|“Get a life. Get a real life.”
The words cut through the electric air of the hotel ballroom occupied by 2,000 high school and college students attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) in Washington, D.C. last month. They had gathered for a two-day conference of learning, singing, praying and dialoguing around the issues of immigration rights and environmental justice before spending a third day on Capitol Hill conducting advocacy visits with their elected officials. In the midst of this difficult and sometimes tense work for social justice came the challenge to “get a life” and it came from the mouth of a very spunky 80 year-old nun named Sr. Peggy O’Neill.
Sr. Peggy has spent the past 30 years living and ministering with the people of El Salvador as they have endured and healed from a bloody civil war and multiple other social injustices. As she told the students at IFTJ stories of abundant grace amidst the gritty reality of life in El Salvador, she encouraged them to discover the intersection of their God-given gifts, their passions, and the suffering of the world and go set up shop at the cross-roads of those three.
Grace and grit go hand-in-hand.
In the garden abundant with grace that was Eden, God walked with humankind “at the breezy time of the day”. (GN 3:8) Can you imagine?! What a grace-filled life that must have been! Then, within this idyllic paradise the gritty existence of sin enters when humanity chooses to turn away from God. So deep is their shame around this that Eve and Adam hide themselves from God. Then, always the arbiter of grace, God asks them a question that I so often hear for myself, “Where are you?” I hear within the question an invitation to return to that space where I turn back toward God, walking side-by-side in the cool of the garden. I have found that I am best able to do this when I live from that place that Sr. Peggy described to those energetic youth — the place of my vocation.
A wonderful model for someone who lived from that space was Miriam of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. Here was a person who knew all too well the gritty reality of an earthly existence. Nazareth in the first century was a very difficult place to live if you were not among the small, ruling elite classes. Life under the Roman Empire was brutal for agrarian communities like Nazareth. In fact, by the nature of Joseph’s trade as a carpenter, Mary and her husband belonged to the artisan class which had an even lower income than the peasant class due to the fact that they had no land on which to grow their own food. And yet, within this space of apparent scarcity comes the abundance of Mary’s great “Yes” to God: “May it be done to me according to your word.” (LK 1:38) What a powerful witness of what it means to endure the struggle and trials of life with a deep, abiding trust and faith in God!
I end with another modern-day example of this, also from El Salvador, who is Sr. Ita Ford. She was one of three Religious Sisters who, along with a lay partner named Jean Donovan, were martyred in 1980. Her words in a letter to her niece Jennifer on her 16th birthday are words for us too:
“What I’m saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be ‐‐ that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search.
“Maybe this sounds weird and off‐the‐wall, and maybe, no one else will talk to you like this, but then, too, I’m seeing and living things that others around you aren’t… I want to say to you: don’t waste the gifts and opportunities you have to make yourself and other people happy…”
May we all not only get a life, but live a life that embraces the gritty reality of our world and celebrates the grace that is waiting to be discovered there.