I am writing this blog post at my own kitchen counter in Belchertown (excuse me), Massachusetts. I am wearing a new breezy summer outfit and have cut my hair to combat the 90-degree heat wave. I have unpacked my suitcase and distributed gifts. I have skyped and phoned close friends and hung out with my family. I have gone to Sunday Mass in English. It’s been eight days since I stepped off a plane at the Boston airport after a two-day journey from Magadan.
Don’t be fooled. I am not writing this blog post because I feel ready. 198 hours in the Bay State have not been sufficient to help me process our time in Russia. Still, I promised many people that I would update them on how mission went, so here it goes:
To begin, I would like to tell you all about something Father Michael did before we left Magadan. One day he showed me a plastic drink coaster. On it were the words “THE MEANING OF LIFE IS ____.” Father handed me the coaster and said simply “Answer the question.” I jokingly tried a few answers: The meaning of life is coffee. The meaning of life is sleep. The meaning of life is to do what Father Michael says. But Father’s face told me he wasn’t joking. I left feeling obligated to find the answer and annoyed for it.
The next few days were hard and filled with many goodbyes. The team drove ourselves to the point of exhaustion planning events and hanging out with the people we had met. In the course of a week we ice skated, hiked, camped twice, held a dance, visited homes, had picnics, walked around the city multiple times, had people over for meals, and watched countless movies. It seemed to me then that the meaning of life was self-gift. We utterly spent ourselves for these people whom we had come to love. Nothing seemed more important.
But as I hugged my favorite kids goodbye, I felt like a fool. I had spent so much time and energy on them and now I was returning to America. I would take my eyes off of others and focus on myself. I would go back to school, my family, and my friends. Best case, I would come wandering back to Magadan next year. Worst case, I would never see these kids again. I had held onto these people so tightly and now I was being asked to let them go. As I saw it, these precious little souls had been entrusted to me and now I was abandoning them. I was leaving them to an uncertain future in the hands of someone other than myself.
I wasn’t the only one; in our final days in Magadan the team had a meeting where we discussed the highs and lows of the mission. Many of the team referred to the present situation as their low: they could not feel right about leaving the people of Magadan. We had given them everything and now it seemed we were taking it all back. If the meaning of life was self-gift, it couldn’t be this sort. We had given ourselves, but we despaired of the value and ultimate importance of such a seemingly temporary gift.
I sought elsewhere. Perhaps the meaning of life was the relationship with God found in prayer. The best thing we could devote ourselves to were the things of the spiritual life. In the final week, the team refocused on intense prayer. We prayed an all-night Eucharistic vigil, we sent people on poustinia (24 hours in a hut by the sea in prayer), we woke up early every morning to pray the rosary, we fasted and abstained, we held a day of recollection. We considered litanies, sacrifices, and grand silences. (Note: I don’t reveal this stuff to show you how * holy * we were, but to show you how desperately we sought to take the fate of Magadan into our own hands.)
I cannot speak for the hearts of others; the rest of the team’s faith and intentions were likely purer than mine. But as for myself I did not trust in the Lord to care for the physical or spiritual needs of these people. I wanted to be his hands and feet because I didn’t trust Him to get involved without me. I prayed because I didn’t expect Him to respond to the needs of his children in Magadan without my shouting on their behalf. I didn’t trust in God. I trusted only in myself.
Luckily, Father Michael put a stop to my idiocy in his classic fashion. I came to him a wreck. I wasn’t feeling consoled in prayer and was upset. It felt like Jesus was always a step ahead of me. When I moved toward Him, He moved back. I came to Father expecting some tips on how to pray better, some exhortation on how to earn God’s presence. Father responded quite simply: “Jesus didn’t die on the cross for you so that 2000 years later he could avoid you.” The Lord doesn’t play with the lives He redeemed with his own.
Before he left Father answered the coaster question. He said, “The meaning of life is Christ.” Of course it is, although at first I was too prideful to see it. The meaning of life is Christ! He gave everything for us and so now we give everything to Him (cf. 1 Jn 3:16), trusting that He will transform it into something coredemptive. As Christ’s every moment on earth had redemptive value, so can our every prayer, work, joy, and suffering be given over to and transformed by Him that we might contribute to the salvation of our brothers and sisters (cf. Col 24-5). Alone our self-gift and prayer does little but exhaust us, but joined to Christ our every movement is sanctified and brought to life.
We give our lives in a spirit of surrender, for God alone transforms our gift of self. When we contemplated our departure from Magadan, we worried about the people. We were afraid for their uncertain futures, but coming to Magadan was once our uncertain future and look what the Lord did with it. God doesn’t ask us to just give Him something great. He doesn’t just ask for our best talent or our most prized possession or the best years of our life. He asks for everything! He asks for our very selves! He takes our talents and uses them, but He also works through our weaknesses. He accepts our detachment from material possessions, but He also asks that we make Him our greatest treasure. He prizes the gift of our time, but He also asks that we offer every day of our lives in joyful service to Him. Knowing this, we can be glad to have given our time to serving his people in Magadan. We can be glad of anything because He makes all things new (cf. Rev. 21:5).
We are so thankful for this summer, for the people we met, for the opportunity to serve, and for the lessons that we learned. We are so grateful to those who have supported us both financially and spiritually. We are thankful for our friends and families and benefactors. We are thankful for Father Michael. We are thankful to God. The Summer 2016 Mission to Magadan has come to a close, but the mission to Magadan is not over. We still ask that you pray for the people of Magadan and for all who serve there past, present, and future. We close with the words of Father Michael that drove many of the team to give their “yes” to this mission:
“Why would you spend your time in a place like Magadan? That is usually the question. You could do anything anywhere. And the only response you can give is to say that it is God’s call. Even though you could do many good things, the best thing is the call of God. How could it be a waste when it is God’s call? Even though success is not their and failure is obvious, and there are not great movements of faith like I thought were going to be, the seeds are still being planted and they are going to have their roots because they are in God’s promise.”
– Father Michael Shields
In Christ Jesus,
Kaitlin and the Russia Mission Team