|Posted by Jay Autor on December 23, 2009 at 11:28 PM|
By Father Michael Sehler, S.J.
In June of 2007, I boarded a flight to Chicago from JFK in New York. Luckily, I was bumped up to first class. Usually sandwiched in coach, I was glad for a seat that was shaped more like my body, with leg room and with space enough for my own thoughts, that, I hoped would drift into dreams.
My seatmate however, would have none of it. An effervescent young professional named Natalie. She was well groomed, well dressed, and well educated. She was a thirty-something woman on the move and she bubbled over, eager to tell me about it. She wanted to let me in on how well positioned she was for the future; and, begrudgingly, I found myself engaged by her enthusiasm.
In the course of our two-hour conversation, I discovered that Natalie had been an undergraduate at Yale, and then tucked away an MBA and law degree from the University of Chicago. She had worked in Europe and in Hong Kong, and now lived in New York. Her boyfriend of seven years, whom she had met in Singapore, now lived in Seattle, which accounted for the trip we were sharing; I was getting off in Chicago, where she had a business layover. She had not seen her boyfriend for over a month; this was the only opportunity that she would have to spend a couple of days with him for another two months. He was involved in a hot tech company and, as she put it was about to make a “mega-killing.” It was too bad that they didn’t have more time for each other,” she told me, “but their careers simply wouldn’t allow for it.”
Natalie was currently a partner in a small, but highly successful investment company, which meant long hours and a lot of travel. The hours didn’t bother her, she said, because she knew that ultimately there would be a big payoff. Besides, she told me, she was really committed to doing her very best. She was just as competitive as the most aggressive guys in her firm. She looked me squarely in the face when she said: “I am eager to win.”
Not able to leave well-enough alone, I asked her why? Natalie answered by saying that she had always been a good student, always at the top of her class, and had always wanted to succeed. I asked her what she meant by success and she responded in this way: “I want to have big interesting work that pays exceptionally well and puts me among the ‘players’.” I said something about that sounding pretty stimulating.
During a pause to catch her breath in preparation for the next chapter of her story, I intervened by asking what she thought she wanted to have by the end of her life. If she could imagine herself, say at 80 or so, what did she see? With a laugh and a toss of her hair, she answered that she imagined that she would probably still be working, maybe writing and speaking, and would be highly regarded as a leader of some merit.
In my telling here, Natalie may sound rather arrogant, but that wasn’t my overall experience. I saw her as more supremely self-confident in an almost off-hand way, open and engaging. I liked her. I imagined, however, that I was getting a more honest picture of Natalie than what her co-workers got.
I had mentioned that I am a priest, and this eventually prompted her to say something about her spiritual life. That happens a lot in these sorts of conversations without my ever prompting the subject. Some blend of guilt, confession, and genuine interest evokes the topic. So she said that while she believed in God, she didn’t have time for Church or for anything like that. “No offense,” she added. “No offense taken,” I said.
I asked her then, what she thought church was really about. She said that it probably varied a lot from person to person, but for her, it just didn’t seem very relevant. And truthfully, she really had little time for much of anything beyond her very demanding schedule. For instance, she didn’t know if she and her boyfriend would ever get married. Non-commitment kept them freer, she declared, and freedom was very important. “Free to do what?” I asked. “Free to succeed,” she quickly replied.
At the most fundamental level in this Church, in the Roman Catholic Church, we say that the one essential ingredient to a life well-lived is a conscious, deliberate relationship with God. This is the bedrock foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and was framed by the first of the Ten Commandments. And as you know the first of the ten is: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
From this first principle flows a river of spiritual wisdom that pertains to how we will live our lives in relation to one another. But the foundation upon which everything else stands is the simple affirmation that God is. And if God is, then logic dictates that nothing else can authentically substitute for God. We say that anything that takes the place of this first affirmation is idolatry.
The colorful story of the Israelites making the golden calf in the wilderness, following Moses’ presentation of the commandments, is the prototype of idolatry. The very first thing the people do, when Moses is out of their sight and mind, is to give themselves over to something of their own making.
And to believe in God, or not to believe in God, is a poignant issue today isn’t it?
This is as true for people within these walls as it is for those outside. At any moment in anyone’s life, Christian and non-Christian alike, the pre-eminent issue is whether or not to affirm that God is. When we are at work or school, cooking a meal, writing a check, any matter large or small, any moment of any day, the question of my first allegiance pops up.
At some point in our conversation, I had the opportunity to tell Natalie one of my favorite bits of pastoral priestly experience: Whenever I have been at the bedside of persons near death, I have never heard any of them lament that they wished that they could have spent more time on the job, or made more money, or be freer from commitments. Instead, persons near death invariably speak about relationships: with God, with significant others, Sometimes this talk is laced with regret, sometimes with longing, sometimes with very great gratitude.
Although we do not know the details of the Apostle Paul’s death, scholars believe that the imprisonment that he mentions in his letter to the Philippians is the imprisonment that precedes his death. It is no coincidence then, that this letter is filled with commentary on the essential matters of life. His advice is framed in Joy: Joy for them, joy for the life and the work that they have shared; joy for their abiding trust in God’s continuing care and love for them. “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord,” Paul wrote. “I say it again: Rejoice!”
How can he say this from a place of imminent death? He sees beyond his present condition, affirming his fundamental allegiance, and he calls his friends in faith to the same truthful way of living in the world: union with God; union with one another.
With that as their chosen way in the world, Paul’s conclusion reads as an inevitable outcome: “Finally beloved, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
So Paul sets before his friends a way of life suitable for the most daring of over-achievers, but his way has to do with the essential purpose of life, not with the secondary conditions, which so often masquerade as fundamental – flashy, expensive and beautiful, as some modern version of a golden idol.
After I shared with Natalie my mini-sermon about facing death, tears unexpectedly welled up in her eyes. The tears came on suddenly, and surprise her, and I certainly had not expected them, given her aggressive self-assurance and obvious delight in reporting how competently she had organized her life.
We sat quietly for a few minutes. Then she offered that both her parents were seriously ill; she hadn’t visited them for a long time, and she didn’t see how she could squeeze in a trip to Minnesota any time soon…Then she just flat-out sobbed.
Not much more was said before we landed. Still tearing as we packed up our belongings, and hauled bags down from the bins above, she handed me her business card, and asked if it would be OK if she emailed me sometime. I said sure and gave her my card.
As we stood waiting for the door to open, she pulled out her blackberry, and entered my information. Then she said, quietly, that technology is what made her relationship with her boyfriend work. This was the one essential of their relationship, she said. In fact, without it, she doubted that they would have stayed together.
I left her at Starbucks, as her phone rang. I noticed that she didn’t answer it. I figured that for the moment she had other things on her mind. Probably the demands of her schedule would overwhelm her again, the way the tide can overwhelm the shore. But then again maybe not. Sometimes the tide can change forever.
P.S. We had one email exchange, in which she thanked me for our conversation, and to which I replied…That was a long while ago.