“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” – Paulo Coelho
Frankly, I had no clue what I was in for in Chicago. I had been living in the security of the Jesuit novitiate for two years, but immediately after taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I now found myself thrown onto a college campus in a city full of attractions — and distractions.
Any big transition forces us to grapple with how we want to live our one life. Recently, I re-read my favorite book, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. It reminded me of the universal need for finding true meaning and purpose for our gifts, the need to contribute, to create something, to be generative.
I guess that’s why I joined the Jesuits in the first place. I know it sounds trite, but I really wanted to help make the world a better place. In The Alchemist the main character is on a search for his life’s mission. It sounds pretty granola, but they call it his ‘personal legend.’
I have to admit a somewhat cynical attitude when it comes to making a large life decision. Who do I think I am to get first class delivery for my prayers with the Big Guy? What, like God will drop everything to give me vocational clarity and personal affirmation each time I hit a crossroads?
For a while, I think I actually expected it to work like this and would get pissed when I did not hear an answer that I liked. Maybe this came from my own father once telling me that he prayed for a sign to change careers and become a medical doctor if his sister could get pregnant after five years of no luck. Sure enough, she got preggers and he became a doctor.
But my life doesn’t work that way. It’s just not that easy, and many times I am filled with doubt about my life choices and where I currently find myself. So how do we continue to dream big with the tough realities we face?
As I reflect on The Alchemist, I see how ridiculous it sounds for someone today to go off and search for their personal legend. Like this voice will walk us through all the bullshit life throws at us and land us in the perfect vocation? Tell that to my barista who gets up at 5 am each day or the guy that drives my bus and looks like he may strangle someone at any moment. Dude, you just need to start following your personal legend and it will all work out for you. Yeah right!
Yet for whatever reason, The Alchemist always gets me teary eyed and pumped to tackle the world’s problems. It touches the romantic guy deep within me that still dreams big.
Unfortunately, I am all heart and little cognition which has at times resulted in some poor decisions, even leading me down some pretty dark roads. On the up side, it’s allowed me to take some crazy adventures. While living two years in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had no choice but to find God in new ways. I became bilingual, met incredible people, broke my nose twice, and actually had a positive impact on those I served. I was just facebooking with a friend from my village over there, and she wants me to be the godfather for her newborn baby girl!
I never had a crystal ball to guide my actions, but in the struggle of daily life in Guatemala, truth began to emerge within, pointing me towards my gifts, my weaknesses and what made me feel alive. Riding my bike from village to village in the beautiful countryside of Guatemala charged me up! Overcoming the challenge of teaching with no resources amidst extremely impoverished people gave me a sense of meaning and value. Each day was another reminder of my own mission to serve people, and life became a gift to be treasured. I never received a crystal clear calling, but daily life provided a playing field to explore myself that brought out in me something bigger than words.
This same inner truth was recently rediscovered l as I spent time at St. Procopius, a predominantly Mexican parish in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. As we prayed at mass together, I felt a palpable presence of God as we sang the Spanish hymns and gave the sign of peace by saluting each person with care and attention. After mass I followed Miquita, the humble saint of the parish, into the basement where we had a simple breakfast of bread and coffee while we shivered in the cold. There was true fellowship and peace in her presence.
As I talked to her in my now broken Spanish, I realized it was the first time I felt right in a long time. The first time I did not have to pretend to have an answer or be something bigger than the guy God has made me to be. The coffee and bread were enough, the company was enough, and most importantly I was enough right there in the moment sharing time with a friend.
This moment did not erase the doubts that constantly arise in my busy life full of distractions, but it brought me home to the place where I know who I am, what I stand for, and the mission God made me for. The challenge is to let each moment of life open us up to new possibilities and guide us to that which we dream of becoming.