14 October 2012
I have been thinking a lot about the term “success” lately. As a child growing up in rural Missouri, success was something to be aspired to. In fact, it was just about the only thing that we aspired to. No one really ever explained what it meant, but it was like a blessing passed on from the older generations: “May you be successful, may you find success.” My own obsession with education and knowledge was linked to (though not merely a result of) my maternal grandfather’s insistence that the only way I could be successful was if I got an education. It was never directly stated, but I was under the impression from a young age that this being successful involved money. My maternal grandmother, who, I must say has only ever wanted the best for us kids, longed for lawyers and doctors in the family. This was not because she wanted legal or medical advice, but because those seemed the most lucrative positions (this was before the technology boom and computers became the money makers). I’m grateful that she doesn’t seem too disappointed about our failure to produce either (although, let’s not give up hope too soon, I have a cousin who would make a great lawyer if he would get through the schooling).
At any rate, looking at my life right now, I’m not sure if I can be considered successful. I certainly don’t have a lot of money. On the contrary, the only material thing I have a lot of is debt. Then there’s the question of success in my field(s) of choice. As a classicist, I must be a failure because I left the field. As a historian, same thing. As a theologian, the fact that I have already admitted to hating theology (/morethanfleshandbone/2012/03/so-heres-why-i-hate-theology.html) probably means I’m not very successful. As a writer, I’m generally too tired to write down the many thoughts in my head and heart. Instead, I lay down and read what other writers have to say.
As a Campus Minister, I’m not really sure how you can define success. Is it quantitative or qualitative? In our conversations with the Archdiocese, we’re always being asked about numbers. Honestly, sometimes there is only one person who shows up to my events. Sometimes there are thirty. But if we have a great conversation about God in which one or both of us grow closer to Him, in which Christ becomes present in a tangible way, isn’t that meeting with the only student who showed up a success?
A couple weeks ago, we had a Leadership meeting on a Saturday morning. Our leadership team is made up of about 16 students and only five showed up. For my boss, this was a failure. And really, as a leadership team meeting, it couldn’t have been much of a success because part of being a team meeting is the team showing up for the meeting. But I don’t think it was a failure, either. I had great conversations with the students, got to know them better in new ways and during our hour together I saw us grow in understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to be in communion with the other. We shared the stories of our “Eli”s (1 Sam 3:1-18), those people who challenge us and invite us to follow our calling, those spiritual leaders who have made us who we are. Sitting there, hearing the stories that these five women had to tell, two of whom are freshmen in college—I don’t think that anything which brings such powerful witnesses together and unites them in prayer could be other than a success, and it was a success brought about by the Holy Spirit.
As we are preparing for a lot of changes and transitions at the BCC, we find ourselves being asked to defend the need for campus ministers at Butler. People ask us for success stories. Fr. Jeff has many—he can tell you about the students who entered into the Catholic Church, the ones who went on to change the world in many ways and who stayed strong in their faith. He considers those to be success stories. Certainly, they are the easiest ones to tell and he tells them which such love and warmth that the hearer is satisfied in the need for ministry to continue here.
My temptation is always to say that there are no success stories at the Butler Catholic Community. Instead, there are love stories. I’m not sure what success is, but I do know what love is and these kids teach me about it every day.
I can tell you love stories about my love for my students, about how I see God in them and how my own love grows abundantly through them. I can tell you about their love and generosity and patience with me as they teach me so many lessons about life and love. I can tell you about our mutual love for Fr. Jeff, a man with amazing wisdom and kindness and a great power and ability to love that we all benefit from every day. I can tell you about their love for each other: the strength they give each other during tragedies and heartbreak, stress and studying. I can tell you about students who say to me that they wouldn’t have gotten through their breakup, the death of their grandfather, their PCAT, their final exams, their own illnesses without the love of their friends from the BCC.
I can tell you specific stories: the girl who found the ability to love herself through being loved in a way that didn’t demand, didn’t take—only gave; the young woman who finally found a place where God made sense and became the loving creator she needed instead of the judge she had been taught about as a child, how she found this place through the dedication and love of a friend who invited and invited until she came; there’s the one about the young man who carried a girl to her dorm all the way across campus because she was sick and too weak to walk. I look at their faces and see not only college students, but I can see the face of Christ so vividly sometimes that I am perpetually amazed by them.
The most important love stories are the love stories of these college students and their Creator. There are the love stories of their love for God: their trust, their faith so strong that it makes mine pale in comparison. There is the girl who just came back from studying abroad where she had a conversion experience and now is bravely facing the knowledge that the five year plan she had so carefully crafted and protected in her heart since high school isn’t God’s plan for her. She is going forward with far more grace than I did when I had a similar experience. She is one of my heroes and I am blessed to know her, much less to serve her.
Far more beautiful are the love stories that I witness quietly, the ones of the love of a passionately loving creator who so obviously cherishes these college students in spite of anything that they might do to deter his love. I have seen Him come back again and again to pursue them, to work miracles in their lives only to be recognized after with some mystified disbelief. I have seen men and women grow into something far greater than what they were before and while some might call these “success stories,” I am painfully aware that I had nothing at all to do with it. I just sat with them at the Blue House or in Starbucks or walked around campus with them, watching the changes take place.
I have been praised before for the love that I so obviously have for these mischievous college kids, the frat boys and sorority girls, the seemingly frustrating and narcissistic kids who really just want to be loved and don’t know how to love themselves, the socially awkward kids who are still trying to figure out who they are. But really, it’s nothing to love them. I am not Mother Theresa, saving the poor of Calcutta. I’m not Fr. Greg Boyle, loving the homeboys in LA. Like Oscar Romero, I am blessed to say that it is easy to do my job well when I have such great students. The trick is not in loving them; it’s in not letting my heart break because I love them so much. I challenge any person to know these amazing men and women, to spend even a couple days with them, and not love them. It’s not possible, I promise you.
Last weekend, I went home for the Oktoberfest. It was a well-needed and wonderful rest. Going back to Rolla for things like that is like walking into a big, warm hug. I felt wrapped up in love and was reinvigorated to continue my ministry. The only downside of the trip was the immense number of people who asked what my plan is for after I graduate Notre Dame. The frustrating answer is that I don’t know, but like my student who so bravely is letting God guide her future, I am trying to trust that He has a plan and that his plan, unlike my own half-dozen batch of half baked plans for next year, will rise up and give me the answer I need.
On the drive down and part of the drive back, I listened to the audiobook of Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle. This is an awesome book and everyone should read it (thanks to Sarah Hallett and Fr. Jeff separately for the recommendations to read it). He quotes Mother Theresa saying that we are not called to success but to faithfulness. As I look forward to this next step into the great unknown, I try to hold onto this. I am not called to success, only faithfulness. So, let us all faithfully move forward out of the darkness and into the light, listening to our call.