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Becoming a Better Servant

I was having a conversation with a close friend the other day about the internship here at the Jesuit Spiritual Center. While discussing some of our roles and responsibilities, it became abundantly clear that service was a common part of our daily routine. Service was one of the things that brought me here – years of working for myself and for my immediate superiors had left me wanting for more. I wanted to matter and have an impact on a larger scale than just my immediate management network. The few times in my life in which my role centered on direct service to others (as a resident assistant, a missionary in Uganda, a volunteer at a soup kitchen, etc.), I had felt fulfillment and peace that was missing from my other jobs.

Despite my longing to serve others, it took a long time to find a position that felt right for me. The reality of service is that it requires sacrifice. Sacrifice, on my terms, has always come with ease. It seems that I am willing to give up things that I am ok with letting go of – what a surprise! When I’m asked to try something outside my comfort zone or I would just prefer not to do, sacrifice becomes much more difficult. As I look back on this year, I realize how much has changed in what I am willing to sacrifice. I understand that there are deeper forces at work in this process. Sacrifice is born out of love. Without love, sacrifice loses its effectiveness, depth, and direction. It becomes a self-serving means to an end. 

Many have written how service without good intention can be a selfish act. Motivation and intention are crucial components of service. Service feels good, which is not a very radical thing to say. I’ve known that for quite some time. The feeling that I so enjoyed, the one that I’ve been chasing since I let myself fully immerse into my mission trip, is definitely something I long to feel once more. It certainly is a nice side effect of living a life of service. But it should not be my motivation to help other people. My motivation should come from a longing to love others as God loves us. The ultimate sacrifice and mystery of our faith is borne for us at the Cross. To be a better servant for others, I must be better at loving them.

Through my relationships with others, I have learned much about how best to love them. In triumphs and in failures, I have developed a better sense of how to treat others. I have become quite comfortable in sharing with others, investing in them, and giving without expecting anything in return. I have a solid support system and a good history of positive experiences to back me up. Though my relationships with others seem to be going well, I still seem to struggle with sacrifice. There are still things I am not willing to give up. I was a bit confused – this seems to be quite a paradox that I operate under. Where was my love lacking? Where was I unwilling to sacrifice?

As I spoke to my friend, it became clearer that my relationship with God may not be quite as strong as I would like it to be, or that I may not be letting it feed my soul such that I would feel comfortable with sacrificing those things I am currently not willing to. Loving God can be a very tough thing for me; He is hard to talk to, sometimes, and often even harder to listen to. I don’t get immediate feedback when I pray as I do in my interactions with other people. Many have suggested meditation and deeper prayer in silence, but I never seem to quiet my mind enough to really be present to God. I frequently get in my own way during prayer, though I still show up and work on it. Fortunately, with practice, it becomes easier and easier. Lately, as I have prayed more frequently and with more focus, I have gotten better at listening.

In prayer, not too long ago, I had a frank conversation with God. I told Him how hard it was to love Him. I heard the inner voice in my mind reply, “Then start with yourself.” I was floored by the revelation. I realized that the courtesy, availability, concern, respect, attention, care, and admiration that I share so freely with others, and (with increasing ease) with God, I adamantly withhold from myself. My high expectations, my perfectionism, my longing to be the best that I can be – all qualities that I had previously admired in myself – keep me from loving and forgiving myself fully. For a very long time, I focused my attention and energy on things on my periphery: external things I could influence in little ways. These things were always easy to fix and easy to feel good about fixing. As I got into more sophisticated forms of helping others and serving them, I chose to keep ignoring the things that were broken inside myself, opting to feel good enough by fixing others’ brokenness. I became addicted to feeling better about myself through making others feel better about themselves. My motivation for good was that I would feel better by doing that good, thriving on the thankfulness of others and their praise while hiding the pain and brokenness inside my own heart.

My friend made me realize that I hide my disappointment and harsh self-judgment behind pride, unwilling to let them go and heal my relationship with myself. It’s difficult to love God and other people fully when I do not completely accept, forgive, and love my own self. I felt sadness, and a bit of disappointment. To my surprise, I felt no embarrassment. I knew this was true and, deep down, I no longer want to treat myself this way. It took finally admitting it out loud to internalize my resolve and really commit to better servanthood.

Service has meant a lot of different things to me over the years. Intentional prayer and reflection have brought me to a closer understanding of true service. The ultimate sacrifice of the Crucifixion, and the immense love and true nature of service that it represents, serve as my guide and inspiration. Prayer has fed my increased understanding of the love that God has for us, and has encouraged me to be more generous with that love with others, God, and myself. As the second half of the internship enters its full swing, I look forward to the continued graces and spiritual insights that God has in store for me, and eagerly anticipate implementing them in our ministry.