Dear Missionaries of the World and Laborers for the Gospel,
Recently, those of us serving in FOCUS’ national office took a day-long retreat, where the priest’s reflections addressed an issue that seems to plague every laborer in apostolic work. It resonated so deeply within my own experience that I felt compelled to share it with you here.
No ministry is immune—whether in the Congo or in the college dorm, in youth ministry or the priesthood. I cannot tell you how much I wish I had guarded against it over the years—and done so with much more vigilance. I paid a high price, and I don’t think I’m alone.
And so, it is in all gentleness and sincerity that I write to you, my brothers and sisters in the field. In our labors for the gospel, this is the easiest way to lose our souls:
Activism: The mentality that my identity is defined by the (good and holy) work that I do.
I know that as missionaries, we are accustomed to receiving a lot of praise and esteem. But I feel that now, there is a need to be brutally honest, for all of our sakes:
Being a missionary will not get you to Heaven.
Personal holiness will.
The Devil’s in the Details
I don’t mean to downplay the role of evangelization in the least. It is an integral part of our personal call to holiness. What I’m cautioning against is the temptation to identify (and justify) ourselves by our work.
I do this all the time. It’s so hard not to. It’s especially tempting when we can see the fruits: Look at how much good I’m—I mean, God—is doing! We’re bringing so many people to Christ!
But by living in activism, we limit God to His activity. Then, when He is silent—when prayer is dry, when the turnout is low, when we miss our goal, when we can’t discern our future, when we are forced to face our own interior darkness—we panic.
And then, we reassure ourselves (and our pride) of all the “good” we are doing. When we can’t see God’s activity, we search to find Him in ours. Little by little, our worship turns inward; without realizing it, we begin to worship the fruits of our own work and not the One for whom we are working.
While I was an over-active, over-zealous, and over-achieving college student on the verge of burn-out, my best friend cautioned me: “Remember, the devil doesn’t care how much good you do, as long as you’re proud of the fact that you did it.” (I don’t know if she came up with that herself, or if she was quoting somebody else, but it was a chilling reminder, and I hope to God that I never forget it.)
A Culture of Busyness
Maybe our frenetic missionary activism means that our prayer time gets cut short, or our minds race in the chapel with to-do lists, or we don’t know what it means to “be present” anymore—we can’t hold a conversation without checking our phones, or we’ve lost touch with all our old friends, or we’ve become estranged from our families… but at least the mission is thriving! And besides, I’m just so needed here.
The worst part is, we are lauded for these behaviors within our own Christian circles. The “good missionary,” we tell ourselves, is the one who is running themselves into the ground, whose day is packed, morning until night, at a feverish pace. Not a moment to spare (or introspect). All for the Kingdom, of course.
“Activism is the most insidious threat in our life because it veils itself as generosity.” –Msgr. Massimo Camisasca
Yes, I know, St. Paul was busy, too. First, let’s stop comparing ourselves, especially to him. He also had a very healthy understanding of Sabbath rest; one that is almost completely abandoned by Christians today. I would argue that until we know what it is to “enter into His rest,” we have no business entering into His activity. Heaven, after all, is Eternal Rest.
What is needed, first, is a drastically different outlook on ministry: God does not need our work. He needs our hearts. Nothing will remedy our activism until we’ve accepted the paradigm shift: our personal vocation to holiness MUST take priority over all evangelization and apostolic activity. Period. We can sacrifice many things… but not this.
At the heart of activism is a loss of identity—confusing what we do with who we are. And how do we reclaim who we are? We look to the Face of God, in whose image we are made. In other words, contemplation.
There are a few pre-req’s for this:
1-Get used to saying “no.” …Even when it would be such an honor to accept and so many lives could be changed. Yes, there are times for sacrifices, but use prudence—especially if a request is going to disrupt our sleep or our prayer routines (arguably, those two are very intricately related). Don’t be afraid to protect your interior life at all costs. You’re not selfish for this.
2-Make Space for Silence. He is the Word and can only be received in silence—not just the physical silence when we obediently “clock-in” for our holy hour or quiet time. What we need for contemplation is the interior silence of the heart; it’s only here that we can finally see the Face of God and live.
3-Keep the Sabbath. Or a Sabbath, if not on Sunday. A full day. No ministry activity. Read on.
God rested on the Seventh Day not because He was tired, but because rest tells us something about who God is and, therefore, who we are: the one who rests is the one who is free. Slaves do not rest. They do not have the option. And if we do not rest, we have enslaved ourselves to something. Have we sold our souls at the price of apostolic success?
The Sabbath as the School of Love
Here’s what I’m beginning to understand: it is when we enter into God’s rest that we are most “in His image and likeness.” We reclaim our identity—not as missionaries, per se, but as daughters and sons. It is there, in that place of freedom and rest, that we learn to worship and we learn to love. And without it, we can do neither.
Finally, a healthy reminder from The Soul of the Apostolate:
We must never leave the God of works, for the works of God… St. Paul’s “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel” does not entitle us to forget, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?”
My brothers and sisters, please know that I pray for your work, but more importantly, I pray for you. And you are not your work. You do good work, but it’s not the source of your goodness.
You are sons and daughters, and no amount of productivity or missionary achievement will alter that.