I would venture to say that most of us try to be good people. By this I mean that we develop a notion of how a person ought to be - how he ought to relate to others; how she ought to contribute to society - and try to live that out as best we can. For any individual, this is an important and ongoing process. We develop a moral code based on faith, family tradition, cultural principles, life experience, etc. We then challenge ourselves to live up to that code, change the code based on new information, or acknowledge (or ignore) when we simply have failed to live up this code.
The problem is that when we set all of our own rules, we are accountable only to ourselves. We can overlook when we have failed our code, or when our code has failed our brothers and sisters. For instance, my moral code may simply dictate that I do right by my family, refrain from harming people, work hard, and treat my friends well. This code may not compel me, then, to help a stranger in need or intervene in a messy issue between friends. I set the rules, I decide whether I have followed them, and I can easily fool myself into thinking that I am living up to my own values.
There is a difference, then, between living out a moral code and answering a call. An article in the current Maryknoll Magazine discusses the life of Maryknoll Seminarian Dae Kim, originally from South Korea. In it, Kim discusses being a largely non-religious university student in New York. One day, while walking, he felt compelled to enter a chapel. In that moment, his faith life changed forever. Surely, it was a blessing to be called quite so clearly. However, in many instances, recognizing and answering the call is not sudden or easy. In fact, for Kim, his process included growing up in poverty in South Korea, seeking success in the United States, and realizing his calling to offer something more to the world.
He describes his vocation as such, "I know from experience that poverty is difficult but what ultimately poverty takes away is the human spirit, the spirit of hope and the will to do better. I felt my job wasn't to help with their material or monetary needs. There are other organizations that deal with that. As a Maryknoll missioner training to become a priest, my job was on the spiritual need - to aid them and guide them to never let their human spirit be squashed by their poverty and difficulties."
If we look at life by simply our own code, we can miss the call to our own particular ministry. Dae Kim is a man that could have found any of many ways to live his life, including simply to work hard and be successful, making the most of the opportunities given to him in the United States. As part of a moral or life code, that would make sense to many of us. But instead, he listened, felt a call, and is now engaged of the lifelong process of discerning and responding to that call.
Of course, it is not only priests, nuns, brothers, monks, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders that are called, but all of us! In that same issue of the Maryknoll Magazine, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Jason Obergfell describes his work helping people in rural Bolivia access clean water. Again, such a project could simply fall into line with a moral code. Many of us see giving back to those in need as just and necessary. But Jason is responding to something greater. "I don't only think of my project, but of the lives of these people and their problems," he says. "It is part of the difference between being a volunteer and being a missioner. Being a missioner is to bring the spirit of God, love and compassion. That is more important than any project, more important than any job. It is where we should begin and how we should finish." Jason is not called simply to help people, but to join with them - to care about them and their lives as he would any of his friends and family.
Stepping beyond our own codes - what we have decided that we are required to do - and responding to a call - what God wants us to do - is difficult, yet ultimately the most rewarding way to live our lives. God made us to love God and to love each other, and if we listen, we can hear the ways in which we are called to do so. This holiday season is a great time to ask yourself, how am I being called, today and everyday, to God's mission?