In college, I got depressed. After a year or two of hard living, I remember a phone call with my mom in which she asked me what I thought I needed. There has never been a time in my life when my needs were so easy to identify. I had been living for myself entirely, and it was making me sick. I told my mom, “I think I need a service project.”
This wasn’t a benevolent impulse. I wanted to feel better about myself. I wanted to like myself, so even my desire for service was motivated by self-interest. And unfortunately, I also had no clear idea how to go about serving anyone but myself, so my “service project” eventually took on the ill-conceived shape of planning to marry a non-Catholic, and argue him into becoming the kind of Christian that I had failed to be.
The relationship didn’t work out. But the pivotal takeaway from that time was how intuitively I knew that the only way I could be happy was to give, and how clueless I was as to how to go about it. I also knew somehow that it wasn’t enough to salve my conscience by doing a service project over the mid-term. I had to give my whole life, my whole self…hence the urge to marry.
I had a surplus of self to give. I had enormous stores of energy, time, and desire. But I had also repeatedly removed myself from the light of God’s Grace, and so I lacked knowledge of a clear path forward. And part of what fueled my sadness was recognition that if I continued in that darkness I was going to starve to death. My surplus would do me no good.
Eventually, I found an out. I ran off to “the convent.” I use scare quotes here, because the Consecrated Women of Regnum Christi don’t have convents; they have “Houses of Formation.” And the Consecrated Women don’t take vows; they make promises.
This is not a post about Regnum Christi or the Legion of Christ, however. For everything Father Maciel’s order has done incorrectly, one thing they have always gotten right is knowing how to provide a means for young people to put their faith into action. They have known how to tap into that surplus of self, the energy, time, and desire that so many young people feel, and provide a pathway for the giving of one’s whole self. If there is an essential lesson that the Church can learn from the Legion’s blunders, it’s that youth need a way to spend their surplus; they need a clear path and guidance in the work of Christian service.
As years have passed, and I’ve left the Movement and started my own family, one challenge I feel as a parent is the need to provide clear channels for my kids to spend their surplus. They too have the innate desire to serve, and I do them a disservice when I don’t provide them with opportunities to do so.
Sometimes the channels are easy to find. There’s lots of work around our own house to do, and they’re capable of helping with much of it.
But sometimes it’s difficult to extend ourselves beyond our own home, mainly because becoming a mother has forced me to use up my stores of energy, time and desire. I, myself, no longer have a surplus, so I’m having to learn how to give out of my poverty.
There are a thousand ways to do so, mostly without even being aware of it.
For instance, the mother of five kids under the ages of ten, who’s pregnant again in her first trimester, has no energy, and still has to make dinner and bathe the kids. She hasn’t sat through a full Mass without a noisy baby in a decade. And she can’t even dare to dream about getting away for a weekend retreat. All she has to go on is her interior Christ, received, albeit distractedly in the Eucharist on Sunday. She’s got nothing to give but her body, and every day, she gives it again and again. Out of her poverty, she offers her widow’s mite, sometimes just because it’s what must be done, and sometimes she musters up some love and joy to offer with it.
And the priest who serves three parishes– Where’s his silent retreat? Who’s feeding him spiritually or physically? Every night, he has about ten minutes to put a hotdog in the microwave and eat it as quickly as possible.
I really appreciated Melanie Bettinelli’s recent post on treating the perfect Mass as an idol. It’s tempting to argue that we need to have a perfect spiritual experience every Sunday in order to go about our work throughout the week. However, nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to store up good spiritual experiences in order to be an apostle. Instead it says:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
Worrying over the quality of the Mass, the songs, the architecture, the homilies is often a way of ignoring the reality that we have been fed quite well. We are one of the few who has tasted the true beauty of Catholic ritual, tradition, and true teaching. Suffering the occasional “ugly” liturgy is a way of exercising the spirit of poverty. And if ugly liturgy is not just an occasional thing–then it’s one of the ways we can give our whole selves, to bear it patiently and with charity for as long as necessary.
Any time we’ve reached a point where we think we can no longer bear a particular circumstance, we’ve actually reached an opportunity–there’s a chance to obey, to suffer, to serve, to give in spite of ourselves and the apparent poverty of our circumstances.
When we’ve reached rock bottom, our very next breath is a coin in the basket.