St John Henry Newman famously said:
“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. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”
So what on earth (or in heaven according to Newman) is my mission then? Have I found it? Did I miss it? Am I doing it right now?
I will always remember my curate coming to me in quite a flap:
‘What should I do next? I am really in a quandary. Should I be a hospital chaplain — which I would like to do — or is that avoiding what God wants of me?’
My advice — which that now happy hospital chaplain often quotes back at me as a real, liberating, revelation — was, ‘God does not care what you do!’
Maybe at first this sounds shocking to you – it was to her! But of course as I explained, I didn’t mean go and be a drug dealer or people trafficker. What I meant was that God wants you to be fulfilled, wholly you, and certainly free from guilt or anxiety that you are somehow not ‘doing the right thing’. Of course this implies that you intend to do the right thing. That you live in love and charity with your neighbour, following the commandments of God; you repent of your sins and firmly mean to do your best in whatever situation you find yourself for the good of The Kingdom! Then, as S. John Henry said, although we cannot know exactly and precisely if what we propose definitely is God’s plan for us, we know enough to say, yes that seems to me to be the right way forward at this time. We know we have a purpose, have a meaning, have a vocation, so the best thing is just to go and do what we believe to be right, knowing God does not fuss and micro-manage. Knowing he expects us to act as free adults and — proper prayerful preparations having been made — to get on with it! He will be there behind and in front of us to back us to the hilt!
These crises can hit us at any stage of our lives. At the start – should I be a missionary doctor, join the Foreign Office, Dad’s firm, marry Jane or John or go and live in a croft on Orkney? Half way through life is often the worst dilemma of all. We wonder, perhaps, whether we need radically to change direction. Think of people who have startled their friends by giving up lucrative jobs in the City to become school teachers. I left a position at the head of regional arts and as director of an International Film Festival to become a monk! That set the gossip going I can tell you. (A student of mine went for an interview at a National Theatre. The interview finished and the panel said with great urgency, “but before you go …”please tell us what on earth is going on with Peter Packer??!!” And now,, when we are old like me, we might ask whether there is any last task or project we should take up. Do we still have a purpose, a mission, a vocation? Of course we do.
And yet this need not be a drama. It need not be agonisingly hard. Sometimes we just need to go on with what we are doing and be led into the narrative of God’s eternal drama. It may be we just have a walk-on part this time. It may be it is the thing we wanted to do anyway, or the thing which we have to do like getting ill and eventually dying. Maybe the ‘now’ mission is to do these things without moaning or being a burden — doing them edifyingly well for others? That’s the Godlike part. It is joining a narrative involving the good of others, not just a story about me, me, me. Only when we get caught up in other’s needs and stories, of the immigrant, the outcast, the misfit or the one-in-need, or those who caring for us, do we realize God is there working with, in and through us. Maybe only when we look back can we see His hand in it all, see how we were as Newman said, a ‘link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons’.
We may never learn the answer to that ‘big’ question —‘why are we here? But, as that great former Master of the Dominicans, Timothy Radcliffe, said recently:
‘All we can do is to listen to the Lord who does not bellow but speaks in a low whisper, a still small voice. What I hear may be some major new orientation of my life, or just a small nudge to do something today. Trust in Him. That is enough.’
Whatever stage of life we are at, or whatever paths are in front of us, trust is enough. We will be told about our mission in another place. You never know, we may have got it pretty much right — but at least, whatever we did or do, He should know we did our best!
Feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary