The End of the Dream
Eighth Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne’s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you: before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.

It’s wonderful when the school year finally comes to an end, but there’s always a final price to pay, and that price for me is having to sit through the Valedictorian and Salutatorian speeches at the graduation ceremony at the end of every June. The message is always the same: “Dare to dream, you have the power to fulfill all your dreams, believe in yourself, etc.” The message is always about dreams, dreaming, and personal fulfillment.

There was a prayer over the PA recently that had a line in it: “Lord, help me to fulfill my dreams”. I asked my students whether or not they found something slightly amiss in that prayer, and none of them did. And why would they? That’s their prayer, that the Lord help them to fulfill their dreams.

The problem, of course, is that the Lord does not help us to fulfill our dreams. And that got their attention; they were listening at that point. I remember my teenage years. I was full of dreams. Dreams made life exciting. It’s an essential part of being young, to have dreams, which is why they were all ears when I said that the Lord does not help us to fulfill our dreams. That was strange music to their ears.

The truth is that the Lord calls each one of us to help Him fulfill His providential plan. He calls us forth. And each one of us has been given both natural and supernatural gifts, not so that we might fulfill our dreams, but so that we might faithfully carry out the vocation the Lord has for us. God does not have a vocation, we do. He calls us. And our greatest happiness will be found when we heed that call and give up our own personal dreams to serve Him in the very unique and specific way He has called us to serve Him, a call that goes all the way back to before we were born: “…before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.”

A very important stage in the psychology of personality development is called the end of the dream. But some people well into their 50s will not have reached that stage, because they refuse to stop dreaming. That seems to be the case more and more today; it has been said that this is the longest period of juvenility in the history of the world. We hear so many stories of men in their mid 30s or 40s, married and with children at home, just getting up and packing their bags, because they are not happy, they are not fulfilled. This is not what they thought marriage would be. They felt deceived, and so they go off looking to fulfill their dream that was conceived in early adolescence.

As I said earlier, I just came back from a two week retreat at Mount Saviour Monastery in New York state. The last time I was there was about 20 years ago. What struck me when I was there was that everything was exactly the same. The same monks have been doing the same thing, every single day for more than 20 years: chanting the same psalms, wearing the same habit, eating the same food, on the same tin plates, the same tables, and finishing every night chanting the same beautiful hymns while brother Pierre plays the same harp, playing the same chords, and ending the night all gathered around the same 14th century statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, singing the same Salve Regina. Nothing has changed, except they’ve gotten older.

Now, if these monks were there because they were living out their dreams, they would have left long ago. We hear the expression today: “…it got old”. We move on when it gets old. Well, the life of a monk would get old rather quickly. So what keeps them there? I believe the answer is that this is their vocation and they have responded to it, not to a dream. They are motivated not by the desire to self-actualization or personal fulfillment. They are motivated by charity, the love of God, which is lived out in obedience to His will.

And what a meaningful life it is, too, but only the eyes of charity can see that. Everything we do, such as everything that I do as a teacher, is a means to an end. Our work is a means to an end. But what is the end we are seeking to achieve? The end is an eternal life in which we forever sing the praises of God, with a heart that adores the lamb that was slain. The book of Revelations gives us a glimpse into that life: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’. And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created….You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God and they will reign on earth. Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, Amen! And the elders fell down and worshipped.”

The monastic life is an icon of that very life of eternal worship. An icon gives us a peek into that other realm, and this reading is a window into the heavenly liturgy. That’s the vocation. It is difficult and tedious, just like the writing of any icon is tedious and laborious. But it is the construction of a work of supernatural beauty. The monastic life is a very important vocation.

Married life, too, is difficult, tedious, and laborious. But it is a vocation, not a dream, not a means of personal fulfillment. A married couple are called to be an icon of the holy family. But that sounds much sweeter than it is in reality. Again, like the production of an icon, it is work. It takes time, effort, and it can be very tedious. The life of Mary and Joseph was certainly not about the fulfillment of a dream. The only dreams that Joseph had in his life involved an angel, telling him to change his plans: “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” and “get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you.”

They led a very difficult life. But it was a holy life, because it was a life faithful to God’s will as it was manifest in each present moment they entered into. The life of the holy family was an ordinary life. “Who is this? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” And most of Jesus’ life, not to mention Mary and Joseph, was lived in obscurity. Holiness is found in the ordinary, in fidelity to the demands of the present moment, and the greatest glories of the Church, like St. Anne and her husband, will be lives lived in complete and utter obscurity.

The beginning of any vocation must be the giving up of the dream and the commitment and determination to be a channel of the Lord’s life and love, to live that vocation out of a love for that charity. But a vocation is going to come with its temptations. The one thing we will come to discover as we continue to grow in the spiritual life is that we are far more self-centered than we previously realized. Disordered self-love is as part of our wounded nature and as difficult to eradicate as rust on metal. And one factor that so many people are unaware of is the role that emotion plays in shaping the way we see things. For example, the foolhardy man with a disordered emotion of daring will see the brave man as a coward, but the coward who has a disordered emotion of fear sees the brave man as rash and foolhardy. So too, the self-indulgent who has a disordered love of physical gratification will see the temperate and self-controlled man as prudish and stoic. And those with an excessive love of their own excellence, namely the proud and arrogant, always see others through the wrong end of a telescope: what is large, they see as small, and when they look at themselves in a mirror, they see a giant. Disordered passion distorts our view of reality. That’s why the longer we walk on the road of the spiritual life, the more we’ll grow in self-distrust, because we’ll look back and see how often we’ve been wrong—more often than we’ve been right. And so what happens is that we begin to speak less and listen more.

I believe that when someone loses his or her vocation, at the root of that loss is a series of thinking errors that are rooted in disordered passion. Usually the person has stopped praying, and if you stop praying, you stop listening to the Lord, and when that happens, one no longer bothers to listen to the great saints and doctors of the Church—why would we listen to them if we’ve stopped listening to the Lord? And one thing the saints and doctors of the Church exhort us to more than anything else, it seems, is dispassion. Bringing order to the passions, through fasting and other acts of penance so that we may be more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us. When we give that up as a result of becoming too busy, it is only a matter of time before we lose our vocation.

Our happiness lies only in that vocation, which is always tedious and full of frustrations and humiliations. But the work week and an entire life of work is a work of creation, and it is the creation of an icon, which is an opening up onto another world, another realm, so that others may have a glimpse of that world, so that they may be given a piece of heaven in this world. It will be given to us to delight in that work along the way, as the Lord delighted in each day of creation, but it is only at the end that we will be permitted to delight in the beauty of the whole, as God beheld all he had made, and indeed it was very good.

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