The depth of the lay vocation is like a treasure hidden in a field. It often isn’t obvious, even to the lay person him- or herself. But it’s truly there and truly precious. In comparison with the priesthood, the lay person’s gift to the Body of Christ is often one of depth vs. breadth. Of course, clergy can touch people deeply. And a lay person can influence many people. But a recent experience with a Catholic acquaintance highlighted the depth of the lay vocation.
The acquaintance is a homeschooling mom with a large number of young children. She tends to see committed priests as the “rock stars” of the Church. They can touch so many people. They’re so busy bringing people to the Lord, or bringing them deeper. They inspire by their preaching. They console the grieving. They counsel in crises. They think about and talk about and “do for” God all the time.
She saw her own role as a wife and homeschooling mother as not too important. Her daily life is a series of little tasks. She’s just trying to get her kids to understand Math and Reading. She’s managing their squabbles. She’s trying to keep the house from falling into chaos.
She wakes the kids. She gets them breakfast. She settles them into their schoolwork. She picks up a bit around the house. She takes the kids to some activity with other homeschoolers. She makes dinner. She talks with her husband when he gets back from work. She goes to bed. Next day it’s the same routine.
But as she spoke about her days, it was clear that they were soaked in the love of Christ. She’s praying constantly, an ongoing conversation with the Lord. She listens for the Holy Spirit’s leading moment by moment. How to respond to this child’s complaint? Do they need to go to this activity? Or would the day be more peaceful and productive if they skipped it this once? One of the kids had an argument with a friend – she drops the plans of finally straightening out the garage and listens to her daughter’s troubles.
My friend’s holiness is obvious to me. She has a hard time seeing it. She’s not bringing scads of people to Christ, as a priest or nun might. But as Chesterton said about work in the public square vs. motherhood, “How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?” Her effect on her family is incalculable. Her holiness can set her family on fire.
A priest’s vocation necessarily limits his involvement in any single person’s life. He can touch many people, but he must sacrifice deep involvement with any one person for the sake of tending to the many he shepherds. He can get to know many deep things about many people. But he cannot attain the depth of knowledge and influence that the 24/7 vocation of family involves.
My work as a Catholic psychologist overlaps with the work of a priest in certain ways. I hear confessions, although I cannot absolve. I’m privileged to get to know many people in some personal depth. With Christian clients, I pray and encourage them to find the healing and fullness of life that Jesus Christ gives. I believe that the Lord has touched many of them, through me, for good. (I know that He’s touched me through them.) I love my ministry/job. I sometimes can’t believe I’m getting paid for something that’s so life-giving.
But unlike the priest’s priesthood, psychology is not my primary vocation. As a layman, when I leave work, I need to shift gears. I’m leaving my job, and entering my vocation as a husband and a father. I influence my wife and son immeasurably more than I do my clients – of course. The time we spend with each other and the depth with which we know and love each other is – naturally – far greater. Family members powerfully shape each other for good or ill, holiness or lack thereof.
If I died tomorrow, my clients’ lives would go on without major damage. Sure, there might be some sadness or some initial difficulty shifting to a new therapist. But it’s my family that would struggle long and hard, just as I would if my wife or child died before me. The particularity of the lay vocation leads to depth, as the non-exclusivity of the priestly vocation leads to breadth. Both are necessary elements of the Body. Good priests are powerful for the kingdom. We need to let them know we love and support them. But let no one disparage the holiness and depth of the lay vocation.