I remember years ago, as a child, reading with awe the stories of great missionaries and martyrs. And so when in China I met “real live people” who were daily risking their lives to bring the Gospel, I was somewhat starstruck. I attended secret Masses with priests and nuns who had served in the Underground Church for decades, who had friends who had been arrested, beaten, or even killed for their faith. I met women who taught small children the faith, despite the law that made it a crime to speak of God to anyone under eighteen. I met men and women who had started orphanages and infant hospices to care for the abandoned and discarded little ones, and others who assisted women seeking to hide their “illegal” pregnancies from forced abortion. Each of these daily put their livelihood and even their lives on the line, over a span of decades, and many had suffered terrible persecution but still persisted.
When I was invited to join some of them in a secret mission trip to another part of China, to join in speaking “illegally” about the faith, I was thrilled. To be fair, the risk to me was insignificant—if caught I would only be deported, not killed. But there was something in me that loved the idea of being a part of something that felt so missionary, to join these heroes even in a partial way.
But then, a few days before we were to leave, something felt wrong. At first I thought the heat was finally getting to me. We had taken a taxi to the Great Wall, and our driver like many elderly Chinese had a deep superstition regarding moving air. He insisted on keeping the windows closed and the AC off, until we arrived and gratefully tumbled out into the much cooler 99 degree air. But the weak, dizzy feeling continued well into the evening, even after we returned from the wall.
The next morning, my stomach began to lurch and make sounds that might have had me burned at the stake in earlier centuries. It then violently designated “return to sender” pretty much everything I had ever eaten or ever considered eating. Charity and basic decency ask me to censor the graphic details, but suffice it to say, I had never been so sick in my life.
In the United States, when one gets a stomach bug or food poisoning it usually end after 24 hours or so. This did not. After three full days my body was still violently and involuntarily turning itself inside out, and I alternated between thinking I was going to die and praying that I would.
I did not suffer nobly. I did not smile serenely offering up my pain for the poor souls. I was not peaceful, accepting whatever God would send me for His greater glory. I don’t even think I prayed, other than to beg God to let me die, quickly. I had not known, until that moment, that it was possible to experience such pain and not die or fall unconscious. I only wanted it to end.
It was ten days before I was back on my feet again, thanks to a combination of watermelon, Cipro and many prayers. I missed the mission trip, and realized ruefully that that far from being a hero, I had more in common with the nameless companions who died of dysentery before ever reaching the missions.
I was tempted to be disappointed, at first, at not being permitted to do something “great” like the others. And I was frustrated at how poorly I had suffered even my minor little cross, when I knew others who carried much bigger ones more gracefully. But God’s plan for each of us is profoundly personal, and always perfect.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.” We’ve all heard some variation on this, and know, (at least on some level) the harm in Park Avenue pretense, or Wall Street ambition, or any other human measuring sticks. Yet sometimes this slips into our spirituality and our ideas of holiness.
It is a central strategy of the Opposition Voice to turn our eyes away from Christ, to look instead to the gifts, or faults, of others. When we see those of seemingly greater gifts or callings we are tempted to doubt our own, to be ungrateful, or to let them go unused. When we see the faults of others, we are tempted to excuse our own, saying “at least I am not as bad as him/her.” My father used to warn me not to make others the measure of my soul: “You will always be able to find someone holier than you, and someone more sinful. The fact that you are better than Hitler does not make you a good person. You need to do the best you can with what you have been given.” Christ invites us to look to Him, to what He is calling us to individually.
The way is narrow because it is personal, a specific way for each person. As Pope Benedict said, there are “as many ways as there are people.” Not that each person invents his or her own way—nothing could be more disastrous! Rather each person is uniquely called to follow Christ in a particular way, with particular gifts. The one reason to do anything, great or small, is because He asks us to.