Why do they say that doctors “practice” medicine? I don’t want them to “practice”; I want them to do the real thing! Then I looked up the word “practice,” and found out that it really means “carrying out”—doing. Whatever the craft is—medicine, parenthood, law, metalworker, priesthood, or whatever—every participant is “practicing” it. Will we ever get it right? When it comes to my “practice” of ministry, I often doubt that I’m doing it right, and certainly suspect that I could be doing it better. I am open to learning, even though I sometimes resist having to practice new skills.
For nearly the past month now, my exercise of priesthood largely has consisted of ministry to the hospitalized and nursing home residents. In the day-to-day, they are my parish. That’s a real departure from the variety of full-time parish life! My “parishioners” are in various levels of physical pain, emotional and spiritual unrest. Many are upset with God, with their family members, with the Diocese, and likely with themselves. When I ask, “What I can do for you,” they unload their sorrow and confusion, even if they cannot express it in words. Whether they are looking for consolation, for a different perspective, or what else, I am not always sure.
The words of Paul’s letter to the Romans speak to this situation, the human situation marred by sin and its effects. In chapter 7, Paul expressed frustration with his own occasional inability to do what he knows to be the right thing. Then, in the famous chapter 8, he concludes that his personal struggle also happens on a global scale. “Creation was made subject to futility…all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but…we also groan within ourselves.” The physical world erupts in earthquakes and storms, and causes destruction. Our bodies don’t always cooperate with our spirits, and our actions don’t always align with our consciences. The true, the good, and beautiful aren’t always easy to recognize or to choose in this world.
So that’s the story; but thanks be to God, that’s not the whole story! Yes, “the struggle is real,” and we really experience the need for God’s help in every dimension of our lives, if we’re honest about it. But Saint Paul reminds us: “The sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Everything about this life will prove insufficient; it always leaves us waiting and wanting for “more”; and that is good.
With every moment of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice, we enter more and more into the salvation won for us in Jesus, which satisfies our human longings yet continuously must be renewed in further prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. Our human groanings, therefore, are the very stimuli that draw us closer to Christ and to His people, especially to those who suffer. By alleviating others in their difficulties, and by experiencing that same care from others, our life stories are incorporated into the Gospel Story, in which Love overcomes fear, anger, and sorrow. Like any worthy art, it takes practice.