I want to do something big for God.
If I’m honest, this desire has been at the root of my vocational discernment for as long as I can remember. And I’ve realized in talking with others that this desire is not unique to me. It seems that on some level, we all share in a similar human quest: we pray that our lives are significant, and that we’re making a difference. In the end, we want to know that we matter.
Unfortunately, I often measure my contribution or significance by tangible results. I am, after all, a product of my data-driven, results-oriented culture and a task-ticking DO-er by nature. I guess my pride needs proof that I’ve accomplished something or made a difference. At the very least, I want to know that I’m doing my part.
But as I’ve stepped away from full-time responsibilities as a classroom teacher and delved deeper into discernment during my Affiliate year with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, tangible results have been harder to come by. No longer in charge of 20-25 students, their quarterly and annual progress, and their social and emotional well-being, I sometimes find myself selfishly questioning whether I’m doing anything substantial. Here at the Texas-Mexico border where I minister and work part-time, I can’t tick the boxes on a to-do list at the end of the day demonstrating that I’ve accomplished this task or that.
But that’s a good thing, because I’m learning to measure my contribution and success in quite different ways. As Thomas Merton says:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
“And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
In God’s own humble way, God is gently reminding me that it’s not about results or accomplishment, but encounter. It’s not about doing something BIG, but something personal. And maybe it’s not even about DOing anything at all, but about BEing in relationship.
Perhaps, then, our most significant contribution—but also our biggest challenge—is the authentic gift of self, of time, and of being truly present. Maybe that comes in the form of a smile, a phone call, a handwritten letter, or 20 minutes of complete, undivided listening. Maybe it’s agreeing to accompany someone to a court trial, the doctor, the airport, a funeral, or some other place we’d rather not go or hadn’t planned on. Perhaps it’s sitting with a child as they finish their assignment or homework, just to encourage or reassure them that they are capable. Maybe it’s remaining in a difficult conversation with someone. Or maybe it’s simply putting aside our own agenda when someone stops by or calls unexpectedly. That’s usually how God breaks through, if we just allow it.
Whatever the situation, when we agree to enter wholeheartedly into an encounter with another—to just BE with them—then we create a space in which God can work and through which real ‘mission’ and conversion can happen … for both people. My former Maryknoll Immersion Program director liked to remind volunteers that’s why they’re called “The BEatitudes” and not “The DOatitudes.” And to that, one of the volunteers added: “Your presence is sufficient, because people have to react to it.” True presence is immeasurable.
I’ve experienced the grace of presence at the Sisters’ clinic for kids with special needs in Anapra, Mexico, where I spend 2-3 mornings a week playing with the kids and their siblings. It usually happens when I’m reading a book to one of them, or playing Memory or some other creatively concocted game of their imaginations. Though few of them can communicate or fully express what they want or need, Jesus is profoundly palpable. Through silliness, smiles, and shared laughter, or just a look of love that needs no words, I experience God in a way that is deeply intimate—all because I engaged. Though I have nothing tangible to show for the time I spend at the clinic, the kids and their families gift me with something far greater: the space and vulnerability to be truly present, which allows God to be, too.
When I think about it, presence is how Jesus affected and changed the world in His time. He didn’t keep a database of how many people He converted or develop a marketing plan that detailed his target markets, unique selling proposition, and recruiting goals. He didn’t start a soup kitchen, build a homeless shelter, join a political movement, or fire up a nonprofit (all wonderful ventures and much needed in our day!) Instead, Jesus engaged and was completely present to those with whom he crossed paths and had daily contact—often one person, one relationship at a time. He sat with the woman at the well and stood with the woman caught in adultery in all their pain, embarrassment, and frustration. He made time to dine and discuss with his close friends as well as with the Pharisees and tax collectors. And He always modified His plans when someone along the way requested healing or just wanted to chat. Jesus made it a priority to be present when people needed Him. … and look at the results He’s achieved!
And so, my humble prayer as I continue in this year of deeper discernment is that of Cincinnati Charity Sister and Servant of God Blandina Segale:
“I will do what presents itself, and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance...”
And may I also add, “…because of a lack of tangible results.”