“Who is a missionary?” I asked my class, not too long ago.
They came up with a variety of answers: someone who preaches in a foreign country, someone who has very little, someone who doesn’t make money, and the list continued.
It was difficult for them to wrap it all up neatly. Several wanted to insist that you had to leave the country. I think it was because it fit their idea of a missionary better. Flying to a foreign country steeped in poverty seems far more missionary-esque than serving on a college campus.
“FOCUS sends people to college campus and calls them missionaries. Are they?” “Do they get paid?” “They fundraise their salary.”
Many were on board with that. But for them, there had to be some type of leaving happening–going to a new place, even if they would begrudgingly accept work in the United States.
“What does a missionary do?” I asked. “Preach the Gospel.” “So who could be a missionary?” They discussed for a while. One said, “You?” “Am I a missionary?”
The whole issue of pay came up again, some saying that would disqualify me from missionary status.
While personal difficulties can be genuine, regardless of their large-scale importance, sometimes it is helpful to put them in perspective. The Lord cares about what I care about and so I try to be careful to not dismiss hurt feelings, stress, or joy simply because it isn’t life altering. Yet when I do feel overwhelmed or a bit shaken, it can help to focus on the aspects for which I can be grateful.
There are two recent examples that come to mind. The first is my living situation. Currently, I am in the process of moving into a new house, but I am not quite moved in yet. Over the past couple weeks, I have stayed mostly at my parents’ house in the country and sometimes with friends who live in town. It isn’t that difficult of a life, but the slight upheaval of transitional homes adds a bit of extra stress to the day-to-day life.
Yet when I was sharing this stress with a few different people over the last couple of days, I was struck by the fact that I am not homeless. In fact, it is the opposite. I have an abundance of homes–there is the home I am working to move into, my parents’ home where I have my own bedroom when I stay there, and friends who generously offer a room to me when needed. The added stress I feel is real, but the things I can be grateful for far surpass the inconvenience.
This past week, one of my classes watched a movie about the life of Mother Teresa. At one point, right after Mother Teresa had left the Loreto convent, she was shown clearing out her room at a host family’s house. The owner told her they had a lot of spare furniture she was welcomed to use during her time with them. She responded by saying that she needed simplicity so that nothing would distract her from her work with the poor.
I don’t know if that scene happened exactly like that in real life, but her words struck me. Even if she didn’t say that, her life showed that she lived that reality. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the idea that simplicity gives freedom. It wasn’t a new concept to me, but it was a new concept when I considered it in light of the saint of the slums. Mother Teresa needed poverty in order to be committed to caring for the poor. That may not seem profound to you, but hearing those words evoked a question within me: what makes me think I have more discipline than Mother Teresa?
Her God-given mission was to help the poor. Knowing her own humanity, she knew she had to give up creature comforts in order to remain focused on her mission. Her life of poverty provided the freedom to be generous and sacrificial with her life and time. Material items distract. Compelled by the love and thirst of God, Mother Teresa knew she could not afford to be distracted by lesser things. She created space in her life that could be filled by the presence of God. Fewer possessions crowding her heart yielded greater room to the concerns of the Lord.
In the movie Sweet Home Alabama, there is one line that has always stood out to me. The main characters Jake and Melanie are talking about their past and present, the ways life has changed from when they were high school sweethearts to their current situation of estranged spouses. Melanie expresses her confusion about loving her life in New York and yet returning home to find that her hometown fits, too. Jake then says, “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”
So often my own heart is caught in that same clashing of different longings. I want to fly away and yet I want to be home, grounded and steady. One moment I’m desiring to be a missionary in a far-away land and the next I want to stay in my cozy bedroom, reading and considering life. One day, I’m wanting to buy a home and make it my own oasis. The next day, I am wanting to be detached of all earthly possessions, living simply and being prepared to fly off to wherever whenever.
Roots and wings–the desire to be secure and the desire to be free–mark the desires of the human heart. We want to be home, but not confined. We want to be free to wander and yet not be lost. All of it, flying or remaining, hinges on the longing we have for happiness and contentment.
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.
I am not quite like St. Paul yet, able to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself in. Perhaps my students would even be surprised with the restlessness that is within my heart. I am slow to act, yes, making changes at a glacial speed. And yet…change is what I often long for and deeply desire. What is the solution? Continue reading “Roots and Wings”→
Ben Rector came out with a song called “Old Friends” and it became a brief topic of conversation with a friend this summer. The song is catchy and provokes an immediate nostalgia within me. However, as I spoke with this friend, we talked about how we don’t have “old friends” and, as Ben Rector spends over four minutes articulating, you can’t make them now.
Granted, I have friends that I went to elementary, middle, and high school with, spending about twelve years in the same classrooms in my small rural public school in South Dakota. A few of them I even catch up with on occasion, but none of them know me through and through. I grew up out of town and my parents were careful not to play the chauffeur for my siblings and me. So I would see them at school, after school activities, and church if they were Catholic.
But we weren’t riding our bikes around town together in the summer or spending every waking minute swimming at the pool. For me, summers were spent at my parents’ farm, isolated from the rest of the town about five miles away. After school, I rode the bus home, preventing me from meeting someone up town at the popular hangout that served fried appetizers. Even when I did drive, I had a younger sister to provide transportation for and it was also generally assumed that I would head directly home after my extracurricular events concluded.
These aren’t bad things, per se, I just offer them to point to the fact that much of what Ben Rector sings about felt impossible for me to have experienced based on my situation. Most of my youthful memories are filled with my siblings. The past couple weeks were filled with pretty intense and intentional family togetherness time and when it ended, it caused me to feel that wave of nostalgia that reminded me of “Old Friends.”
My two older sisters are in religious life and the older one has an annual home visit for two weeks. As far as religious communities go, that is a generous amount of time yet it also constitutes the bulk of what our relationship looks like for the year. Short occasional phone calls and letters (which were non-existent on my part this year) aren’t the best ways to sustain a vibrant relationship. My other sister is a cloistered nun, meaning that she has answered God’s call to live as a hermit within community, essentially. My family visits her annually on a weekend when my other sister returns from the convent. While it varies year-to-year, this year I was able to have two hours alone with her to visit. As with the other sister, the bulk of my relationship is found in those brief moments.
After we had left the cloistered monastery and my other sister was dropped off at the airport, I felt a nostalgia for the past closeness of my youth. Naturally, as time passes, the family changes through new additions, losses, moves, and the like. When my brother married, his wife became an integral part of the family and my nephews and niece also changed the family dynamic. The vocation my older sisters have to religious life likewise shifts the family dynamic. While I am thankful for their vocations and the joy accompanying them, I still miss what could have been. Continue reading “Nostalgia”→
Our conversation started with evolution and gradually meandered to angels, free will, and humanity. I told them that angels had free will and they asked if angels could still rebel. Explaining that angels will their decision to follow or not follow God with their entire beings, they then asked if people in Heaven could sin. When I said they wouldn’t, they wondered how free will could be found in a place where there was no sin.
“It seems like free will would just be an illusion,” they said, when I told them that in Heaven we would be purified and would always choose to follow God, even while exercising our free will.
I needed to make a correlation that they would understand. One student compared it to pizza. If he said he would eat pizza for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t be free to eat anything other than pizza. That wasn’t quite the comparison I was looking for in order to explain the situation to them.
I’m not always very quick on my feet. Sometimes, I want to beg them for more time and to consider than I am a slow thinker, a muller of thoughts and ideas. Instead, I tried to think of something tangible that they could understand. How could one make a particular choice that was forever and yet still exercise their free will?
Now that I consider it, I could have referenced Jesus or Mary. Instead, I used vocations.
“Priests, religious, and married persons make vows that they intend to follow forever and yet they freely choose to will those decisions daily. Our free will in Heaven is kind of like that, but we are able to perfectly will it always.”
A couple committed to marriage make vows to love the other in a free, total, faithful, and fruitful way. They still have a free will, but they have publicly voiced their desire to always will the good of the other. This doesn’t make them less free. Instead, their commitment allows them to experience the freedom of total gift of self to another. Yes, they could choose to cheat or leave or lie. But if they follow the vows, they will freely choose to not do those things. Continue reading “Is there free will in Heaven?”→
Walking into my hometown parish church for Memorial Day Mass, my family settled into a pew and prayed for a few minutes before Mass started. It wasn’t particularly early, but the quiet and stillness made it feel earlier. The priest was praying from his breviary and other parishioners were in silent preparation for the greatest memorial feast.
I was a bit surprised to find a Camino memory surface after a few seconds in the church. The beauty of a still morning and entering a place I regard as a home, took me back to Rabanal del Camino, arguably my favorite spot along the Way. Enticed by a sign outside the church saying there was a Benedictine Pilgrim Guest House, we stayed in Rabanal for a couple of days. While brief, this was far longer than any other town we saw in Spain.
After our first night at the guest house, we walked the short distance to the church for morning prayer. The parish church was still and cool. Choir stalls occupied the front of the church and those of us who stayed at the guest house quietly settled into them for our community prayer. Simply having slept in the same town for two nights made me feel like a resident. I watched pilgrims continue their walk and was filled with a strange joy that I was able to leave my backpack next to my bed.
Early afternoon, we gathered for lunch in the monastery, prepared and served by the lovely Benedictine priest. Even with a meal shared in silence, it was a tangible sensation of the familial in a country where I often felt as though I simply passed through. In the evening, we gathered for Mass and then later for evening prayer. Mass wasn’t an unusual occurrence along the Camino, but participating in Mass in the same church with a priest who recognized me was a novelty.
It wasn’t until we stopped walking that I was able to notice how much my heart longed for the familiar. While I enjoy adventures, I also really love home. Being a wandering stranger for weeks at a time was difficult for my homely heart. When we spent a couple of days in one place, I was able to experience the joy of resting and the gift of the familiar.
One evening, after we had supper at the guest house, everyone staying there took a stroll through the streets of Rabanal. Though I knew those outside my party for only two days, it seemed we were a little family, following after the Benedictine priest who had an endearing sense of humor and depth. A French lady happened to see our group and simply joined us as we walked leisurely to the outskirts of town. I didn’t blame her; it is something I would have wanted to do had I not already been in the group. Continue reading “Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota”→
During the course of my time in Europe, I saw many churches. While in Rome I was able to enter into some of the most beautiful churches in the world. The basilicas are famous for their antiquity and artistic wonders. As I wandered through Assisi, I was able to pray in beautiful churches as well. At the hermitage of St. Francis, the areas of prayer seemed notable for their austerity and simplicity. One of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen was my sister’s convent in Pennsylvania—the bare, wooden floors, the large, dark crucifix, and the altar made from a tree trunk made the simplicity obvious yet gorgeous. In a different way, St. Peter’s Basilica caused me to reflect on God as I gazed at the giant statues and ornamental features. When done correctly, both the simple and the ornate can cause the faithful to enter into prayer.
It is a natural thing, as a Catholic, to hone in on the beautiful places that house our King and go there to worship. In the midst of the gothic spires and baroque architecture, it is easy to forget that the person who lives within is the same person who lives in every Catholic Church around the world. He is no greater or lesser in the soaring cathedrals than in the simple country church. He isn’t more or less present if his tabernacle is made of wood or pure gold. Continue reading “Where Jesus Most Wants To Be”→