In the 8 years since I left Xavier, I’ve ministered to youth at a retreat center, lived in rural Minnesota promoting awareness about suicide and depression, worked for an urban after school tutoring program and counseled high school students. During these 8 years, I’ve also come to a realization I think a lot of us are experiencing but aren’t talking about: Being a man or woman for others is really hard.
Don’t get me wrong, I expected it to be hard. Working with teenagers involves a lot of “planting seeds,” hoping they grow and sending positive prayers their way in the future. Living to help others often involves spending extra money on locally grown food and avoiding the local mega-chain. The unexpectedly hard part has had less to do with “…for others,” and more with “Being a man or woman…”
At first it was easy. For me, being a man for others meant throwing myself into the direct service of other people. Walking with them along their path and offering whatever help my training or personality could offer. I felt God’s love work through me for others and every other part of my spiritual life grew from that base. Mass, prayer and reflection became expressions of my faith, but rarely sources for it.
Even though my wife and I had just purchased a home and work was going really well, a feeling of imbalance began creeping into my thoughts. Expressions of faith like Mass and prayer became almost nonexistent over time. Still, though, I gave to others. My job allows me to serve multiple populations at once. I volunteer. I support my wife and family, but the energy I received from God no longer propelled me through any of these things.
Intellectually, I could understand why it’s good to help others, shop locally and be a good partner, but my actions lacked the spiritual focus I discovered at Xavier. In baseball terms (because everything’s better in baseball terms), this focus helped me hit every pitch thrown my way, while my intellectual reasoning got me walked every time I came to the plate. True, both got me on base, but my intellect lacked the excitement and possibilities that come with putting the ball in play.
At first, I responded to this imbalance by throwing myself into more service. Extra hours at work, extra volunteer commitments and extra everything else that involved serving others. If I had been a faith-filled man for others, I would become a superman for others to rediscover faith. All of this extra, though, left me tired, surrounded by unfinished goals and lacking any kind of rejuvenation.
That setback eventually led me to a spiritual director and to the writings of a trappist monk who renounced his world of writing and academia in favor of contemplation, only to rediscover both through silence and prayer. Thomas Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, can’t be called exciting or an easy read, but the level of depth he explores while walking his spiritual path is astounding. He recognizes that he needs to sacrifice things within himself in order to make room for spiritual growth, and somehow taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience aren’t enough. He eventually walks into an abbey in Kentucky, ready to leave everything in his world behind in his pursuit to become a man of God.
Now, joining an abbey and walking away from my life certainly aren’t realistic options, but the freedom Merton discovered by shedding his outer layers appeals to me. As much as I love the world I’ve built around myself since leaving Xavier, I’m always aware of it’s weight as I carry it with me. It’s a good weight, but still heavy at times.
Letting go of my responsibilities won’t work, but recentering myself through prayer and silence has certainly changed how I approach them. The Jesuit daily examen, during which I recognize moments of consolation and desolation with God, has helped me remember that God is infinitely present, whether I feel it or not. Therefore, my moments of desolation are as holy and special as my moments of consolation. That knowledge, however difficult it is to remember, pushes me out of bed and into the world every morning, unafraid of what lies ahead.
My objections to prayer usually revolved around a desire to pray only when I felt God’s energy flowing through me. Prayer had become an expression of feelings instead of a way to connect with something greater. Before entering the abbott, Merton envisioned contemplative prayer as something he did silently in a room. In reality, contemplative prayer involved him farming fields and caring for the abbey while in communion with God. Internalizing God’s presence regardless of my feelings makes prayer a constant mindset as well as a moment to pause and speak with God. Merton’s misperception and eventual understanding of prayer offered me a path I needed to take to make prayer a source of faith as well as an expression of it.
Seven Storey Mountain shows Merton learning to use that communion to approach academics, prayer, writing and service as a man of God before any other titles or responsibilities claim him. Using that sentiment as my foundation for faith provides me with energy before I have a chance to serve others. Being a man of God before being a man for others allows me to serve others without being dependent on them for my faith. This distinction doesn’t always make my days easier, but it definitely helps me through the hard parts.
Dan Cox (’05) lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Meg Nalezny (’06). He’s the Upper School Counselor at the only all male Catholic school in Minnesota and spends most of his time riding his bike, digging in his garden and listening to the Cleveland Indians with a broken heart. He occasionally writes about spirituality, books and baseball on his blog: http://spinningscissors.blogspot.com/.