THE DESIRE FOR GREATNESS
On august 1, 1993, the Mississippi river had reached a record 45.5’ flood level, breaking a levy close to St. Louis, allowing the river’s waters to rush upon the nearby Monroe County farmland. The video footage depicts the alarming power of a river gone wild. Within minutes of the levy break, the river began snapping large trees in two, sweeping away large barns and lifting farmhouses from their foundation, drowning the structures in its torrents. Rivers, when properly channeled between two banks, can fulfill the purpose of transporting resources, providing power, while also providing a way to reach a destination. If the power of the river is left unchecked, and becomes unleashed in an unrestrained manner, it can destroy the world around it. Burning within the heart of man is a divine spark: the inspired desire for greatness. Like the mighty Mississippi, the desire for glory can be the very path to holiness, the very power that allows one to achieve one’s dignity which is: being glorified by God by Glorifying God. Desire for greatness can be a resource, a power and a path which allows us to reach our vocational destination: to be great by glorifying the great One. If this desire for greatness is left unchecked, unrestrained, it can run wild, sweeping away our peace, freedom and joy, destroying the house of our soul and the lives of those around us. The desire for greatness can be a power which fuels our vocation of fatherhood, or it can potentially damage , if not destroy our marriages and families.
To Glorify God or to Glorify Self
The authentic desire for greatness is from God, planted in our hearts by God, and wells up in man like a river, creating ambitions to glorify God. However, this desire to glorify God can easily become a desire to glorify self at the expense and use of God. We, as men, often struggle with the manner by which God chooses for us to glorify Him—which is almost always by means of our vocation—and become impatient, and allow this desire to become self-seeking, tainted with impure motives and egocentric ambitions. Rather than trusting God, that He can make us great by means of the manner He has chosen, we attempt to control, to grasp and make ourselves noticed by men. A while back, I had the opportunity to converse with a former Madison Avenue executive, who turned several failing companies into successful fortune 500 corporations. He related that his life was a blur. After years of laboring a the office, working weekends and late nights, he now regrets that his desire for greatness was misdirected and had betrayed him. Yes, he provided for his children materially, but today, most of them are struggling spiritually. The desire for greatness can be a power which fuels our vocation, our fatherhood, or potentially damage if not destroy our families.
Jacob’s Desire for Greatness
For example, Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch was a man who desired greatness. When his first-born brother Esau was famished, and nearly starving, Jacob shrewdly convinced Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of lintels. The birthright of the first born meant that the first born son received the inheritance and blessing of his father. Jacob wanted to be great. When Isaac, Jacob’s blind and dying father, commanded Esau to bring him some game that he might bless him with the blessing of his fathers before dying, Jacob made himself appear to be hairy like Esau, and duped his father into giving him the blessing. Because of this Esau was determined to murder Jacob, which caused Jacob to flee to his uncle’s house, where he met Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and fell in love with her. Jacob agreed with Laban to work seven years in exchange for Rachel. After the seven years were fulfilled, Laban held a feast and late in the evening, after much celebration, Jacob slept with his wife, only to wake up and discover that he had slept with Laban’s eldest daughter Leah. In the darkness of his father’s blindness, after feasting with Isaac, Jacob duped his father, replacing the older brother Esau with himself, in order to reap the blessing of his fathers. In the darkness of night, during the wedding feast, Laban duped Jacob, replacing the younger Rachel with older daughter Leah. Jacob reaped what he sowed. His unrestrained, unchecked desire for greatness led to not only multiplication of wives, but also multiplication of humiliations and problems for his future family.
Joseph’s Desire For Greatness
St. Joseph, being a “son of David” was an underground king, aware of his royal lineage—a lineage flowing with the royal blood of David. Joseph, like his Jewish comrades, desired the coming of the prophesied Messiah—the annointed one who would save all of Israel from their enemies. Joseph, being a son of David could potentially become the father to the Messiah. The thought of being the father of the Messiah may have inspired Joseph with a holy longing and a holy fear. This consideration of being called to such an incredible vocation must have created a tension in Joseph’s soul between the recognition of a God-given vocation and the temptation for self-glorification. Yet, Joseph renounced his desire for greatness in one of two ways, if not both: first , by choosing to enter a celibate marriage with Mary, Joseph set aside the desire and potential to be the father of the Messiah. Second, Joseph sought to protect Mary from his potential to sin and lust and made the decision to detach himself from all that seemed great—that is, to be married to the Mother of God and to be the father of the Son of God. Unlike Jacob, who brought upon Rachel and Leah the consequences of his disordered desire for greatness, Joseph refused to damage Mary with any false aspirations for self-glorification.
The GIVER AND THE GIFT
What can we learn from these two accounts? Our desire for greatness should always be compatible with our vocation. This is the test for every minor and major decision of our fatherhood. Does this desire cause undo stress to my marriage? Are my personal desires robbing time and attention from my children—my marriage? If I am not married, will the decisions that I am making now have a negative impact on my future relationships? The real battle is to discern the difference between the Giver and the gift. Our Lord, the Giver, gives many gifts and talents in order to draw us to His goodness. He gives gifts in order that we may know Him as a generous Father. But often, as we proceed in our walk with God, He desires to take us to the next level, and truly make us great, and therefore asks us to temporarily give up the gift and cling solely to the Giver. This is the litmus test as to whether we are a true son of the Father. Often God calls us to give up something good in order to fully embrace Him and His great plan.
Giving up the Gift in Exchange for the Giver
Our Lord says, “And as for you, do not seek what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; and do not exalt yourselves; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be given to you besides” (Lk 12:29-31) Notice that the Lord says that if we seek the kingdom of God first—His will first—we will not only receive food, drink but also exaltedness—glorification – because we need this. In other words, we ought to humble ourselves, submitting to God’s will to fulfill our vocational duties with excellence, and if we humble ourselves in this way, God will exalt us. Mike Zeglin related an account of his successful nephew who was offered an incredible position with a global firm, but in the end, the man turned down the offer because he knew that it would compromise his fatherhood and steal time from his family. Another friend of mine will only meet with friends at night after his children are in bed—not before. Another man I know shuts down his cell phone upon arriving home from work and does not turn it on until the kids are in bed. Another father shared with me that if he is demanded to work later, he first comes home for family dinner, spends time with his wife and children, and then returns to work. Another father gave up beer because it simply, as he put it, made him mean and not very nice.
Notice that in each of these situation, that the gift is sacrificed for the Giver: the gift of work, phones, friendships, and even beer, are sacrificed for the sake of the vocation. Our desire for greatness is only great in so far as the desire is to serve the Great One by serving our family. Often, we confuse the gift of desire with the Giver of our desires, and we begin to idolize the gift rather than the God Who gave the gift. Changing a diaper, if done for the glory of God, is worth more than all of the great actions we can imagine. St. John of the Cross said that “God desires the least degree of obedience and submissiveness more than all those services you think of rendering him.”
Humility, The Path to Greatness
To become great fathers, great men, often we will be called to give up the good for something greater. This demands great humility – but as the scriptures tell us, humility leads to greatness. As St. Peter says: “Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation.” (1 Peter 5:6) And as St. Padre Pio says, “Satan fears and trembles before humble souls.” A while back, I noticed, lying on the ground, a dead cicada—but it was twitching. Upon closer examination, I noticed that a tiny ant was struggling to take this catch to his ant hole. The cicada was nearly 100x the size of the ant. The ant labored to no avail. The gift was so good that the ant could not leave it. The ant was tortured by his desire. He had this incredible gift but could not fulfill it. The cicada is like a man’s disordered desire for greatness and the ant is like each of us. We’ve discovered something, a desire within us that has the potential to bring us happiness. We know that we are called to greatness, but unless we release the disordered desire and surrender it to God, asking him to purify this call to greatness by means of our vocation, we torture ourselves. Sometimes we have to give up the big dreams of being noticed by men and return to the ant hill to fulfill our vocation. In the end, our family does not need the cicada, but could live happily on much smaller catches. Let us become like St. Joseph, who by releasing any false desire for greatness, actually became great. God will bless us beyond our imagination if we seek His will first in fulfilling our vocation—then He will exalt us.