Living a Hidden Life

I recently came across an article by Fr. David May, a priest of Madonna House, the apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty.  I asked permission to share it here because I thought it would speak to many of you. 

As human beings, I think we have a natural desire for greatness.  Of course, greatness can be defined in many ways.  In this article, Fr. David May describes the greatness of an ordinary life, the kind of life Jesus lived during those hidden years in Nazareth, the kind of quiet, ordinary life that most of us lead every day. 

Fr. May describes six joys of Nazareth – six challenges of our ordinary lives – and encourages us to embrace this path of love and thereby embrace Christ himself.  As the Gospels tell us time and again, it is the small things that have the potential to be great.

Thank you to Fr. David May and Madonna House Publications for sharing this reflection with us.

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“The Joys of Nazareth”

By Fr. David May

Society offers us many “joys.” We are all too familiar with them, sometimes to our embarrassment as Christians. The media proposes to us the joys of material prosperity and the joy of being young, athletic, and popular. We are invited to reach for the joy of the ever better, the ever exciting, the ever new experience.

There is an unceasing search for the joy of the perfect relationship—the mirage of being perfectly understood. Others invest their energies in the joy of power over others or in enjoying various pleasures with reckless abandon. Many admire the one who rejoices in being “cool” and “always in control” of his destiny. We think, If only I could be so self-assured.

A Christian is called to live joyously, but he rejoices principally in the Lord who loves him and saves him. When we say to the Lord, You are my joymy happiness lies in you alone, he smiles upon us with great tenderness. And he offers us some treasures straight from his heart, treasures which I call “the joys of Nazareth.”

1. Going unnoticed

First, there is the joy of going unnoticed. You know, you pour yourself out preparing a lovely meal, weeding the garden, putting in extra time at work or at the parish—and no one notices. You hardly get a perfunctory “thanks.” You find yourself taken for granted like the proverbial old shoe.

Whoever notices an old shoe anyway? You put it on, it serves you quietly and without fanfare, and when you’re finished with it, you toss it under the bed or into the closet. You never give it a second thought, let alone a fresh coat of polish! And your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you (Mt 6:4).

2. Being noticed at the wrong time

And then there’s the joy of being noticed—at the wrong time! Just when you’re at your very worst—losing your temper, putting a dent in the car, burning the bacon, saying something foolish—then everybody notices!

Suddenly you become the center of conversation, or at least of sideways glances. The spotlight is now on you. And so you stand there, naked, your weaknesses exposed, not only to yourself (bad enough) but to others (humiliating). Family life in particular is chocked full of such fare.

Rejoice, blessed one, you have just received the second joy of Nazareth!

3. Boredom

Third, there is the joy of being bored. Nazareth is by nature a series of many monotonous moments: feeding the little ones, peeling the spuds, emptying the trash, swishing out the toilet bowl, fixing the car. All of these are daily fare, hardly scintillating in themselves. But monotony is also a treasure for those with eyes to see. Repetition offers our hearts and minds the freedom to pray. For example, the Jesus prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer allows us to enter as little children into the heart of God. Repetition is an occasion to purify our hearts of useless noise and to enter into silence.

Few seem aware of this, but it is true. And boredom offers us yet another gospel gem: the chance to act out of love alone, with no other apparent compensation.

4. Your time is not your own

Another joy of Nazareth is that of not having time to do what we would like. Just when you have set aside those  precious few hours or minutes for yourself to read that book, enjoy your hobby, listen to music, pray, or just sit quietly, the roof, so to speak, caves in. There is a crisis, someone needs immediate attention, the plumbing bursts, the roast is sizzling into ashes, etc., etc.

The days go by and run into months and years of this. I have no time for myself any more. My own life is not even my own! But it is then that the Lord smiles upon us, and the words of St. Paul can rise up from our hearts: I live now not with my own life, but with the life of Christ who lives in me… I cannot bring myself to give up God’s gift (Gal 2:20-21).

5. Misunderstandings

The fifth joy of Nazareth is that of not being perfectly understood. Perhaps you have had the experience. Even those who love us most dearly and know us the best, often do not really grasp the deepest movements of our hearts. This can be a shock at first, a source of bitter disappointment as time goes on. But it can also be a joy if we use such painful moments to enter the bittersweet world of our solitude.

And what do we learn there in the heart of loneliness? We learn that we are made for God alone, and that he alone knows us as we long to be known. And he alone loves us as we long to be loved.

6. Interruptions

The sixth joy of Nazareth is that of being fragmented and dispersed by the demands of life. We are pushed and pulled this way and that, seldom getting anything done the way we had intended. In fact, life seems to be a great series of unfinished projects. For those who love order, this can be excruciating.

A greater pattern

But gradually we come to see that our life is part of a greater pattern whose magnificent dimensions are beyond our ability to grasp. It is our Father who is the Source of this plan. He asks us to be content to be nourished by him moment by moment. The Bread he offers us is Jesus himself, who will teach us to trust and to be a child. In him, after all, all things hold together (Col 1:17).

The ultimate joy of Nazareth is, of course, you and me—us—together, not in the greeting card sense of such terms, but in the bare-boned reality of our call to live together as families of love in all our poverty and in all our glory.

The great miracle

Union in love is, was, and always will be the great Christian miracle, the one for which Jesus prayed so earnestly: so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:11-12).

Such love is the flowering of God’s life within us, rooted in the good soil of hearts made great through embracing the ordinary. For, wonder of wonders, when we embrace the everyday “joys” of Nazareth, it is the Lord himself whom we embrace.

Originally published in Madonna House's publication "Restoration," January 2005.  Shared here with permission.

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  The Holy Family Sleeping, with Angels , Rembrandt van Rijn, pen and brown ink on paper, 1645.

The Holy Family Sleeping, with Angels, Rembrandt van Rijn, pen and brown ink on paper, 1645.