Two weeks ago, during a layover in Memphis, Tennessee I purchased a copy of Real Simple magazine. I hunkered down in a rather uncomfortable vinyl seat to wait for my flight and began to flip through the pages. Quite quickly I came upon what they labeled “66 inspiring words for the class of 2009.” It was a brief snippet from J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address: “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift… It is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.”
I had heard these words before. Around this time last year I sat next to my dad in Harvard Yard in a light afternoon drizzle and listened to that lovely woman share these thoughts with the graduates of all the Harvard schools and their families. It was a moment, and a speech, I will not forget. She spoke eloquently about life, about success, and – most importantly – about failure.
Since that time one year ago I have experienced many failures – some which you might call big, others quite small. It has been a difficult year, and frequently I found myself turning to the Church for guidance, particularly I sought to understand the Church’s teaching on vocation, an area in which I felt most acutely that I had, somehow, failed.
The Catholic Online Guide to Religious Ministry website discusses vocation in the following way: “A vocation is found in the providential arrangement of significant aspects of life and also by the grace which we receive to make the best of these situations. The loss of awareness of this providential aspect of vocation is one of the things that leads to an immense insecurity in modern life. When people forget the divine and providential element in their lives, they try desperately to find a course through life like a man on a raft with neither rudder nor map.”
Oh Lord!, I thought to myself when encountering this paragraph, I’m this (wo)man on a raft without a rudder or map! The only things I brought with me on my brazen paddle boat ride into the deep blue sea were books and degrees. I had thought that my life was going in a particular direction, and I had thought providence and grace would agree. Perhaps one would intercede with the other and beg my case. What do I do now?
But Church publications, I have found recently, are not always the best guide. They often contradict what figures in the Church have at other times said. I have thought a lot recently about a passage from the medieval Latin text, The Voyage of Saint Brendan. Toward the beginning of Brendan’s voyage on the sea with his monastic community, the men exhaust themselves rowing in a calm sea with almost no wind to help them along. The saint tells the monks not to fear for “God is our helper, sailor, and helmsman, and he guides us. Ship all the oars and the rudder. Just leave the sail spread and God will do as he wishes with his servants and their ship.” In other words, he tells his men to relax, to try not to steer. God is their rudder and their map.
Revisiting texts like the The Voyage of St. Brendan after my own setbacks or missteps have helped me to see these times in which we feel like we are aimlessly drifting, cycles of progress and setback are not simply times of failure. They are moments of divine grace and providence, moments that become especially clear when we have no rudder and are just riding the ocean currents. These moments of pure drifting, which sometimes feel like failures, very often – as J.K. would say – reveal us to ourselves. We should not trade them for anything.