You know that slightly surreal moment when you’ve just been thinking of a song or a quote and the person next to you starts singing or reciting it? (Akin to that little shiver you get in your spine when you’ve just been thinking of a particular person and your phone buzzes with a text from them.) Well, I had one of those moments on Monday evening at Mass.
I pulled into the church parking lot pondering Our Lord’s words: “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” I couldn’t really say why that particular verse had gotten stuck in my head, but it has really resonated lately. In the midst of this joyous Easter season, deeply grateful for the blessing of a new job and trying to get the pieces of my life settled into an ordered, manageable place, I wonder at times if I’m really living “abundantly” (or “to the full” as another iteration of the same verse goes).
So when Father read the words from the pulpit not fifteen minutes later, I think my mouth fell open. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is trying to get my attention.
But as I reflected more on the verse, I started to get annoyed. They’re stirring and inspiring words to be sure, but what the heck do they mean? I guess if anyone has “life to the full,” I ought to. I’m blessed in every possible way, I’m living the life of the Church and the Sacraments, but (as I whined to God in the course of that day’s prayer) I don’t feel like I’m living “life to the full.” The more I try, the more cluttered, stressed, and all-out frustrated I end up feeling.
Maybe I’m not cut out for having life abundantly.
I’ve always tied this verse pretty closely to a quote from St. Catherine of Siena (whose feast day is today): “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.” The first time I heard those words, back in tenth grade, I got literal chills. What 15-year-old doesn’t want to set the world on fire with passion for the things that really matter? But I’m twenty-seven now, and I’ve learned to be pragmatic. And the world around me remains relatively blaze-free.
There is a line in St. Jose Maria Escriva’s “The Furrow” that rings so true on the days when the nobility of our calling to greatness — to true holiness — gets lost in the shuffle. He writes, “It seems as if a thousand trifles were awaiting the least opportunity, and as soon as your poor will is weakened, through physical tiredness or lack of supernatural outlook, those little things pile up and excite your imagination, until they form a mountain that oppresses and discourages you. Things such as the rough edges of your work, your resistance to obedience; the lack of proper means; the will-o’-the-wisp attractions of an easy life; greater or smaller repugnant temptations; bouts of over-sentimentality; tiredness; the bitter taste of spiritual mediocrity…. And sometimes also fear; fear because you know God wants you to be a saint, and you are not a saint.”
Christ came that I might have life more abundantly.
And I am not a saint.
But what does having life more abundantly look like? Hearing these words at Easter, our hearts may swell with thoughts of salvation history and the triumph of the cross. And sure, ultimately having life more abundantly has something to do with grace and the state of my immortal soul. But as I go about my day-to-day living, muddling through the mundane details of turning off the alarm, picking an outfit, washing my face, making breakfast, packing lunch, facing DC area traffic, starting up the work computer, writing press releases and op-eds, talking to coworkers, responding to emails, running errands, hitting up the gym, getting to bed on time, etc., etc., etc. … where does having life to the full fit in to all of this?
There are plenty of things I know it is not.
It is not having a packed schedule. I am finally learning the value of that little word “NO,” and I’ve been employing it with more force of late. I do not have to do everything, and I can’t, regardless of how much I’d like to. That includes volunteering, freelancing, partying, and anything else that takes up chunks of the schedule and keeps me out late.
It is not having a frantic workload. I may like to be busy, to feel necessary, to believe that my work adds some measure of value to this planet, but if I’m drowning under a too-heavy workload, I’m simply drowning. (Which is, now I think of it, a closer step to dying than to having life to the full.)
It is not, even, having a full trove of friends and relationships. These are delightful, wonderful gifts, and I treasure every one of my relationships. But there are days where I feel simply stretched to the breaking point, and I have to acknowledge that “having life more abundantly” does not — cannot — consist entirely in my relationships with the people I love.
All of these things can and should be part of an abundant life, of that I’m convinced. The details of daily living done well; the offering of daily work; the pouring out of self (and receiving the same from others) in loving relationships … yes, these all contribute to having life to the full. Yet taken on their own, they become more weight, just more entries on the long list of frustrations that lead to dissatisfaction, self-pity, and that nebulous longing for “freedom” from the burdens of our day-to-day existence.
So what’s the answer? I can’t simply tack “Have life more abundantly” to the top of my never-ending to-do list — that just defeats the point.
Because, as I’m coming to realize, the point is that having life to the full … and setting the world ablaze … and being a saint … are not things that I can do. By herself, li’l ol’ Mabel isn’t cut out for doing much more than sleeping in, whining about her life, and eating too much chocolate. Christ didn’t come to tell us to live life to the full. He came to give us life to the full.
My job, then, is to receive it.
Once again, we’re faced with the supreme irony of the Christian situation: our biggest challenge is becoming small. Shut up, sit down, close your eyes, and let him work in you. On our own, we can’t do anything. We definitely can’t have truly full, abundant lives. But with him — allowing him to work in us — the world can in fact be set on fire.