letter. Yet, they are vastly different. To use the words of GK Chesterton, the Church is “fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.” Or consider finally, the teaching that God is both just and merciful. He both gives to each what they are due (reward and punishment) and he surpasses justice with mercy. Are justice and mercy compatible? That discussion came up during a meeting of our local Society of St Vincent de Paul. To all of these examples we can ask: what gives? How do these all fit together?
The short explanation is this: Catholic Christianity is a religion of paradoxes and by paradox we mean an apparent contradiction that is really true. More examples: that God become man in the Incarnation, that life comes from death, that to find one must lose, and that the greatest are the least. In other words, Catholicism is both/and, not either/or. The Church is for both celibacy and marriage, monasticism and evangelization. She holds up these and many other apparent conflicts like two vibrant colors placed next to each other. Probing these paradoxes through the eyes of faith reveals the profound truths of Christianity. And these truths are indeed beautiful to behold.
My mother teaches at a Catholic school and some time ago she attended a social gathering with my aunt and uncle. It was a group of strangers to her since it was out of state. Moreover, she felt out of place being “only a teacher” while many others had accomplished careers in a wide array of fields. I reminded her that everyone, no matter what their future career may be, must pass through fifth grade. But teachers do not only affect students for the brief time they are in their classrooms. They shape souls for eternity. That is why teaching is a lofty and indispensable vocation.
Everyone can think back and recall a certain teacher or more who had a definite impact on their life. I go back to the priest who taught me the Hebrew language. After registration for classes ended I found out that I was the only one in the class. “He will go easy on me,” I thought. With gratitude I can say that he did not let me off easy. Once in class he handed back a graded assignment saying, “I know you can do better.” It was difficult to hear at the time, but I now understand why he challenged me. That priest saw potential within me that I was not aware of. All good teachers do this.
Our patron St. Thomas Aquinas was likewise influenced by St. Albert the Great his teacher and mentor. From the age of twenty-three until he was twenty-seven, Thomas studied under Albert. The teacher had a considerable influence on his brilliant student during this important phase of his life. St. Thomas would never forget this example as he, in turn, influenced a new generation of students.
The image above depicts St. Albert teaching with St. Thomas among the gathered students.