The first time that I went on a mission trip was with FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and was where the mission trips that I lead today to Alaska were born from. This post isn’t about that trip (you can read that here) but it was very influential on how I understand the virtue of hope. It wasn’t until during the mission when I felt my hope in Jesus deeply tested, and that I found strength in hope as Christians understand it: rooted in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after His Passion on the cross. It became a practice in my life, rather than a quote; something I was practicing in my interior life where I could reach out and rest in my hope in Jesus whenever I needed to. This is, of course, a fact of Christian life: things will be made new to us as we journey closer to Christ. He will constantly be renewing what we may take for granted so that we can see Him better.
While my understanding of hope before was always rightly focused on the Resurrection, I still thought of eternal life as something not yet grasped. Time and life pass away. But, with Jesus, divinity is made present to us, and we can tap into that. Recently, while reading Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s second book in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, I got to a beautiful part where he writes about eternal life:
“‘Eternal life’ is not -- as the modern reader might immediately assume -- life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal. ‘Eternal life’ is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize ‘life’ here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone” (pg. 82).
When I read this, I immediately thought of life on mission. There is something tangible there about life being “seized”. We are focused on God, and serving God and others. There is a focus on making Jesus Christ present to others. In the first book of the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, Benedict writes that when Jesus says to His listeners that the “Kingdom of God is at hand” that He is talking about Himself; that Jesus makes the Kingdom of God present. When anyone holds fast to Christ, he is holding fast to eternal life, a life that truly transcends the physical realm and the limitations and suffering that we experience. It would follow then, that I have thought that I felt most alive while on mission, when the I am so focused with my fellow missionaries on that eternal life and on bringing it to others.
The challenge is always returning home, to the so-called “normal” life. A job, rent, driving in Lafayette traffic. Where is eternal life now? It can appear absent and distant. At least unreachable until one has a chance to pray. Slowly, though, I have learned that eternal life can be present in all these things with a certain disposition towards the day.
This quote from Benedict, though, made me reflect on what makes that sense of the eternal life on mission so raw and tangible when I sometimes struggle to find that back home or long for it. How can I seize that time here, and really be present to my life here between summers?
First, I think of prayer. Perhaps that is obvious, but on our missions in Alaska, our days really revolve around prayer. While we are there to serve, all our service and presence in the places we go flow with a set schedule of prayer, from the beginning of the day before we begin our outreach, throughout the day with the community, and then closing the day with prayer. Everything we do revolves around when we will “be” with the Lord. Through this, our purpose is set. We know from our very first action as a community on mission that we are here to bring Jesus (eternal life) to other people, and that our source for bringing Him to others is to first greet Him ourselves; to immerse ourselves in that eternal life. If we didn’t pray, there would be little direction on how to do what we needed to do.
Second, the service that we do on mission, focused on the spiritual works of mercy, is really working to bring someone the peace that is characteristic of eternal life. Peace as the Lord gives us while on earth isn’t necessarily an alleviation of all the material, physical, emotional, or mental suffering that we might go through (although He can alleviate it all) but more about restoring our peace of heart, so that it will not be destroyed or taken from us. Being merciful to another can simply be speaking of Jesus to them, of His mission to bring us salvation and reconciliation, to bring us the peace that only comes from knowing and loving God.
Finally, there is our community of missionaries. This one has taken longest for me to grasp. I have always realized the sense of belonging with other missionaries that is very special, and a belonging that we all desire. It compels me forward in prayer and service. This belonging is a hint of our belonging in Heaven. We are worshipping together, glorifying God together, encouraging each other, and working together. But the deeper element of this belonging is that I can truly see the Father’s love through all these people – and that I did not choose them for my community. The Lord has put us all there in that place, to love and serve each other just as we love and serve Him together. A rejection of someone in my community, even interiorly, is quite possibly a rejection of the Father’s love being revealed. Or as Jesus has pointed out in the Gospel, we can find Him in those we do not usually seek out for our explicit companionship. Therefore, I cannot give the charity to someone else in service, that I did not allow myself to receive in the first place.
So, all of this applies to my community back home too. Whether or not I am with people that I have chosen to be around should not be a concern in most cases. If I reject their presence, even interiorly, then I am truly rejecting seizing life at that moment, rejecting making eternal life present in that moment. I have ceased to be a missionary. I have rejected the call to be sent into the world.
One of the most beautiful things I see on mission are missionaries receiving peace through their community, and usually with people they otherwise would never have spent time with. It gives us all a glimpse into the breadth of God’s love for the world and how we all belong to one another; and that ultimately God desires us to have that community in perfection in eternal life.
These three characteristics of the missions (prayer, community, and service) are obviously not exclusive to a mission trip. The challenge I pose to myself and for the missionaries, as we travel home each year, is how to continue and broaden those three components in our everyday lives. Are we mindful in prayer of the presence of Christ? Do we see in our community throughout the day (not just our friends!) a foreshadowing of the community in Heaven, or do we simply move past people until we are with the community we choose? Do we look for the small ways to serve throughout the day, ways to bring peace to people, or do we only choose the ways to serve that are convenient for ourselves?
And lastly, do we have real confidence in the Lord? We can do all these things, but if we lack confidence in God, then those small deeds are more about ourselves than Him. If we lack confidence in God, then we are not exercising that virtue of hope that knows that eternal life now and tomorrow will truly be victorious.
I know where this confidence has led me on mission: detachment from passing things; less fear of inadequacy; less comparison of myself towards others; a more open heart to all people; and a desire to make use of the day by doing things only worthy of God, especially out of joy. (As St. John Bosco said: “Run, jump, have all the fun you want at the right time, but, for heaven’s sake, do not commit sin!”) All these things I first tasted while on mission, but know that they can still be a part of each day, as a way of seizing eternal life. I will close with how Pope Benedict finishes the remarks on this description of eternal life:
"'Because I live, you will live also,' says Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn. 14:19), and he thereby reveals once again that a distinguishing feature of the disciple of Jesus is the fact that he 'lives' beyond the mere fact of existing, he has found and embraced the real life that everyone is seeking. On the basis of such texts, the early Christians called themselves simply 'the living'. They had found what all are seeking -- life itself, full and, hence, indestructible" (pg. 82).