Missionary Musings: The art of being little

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True life:  St. Therese of Lisieux is my homegirl.

She hasn’t always been.  For most of my life she was just another saint.  I heard talk of her “little way” and her example of simplicity and humility.  And that was all fine and good.  But I never went deeper than that.  I never cared to know what that all meant.

I started to take an interest in her (or, maybe more accurately, she started to take an interest in me), though, when I learned a few months into my missionary year that she is the patron saint of missionaries, though she was never a missionary herself.  As I learned more about her, I found comfort in her utter lack of pretense and her dislike of long prayers and overly-academic approaches to spirituality.  That simple confidence in God’s love for her was a balm for the fear and hesitation I felt as I struggled to repair my relationship with God.

But I don’t think I fully understood that confidence until a few weeks ago, when I was on my knees in one of Bishop Hodges’ chapels, sharing with Jesus the confusion I felt about the results of a strengths-finder test I had just taken.  Because my number-one strength—adaptability—seemed so small, so useless compared to some of the strengths my fellow summer staff possessed.  I hoped the results would reveal hidden talents of strategizing, brain-storming, communicating, or anything else that I deemed valuable and worthy, something that I thought would make me an even better asset to Bishop Hodges, or that would translate to an impressive skills set for the ol’ resume.

But being adaptable—being comfortable with change, preferring to live moment to moment rather than according to a plan for the future—doesn’t really scream “You’re going to find that great job that you’ve always wanted.  You’re gonna go far.”  I haven’t seen many job postings seeking applicants who can go with the flow and are willing to take on last-minute or spur-of-the-moment tasks.

All of the strengths, including mine, are valuable in their own right.  But my attitude about my strengths has brought me eye to eye with something I’ve long-known about myself but that I’ve never wanted to swallow:

I can do no great things.  At least not things that are “great” in my eyes.

Because too often I see with the world’s eyes.  I know the things others expect of me as a young adult, the things that the world values, the things that everybody says will make me great, and I see only that I am lacking them.  I don’t see the goodness in the set of talents I’ve been given.  I only seek to build the ones I don’t have.

But you can’t grow what wasn’t planted in you in the first place.  You just can’t.  You can only work with what you’ve been given.

I think being adaptable, possessing a strength that I perceive as so unimportant and unexciting, is God’s way of humbling me.  Of making me realize that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t fit the world’s mold of what’s valuable and mighty.  I have to instead be content with who He made me to be.

And I think He made me to be little.  Because I’ve spent much of my life in the shadows of other people’s achievements rather than casting my own.   Because attempts at being big have never taken me very far and have left me feeling empty and false.   Even in my first missionary year, I left the “big” tasks—planning, dreaming, designing—to the other missionaries.  I often chose to dedicate myself to the smaller things, the things that were simpler, shorter, more immediate, that could easily slip through the cracks.  During summer camps I found more joy in working in the kitchen or serving as a “floater”—ready to fill in wherever I was needed—than in being a small group leader or counselor.

That night, as I wrestled with the results of my strengths test, I immediately thought of St. Therese of Lisieux, Jesus’ Little Flower.  And I saw that I was so much like her.  Her childhood was filled with dreams of doing big things.  But when she entered her convent, she realized that great things were beyond her.  So she sought to please God by being faithful in the little things—cleaning, cooking, being pleasant to the nuns who annoyed her the most.  She didn’t resent God’s call for her to be small, though.  She knew that being small was the best way to stay close to her Father.

I felt a closeness to Therese that night that I had never felt before.  In an instant I knew why God had sent her to me.  So I turned my prayers to her.

“Therese, teach me to be small,” I said.  “Don’t let me think I need to be big.  Help me to know that small is mighty.  Help me to trust that God knew what He was doing when He made me.”

I still struggle to accept that I’m not good at some of the things I wish I was.  The things I thought I wanted might never become a reality because I just don’t have some of the strengths that would lead me there.  It’s been teaching me what humility looks like.  It looks like realizing that you’re not in control.  That there are things that you just can’t do.  And you have to learn to trust that God had a plan when He gave you the strengths that He did.  You have to learn not to reach for the things that aren’t for you, because that’s what takes you away from Him, acting like you know better than Him.

And thank heavens I don’t know better than Him.  Because I’d rather be little.  I’d rather be completely dependent on God to show me the way than on my own stubbornness, even if He only allows me to see the next step rather than the entire trail.  I’ve seen what happens when I try to be big, to reach for the things that are beyond my grasp, and I want nothing to do with that anymore.

Besides, being little is the best way to make sure I still fit in my Father’s embrace.  I wouldn’t dare remove myself from that.

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