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Let the Dead Bury their Dead

God does not call you because you are ready or talented or want it; he calls because he has a plan for you and loves you.
by Brother Paul Stein, LC | Source:

I was a wild kid: intense and inconstant. My mother recently told me that I would often get the strangest ideas in my head when I was two or three and be adamant about them. I remember when the overhead fan crashed down on the table during dinner. The only thing that upset me was that I could not finish my peas.

I enjoyed anything as long as it required my complete attention and was not too difficult. I played soccer, lacrosse, and football. I skied in the winter. I took viola lessons, was a boy scout, and attended an after school algebra club. My brother and I watched very little television. We had labelled it as boring and lame, so we spent our time together or beating each other up. We were often outside and whenever my brother found some time we would go fishing.

The Legionaries would often come around and when I was in fourth or fifth grade, we started a club. It was in the snow that we had our first activity. My brother and I, two of my friends, and the Legionary made up the group. I am sure that the Legionary brother had no clue what it meant for me to play football in two feet of snow on the High School green. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in a while. We had always seen the older students playing there after school, but it was the first time we had ever done it ourselves. In addition, the brother impressed us with his speed and skill. Previously, I had thought of any priest as upwards of forty and for me at that time, forty was old. We continued our club.

The Legionary brother who most affected me was 19 when he took over charge of our club: he gave us talks, organized our meetings, and took us on retreats to the seminary. He was young and good at sports. A year later, I noticed that his sinuses were swollen. What appeared to be a bad infection turned out to be cancer. It was already well advanced and ready to metastasize. His face became distorted unrecognizably.

I would have pulled back and shrunk from helping others in his situation. I would have been taken up with how to get the most out of the months that were left. He did something different and shocking. He continued to help us as much as he could. The man was dying but he was showing us that the only thing that is truly worthwhile is God and others. I would often turn things over and ask about the meaning of life when I wondered through the woods surrounding our house, but not until then did I find the first convincing answer. It made me think of what he always emphasized in his talks: unconditional charity.

That summer we saw the Pope at Central Park in New York and then Mother Teresa in Washington D.C. when she spoke to my family for forty-five minutes. I also opted to go for a month long program at the Legionary apostolic school, but it was more as a way to spend the last part of my summer than to really ask myself if I wanted to stay there and much less if I had a vocation. I had told all my friends that I would be going back to school in the fall and signed up for all my teams, ordered some magazines for the next year, etc. I remember doing this while lying down on my bed thinking it was obvious that I would return.

I met up with the minor seminarians in Cheshire, CT and we drove to New Hampshire. I sat next to a boy with whom I would spend the next 10 years. The two weeks went well and as could be expected I got caught up in the activities without letting anything really resound. I reflected little and figured that I would be heading home, even though I had liked it and had run into one of the kids I knew from Syracuse (he was also the only one with blond hair like me).

Then the blast of God struck me. On the last day we were having a gospel reflection like we did every day. “Let the dead …” the words seemed to grab at me. They seemed to be for me alone. “Leave the dead…” What—who were the dead? The dead were those who lived for themselves. “Let them bury their dead…” Their dead were all the things that they placed their hopes in and which had betrayed them because they were not God. The dead who buried their dead were those who heaped corruption upon themselves and dug themselves deeper into their own graves with the frustration of a selfish life.

Obviously the reflection wasn’t quite so eloquent stated when it struck me, but it nevertheless overcame me. It suddenly became strikingly clear what God wanted of me—not in the long term, but regarding the first steps. It was a this-is-where-I-ought-to-be conviction. I didn’t care where it would lead me and neither did God make that clear. I only knew I had to start upon the path before me. I had to leave behind the cheap happiness a selfish life offered.

My mother came to pick me up the next day. On the way back, she asked me what I thought and I told her I wanted to attend. She was surprised and asked me why: trying to respond I found out I had no good reason. So I picked up the gospel, turned to the passage that had struck me the day before and read it aloud, hoping she would understand what I wanted to tell her. She started crying. Two weeks later I was a minor seminarian in New Hampshire.

Why me? Looking back, the call was sudden and unexpected. God does not call because you are ready or talented or want it; he calls because he has a plan for you and loves you.

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