I have always struggled with the Beatitudes. Even as a religion teacher who is very involved in ministry and has been for decades, when it comes to explaining the meaning behind these teachings from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, I come up short-handed. The Beatitudes in and of themselves are meant to be a mystery or paradoxical. How can it be true that someone who is mourning is blessed? Or someone who is being persecuted can thrive? Ultimately, we know it is because our reward as Christians is not going to come in this world, but in the next. However, in a culture that is very achievement-oriented and as someone who considers herself an over-achiever, I struggle with this truth.
I have literally always been a bridesmaid and have come to detest that phrase. My blog post on the unhealthiness of wedding culture is for another time, but as a single woman who has had to purchase at least eight bridesmaid dresses in her day, this phrase of “always a bridesmaid” has multiple layers of uncomfortable meaning for me. One, that as a single woman, society thinks that I am getting the lesser part; that I am not quite making it towards the prize which should be becoming a bride. Two, that phrase does not just apply to my vocation in life, but in all of the other areas of my life where maybe I have come close, but not totally achieved the highest mark. I’m not a homeowner. I do not make six figures. I do not have children. I have run for positions, applied for jobs, and been nominated for awards, but have not always gotten the position, job, or award that I so wanted in that moment. In that sense of the phrase and in the eyes of society, that phrase of “Always a Bridesmaid” seems to often apply to my life.
But according to Scripture, Christianity, and the Beatitudes, it seems to be a good thing that I have been kept from achieving the awards or the place of positions that I might want. I can think of many times in my life where this did turn out to be the case. There have been times where I really wanted a job or a relationship to work out, but in hindsight, it wasn’t going to be the best for me in the ways that I thought. I can look back and think that maybe God was saving me from some heartache or trauma that I have seen friends have to go through because of their jobs or significant others. But is that enough? Shouldn’t I want to enter the ring and try to get that high achieving recognition or reward? Or is society fooling us into thinking that these achievements really are the goal?
I don’t think that our faith says that we can’t seek or want those things, but that we shouldn’t get caught up in it. Certainly, not always receiving everything that we want keeps us humble. But why does it seem that some of us always get what we want and some of us keep getting humility?
To use a cliché, the grass is almost always greener on the other side, and I know that many of my friends with more high-paying, high-powered jobs may look at my humble, single teacher position with envy when I am spending time with family at Christmas or laying out by the pool in summer. I still struggle, though, with that balance of wanting more and being content with where the Lord has called me currently.
I think that the difference between a calling and a job is the Church’s perspective that I have to continue to examine. And I think it is one that our society is coming around to more as well. I have many friends who want to feel fulfilled by their work, rather than just achieve a higher salary, which I would attribute to desiring more of a calling. Certainly there are always those that just are motivated by money or achievement, but even for those there comes a time when one’s purpose, I’m sure, is called into question.
In moments when I feel like I am missing the mark or feel defeated, I always look to St. Paul who gloried in his defeats because it meant that he was doing what Christ wanted, not what the world wanted for him. I can think of many other saints, as well, who obviously rejoiced solely in achieving a closer relationship with the Lord rather than societal status or recognition. That being said, it brings comfort to know that I am not alone in this Christian “second best” struggle, but it does not always make it easier.
As a 40-year-old woman, perhaps you can call it a mid-life crisis, but I am starting to look back and think: “what have I done with my life?” “Is it enough?” As a teacher who has worked for nearly 20 years in the Church, many would say: “Of course it is! Think of all of the lives that you have touched and people you have ministered to!” But as an American woman in the world, I have to be honest that when I look at the male ministers who get selected for positions I applied for and who receive more opportunities or salary than me, it is still disheartening and feels like I have come up short. Or when I look at women who have families AND a high-powered job and seem content, isn’t that what society has told me that I should want, too?
I guess the purpose of this essay is to comfort others who may think that they are not making the mark; to let them know that they are not alone. But it is also to call attention and call out our culture that sets rather impossible standards of achievement that few are able to fully meet. And as Christians, we should not be caught up by the standards of this world, but only the ones set for us by God, which also can seem difficult at times. We must accept the fact that what we truly can do in this world is use our gifts and talents as much as we can or are allowed to in this life, and help out our fellow brothers and sisters as much as possible. Those are the goals spoken repeatedly by Christ and St. Paul in the Gospels and those are the things that make us His Bride.