I gave this talk on the retreat. It fit into Sunday’s theme of leaving the sheltered retreat setting and going out into the world, charged with a new dedication to life in the service of God.
“God is Calling. How will you answer?”
That is the statement and question the ND Vision program is built around. As has been mentioned, I was blessed enough to serve as a mentor-in-faith with this summer program for high schoolers. It was an experience that irrevocably changed my perspective on vocation. The greatest gift Vision gave me was beyond a reminder that vocation is constant, a perpetual calling that is much deeper than religious/married/single life. No, far greater was the chance the program gave me to live each moment of my life grounded in that purpose. The summer I spent at Notre Dame ministering to high schoolers was a time when every minute was purposeful, every choice made for a truth beyond myself. It reiterated deeply how much I felt called to ministry, especially ministry to high school students.
And what timing! I was a mentor in the summer before my senior year. It was exactly the right time for me to pause and reflect on what needed to come next in my life.
I came out of that summer pulled toward direct service. I didn’t know if I could commit to graduate school yet. So much had happened to me at Notre Dame that I was a little burnt out. I wanted to drop everything for a while and reconnect with myself and with God.
When I found the PULSE program, I was so sure I was in the right place. PULSE is a small organization which aims to bring talented, energetic young people into the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to implement positive change from the ground up. Each year’s eight participants live together in an intentional faith community, participate in weekly seminars geared toward learning more about the city, professional life and themselves, and are placed in different non-profit agencies throughout the city. We have one food budget for the house and we eat and pray together each night.
PULSE is not a Catholic program, rather its roots are Mennonite and its composition is ecumenical. I wanted to go take my deep Catholic, Notre Dame experience and test it out in a broader Christian community before I wanted to test it out in a much broader secular world.
I was so ready. I finally felt like I was really living out a radical Christian calling. Matthew 19:16-30 tells a pretty well-known story of someone else wanting to follow Christ:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Wow. Leave everything you have, all of your possessions, all of your family, all of your career… and follow Christ. I was going to try something maybe close to this, leaving my comfortable Notre Dame bubble of familiar places and culture and go love God through loving others.
“Try” might be a key word there. As previously stated this retreat, however, I am not perfect. I did not sell my possessions before moving to Pittsburgh. I actually packed a whole lot of them into my boyfriend’s Honda. It’s quite debatable how much abandonment I really seized upon.
I did move into a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that has seen a lot of challenges, though, and I worked in a food pantry, soup kitchen and Meals on Wheels program that served my neighbors. I was blessed enough to work in a direct service capacity a lot. I got to actually put food in peoples’ hands.
It was hard some days. A lot of my clients were not nice. They were challenging to work with. Some of them had mental health problems, some had addictions, some were just really tired of the system. Even the clients who were friendly and easy to serve proved to be challenging. Some of their stories were gut-wrenching and I would feel almost guilty for being raised by a loving mother and father and getting to go off to school at Notre Dame.
I lived in Pittsburgh for eleven months. I fell in love with the city and I made so many friends. And then it was time to leave. I was being called somewhere else.
But the weekend before I left, I took a detour. ND Vision, that program I spoke of earlier, celebrated its tenth year this summer, and it provided me with another fabulous opportunity. As part of the ten year celebration, former mentors were invited back to campus for a weekend reunion and retreat.
Now, I already very thoroughly miss Pittsburgh and the people I lived and served with and hung out with there, but even by the time of this retreat, I was so ready to be onto the next phase of my life. There’s something so challenging about knowing where you’re going, and working out the details… and still having to wait to get there. When I went to the Vision reunion, it was very much with the idea that I could use the weekend as a nice transition. Off I went, back to ND for another dose of vocation re-examination.
And it was good. The people in my small group, former mentors from the years 2008 & 2009, were all in relatively similar places in life, aka, very transitional. We were graduating from college, serving, finding jobs, switching jobs, getting married, going back to school. Everything was very much up in the air. That was okay, though, because we were following the call of Christ. Abandon the network you’ve spent a year cultivating to go to school in a state where you didn’t know anyone? Okay, fine. Stay teaching for another year past your original commitment because the school doesn’t know who else to hire? Cool. Go off to Thailand to live in community and serve in whatever way you can find? Rock on. Go where you’re called.
Then later in the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to one of my married friends. She went through Vision a couple of years before I did and so people in her small group were a little older than those in mine, and some of them had had more of a chance to settle down. This friend had made an observation.
“It’s interesting,” she said, “The difference between what people who are single are saying compared to those of us who are married.” She had observed, as I had, that a lot of people were going every which way, being very rootless, making no money, following the call of Christ. “That’s fine,” my friend said, “But we can’t do that if we’re married. We need to balance our spouses’ needs. We actually have to be concerned about making enough money to keep food on the table, to be able to take care of a potential child, whether we’re planning one or not.”
These married people like my friend are not about to leave everything they have and everyone they know so they can uproot themselves in order to follow Christ.
Does the desire to radically serve Christ go away when we find ourselves with temporal commitments to other people or institutions? How do we balance that call to abandon your possessions and your family to pick up your cross with the acknowledgement that your family might actually need you to be there? The Catholic Church teaches that vocation to marriage and family life is a real and beautiful thing. Clearly, the complete way to serve God can’t be contained in that one passage I read earlier.
Let’s return to it for a moment. Everyone knows the part about the rich man sadly leaving because he won’t give up his stuff, but let’s give a little attention to the part before that. This man sought out Jesus and asked “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” When he’s told to follow the commandments, he says “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?”
This man already followed the commandments. Yet he still kept asking “What else?” He knew something was missing.
But he wouldn’t reach out to grab it when it was offered.
You know in your hearts if something is missing from your service to God, if there is an element that is lacking. You know if you are desiring something more.
When Jesus talks here of abandoning possessions and family and all obligations, it reminds me of another well-known story. The sisters Martha and Mary had Jesus over to their home. Martha works her butt off preparing a lavish meal while Mary sits at Christ’s feet and just listens to him. When an irritated Martha asks Jesus to get Mary to come help, he replies that he will not, because Mary has chosen the better part.
What a slap in the face to the homemakers of the world, I used to think. What an insult to the people who are dedicated to welcoming visitors, to keeping food on the table for their families, their guests, their parish picnic-goers. We aren’t all Jesus Christ, able to fast for forty days or whip up a feast for 5,000 from one person’s bread and fish.
But then I read a portion of a homily Augustine gave about Martha and Mary. As he points out, Jesus never tells Martha that what she’s doing is wrong or not needed. But at the end of time, Jesus will take our needs away. He’ll fulfill them all and it won’t be up to us to feed each other. What will be left is what Mary gravitated to already- sitting at the feet of the Savior and listening.
So how do we keep from letting that work, whether it’s feeding the hungry at a soup kitchen or feeding the hungry swarms in our own kitchens, become about itself? How do we be radically Christ-centered in our service, like Mary at the feet of Jesus, like the young man was called to do but didn’t?
The key, I think, is actually very simple, if not at all easy. Service is made radical not by the specifics of the assignment, but by radical love. Give of yourself until you have nothing left, and refill yourself from Christ.
It’s so much easier sometimes to serve by going somewhere, by immersing yourself in a new place, in a new culture, in obvious poverty. But what about emotional poverty? What about spiritual poverty? You can’t always recognize those right away, and their only cure is love- passionate, genuine, unrestrained love.
We are called, beyond any other call, to love God and serve Him. He has shown us that he is found in our neighbor, in the people we meet. Therefore, we are called, beyond any other call, to love other people and serve Them.
This means loving poor people, even if they scare you. This means loving your mother, even when she tells you that you’re doing everything wrong. This means loving your children, even when they’re obnoxious. This means getting up every morning to make breakfast, to go to work, to go to church, to go out into the world. This means loving fiercely. And it means admitting when you aren’t and trying again.
Whatever you do with your life, whatever calls you hear and answer, keep Christ in the forefront of your mind. Do your work for Him.