Starting anything new is difficult. Yet I know, as I am sure you do, that whenever we begin something new, there is a learning curve and it takes time to get comfortable (let alone succeed). But knowing this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that beginning is simple and easy.
One of the most fruitful habits you could develop when starting something new is reflecting on what you did right (your successes) and what you did wrong (your misses or failures). Just think back to those times after had you taken a quiz or exam in school: you would look back over your work to make sure you understood your mistakes in order to know how to avoid them in the future. What I find fascinating is the fact that we practice this habit of reflection with regard to our exams, reports, and work, and yet I know it was not until I stepped into the role of a missionary that I found it so life-giving and worthwhile to apply this same habit to my whole life.
Beginning my first year as a FOCUS missionary came with a learning curve. In my first semester, I found myself pretty overwhelmed by my new role. I remember wondering if maybe I had bitten off a little more than I could chew. It is not always a pleasant experience to look back and acknowledge all of your mistakes. At the end of my first semester, I could look back and see that I had learned so much, but I had also made so many mistakes and thinking about it all together brought more anxiety than peace. It wasn’t until I read a quote from C.S. Lewis while on retreat that I was able to extract the greatest lesson contained in my first semester as a missionary.
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably. … [You see,] He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of. … You thought you were [being] made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
My conversion back to Catholic Church was a rapid one. After having my first genuine encounter with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, I quickly dove into my Catholic community on campus to learn and to meet other people searching for God. After one year of being fully incorporated in the Church, I desired to share my experiences with others as a missionary. As a zealous college graduate, I accepted a role with FOCUS thinking that, in no time, I would be bringing hundreds of people to Christ.
Reflecting on the quote from C.S. Lewis allowed me to put words to my experience of that first semester. I could see only in reflecting back on my semester what I was doing, namely, attempting to build my own home, by my own strength: a home with rooms that I would fill with pieces of my own story; rooms filled with great pieces of Catholic literature and expensive furniture, a fireplace to sit next to, and an office to write about my adventures.
Upon reflection, I saw that relying upon myself in my first semester got me nowhere close to filling the home of my soul. When I entered this home, sure, it had all the rooms that I desired, but it was empty. My efforts had brought me no closer to my fulfillment or satisfaction: instead, I felt trapped in my empty home.
In a similar fashion to Icarus from Greek mythology, I flew too close to the sun of my pride and was lovingly humbled by our Lord. But what is so beautiful about our Lord is that, in these moments when we feel trapped and confused, Jesus desires to meet us there, in our poverty. As Fr. Josh Johnson similarly shared in his keynote at SEEK22, Christ never tires of knocking on the door of our hearts. I could hear Christ knocking upon the door of my empty house asking to come in but, at first, I feared letting Him in. What if He started knocking down walls and building a new home? What if His plans only led to unhappiness? What if everything I love was taken away? What if he offers me a life I never wanted?
Christ never tires of knocking on the door of our hearts.
When I looked back at the end of the semester, I found myself surprised. Christ hadn’t been destroying my plans, but rather he had been building the home I desired. What was even more beautiful was I found the new rooms that he had built were perfectly placed within the base design I constructed. The Lord was so patient with me in those moments of poverty at the beginning of my time as a missionary, even when I couldn’t let go of my pride and my plans and let him in; but each day I could hear Him knocking, again and again, until I finally opened the door.
The moment everything changed that first semester was when I let God be God. Instead of attempting to be a successful missionary by my own willpower, I began to ask Christ to lead me where he desired me to go, which led to many more beautiful encounters on campus. I found that those extra rooms Christ built in my home were the places where Christ desired to take me while on mission. These perfect rooms are now filled with incredible people he brought me to encounter and that I’ve grown to love on my campus.
The greatest lesson I have learned in my first year as a missionary is that the plans I have for myself are nowhere close to as great as the plans He has for me. Echoed clearly in the book of Jeremiah,
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Allow the Divine Architect to build your home and I promise that it will be far greater than the plans you have created for yourself.