As lay Catholic leaders go into the world, there are considerations which must always be present. I think of Tepeyac Leaders (graduates of TLI), who are ready to impact society, but, I imagine, have one common hurdle: they already have a lot going on!
This is a concern because I know it is easy to get caught up in a mindset society has come to idolize — the busier we are, the more we must be contributing to the world. Unfortunately, when we get caught up in this mentality and become too busy to put first things first (like spending daily time in prayer; or for those who are married, going on dates with your spouse and playing with your kids; or spending time with friends, having real conversations), we find ourselves in the predominant mess of contemporary society.
Someone once shared with me a tool that has helped me tremendously. It’s the analogy of a telescope which creates vision and balance in life. The telescope is an amazing instrument. It allows you to see things very easily that otherwise couldn’t be seen (think of the Hubble telescope). It allows far away objects that appear blurry to the naked eye to come into perfect focus, like the moon.
In terms of priorities, the image of a telescope can do the same thing for how we live our lives for the Lord and His glory. For a moment, imagine God’s major priorities for you as various pieces of a telescope. Change any two parts of a telescope so they are not properly aligned, and what happens? You cannot see anything clearly; everything is blurry. Putting your priorities out of order causes the same problem. It creates a blurred sense of God’s call and direction for you. As common-sensical as this sounds, when I learned this, it created an immediate challenge for me, because I needed to know God’s priorities for my life. I already knew what my priorities were. But I was not confident I knew God’s priorities for me. I was focused on being busy, not obedient. I had yet to understand that God’s plan for man is not about aggrandizing the ego, but about emptying it out.
As Bishop Robert Barron puts it, I was caught up in a world dominated by the “ego drama.” He defines the ego drama as the play that I am writing, producing, directing and, above all, starring in, where freedom of choice reigns supreme. In contrast, the “Theo drama,” Bishop Barron explains, is the great story being told by God. It’s that play being written by Him. And what makes life thrilling is to find our place in the Theo drama, embracing the exciting role and mission God desires for our lives.
I had planned on being super successful in my career, a great husband, a man who also gives back to the community, with an amazing relationship with his kids. My ego drama aligned with my desires and ambitions. It’s not that these were bad ambitions, but my pursuit of them on my own terms had the potential to create a damaging, busy life. In my pride, I convinced myself my ambitions and plans were in alignment with God’s ambitions and plans for me. But I had not requested much input from God Himself. I was high on personal magnanimity and low on humility.
Over time, I learned to quiet myself before God, and I began to hear Him. I now know God does not want me to impress Him by staying busy. He wants me to be humble and obedient. God does not want me to spend so much time running around and planning. He wants me to settle down and listen, focusing on following Him through my vocation of loving those around me, until I die of love.
I would like to help you see your future in Christ more clearly by providing some life-lessons learned along the way from the telescope image. The analogy is not perfect. In real life there are few sharp lines that separate one priority from the next. There are no neat compartments like those of a telescope that can easily distinguish and manage priorities one at a time. Often, immediate peripheral vision is as important as long-term vision when navigating life. Life can be quite messy. You can be focused on keeping the end in mind and get smacked in the head by something going on now.
So, I would like to share with you my personal list of God-given priorities as an example (not a model). This is what my telescope looks like:
- The eyepiece is my relationship with God. If I don’t make this my priority, my life doesn’t have prayer!
- The next piece is my relationship with Tina, my wife. If I don’t put her next in my priorities, ahead of the kids, our life would be a wreck. I don’t know a mother of nine who would like to think she is not more important than the children.
- Next is my relationship with each of our nine children.
- What follows is my health in mind and body. If I don’t keep up my mental and physical health, I can’t provide Tina and the kids the energy they need from me. This can also distract me from prayer. And I can’t give work and the community the energy they require.
- As a Catholic businessman, next is work. If I can’t keep work subordinate to all the above, life gets very blurry, very fast!
- Finally, my relationship with my neighbors and community.
Keeping the telescope image in mind, I recognize how each priority is dependent on the one before it. Each sets a foundation for what follows. The right order is like the loaves and the fishes miracle. It multiplies the time you have for the thrilling Theo drama God has in store for you. In a world where time is a scarce commodity, you can find it in abundance. Despite attending to my responsibilities, you would be amazed at how much free time I have today. I am not busy; I am on a mission where God is in charge of time and energy!
Occasionally, in real time, when one piece of the telescope — a priority — ends and the next begins, it can be a hard to discern the right thing to do.
- What is enough prayer when your spouse or a child needs your assistance on something, or the house needs cleaning?
- When does exercise become a burden on your time up and down the telescope?
- What should you do if you got up early so you could attend daily Mass but realize, when you head out into your mission field called the living room and the kitchen, that it needs straightening and cleaning, all while you know your spouse is exhausted?
- When does a promotion at work that can bring more money, opportunity, and travel with it, need to be passed on to allow you to consistently be home for family dinners?
I am not going to attempt to answer these questions for you. I am only warning you will run into them. The telescope image has made the messiness of such realities possible for me to deal with. Although I stumble and fall along the way and, in retrospect, I don’t always make the right decisions, the telescope does give me something to lean on when things get blurry. I hope that it will do the same for you.
As I am sure many of you have experienced when letting God lead your life, this is not a one-way street. Every time you embrace a piece of God’s plan, it strengthens your relationship with Him. When I married Tina, for example, it not only made me happy. It also strengthened my life with Jesus, as Tina and I agreed to make Him the center of our lives. This served as a foundation for raising children and beyond.
Keeping work in the right order is much easier when I recognize that although it’s my professional vocation and how God provides for our family, at the same time, it is fifth in the order of priorities. It’s not more important than my relationship with God, my relationship with Tina, my relationship with any of our nine children, or my personal health. But it helps support all of them. Since working is my vocation, it strengthens my prayer life, improves my relationship with the kids, helps me stay strong in mind and body, and positions me to be a good neighbor. Does this make sense? At the end of your telescope is the last priority. We need to ask, do we really have time to spend in the outermost ring? This is to be in fellowship, serve on a Board, or participate in a big project.
Here is how God may speak to your heart about this: He may ask you to consider if the opportunity at hand is going to enhance or detract from all those higher priorities, NOT how important project is. It is probably very important, and it may be someone else’s responsibility. If it’s not your responsibility, just respectfully say no and don’t feel bad about it. I was, for example, the last one to commit to joining the inaugural board of Tepeyac Leadership, Inc. If you sense a yes, make sure all the people who will be impacted, especially your spouse if you are married, see the wisdom of saying yes. When I am looking for discernment, I have often found that the voice of God in my life sounds a lot like Tina when she provides me her thoughts. God speaks to us through those we love and trust the most, whether we like what we hear or not. God has often used Tina to keep me out of some potentially poor decisions.
In addition, train yourselves to become keenly aware that everything you take on, at every level, will have some impact on everything else, for better or worse. Take this telescope mindset and see how it may work for you. Pray and quiet your heart before God every day. Listen in your heart (and to your spouse) for God’s direction. Don’t hesitate to ask for the input of key people in your life. Be honest with yourself in the discernment process (ego is a powerful foe!). For many people, saying no is much harder than saying yes.
Keep in mind that the time and energy needed for each priority will change over time. That’s what keeps the telescope in focus!
- Newlyweds need to spend more time building their relationship as husband and wife.
- New parents need to spend more time figuring out how to be parents and transitioning each child into the family.
- When you start a new job, you will need more time and energy settling into the opportunity.
- When God calls you to a new project or apostolate, it’s the same.
All of these require significant short-term energy and attention with delayed gratifications. Keeping the end in mind leads to many deferred, but incredible, joys and benefits. So don’t over-do it, but don’t under-do it either. Great blessings can come from a no and great blessings can come from a yes. Remember, life can be messy and a bit rough at times but, with God’s grace and His direction, life can be amazing! So be patient with God, be patient with yourself, and always remember this: This is what God is looking for from you: progress (not perfection) in those virtues Jesus exemplified on the cross: obedience, humility, meekness, and love.
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