By Russell Shaw | OSV News
The state or condition called “unity of life” isn’t a virtue in itself. It can even serve bad ends. So what’s it doing as the subject of an article on virtues for people trying to lead good lives out in the secular world? That needs explaining.
One thing that’s obvious is that a life without unity is a sorry spectacle, a kind of existential blob that lacks focus. People with this life typically flit from one activity or one relationship to another, waste time, get on others’ nerves, never accomplish much. Of such a person it’s often said, “Nice guy, but … “
Still, the opposite error can be even worse. The pages of history, to say nothing of everyday life, are full of people who manifest unity of life by their fanatical concentration on the pursuit of power or wealth or pleasure, regardless of the cost to themselves and others. Lots of unity there, but put to bad use.
Evidently, then, we need to know the difference between unity that’s good and unity that’s bad. An example may help.
The most moving display of unity of life I’ve personally witnessed was an incident years ago in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It was a cold, raw Sunday morning in February, the kind of day when most people would rather stay indoors. A small crowd had assembled in the square to wait for St. John Paul II’s weekly Angelus — or, more precisely, to see whether there would be an Angelus this week.
The pope had recently been hospitalized for what was officially described as bronchitis. His Parkinsonism was getting worse. Everybody knew he was a sick man in failing health. Would he brave the damp chill this particular Sunday to come to his window and speak?
The answer was yes. Promptly at noon, St. John Paul appeared at an open window high above the square and began. It was agonizing to hear him struggle for each syllable — each breath. As he did, I asked myself, “Is it really a good idea for him to be doing this at an open window on such a miserable day?”
In one sense, it pretty clearly wasn’t. A few days later, he was rushed to the hospital again. A tracheotomy was performed so that he could breathe. He died April 2 at the Vatican.
As far as I can tell, that Sunday morning in February marked the beginning of the end. So, why did he do it? Why would a man in weakened health expose himself to the elements for the sake of conducting a routine ceremony?
The answer, I believe, can be found in St. John Paul II’s strong sense of personal vocation. For several years, he’d been making use of his illness — exploiting it, if you will — as a catechetical tool for showing others how a Christian should handle sickness and the approach of death. That had become part of his special ministry as pope, and the Sunday Angelus was one element of it. He was determined to go on teaching, praying and giving public witness to faith just as long as he could. In light of his vocation as supreme pastor of the church and vicar of Christ, he believed he could do no less.
And that was unity of life as St. John Paul II lived it.
Personal vocation was the key to it. But it’s necessary to understand that this is something vastly different from the lust for power, wealth or pleasure that drives some people.
Rooted in the commitment of faith, personal vocation embodies an individual’s determination to serve God in whatever way God is calling him or her. “Every life is a vocation,” several recent popes have said. Pope St. John Paul II had his personal vocation. Each of us has his or her own. And no two personal vocations — or lives — are exactly alike.
Personal vocations are discerned — generally, with the help of a reliable spiritual advisor — through study, investigation and prayer centered on the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the church. The discernment of the vocation is followed by a special kind of choice — a commitment — to walk the life path God intends for oneself.
Even though the discernment is sound and the commitment is sincere, living out a personal vocation is a complex, sometimes difficult task. Our inner conflicts and divisions guarantee that. St. Paul expresses the universal human plight in a famous passage in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. … I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7:15, 18, 25).
Fortunately, there’s a solution to that, and Paul speaks of it, too: “Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2).
St. Augustine is another case of a divided mind and divided heart working against unity of life. Even after experiencing conversion (up to a point), this great doctor of the church famously prayed, “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.”
True unity of life grounded in personal vocation comes to those who not only would like to have it but who labor, with the help of grace, to achieve it. It is God’s gift, but given to those who work for it.
The calling to a personal vocation doesn’t occur only once. It’s a repeated, lifelong process. St. John Henry Newman underlined that in a homily, “Divine Calls,” on the reality of vocation: “All through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey his voice or not, he graciously calls us still … . He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again — and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.”
Yet, many good people organize their lives more or less loosely around a shifting group of purposes and goals: “I’m doing this for my wife, I’m doing that for my children, I’m doing other things for the sake of my career, my parish …” and so forth. That isn’t wrong exactly, but it does fall a bit short of the ideal of unity of life.
In other cases, people have a high degree of unity derived from devotion to an activity requiring intense discipline together with skillful performance. That’s how it is, for instance, with professional athletes, concert pianists, strongly motivated doctors and lawyers, and others. Nothing wrong with that either, yet it also is something less than the ideal.
For a serious Christian, real unity of life comes above all from the commitment of faith — the determination to make love of God, and love of neighbor as part of it, the organizing principle of their lives, and to carry out that decision consistently within the framework of personal vocation.
That doesn’t mean becoming a religious fanatic. It means that everything one does — family and professional duties, friendships, along with specifically religious activities — is situated within the fundamental commitment to love and serve God and neighbor. The specifics of personal vocation then supply the form and content for living out this commitment of faith.
Several things are essential to the successful carrying on of this struggle. They include not only the continuing grace of conversion but also self-examination, prayer and spiritual direction. In the end, however, not our efforts but God’s healing grace, and only that, is the key to success.
As with everything else in Christian living, Jesus is our model of unity of life. Reading about his life in the New Testament, we are impressed by his single-minded focus on doing the Father’s will. Everything else must either be related to that or else be discarded. “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me,” Jesus says (Jn 4:34). That same determination to do the Father’s will, come what may, undergirds the unity of life of a committed Christian living in the world.
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Russell Shaw is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.