Growing up, I heard two things.
One was that I could be and do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. The other were stories about saints. The former spoke to my work ethic, high ideals, and diligence. The latter sparked my desire to do great things, be something great, and impact the world for the better in a bold and dramatic way.
Since stories about saints often involve romantic notions of leaving everything behind to go to the ends of the earth in service of the Lord, they also served to energize my natural wander-lust and implant the idea that it is only in great big sacrifices that holiness is realized.
The combination of these two culminated in a very impassioned desire when I graduated college. I wanted to give my life to God, and I knew that that was possible because I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough! I knew (or thought I knew) that I was supposed to leave everything behind and gallivant off to the yet undiscovered rain forests of Cambodia to serve the natives there (because that’s how you become holy, duh!) and by golly, I was ready to do so.
However, soon after graduating, I found myself working a retail job in Columbus, Ohio. Then I found myself living in a small, heavily depressed town in southern Michigan. Newly married, away from my friends and family in Ohio, and most certainly not at the farthest ends of the earth feeding the homeless of Transylvania.
For a while, I kept telling myself that this was just the first step in the grand plan to bring the Eucharist to the natives of Madagascar. Yet, my husband and I became more established in Michigan and the plan seemed to change. As I slowly began to realize that Iceland and I were not going to meet anytime soon, I also had to ask myself the question “how do I become holy here?” and then the insecurities had to be dealt with: “why am I not good enough for the Lord? Why doesn’t He want to send me to the ends of the earth?”
As I searched for the answers to these questions, the same stories of saints from my childhood kept popping up. As I got to know many of these saints better, I also began to understand that the stories of the saints paint an incomplete picture.
These stories make the saints’ lives out to be a great adventure, and surely they are, but the stories never delve into what the saints were truly experiencing during their great sacrifices. Sometimes the stories told mention that Saint so-and-so didn’t really want to go to China/Indonesia/Africa/you-pick-the-place, but it is usually presented as “but that’s why this person is so cool.” No doubt it is cool, but this approach cuts short the nature of their sacrifice.
The places considered to be at the ends of the earth several centuries ago were not at that time the hip, trendy, social justice places they are today. As I learned to live in (and even love!) my small, depressed town, I began to realize that when St. Francisco Álvares went to Ethiopia, he wasn’t going on a Christian Safari. He was going to the equivalent of my Michigan town. Ethiopia wasn’t some neat, exotic place to travel to, it was a place of loneliness, poverty, and distance from all that was known, familiar, and comfortable to him.
My little Michigan town is, perhaps, the absolute lowest on the list of places one wants to travel to. It is poor and distant from my family and friends in Ohio (even hostile at times to a natural-born Ohioan!). It was, consequently, lonely when I first came here, and certainly not comfortable.
As I began to put my situation next to the those of the saints, I slowly began to realize that my dream had, really, come true. As we live four hours away, I have in a sense, been asked to “give up” my friends and family, and live in a small town that in many ways, I didn’t at first want to be in. I consider my situation to be living at the ends of the earth in many ways. There is no good place to get a hair cut, no good date places, and we are surrounded by cornfields. Yet I am also living in a town that desperately needs love, mercy, and the Eucharist.
The ends of the earth aren’t in some far-away country. They are right here in our own nation. Africa isn’t the ends of the earth, Flint, Michigan, Hillsdale, Michigan, Cranks Creek, Kentucky, Harlingen, Texas and numerous other towns like them are. What’s more, the work the saints did wasn’t glorious in and of itself. It was – and still is – glorious because it made Christ present in the world in a place and a manner which He previously wasn’t.
That is glorious.
The work the saints did was really hard. It wasn’t, to them, the most romantic thing in the world. It probably stunk a lot of the time. No doubt, they asked themselves “am I really going to live the rest of my life here?” Yet knowledge that you are doing God’s will provides peace which surpasses such earthly discomfort.
Sometimes, it is really hard for me to be joyful or to believe that what I am doing is good and important. It is really hard to be away from a state, family, and friends that I love. Yet, holiness isn’t dependent on where you are, but rather who you are and how you respond to where God put you. Holiness isn’t about some misguided passion, it is about being passionate about your faith even in the smallest, most overlooked, most forgotten towns in America. Holiness is about trusting that God put you there for a purpose, and that if you can love this small town with great love, and do little things with great charity, then you’ve done more good than any mission trip you could have done to Australia. When it comes down to it, these humble towns and seemingly invisible callings do more for the development of humility, the interior life, trust in God, prayer, faith, hope, and love than any great work I could do elsewhere. Moreover, the peace and subtle, yet strong joy that comes from this town far surpasses any worldly comfort I could gain elsewhere. Indeed, I have fallen so hopelessly in love with this place that I wonder if I could ever leave, if given the choice. Indeed, how great is our consolation when we do the works of the Lord and allow Him to be present to us!
So, let us not be misguided by the shiny, exciting “calls” to Japan or India. No doubt, some are called there and God bless them. But for the rest of us, stuck with a “mediocre” calling in a boring old town, embrace it! The Lord has chosen you to go to the ends of the earth and make Him known there! The greatest adventures, and the greatest joy, await you right here, in the homes of your neighbors and the backyards of your neighborhoods.