By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series
Over the past few weeks, I have been meditating on Scripture passages about strength — the limited nature of our own strength and infinite nature of God’s strength. Passages such as Second Corinthians 12:9 have almost become a daily mantra, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
As an engineer, my father drilled the demand for excellence into me, reminding me that excellence requires constant vigilance. Over the years, those ideas have led me to a great many successes in life, but I have also had my fair share of failures.
As a priest, I have found my place on the ledge between success and failure to be a constant reminder of my own need for Christ’s strength. I believe that mediocrity is the antithesis of the Gospel because it rarely requires God’s action in our own lives.
This past week, my sophomores turned in the final papers on The Crucible. Knowing that I have high standards, I allow my students to e-mail their papers to me no later than two days prior to the due date for “grade-free comments.” While it requires an enormous amount of work on my part, they learn more through the individual consultative process.
There a few students who struggle, but one in particular remained unresponsive to the curriculum. When I questioned him in the past, he tells me that he simply hates English and makes no attempt to do the work. After several discussions with his mother, I was happy to see him turn in an advanced copy of his paper. Not to my surprise, it needed a lot of work, and I commented accordingly.
His final draft was much improved and far different from his original, so I did a quick check online and found his entire paper had been plagiarized. This eventually led to a conversation with his mother, who told me that he had been working on the advanced copy for a whole night — more than she had ever seen him work on any one assignment before. When he received my comments, she said he just shut down. She never tried to dissuade me from punishment, but did want me to know that she thought his actions were an attempt at self-preservation.
When I spoke with the young man the following day, I was as hard on him as the situation required. As his eyes started with fill up, he explained to me that he really wanted to improve but felt as if it was impossible to meet my expectations.
I believed him and paused, realizing that his mother was correct.
As we spoke inappropriate and appropriate responses to such demands, I reminded him that our integrity is shaped from adversity. All of us find ourselves hampered by situations we do not like, but that is when we dig deep and find God’s own strength to carry us when our own strength runs out.
The lack of effort earlier in the year requires that this young man now work doubly hard to close the gap, but he can so long as he remains focused on the process rather than the result. During this time when we remember the saints, I think we are reminded that we only become saints relying on God’s strength one day at a time.
Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.