Lent is one of my favorite times of the year. Not because I love self-denial, but I do love the intentionality of this liturgical season. Just as Jesus retreated to the desert to fast and pray and purify his heart and mind, my Lenten journey almost always brings much-needed perspective.
This year, these 40 days have been spent trying to take up Pope Francis’ challenge to Christians to fast from indifference, which so beautifully coincides with the Alternative Breaks (AB) experience. When it would be so nice to take a vacation or catch up on sleep, AB invites us into another’s reality. This experience is an opportunity to change our perspectives and purify our hearts and minds from apathy, ignorance and indifference. Just like Lent, these trips serve as a doorway to personal and social transformation, not just for the duration of time we block out for the experience, but, even more importantly, as we integrate the experience into our lives going forward.
It is a great privilege to accompany Xavier students as a learning partner. In addition to growing through first-hand experience as well as learning from the insights, questions and hopes that develop while making this journey together, I am brought back to the service and immersion trips that have shaped the trajectory of my life and helped make me who I am today.
I remember being a senior in college and spending one break in Kingston, Jamaica with the Mustard Seed Communities. Here I was, eager to serve, and yet I was so focused on the good I should be doing that I couldn’t get comfortable just being with others in need. One day I was asked to sit and hold hands with children suffering from hydrocephalus (a condition marked by an accumulation of fluid in the brain; in this context, it meant that these children had heads the sizes of watermelons and no strength to sit up, much less move about or play). I think I lasted about 15 minutes before the anguish of thinking about their entire existence lying in a bed was too much for me to handle. I got up and asked the orderlies what I could do to help. They told me that sitting there, holding hands with the children and talking with them was exactly the kind of companionship they most desperately wanted. When I asked again what else I could do for them, it became clear I was more interested in doing for than being with. So a staff member brought me a can of paint and a brush and asked me to paint the ceiling of the nursery. When I finished, I looked proudly at that ceiling, edified by thinking I had contributed some measurable good to the community. But I have never been able to forget those children and the look in their eyes, just pleading with me to stay and sit with them. They just wanted me to acknowledge the dignity of their precious life; to show them kindness by being a presence with them, rather than convince myself that the only value I have to offer is what I could do for them.
To this day, I still try to carry this experience and perspective with me. It’s so easy to get caught up thinking that my value lies in what I do, that others will only care for me if I perform a certain way or that my life is measured by what I accomplish or possess. I’m too easily tempted to think of love in terms of service — doing for others — rather than orienting my way of being with others. Kindness and generosity can become a series of tally-marks counting all I’ve given, rather than defining the way that I give. Being faithful to friends and family becomes a laundry list of what I sacrifice for them, rather than being attentive and responsive to them. I begin to feel like Martha, caught up in all there is to do and resentful that Mary is just sitting around, listening to Jesus (as the story goes in Luke 10:38-42). I certainly was acting like Martha at Mustard Seed, indifferent to the “better part” of the purpose of that experience: to share life together. I was indifferent to the recognition, as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25:31-46, that He is to be found in the “least” of our brothers and sisters. And the only way to encounter Christ in the least, last and lowly is to intentionally draw near to them, to share life with them.
Just as Lent marks Jesus’s retreat from the world to the desert where he could fast and pray and be purified, AB offers a similar retreat from the world and our daily routine so that we can reflect and share, grow and be purified. It reminds me of an African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” I take this challenge to move to be less about doing and more about being in a new place. Place matters, because what I see depends on where I stand; where I am shapes who I become. AB delivers us to a new place so that we can see the world through a lens different than our own. Moving our feet creates a “critical distance” from our previous place in life, allowing us to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Seeing in a new light, we might become more aware of blind spots that allow us to be ignorant, apathetic or indifferent to others’ realities. We might be freer to question how we live and for what purpose we make it through the day. We might think more carefully about how we view ourselves and others — the people we enter into relationships with and the others we fail to reach out to and engage meaningfully. We might be challenged to learn more about a particular issue or event, to explore its impact on a people or place and to wonder about how beliefs, actions and policies might be changed and improved. In a new place and surrounded by new people, we might find new possibilities for our lives, discover new passions and begin to discern where God might lead us next.
Lent and AB both invite us to a new way of seeing and being. The question is, what will you do with this invitation to move your feet? And how will you integrate this experience into your life going forward? What perspective, people and passion do you hope to carry with you? And what difference will that make for your life and the lives of all those with whom you share it?
Marcus Mescher is an assistant professor of Christian ethics in Xavier’s Theology Department. When he’s not active in his passions for theology, ethics and service, he delights in being with his wife Anne and their sons, Noah and Benjamin.