In feeding the spiritually hungry, we do not have a classic situation of hungry people lining up with bowls, beaming as we serve them. We more likely find people who are emotionally exhausted, weary, frustrated, distrustful and confused – and may outright refuse us if we approach them with exuberant smiles and outstretched hands. The most commonly observed behaviors among the very spiritually hungry are those we generally find off-putting. Before that surprises us, remember that spiritual starvation is rooted in disconnection, so it stands to reason that avoidant and disagreeable actions go hand in hand with spiritual hunger.
As Missionaries, we are called to recognize these needs… in people who seem uncomfortable around us, in people who directly challenge us, in people who seem one day friendly and the next day impossibly defensive… in the frustratingly insecure, and in the perfectly put together.
Our Mission Objectives state that we are to be aware and help others be aware, and (looking ahead), we are to teach and encourage. Nowhere does it say “fix.” Not in the objectives, and not in the Mission Statement, which uses the verbs understand, recognize, address and prevent. “Address” may come close, but even this means to examine a problem with intent to make a plan... not to fix anything.
How can ours be a Missionary approach without the intent to correct?
First and foremost: We do not believe that anyone has the power, ability or presumptive right to “fix” anyone else.
We alienate ourselves from others when we tell them their wrongs, or approach them from “if only you would just…” Then, what? We won’t help you, we won’t like you, until you conform? Even when dealing in matters of absolute truth, our job is to understand a person’s thinking, not try and correct it. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak set out to learn from each person we encounter, familiar and unfamiliar, comfortable and uncomfortable. Of course we still hold our own beliefs, form our own opinions, and feel strongly about matters we find important. We may see others heading toward horrible looking consequences (and it goes without saying, we would never let people walk into danger without speaking up) – but, for the purposes of our ordinary Mission work, we strive to know and be known, not to change others. If our first instinct is to fix, we will do more harm than good to the cause.
Second: Spiritual need is part of the human condition.
A “fix” mindset suggests that a need eventually goes away if we work hard enough. There has been no point yet in human history when personal connection is no longer needed. We can neither “fix” people so that they connect better, or “fix” situations so that better connections are possible. People are not products, and connections cannot be quantified.
Third: The call to “fix” suggests a problem with brokenness.
This one is a little more complex to think about. This requires us to concede that every person, in one way or another, knows the pain of imperfection – both the consequences of our own shortcomings and those of others. Our problems – whatever they may be – are part of our circumstances, and our degrees and types of brokenness determine the manner in which we approach them. Take away our brokenness, and the problems still remain. If we are looking to solve the problems of day to day living, “fixing” our brokenness only shifts the focus onto us instead of the problems at hand, tempting us to despair and despise our weaknesses (and still leaving us with the problems).
We believe it is possible to live with our needs while still hoping that, with our efforts, they do not impact our capacity for happiness. Consider, too, that a person who can live with their need ends up being more resourceful than a person who hopes to master their need and then quit. So, while we do not suggest whatsoever that brokenness and suffering is to be sought after and celebrated, we do acknowledge that, in this life, things go wrong… people aren’t perfect… and comfort clouds our judgment. Seeking a “fix” quickly becomes unrealistic, frustrating and counterproductive.
Fourth: A “fixed” problem requires no further attention, case closed.
Can we ever say that about a person? Pairing a lonely person with a volunteer friend once in awhile is no more a solution for spiritual hunger than tossing an apple to a victim of famine. Food can’t simply be distributed; eventually it runs out. Food must be cultivated, constantly. It cannot be checked off a list. Likewise, our Missionary mindset must be one of cultivation.
Fifth, and finally: Our work is not simply a matter of dispensing goods from our plenty to the needy.
We Missionaries of Saint Thorlak need right along with those whom we encounter. And, paradoxically enough, living from our need is the one thing that offers a continuous solution (or, do we dare say, “fix”?) to the problem of disconnection.
Pray: God Our Father, You are the source of our life and all Creation. Even if we clearly see the brokenness before us, it is beyond our ability to fix the broken aspects of humanity. Help us unite in our struggles, rather than divide; that You may heal us through the bonds of connection and support.
Contemplate: How does brokenness lead to healing? Can there be healing in the absence of brokenness?
Relate: This week, let us remind ourselves as often as necessary: It is not our job to fix broken people. It is our job to recognize need – in ourselves, and in others.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak