Sunday, January 27, 2008
Virtues of the Chosen
I've seen so much anxiety through the years about being good enough to be chosen.
I've been through my share. Will I make it through this ballet audition? Will I get into a good college? Sheesh, I'm at Harvard - did they make a mistake admitting me? Will I find a good husband? How can I get a med school to even look at me? Can I get a residency in that specialty? What if they decide I'm not good enough after all and cut me out of the program? Will they want my essay for their collection? Will my boss like my work? Does my group value my presence in it and want me to stay for partnership? Am I good enough to keep doing this? It goes on and on...
Today's Gospel reading told the story of how Jesus chose some of his disciples. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his choices, on the surface. At our parish's family Mass - picture a sea of squirmy toddlers, restless pre-adolescents, and busy-looking parents all crammed into a subterranean liturgical space - our insightful deacon, during his reflection on the Gospel reading, highlighted four virtues that he saw as part of the "job requirement" for being a disciple of Christ.
What was great was the way he got the kids to consider these virtues. He asked for a show of hands of who practiced a martial art, then asked the kids which form they were studying (most, including my son, said karate).
Then he brought forth a mysterious black backpack, opened it, and asked the kids by what symbol they could tell if their teacher was a good martial artist. "His belt," answered one kid. Deacon P pulled out an array of belts of different colors from his backpack and, with a word of deference to the presiding priest, draped his belts over the altar so we could all see each color: white, yellow, orange, grey, and brown.
He reminded us that we couldn't expect to get from white to brown or black as martial artists, or as followers of Christ's teaching, without the following attributes:
-Humility, which Deacon P held up as perhaps the most important.
He gave examples of why each was important in the martial arts - patience because training always takes time; determination because the road can be hard, full of aches and pains and mistakes; courage, because competing in martial arts almost always means facing loss or rejection at least some of the time; and humility, because of the importance of recognizing that personal glory is fleeting and an inferior source of motivation, and that true excellence is a gift earned through hard work and can't guarantee that one will always be at one's best.
When I think back to my training as a physician, and the day-to-day slog of just getting through it all, I say a resounding Amen to the good deacon's insights. I was emotionally beaten down at times and have no idea how I managed to keep getting up, except by using my family's support as a handrail, and by showing up every day no matter how tired, defeated, hurt, or uncertain I felt.
The same is true, though less intensely so for me, with music. Kyoko came over to my house for a make-up lesson yesterday and we got totally stuck on my silly A flat key and E flat arpeggios, which I need for the Corelli concerto we're working on in chamber orchestra. My left pinky just won't do what I want it to, bend the way I want, press with the strength I want. If ever I needed patience with myself, and humility, it's now, with these oboe lessons - but patience has never been one of my virtues! So I try, and I squawk, then I hit a perfect note, get through a lovely passage, then squawk again, and so it goes.
The priest good-naturedly allowed Deacon P to keep the belts on the altar for the rest of Mass, but gathered to one side, and reminded us with a twinkle in his eye that underneath all his vestments was a black belt to hold up his pants.
I thought to myself, there are Catholics out there who would be aghast at this departure from the rubrics of the liturgy, and who might even consider the belts a desecration of the sanctity of the altar, even though they are the fruits of human work, which have since ancient times been considered altar-worthy. I thought they were a fitting adornment for the scriptural lessons of today.
I imagined what Jesus himself might say to those who would gasp at the relaxed approach at this Mass and point disapproving fingers. I think he would say what he said 2000 years ago to the folks who were nit-picking about his dietary habits and breaking of sabbath rules: "Get over yourself." (Actually, his exact words were, "You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel*," but the gist is the same.)
I find it comforting that a teacher looked upon by so many as the holiest of holy men chose ordinary, stumbling, bumbling people to receive his teachings and continue his work. He must have known that they and their spiritual descendants would screw up royally, countless times. But he held them up and called them to be their truest selves - not because they were talented, brilliant, famous, powerful, beautiful, or rich, but because they were "good" enough, not in the way our society says people are "good enough," but in a much more real, deeper way. He had faith that they would grow in the patience, determination, humility, and courage that could help create in the world the never-ending work-in-progress he called "the Kingdom of God." I don't know exactly what that is, or what God is, or whether our human reaching for the idea of God is even valid. But my faith tells me that the efforts to build that kingdom are not only valid but also imperative, and I hope I grow to be "good enough" too.
*Jesus' original tone is totally lost in layers of translation, but I like to think that even as he admonished the Pharisees, he had a sense of humor and wit: gnat is galmah in Aramaic, and camel is gamlah... :) Though perhaps the admonition was already a well-known idiom in Aramaic...and with the New Testament authored in Greek, we're, alas, once-removed from the sounds, nuances, and word-play of what he originally said...*sigh*...