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Channeling St. Paul

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, October 27, 2011


St. Paul, in his letters to the early Christian communities, often seems strangely preoccupied with himself and his labors, a fact that leaves me scratching my head — as in, “Did he really just write that?!” In Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, he greets his listeners with this one: “We loved you so much, that we were determined to share not only the Gospel, but our very selves as well.”

Did he really just say that? That his love for the Thessalonians is so immense that they deserve something more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ? And furthermore, that this “something more” turns out to be St. Paul himself?! Is he an egomaniac? Surely these are strange words from an apostle who, we know, ultimately cared about nothing else other than the Gospel. What is he suggesting?

I offer that St. Paul is suggesting something eminently motivating for us, especially as we try to keep the engines revved here at the midpoint of the semester. This is better than Red Bull. Better than “Crazy Train.”

St. Paul is rather preoccupied with work in his letter to the Thessalonians. “You do recall, don’t you,” he asks this community where he had preached some time ago, “all our toil and drudgery that we performed on your behalf? Working day and night, night and day, to relieve you of your burdens.” Why all this recollection of his daily labors? Could it be that his preaching of Jesus Christ is not enough?

Perhaps this will shed some light: When I was teaching high school religion, there were days when I was just on fire — I was in the zone and everything was working. I could feel it the moment class started: the kids were uncharacteristically tuned in; I was energized and full of charisma. One day, before I knew it, I was standing on top of my desk, screaming about the Gospel of John like a Southern Baptist.

Of course, most days were not like that. Most days, I preached the Gospel like a nervous, naive, under-prepared new teacher who didn’t dare look up from his lecture notes for fear of what he would find his students doing to keep themselves entertained. In fact, during my first year, most days were like that.

So one day I asked my mentor, Fr. Jim Flynn, what tricks he had come up with over the years to keep his students locked in during religion class. Frankly, I was desperate for a flashy shortcut — some game he played to win them over, a cure-all method of discipline that kept his class spellbound, pizza maybe — I didn’t really care. I just needed help.

Fr. Flynn had an answer ready and waiting for me, though it hardly bowled me over at the time. He told me that his trick was to grade his students’ homework and prepare the next day’s lessons right after school, in his classroom, with the lights on and his door open.

I waited for the punch line. It never came. That was it.

When I asked him why this helped, he said, “Because when the students finish their sports practices or club meetings and are waiting to catch their rides home, they see me in there, every night, two, three hours after school ends, grading their papers and preparing their classes for the next day.” Fr. Flynn believed that this witness, this daily labor — simple, powerful — day in and day out, convinced his students of the Gospel he preached, some days like a Southern Baptist slain by the Spirit, most days like a regular old laborer, just being faithful and getting the job done for others.

St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians what I believe Fr. Flynn’s life testified to: “We loved you so much that we were determined to share not only the Gospel, but our very selves as well.” It’s as if Paul is saying, “The Gospel we preach is just this: that Christ came down to earth, took on our flesh and then labored in it, day in and day out, to give his life away for others. If that’s the Gospel we preach, then to be persuasive, that’s the Gospel we must live.”

God’s grace, of course, is not the result of our work, nor do we earn God’s love — an unconditional gift — by our performance. But our work, our daily toil, our studies and our service do seem to be favored sites of God’s grace. Our daily labors, faithfully, earnestly engaged, are ordinary — and thus omnipresent — occasions where Christ’s gift of himself to the world becomes manifested in our act of giving ourselves away in labor.

In these sometimes toilsome mid-semester days, we pray for the grace to work hard, not for ourselves, but for others. There is the deepest source of motivation and energy here — just ask the tireless St. Paul. In taking on our daily labor with a full heart and a generous spirit, we give flesh to the self-giving Christ who dwells inside us, and we make his Gospel known to the world.

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is the Director of Pastoral Life for ACE and a member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.