May 4th is traditionally called “International Firefighters Day.” I love when our culture takes something very originally Catholic and it gets pushed into the spotlight. May 4th is also the Memorial of Saint Florian, Patron Saint of Firefighters. Most kids have a fleeting moment in their early childhood where their number one desire is to become a firefighter. Most kids don’t end up doing that, but some kids do. I’m happy to report that I was that kid, and I still am.
Depending on where you call home, the idea of a volunteer firefighter may seem very odd to you. Here in Western Pennsylvania, nearly all of our communities depend on men and women who have full-time jobs, families, and other obligations to volunteer to learn the art of firefighting and then also support their organizations through the giving of their time, talent, and treasure. I grew up in a family where my father, and his father before him, were volunteer firefighters. Naturally, I joined the organization when I was 14 years old.
Before I knew it, I had an old set of hand-me-down fire gear and a yellow soup bowl looking helmet, the well-known look of an early 2000s junior firefighter. Now, that life isn’t too exciting but does provide an incredible lens through which to view the world. The junior firefighter is responsible for learning what it takes to be a firefighter, from cleaning the inside of the wheel wells of a truck to learning how an air pack works and is maintained. Then once a junior firefighter turns 18, he or she is ready to fight fire! Not really, but the law says that he or she may enter a burning building. As a young firefighter goes to more incidents and learns alongside more veteran firefighters and company officers, he or she begins to forge a path of their own in the fire service. In the best case scenarios, the most respected of the firefighters becomes the chief who is responsible for all of his or her firefighters. Well, I’m sure you asked yourself by now, why does any of this matter for Prime Soil?
One of the most striking characteristics of the Benedictine way of life that I’ve embraced is the idea of prayer and work, “Ora et Labora.” Monks gather for prayer 5 times a day, and in between Lauds and Vespers, they are typically assigned to do some kind of monastic labor. There are junior monks and postulants who learn about being monks. There are monks in temporary vows and others in solemn vows. And there is an abbot.
The trouble is, I don’t live in a monastery, but I do live in a community with a volunteer fire department. I was super excited to be a postulant in our community when I was in high school. I learned from the older guys and my dad about how important being honest and dedicated to learning the values of the fire service and how to best behave as a member. When I became certified and fought my first fire, I moved into temporary vows. I knew what it was supposed to take to belong here, but did I have what it took? As a few years would pass, I was chosen to serve as a company officer, a capacity I served in for 8 years. I felt as if at this moment, regardless of where life took me, I would always have a place in this organization. Solemn Vows hit hard. The title didn’t matter; I had forged a path in the fire service that honestly is not very exciting or heroic, but consistent and humble. Since then, I’ve responded to as many calls as I could and helped at nearly every fundraiser, provided I was not at work. I’m humbled to serve as an informal advisor to the chief, who in this parallel is the abbot. He is a firefighter, just like the rest of us, and we trust him and his judgment with our lives. If the abbot calls you by new name, this is your new name. Plenty of firefighters have funny or witty nicknames given by the chief or others, but identity in the fire service has within it your character, attitude, personality, and dependability. One of my favorite sayings in the fire service is, “The name on your helmet represents who you work for… The name on your coat represents who raised you. Do them both justice.”
Should this not be true of our life in the Church? Your last name represents who raised you, your baptismal name represents Who saved you. Do them both justice.
So why the monastic life? Every time I get on the truck, I pray for our safety and for the people we are going to help. Every time I do work at the fire station or at a fundraiser, I see my hands doing work for others, not for myself. A life of service is one that is fulfilling, but to make your work prayerful makes it transformative: Ora et Labora. If you feel called to go and join the fire department, please do so, we need you. If you feel called to go to the monastery, please do so, we need you. But if you feel called to serve the world through good deeds, regardless of their affiliation, do it today. The world needs you to be the hands of Christ.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
-Saint Teresa of Avila