I have sometimes prayed, "Use me, Lord." (Or, with St. Francis, "Make me an instrument of your peace.") But these prayers only make sense if I remember that a loving God does not merely "use" anyone -- that any call is at least as much for the sake of the person called as it is for some other person or group to be served, and that what I may think I do for God is actually a gift, a grace, from God. Too often we overemphasize the second: we may do good and useful work but miss half of what is happening. There remains a part -- the greater part perhaps -- of the call unanswered and unnoticed. Yet any call, even to the smallest unconsidered kindness, has echoes and layers of resonance to explore.
Let’s imagine I spend a couple of weekends helping a widowed uncle clear out his house to move to an assisted living facility.
1. I have taken on a task that obviously falls to me, as I am the only available family member (packing, sorting, lugging boxes, but even more listening to his memories and assisting his decisions).
2. I may or may not see the time and effort I am giving to my uncle as a response to a call and/or as an offering to God.
3. But in serving my uncle I am called to recognize Christ in him (“Whatsoever you do for...”), in spite of the ambivalence he surely feels about the move (which may make him fairly irritable).
4. And in serving my uncle I can recognize an imitation of Christ and I am called to recognize Christ in myself (“We shall be like him…”).
5. I am in training for whatever comes next.
It turns out that, when I think I have finished the job and done my duty, I may have noticed only a quarter of what was happening, and my discernment is incomplete. Like money put in the collection plate that symbolizes an offering of oneself, the job done was a token of a long term process. This particular task to which I was called was a brief passage in a continuing conversation, and in that sense it is not over.
What have I learned from the time I spent with my uncle? What kind of follow up should I offer to him in this difficult transition? How will my participation in his experience affect my own maturation and aging? What have I learned about listening for God’s continuing call?
Perhaps one of our habitual failures is the failure to learn as we go along, or to become aware through reflection of our learning. My uncle thanks me. But as I look back on the process, I find that I too am giving thanks.
Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom and a Cultural Anthropologist. For more information about her and the other books she has written, please go to her website: www.marycatherinebateson.com