Daniel Jasek, Senior Anchor Intern
What am I here for? What really matters? Who should I strive to be?
These are existential thoughts that have been around for millennia. Ultimately, I think they boil down to one question – What will make me happy? Or, put a different way, how can I find fulfillment? This question is one I have asked myself often, and over the past few years, I believe God has guided me closer to the answer.
As I went through my freshman year at Notre Dame, I knew I needed to pick something to do over the upcoming summer. I decided to give the Summer Service Learning Program a shot, and was placed at The Mission of Our Lady of the Angels site. “The Mission” is a Catholic apostolate on the West Side of Chicago run by the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago. Going into that summer, I was very unaware of the Grace I would experience (In a very literal sense – Grace is the name of the Mission’s German Shepherd). In all seriousness, that summer turned out to be the greatest one of my life, an extremely profound experience of God’s love and grace. I could write you a whole semester’s worth of blogs about it, but I’ll try to stick to this one.
During the summer, I became a part of the Mission’s work to serve the neighborhood around them, a neighborhood scarred by poverty and violence. I helped with their food pantry, food and clothing giveaways, block parties, and whatever cleaning, donation-sorting, or yard work needed to be done. My main role for most of the summer was working as a summer camp counselor at the nearby YMCA that the Mission works closely with.
Doing all of this kept me very busy, and usually the days were so full of work, prayer, and community events that there was not much time that I could spend however I pleased. Initially, this frustrated me. However, I eventually noticed that on days when I thought more about myself, I was more stressed, anxious, and just generally miserable. But on days that I fully gave myself over to things outside of me, I found more fulfillment and happiness. Of course, I could have just learned this the easy way by listening when Jesus told me “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:38). I think that an experiential understanding of this Christian paradox is one of the keys to a fulfilled life. Not having as much free time was a gift in itself, a chance to realize what really mattered and strip out what didn’t.
I also found great fulfillment and joy in simple Christian community at the Mission. We truly cannot live the Christian life alone, and my summer volunteer group was able to experience community life with the sisters in a beautiful way. We shared in daily Mass, the day’s work, Holy Hours, and meals with them. For the Franciscans there, meals are an intentional way of forming and expressing community. It was not uncommon for the process of gathering for dinner, eating, and cleaning up to take two hours. Interacting with the sisters was also an absolute privilege. They are some of the most faithful and inspiring people I have ever met, and they have many talents. Sr. Alicia is a former winner of the show “Chopped”, and Sr. Stephanie is a marathon runner who has approached Olympic-qualifying times. But even more amazing are their qualities of faithfulness, selflessness, and ability to make you feel welcomed and at home, wherever you encounter them. The love, support, and example of all the sisters and everyone else at the Mission was so helpful for me, especially after long days. We are truly the Body of Christ, and “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). If we are looking for fulfillment, we cannot forget C.S. Lewis’ words: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (The Weight of Glory).
Fast forward 2+ years. This semester, my friend and former site-partner Will Niermeyer organized an informal fall break trip to the Mission, and I wholeheartedly joined in. It was an amazing blessing to be able to spend another week in service, community, and prayer, this time with several more good friends. That week, there was nowhere else I wished to be. I felt perfectly filled.
God has definitely been at work in my life over these past few years, from when I went to the Mission the first time to when I returned just a few weeks ago. Even still, during this time I have also struggled with fulfillment, wondering how I could “get back” what I felt like I had at the Mission because everyday life didn’t always seem to live up. I then read these beautiful words from Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God:
“Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us Christ would not be there. If our being there means Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile.”
Even though I cannot always be on a service trip or at the Mission, I can always be an open vessel to God, letting myself be “filled with Christ”, and then bring Him wherever I go. This gives me a sense of great hope. I will always be fulfilled when I let God fill me with what He wants. When our will and God’s Will align, we will never want for anything other than what comes from Him, and we will be truly happy. After all, this is what we were created for.