By Fr. Glenn Jones
I’ll always be grateful to a favorite aunt who, when I was about twelve, gifted to me my first James Herriot book—stories of, and by, a country veterinarian in England in the 1930s. While several of his stories are memorable, one especially so was of two distinctly different families: first that of a simple poor farmer who had a devoted and doting wife and daughter, and the second a wealthy, very successful and noted executive with shrewish wife and scornful daughter. Herriot, musing about which life he would prefer, had no doubt that he’d choose the humble circumstances and loving family.
Now, one of the readings for the Catholic Mass this Sunday (Nov. 15) is from St. Paul: “…you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them…and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3) That reading seems quite apropos in our present COVID-19 pandemic. Most people likely know some who have fallen fatally victim to the virus, or at least some who have acquired it. Mourning those, we take our protective measures, and yet cannot but wonder, “Will I be next? Will I, too, succumb mortally?”… thoughts that chill the sturdiest soul. After all, we prefer to visualize ourselves passing peacefully in our sleep after a long and successful life, or dying heroically in some desperate but worthy cause.
So … what will be the worth of my life should such occur? How will I—or will I—be remembered?
Our Gospel reading for the Catholic Mass this Sunday is from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew—the final teaching of Jesus prior to the Last Supper, and His arrest, condemnation and crucifixion … as if He was telling His disciples: “This is the culmination of all I have taught you.” Last weekend we had that chapter’s parable of the ten virgins, with only five prepared to enter the wedding feast, Jesus warning: “Be awake; you know neither the day nor the hour!”. And, today, Jesus gives the stark parable of the master who distributed money to his three servants to invest, each according to his ability … calling them to account upon his return.
Of course, one moral of the story is that we ought to be good stewards of the gifts/resources given us, using our gifts selflessly for the good of others, not in enriching ourselves. All the world and all philosophies ever promulgated for the good of mankind recognize altruistic generosity as one of the greatest of virtues, leading to fond remembrance when we are gone, though that shouldn’t be the goal in itself. But, those mired in self-interest to the disregard, or even to the detriment, of others are likely consigned remembrance oblivion … perhaps even with a “Good riddance!!” added for bad measure.
As for Mr. Herriot, our choice should be a simple one: to choose love over the material and over fickle fame. No doubt our farmer’s wife and daughter will weep for him in the love they shared, but would the executive’s? “But I’m making a splash in the world!” Well … whooptie do; the headliner of today is the obituary of tomorrow, and, as Job wisely observes: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return…” (Job 1:21) … reinforcing Ecclesiastes: “…man goes to his eternal home…the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12:5-8) And yet, while we can reason that such is our inevitable fate, we typically shelve that realization for “later”.
Let us remember the fable of three young demons discussing with Satan their plans to tempt and ruin mankind. The first proclaimed, “I will tell them there is no God!” Satan scoffed and replied, “You will not delude many, for they know that there is a God.” The second proudly proposed, “I will tell men there is no hell!” Satan smirked, “You will deceive no one; men know there is punishment for sin.” Finally the third demon offered, “I will tell them that there is no hurry.” Beaming malignantly, Satan cried out: “Go! You will ruin them by the thousands.”
So let us not put off ‘til tomorrow our reform—our bettering of self—that we can accomplish today. As St. Paul urges: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) There is no reason … no excuse … to be caught off guard, and the sooner we walk the paths of virtue and selflessness, the greater the giving of self—the greater the gift to others.
One need not be a mega-preacher, a genius, wealthy or endowed with superhuman ability; even the person who cleans, makes copies or shuttles kids back and forth has a vital role to play. Some of the greatest of saints have been the simplest of folks, humbly serving as best they could. St. André Bessette, for example, was a Holy Cross brother in Canada who, being poor at academics, was assigned as porter—the doorman—of the monastery. He liked to joke: “At the end of my [initiation], my superiors showed me the door…and I stayed there for forty years.” And yet, by his devotion, his charity and his simple wisdom, he led thousands to Christ, and is known and beloved throughout Canada simply as “Brother André”. As St. Paul writes: “…there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; …varieties of service, but the same Lord; …varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Jesus assures repeatedly: “Do not be afraid!”…much like the motto of the British SAS: “Who dares, wins!” The very act of working for good IS winning, for it is cooperation with God’s will and grace. Jesus instructs us to love one another as He has loved us, Himself demonstrating what love truly is: to give even our lives for others. So let us use well the talents and resources given us, that we, too, might hear on our great day: “Well done, my good and faithful servant… Come, share your master’s joy.”
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.