Years ago I was working as a wine manager for a large wine retailer. One of my main responsibilities was to teach the salespeople at my location how to sell wine that would yield the highest margin of profit for our company. It was both interesting and exciting, and we were successful when a customer walked out of the store with a different but similar bottle to the one they originally came in for. Looking back now, I hope they enjoyed our recommendations as much as our company enjoyed the extra profit!
One day I had a revelation while speaking to a customer. She started the conversation asking if I could recommend a good wine for $10. This question was not abnormal, so I responded in my usual way. “Sure! What wine do you like?” That day, though, as I responded, I realized something for the first time. I had inadvertently changed the conversation from a question of goodness to one of pleasure. No longer were we seeking a good wine, but one that gives pleasure. Is that the same thing? I wondered. As I mused on this, she responded, “Wine X is really good.” There it is again, I thought. She is talking about a good wine!
I was stunned because I had met the winemaker of that particular wine; I knew where it came from; I was aware of subpar winemaking processes involved in its genesis and the relatively poor terroir (the combination of soil, climate, and sun). In short, this was not a good wine. But for this customer, it apparently was.
It hit me immediately that we were both thinking about the word good but ascribing two very different meanings to it. For her, good in this context was what she found pleasing, whereas I, who knew the entire invisible background of the wine, was not able to share her use of the word.
I began thinking of the many times in my life I chose to pursue what I thought was good for me but in reality was simply pleasurable. I thought of the many times I had chosen the apparent good, forsaking the sometimes arduous task of determining what was truly good for me or others.
But what about those who know the entire invisible background, not necessarily of winemaking but of the far more important choices we’ve made in our lives? I thought of parents who see their children’s choices. Knowing more of the story, they are able to better ascertain the objectivity of a particular goal of their children’s desires. How hard it must be for parents, as their children get older, to balance respect for the increasing autonomy of their child while at the same time having a greater vantage point on the goodness of that choice.
Then I thought about God. No one knows the invisible background behind me or my choices better than the one who created each one of us for no other reason than that we be truly happy. Before I was born, God knew me (see Jeremiah 1:5); God knew the entire story of my life and was constantly inviting me to live a good life — but never forcing me.
The customer was looking intently at me as I stood there silently philosophizing, choosing not to share the new insight she had stirred up in me. I allowed profit margins to go out the window as I numbly showed her to her wine X.
At the time of this experience in the wine store, I had been struggling with many of the rules of the Church. Why was there an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday? Why all the moral rules? I had been thinking, Shouldn’t I alone be the judge of what is good for me? That day’s intuition was a direct response to my interior musings.
I realized in a new way that I do not always know what is good for me! And that is just one of the reasons God gave us the Church. Jesus gave us an institution that has always had problems because it is human, yet it still imparts divine truth for our moral lives because of its divine founder. We are given the Church to illuminate our choices with the light of Jesus Christ.
Today, on the eve of my ordination to the priesthood, when people ask me about my “vocation story,” I usually talk about intense moments in prayer I have had over the years, or the times when I have heard Jesus’ voice either through a neighbor or directly in my heart. It is rare that I talk about a failed attempt to “up sell” a bottle of wine that resulted in a deeper intuition of the good.
But that encounter, where for an instant I caught a little glimpse of what God must live so often with each one of us, remains a pivotal moment on my path toward joyfully serving the Church as one of her priests.