True Self

St. Anthony received a strange request this morning — from me.

For those who don’t know, who aren’t Catholic, St. Anthony of Padua was a Portuguese priest born at the end of the 12th Century. Inspired by the example of five Franciscan martyrs in Morocco, he sought to go there, but ended up, as a result of a storm at sea and of illness, in Italy. Several years and adventures later, he was called upon to preach at an ordination, which indirectly led to an encounter with St. Francis of Assisi, who had founded the Franciscans. St. Francis entrusted him with training young men seeking ordination. St. Anthony’s life, obviously, was richer and more full than that, but this is not intended to be a full biography of the beloved saint. Rather, I just want to provide a cursory introduction to explain my prayer at Mass this morning.

For some odd reason, St. Anthony is the one Catholics — who are notorious among other Christians for seeking the intercesson of those we believe are God’s friends — call upon for assistance in finding lost items. There’s even a catchy little prayer often used: “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found.” I didn’t use it.

Having relocated to California, primarily to be near my granddaughters though a dearth of jobs in South Dakota which actually pay a living wage was also a contributing factor, I decided to risk the roads this morning. I located the closest Catholic church, asked an app on my smart phone to get me there, and left for Mass 30 minutes early. Surprisingly, the app was correct; it only took me 13 minutes. As I sat in the historic structure, with its arches soaring overhead, my eyes were drawn to a stained glass window of St. Anthony. Without consciously deciding to do so, I found myself asking St. Anthony to help me find my true self.

I have to admit the idea of the true self was foreign to me when I stumbled across it by accident while looking for a book by James Martin, S.J., to read. I’d just finished MY LIFE WITH SAINTS, and was impressed with Father Martin’s style. He used his spiritual journey as a teaching tool, blending anecdote with information. BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF FROM THOMAS MERTON AND OTHER SAINTS appealed to me for two reasons. First, what I know of Thomas Merton and his writing impressed me enormously. Second, I was feeling dissatisfied in my life and kept thinking, “There’s got to be something more than this.”

I knew that Merton was an influential figure in Father Martin’s life. As a young man with a degree and career in business, he had felt his life had no real meaning. Channel surfing one night, he ended up watching a documentary on public television about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose writing continues to inspire more than 40 years after his untimely death. Before long, inspired by Merton, Father Martin was abandoning the life he’d worked to build and embarking upon an entirely different path; he entered the Society of Jesus and was eventually ordained to the priesthood. I suspected that if anyone could provide a bit of guidance on finding the “true self,” it would be a man who had himself embarked upon such a journey.

Unfortunately, at this point, the book is packed among others in a storage unit as I seek employment and a place of my own. I can’t quote any of the inspiring passages, but I do remember the book’s impact on me as though I had read it yesterday instead of five years ago. For the first time, I began to consider the possibility that in using the gifts God gave me, I was actually serving him. Because I tend, by nature, to be rather literal, I had been stuck in a rut — believing that only by doing what was specifically mentioned in Scripture could I serve God. That tended to limit my options and made me feel, at times, a little schizophrenic. I did, after all, have bills to pay.

The whole idea that maybe God gave me the desire to to create art, and a modicum of talent, because he wanted me to be an artist was radical. I can’t say I abandoned all and started painting with the (unrealistic) expectation of supporting myself in that way. Rather, the idea simmered in my unconscious for several years. Then, on impulse, I signed up for a prayerful painting retreat and suddenly, I was on fire. I needed to paint. I could not abandon the activity. I painted even when I was bone weary from standing on my feet for hours on end at a convenience store. I painted right up until the morning I packed the final odds and ends in preparation for my move to California. I painted this morning after Mass, pulling canvas and supplies out of a tote packed for convenient access.

An odd thing has happened as I’ve become more comfortable with claiming the artist within. I’ve also begun to feel more at home with the idea that I might have other gifts, and that by using those gifts, I might also be serving God. I am actually hoping that using those gifts may provide me with a living wage, and that’s really what I was asking St. Anthony this morning, for assistance in finding a job that uses gifts God gave me. I can’t imagine what it will be, but coming so far without taking the step which will take me beyond what I’ve known is equally unimaginable. At the same time, stepping out of my comfort zone will be a challenge. I’ll need all the help I can get.

And so, on impulse, I turned to a friend with an odd request. Somehow, I feel hopeful that with the twists and turns of his own life, St. Anthony will recognize the pattern in mine and help me find my way so that with each day I will come closer to knowing, embracing and living my true self, one that was — now that I think of it, created in God’s image.


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