Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life

A review of Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz

כִּֽי־טוֹבָ֣ה חָ֭כְמָה מִפְּנִינִ֑ים וְכָל־חֲ֝פָצִ֗ים לֹ֣א יִֽשְׁווּ־בָֽהּ׃

“For wisdom is better than rubies;
And all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
— Proverbs 8:11

I am blessed to be a student of theology and languages. When I’m not studying, I’m often teaching others. I read and collect books like an academic but it would be stretch to identify myself as one. My areas of interest are varied, possibly quite too diverse to be an expert on anything. My research speciality: messy people searching for God.

I enjoy reading literature, philosophy, and theology in multiple languages. However, I am usually doing so between appointments, doctors visits, counseling sessions and meals with people who teach me more about God’s love. Unless it is finally time for uninterrupted reading (between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.), I am usually reading on the run.

Thank heavens I do not have to publish scholarly articles in order to achieve tenure or to simply keep my job. If I do read them it is because they interest me. I read them because they can help me better understand or communicate something of interest to me.

Princeton University Press, 2020

In her book, Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz eloquently makes a case for learning for pleasure, learning for its own sake. She notes that learning can cultivate the inner life and aid us in our search for human flourishing. The intellectual life can also lead us to God who is truth and true beauty.

Throughout the book she interacts with philosophers, novelists and two of my heroes for the integration of their faith and Christian service: St. Augustine and Dorothy Day.

Hitz’s book is one of the best I have read so far this year. I recommend it both to my friends of faith as well as to those who profess to have no faith at all. It is a stimulating read that requires long pauses and thoughtful contemplation.

In this same vein, I would recommend the following two books:

How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind by Richard T. Hughes

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll

Too Eager to Become Babylonians

The Hebrew Bible is a mirror that can help us discern if we are faithful to God’s calling as His holy people.

Marc Chagall, Isaiah

When I was younger, I would often get frustrated reading the First Testament. It was upsetting to see so much faithlessness, idolatry and sheer stubbornness. The older I get, the more I see myself. I begin to discern my own lack of faith, idolatry and yes, how I often insist that I am right when I am clearly not.

I find it interesting that in the New Testament, so many of Paul’s ethical arguments begin with baptism (i.e., Col 2:20). When Paul wants to argue that we are not living lives worthy of the Gospel, he reminds us of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.

Because of the hardness of their hearts, Judah was taken off to exile in Babylon. God had not abandoned His purposes for them but they had to learn the hard way what it meant to be His people, to be a light for the nations. But this time, they had to be taught this lesson far away from home.

They were tempted, as they had always been, to want to be like the other nations. They envied their apparent prosperity and their forms of government. Numerous times God warned them that they were better off being God’s people among the nations. Their uniqueness was part of God’s promise to them and part of God’s blessing to the nations.

It seems that even in exile they had not learned their lesson. God warned them through His prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon
(55:6–7 NRSV).

In his Lenten meditations, Walter Brueggemann writes:

“These verses are a familiar call to worship or a call to repentance, not a bad accent for Lent. . . . The imperative is around four verbs, ‘seek, call, forsake, return,’ good Lenten verbs. But this is not about generic repentance for generic sins. I believe, rather, the sin addressed concerns for Jews too eager to become Babylonians, too easy to compromise Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewish discipline — in order to get along in a Babylonian empire that had faith in other gods with other disciplines. The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, an elemental discipline, a primal faith.”

Brueggemann continues his meditation of this prophetic text and makes observations about the American church. He could have easily been writing about the Latin American or European church.

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.

“The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism . . . ‘child of the promise,’ . . . ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”

Maybe we’ve missed the mark trying to be something we’re not. Maybe we’ve forgotten that our sole allegiance belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Quite possibly the narrative that most excites us and rises our blood pressure is that which appears on the nightly news and not that which we read from Genesis to Revelation.

I certainly do not have all the answers. But repentance, turning back to God and away from false identities and loyalties is always a good place to start.

Book Recommendations for 2021

Books worth reading this coming year

Here are a few books that have challenged and inspired me this past year. I pray they might do the same for you this coming year!

Book Recommendations for 2021

These are the best reflections I’ve read about Coronavirus and the Christian faith. Both N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann are two of my favorite theologians.

Not only are we facing a pandemic, but a lot of political unrest. Please, please, please take the time to read Lee Camp’s political manifesto for Christians. It might just change your life (as Kingdom thinking does).

I have been reading and re-reading St. Augustine for years. I have also been following the work of James K. A. Smith. In this book I found much more than I imagined! This was this year’s most spiritually forming book for me. I highly recommend it!

I love reading biblical theology by scholars who strive to condense their longer and deeper works into tomes for a popular level. This book by Richard Bauckman is absolutely brilliant!

In addition to reading theology, I enjoy reading novels and poetry for spiritual formation. This year during quarantine I spent time with Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot. I always love reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Check out these anthologies that will help you better discover the spiritual writings of these two Russian giants!

This past year I have taken a greater interest in Patristics. If you would like to read writings from early Christian theologians, the Philokalia is a great place to begin!

In addition to Patristics, I discovered Alexander Schmemann and his work, For the Life of the World. I started learning about sacramental theology in regards to storytelling in Catholic literature (for ex. Flannery O’Connor) and now I’ve found one of the classic works on the topic and it has revolutionized my thinking.

Check out this anthology of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These stories can help you reflect on interracial relationships and what it means to be a part of the same community with people who are radically different than you are. Also check out Chimamanda’s fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, especially his work, Things Fall Apart.

In the area of pastoral theology, I could not leave out a title by Eugene Peterson. This book is not to be read straight through but to be read little by little for deep reflection. This book is a part of a larger series on pastoral work.

Even before I saw his painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in person, I have been fascinated by the person and work of Hieronymus Bosch. So I thought I’d end this list with a book by one of my favorite publishing houses, Taschen.

Let yourself be challenged by people who are different than you, people who lived in other times and places. Dare to become not only better informed, but spiritually transformed.

A Coronavirus Prayer

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

The Giver of Bread and Fish
Walter Brueggemann

Matthew 7:7–11

We do “thoughts and prayers” easily and glibly;
we do “thoughts” without thinking;
we do “prayers” without praying.

We commit that glib act
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.

Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.

Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fail and comforts flee.

Thus we are bold to pray:

We are bold to ask, because it will be given!
So we pray for the end of this virus,
for the health of the neighborhood,
for the recovery of the economy.

We are bold to seek, because you will be found!
We seek your mercy and your goodness and your generosity,
so let yourself be found by us.

We are bold to knock, because it will be opened.
We know many doors slammed shut,
doors of health and safety and comfort and fun.
Open to us the door of life, and love, and peace, and joy.

Here we are in your presence:

We ask for bread:
the bread of life,
the bread of abundance,
the bread of neighborly sharing.
Do not give us a stone or a crumb.

We ask for fish:
the fish of a good diet,
the fish of your abundant waters,
the fish that signs the gospel,
Do not give us a snake or the hiss of poison.

We dare to pray, not because we are at our wits end,
but because you are at the center of our life.
Our hope is in no other save in thee alone!
So hear, heal, save, restore!
Be the God you have promised to be. Amen.

Handel’s Messiah for Advent

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” — Isaiah 9:2

Handel’s Messiah, credit: The British Library

We often think of Handel’s Messiah as an oratorio for Christmas, but it was in fact written as a commentary on the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens and the music was composed by George Frideric Handel.

The libretto was taken from the King James Version and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The libretto is taken from 81 different Bible verses, most of them from the prophet Isaiah.

This masterpiece has nurtured my Advent meditations for years. We can be a part of God’s redemption of time and space as we relive the expectation of Israel, longing for the Messiah and His Kingdom here on earth. As we rehearse Israel’s wait, we also expectantly wait for Jesus’ second coming when He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Here are the Scriptural citations for the Advent part of Handel’s Messiah if you would like to spend more time in the biblical text while listening to their musical interpretation.

Handel’s Messiah

Scene I: Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation

Overture
Comfort ye my people — Isaiah 40:1–3
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted — Isaiah 40:4
And the glory of the Lord — Isaiah 40:5

Scene II: The coming judgment

Thus saith the Lord of hosts — Haggai 2:6–7; Malachi 3:1
But who may abide the day of His coming — Malachi 3:2
And he shall purify the sons of Levi — Malachi 3:3

Scene III: The prophecy of Christ’s birth

Behold, a virgin shall conceive — Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion — Isaiah 40:9; 60:1
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth — Isaiah 60:2–3
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light — Isaiah 9:2
For unto us a child is born — Isaiah 9:6

For a greater understanding of Advent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Fleming Rutledge. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

God Still Speaks of Justice

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book on the Hebrew prophets tells us about the importance of not only translating the prophets correctly, but understanding the power of their words both emotionally and spiritually.

The Prophet Isaiah, Marc Chagall

Hear the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 58

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
 Hold nothing back — a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
 face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
 and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people — 
 law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
 and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
 ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
 Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

“Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
 You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
 You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
 won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
 and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
 a fast day that I, God, would like?

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 to break the chains of injustice,
 get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
 free the oppressed,
 cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
 sharing your food with the hungry,
 inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
 putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
 being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
 and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
 The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
 You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places — 
 firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 make the community livable again.

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there — 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.”
 Yes! God says so!

Translation: Eugene Peterson

Fox News & Spiritual Formation

You are being discipled by Fox News. And if not by Fox News, maybe by CNN, Blaze Media, Democracy Now! or Ben Shapiro. And maybe the news media is not discipling you, but possibly someone other than Jesus is.

We do not normally think that spiritual formation takes place while we follow the news in our preferred outlets. The truth is that we are often unaware or not critical enough of the messages we are receiving from these sources. As long as news media is a for-profit industry, as long as they need sponsors, target groups, marketing strategies and as long as media outlets simulate a fourth branch of the government, we must be careful of what we uncritically digest.

Please do not misunderstand me, American media outlets have done a lot of good for our country. They often denounce corruption, share information the government would rather keep quiet and a host of other services for the welfare of the general public. I am not anti-media in any way. I am, however, not in favor of allowing media outlets to take over a role that belongs to Christ and the church.

How does the media disciple us?

Christ’s Kingdom project teaches us what it means to be human (we are made in the image and likeness of God) and how to live with one another in society (loving our neighbors and enemies as an expression of our love for God). Jesus teaches us what should enrage us (injustice, hypocrisy, legalism) and what should be cause of celebration (repentance and resurrection). Jesus tells us what is the goal of human history (a day of reckoning when God will right all wrong and restore our broken creation and our broken bodies). The Gospels give us a political theology (Christ is King, Christ is Lord and not Caesar).

If you have watched or read anything from CNN or Fox News lately, you would know they’re teaching us ways of being human that are contrary to the ways of Jesus. They’re telling us that God’s chosen people is America, that we should be fine with the status quo, that the poor and the foreigner are our enemies, that political top-down power and influence is what is going to bring about real change. The way they report the news if powerful because they are not simply stating facts but sharing key parts of larger narratives that support different visions or worldviews. Neither Fox or CNN, neither the right or the left faithfully tells the narrative of God’s upside-down Kingdom.

Christians are told every day on cable news that they must choose to be on the right or the left and that to be for something you have to be against someone. However, in between the right and the left stands the cross where we are called to die to self, to individualism, to country, to the myths of nationalism, white supremacy, neoliberal and socialist economic systems and to adopt Christ’s Kingdom project as the only true expression of Jesus Himself, the way, the truth and the life.

Will you allow Jesus’ Kingdom project to be the dominant narrative that tugs at your heart, that shapes your vision of the world, that determines how you view and treat others? Will you let Jesus teach you about what should make you angry or why you should celebrate? Will you recognize Fox and CNN for what they are — human attempts to make sense of human life and society that do not express or represent faithfully the witness of Jesus Christ in the world?

Cf. Christian Nationalism & the Crucified Christ

Swept to Big Purposes

A subversive prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Hosea & Jonah by Raffaello — prophets with odd callings and vocations

Swept to Big Purposes

You call and we have a vocation.
You send and we have an identity.
You accompany us and we are swept to
big purposes: 
chosen race,
royal priesthood,
your own people,
receiving mercy.

But we, in our restlnesness, 
do not want to be so peculiar.

We would rather be like the others, 
eager for their wealth,
their wisdom,
their power. 
Eager to be like them, comfortable,
beautiful, 
young,
free.

We yearn to be like the others, 
and you make us odd and peculiar and different.

Grant that we may find joy in our baptism,
freedom in our obedience,
delight in our vocation.

The same joy, freedom, and delight
that so market our Lord
whom we follow in oddness.

— Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008.

Christian Nationalism & the Crucified Christ

Christian Nationalism is an affront to Christ

Hebrews 12:1–3 NIV

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

On Wednesday, August 26th, Vice President Mike Pence said the following words in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:

“So let’s run the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1). Let’s fix our eyes (12:2) on Old Glory and all she represents (Christian Nationalism), fix our eyes (Hebrews 12:2) on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire (Christian Nationalism). And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and freedom (Christian Nationalism) and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). That means freedom always wins (Christian Nationalism).” — V.P. Mike Pence

In the next to last paragraph of Pence’s speech, he marries Christian Scripture and nationalist sentiments much like the Emperor Constantine or the Catholic kings and queens of medeival Europe.

Vice President Pence

For those of us who worship Christ as King, for those of us who pledge allegiance only to the Kingdom of God, for those of who understand our citizenship to be with God in heaven, this shameless and blatant mix of Holy Scripture and Christian Nationalist tropes is very disturbing. Why? Christian Nationalism is an affront to God. Christian Nationalism must always talk vaguely about God and Jesus and precisely about country, or in this case, the flag and what she represents. Christian Nationalism calls us to worship country and not Christ or at least to divide our loyalties and worship both.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews calls us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” not on a human empire like so many that have come and gone throughout history. I will not look to country for meaning, purpose or my identity — for these things I will look to Christ and to Him alone. The courage that inspires me to give my own life in sacrifice for others was not displayed on the battlefields of Korea, Vietnam or in the Middle East but on a hill called Golgotha.

The author and perfecter of my faith does not give me freedom in order to begin an uninhibited pursuit of happiness but the freedom to answer freely His call to discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bides him come and die”. Christian Nationalist freedom is without loyalty to the ethic of the crucified Christ, whereas the responsibility to freedom in Christ is freedom to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him every day.

American politicians know that many Americans are deeply religious. But they’re counting on our religiosity, our “cultural Christianity” and a vague commitment to Christ and the Scriptures in order to rouse us to the cause of country. In other words, they want to tap into a power greater than politics (faith and worship) in order to mobilize a people for their own ends.

American politicians have always feared Christians with a higher calling, one that surpasses country and bows only to Christ. Christians who pledged their only and undying allegiance to the Lamb and who rose above partisan politics were put on the FBI watchlist. Why? They cannot be bought or driven by fear.

What I have been written today is not a call for Christians to vote one way or another but to wake up to the dangers of the bastardization of the Christian faith for political purposes. Christianity is a politic, it is an interpretation of human history, it is a coherent vision for human life and society. You should pray and agonize when contemplating who to vote for but please, I beg you, do not think that God is bringing His Kingdom or the world that He wants through the top down, through the power brokers, through the Republican Party. He’s reserved that privilege for the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek and the lowly (Matthew 5:1ff).

I highly recommend the following book in order to understand these issues from a biblical and theological perspective:

Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians by Lee Camp

God of My Vocation

A prayer by Karl Rahner and a painting by Giovanni Bellini

“God of my Vocation” A Prayer from Gebete des Lebens
by Karl Rahner, translated by James M. Demske, S.J.

Agony in the Garden, Giovanni Bellini (1459–1465)

O God my Father, You are the God of free favors, of grace freely given. You who Your mercy to whomever You please, where and when You choose.

If it’s true that Your calling of human beings to share in Your own Life is a completely free gift, then, as I well understand, this summons is not something given to every man along with his nature. Man finds You only where You choose to be found.

And as proof that Your salvation is a gratuitous gift, every man’s road to eternal life, even though it leads to Your Infinity which is everywhere, must still take the “detour” through that definite human being who was born in Palestine under Emperor Augustus and died under the Governor, Pontius Pilate. We must take the “indirect route” leading through Your Son Who became man. Your grace comes to us not in the “always and everywhere” of Your all-pervasive Spirit, but in the “here and now” of Jesus Christ.

Your Holy Spirit blows where He will — where He will, not where I will. He is not simply always there, whenever and wherever a man wants Him to be. We must go to Him, there where He chooses to give His grace. And that’s why Your salvation is bound up with Your visible Church. That’s why Your grace comes to us in visible signs.

This is all quite clear to me, Lord, and I’m very happy about this distinctive characteristic of Your grace. It’s comforting to know that I can approach You not merely in the realm of “pure spirit” — this “pure spirit” about which the philosophers talk, when they start founding religions, has always struck me as being not spirit, but a pure ghost, anyway — but in concrete, tangible, visible signs. It warms my heart to know that I can be sure of Your power and presence in my life through the water of baptism, or by the audible word of forgiveness spoken by the priest, or in the holy bread of the altar.

For my part I want no religion or pure spirit, or pure internal experience. Basically, such a religion is a mere human invention, in which man ends up grasping only himself, instead of You. He plumbs only the shallow waters of his own spirit, and penetrates only his own poverty-stricken interior, instead of sounds the depths opened up by Your free word. And Your word tells us more of You than You could ever write in the narrow pages of Your creation.

But, my God, this arrangement of combined internal and external worship has brought something into my life which often lies heavily on my soul. You have made me Your priest, and have thus chosen me to be an earthly sign of Your grace to others. You have put Your grace into my hands, Your truth into my mouth. And although it doesn’t surprise me that men should recognized You when You come to meet them in Your only-begotten Son, or in the chaste water of baptism, or in the silent form of the host, or in the words of Scripture so simple and yet so profound, still I find it all but incredible that You desire to come into Your Kingdom in the hearts of men through me. How can people possibly recognize You in me?

Indeed You have gone so far as to give me, along with my priesthood, also all the other mans You use to convey Your loving greeting to men. You have equipped me with Your word, Your truth, Your sacraments. And You have attached these things to my ministry in such a way that they penetrate into the inmost regions of free souls only when these souls accept me, only when they take me along in the bargain.

Can people really recognize You in me? Or can they at least grasp the fact that You have sent me as the ambassador of Your truth, the bearer of Your mercy? When this question occurs to me, it seems that Your Gospel of joy and for my brethren is to me, the messenger, only a crushing burden.

I realize that You have sent me, that I am Your messenger — maybe a very pitiful one, but for all that still Your messenger, a man sent by You and stamped with Your ineffaceable seal. Your truth does not become false just because I preach it, even though I too am a sinful man, to whom the dictum can be applied: omnis homo mendax, “every man is a liar.”

Your grace remains pure, even when it is dispensed through my hands. Your Gospel is still the good tidings of great joy, even when it’s not particularly noticeable that my soul is exulting in God my Savior. And Your light continues to shine forth, changing the dark death-shadows of our earth into the brilliant noonday of Your grace, even when this light has to find its way to human beings through the cracked and dusty panes of my tiny lantern.

I know, Lord, that as a priest of Your true Church, I should not let the sense of my vocation, and the courage to preach Your Gospel in season and out of season, depend on the consciousness of my own personal worth. Your priest does not approach people as a revivalist or an enthusiast, not as a purveyor of mystic wisdom or gnostic or Pentecostal prophet, or whatever else such persons may call themselves. These can communicate to others no more of You than they have themselves. But as a priest, I come as Your legate, as a messenger sent by Your Son, our Lord. And that is at the same time less and more, a thousand times more than anything else.

But, O God of my calling, it would be so much easier if I could just deliver Your message and then, when Your work is done, go back to living my own life. Then the burden of being Your messenger would be no heavier than that of any other messenger or administrator who does his job and is done with it. But Your charge to me, Your commission itself has become my very life. It ruthlessly claims all my energies for itself, it lives from my own life.

As Your messenger, I can live my own personal life only by passing on Your word. I am Your messenger and nothing more. Your lamp — excuse me for being so bold, Lord — burns with the oil of my life. In Your service there are no office hours after which a man can closeup show and be his own master again. I can never forget that I am Your servant and go back to being a mere “private citizen.”

Truly it’s an unspeakable honor and privilege to be able to serve You with all one’s energy. I must thank You that You have turned my life to Your service, that I have no other “profession” that conveying the message of Your salvation. I must be eternally grateful that, in my life, profession and devotion are completely identical — there is no distinction between what I do out of duty and what I do out of love.

And yet, if it were only possible in Your service, as in every other, to separate official business from one’s private life! How much easier it would be! And I don’t say this because I would prefer to give You only a few hours’ service a day, and spend more time communicating to others my own religious experiences and inspirations, setting them on fire with my own enthusiasm and conviction. On the contrary, I want to be Your messenger, the transmitter of Your truth and Your grace, and nothing more. And precisely because that’s what I want, I sometimes with that people could better distinguish my official position from my private life.

Can one pass on Your truth without having fully grasped it himself? Can I preach Your Gospel, if it has not struck deep roots in my own heart? Can I pass on Your Life, if I am not alive with it myself? Your holy signs can produce grace of their own power, it’s true. But would my fellow men allow me to mark them with these signs, unless my own countenance were to them a sign that You had sent me? It’s unavoidable: Your official business and my private life cannot be separated.

And that is precisely the burden of my life. For look, Lord: even when I announce Your pure truth, I’m still preaching my own narrowness and mediocrity along with it. I’m still presenting myself, the “average man.” How can I bring my hearers to distinguish between You and me in the frightful mixture of You and me that I call my sermons? How can I teach them to take Your word to their hearts, and forget me, the preacher?

I want to be a transmitter of Your light, and to do so, I must nourish it with the oil of my life. And yet I can’t avoid placing myself before the lantern, coming between Your light and the searching eyes of my fellow men. I seem to be good for nothing at all but making the already-dark shadows of this world even darker and longer.

I understand all too well that, at the end of my priestly life, I shall have only Your poor, unprofitable servant. I shall have been the messenger whom You have sent on ahead, who, instead of cleaning the way for You, more often succeeds only in being a roadblock. Any grace that goes out from me is Yourgrace. Whatever of mine goes out from me is nothing, only a hindrance or, at best, a means You employ to test my fellow men, to see whether their instinctive love can recognize You, even when You disguise Yourself, almost beyond all recognition, by appearing to them in me.

O God of my vocation, when I consider these things, I must confess that I don’t at all feel like taking my place in the proud ranks of Your confident and conquering apostles. I rather feel that I should be on my way, simply and humbly, walking in fear and trembling. I don’t mean to criticize those among my brethren who can be so happily sure of themselves, those of Your servants who do so unmistakably reflect the inner confidence that they are coming in the name of the Lord God of Hosts, and who are quite amazed if anyone does not immediately recognize in them the ambassadors of the Almighty.

I cannot belong to that fortunate group, O Lord. Grant me rather the grace to belong to the number of Your lowly servants who are rather amazed when they are received by their fellow human beings. Let my heart tremble again and again in grateful surprise at the miracles of Your grace, which is mighty in the midst of weakness. Let me continue to marvel that I meet so many persons who allow me, poor sinner that I am, to enter into the secret chamber of their hearts, because they have been able to recognize You hidden in me.

Thus I shall be happy to set out again and again on my messenger’s rounds to my fellow human beings. You have sent me, and so I go in Your name, not my own. Let Your power triumph through my weakness, whenever You desire it to do so.

As I proceed with Your message along the pathway of my life, I shall no doubt often experience what befell Your prophet of long ago: I shall be disillusioned with Yahweh, laughed to scorn by people, a man of contention before the whole world. Then I must speak out — and woe is me, if I do not — I must speak of You, the One whom it is more fitting to honor by silence. I must speak, even with the tormenting feeling of being mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. For who can really know for certain whether or not he possesses the love without which everything else is just hollow noise?

In the strength of Your word I shall march continually around the Jericho of human souls, even with their laughter ringing in my ears, until You bring its walls crashing down. You will do this of Your own power, so that no one can boast before You of his prowess over souls. Thus will my mission be fulfilled, in the same way as was that of Your Son, my crucified Master. And for this, may You be praised for all eternity.

O God of my vocation, I am only a poor mask, behind which You have chosen to approach human beings as the hidden God. Grant me the grace day by day to be ever more free from sin and self-seeking. Even then I shall remain what I can’t help being. Your disguise and Your unprofitable servant. But then at least I shall grow ever more like Your Son, Who also had to envelop the eternal light of His divinity in the form of a servant, to be found in the garb and livery of a man.

When I bear the burden of Your calling, when Your mission weighs down heavily upon me, when Your Majesty humbles me, and my weakness is taken up into that of Your Son, then I may confidently trust that the hindrance which I have been to Your coming may still turn out to be a blessing to my brothers. Then perhaps You will transubstantiate my servitude — for only You could work such a change, unseen by me and my fellow human beings — into a somehow sacramental form, under whose poverty You will be the bread of life for my brethren.

O God of my vocation, let my life be consumed as the Sacred Host, so that my brothers and I may live in You, and You in us, for all eternity.

Karl Rahner. Prayers for a Lifetime. Albert Raffelt, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1995.