Imagine that tomorrow you’re driving home from work and you receive a text message from your mother: “Come to the hospital ASAP.” Your mind starts playing through all of the possible worst-case-scenarios as you think, “What’s happened? Who’s hurt?” You arrive at the hospital and are escorted to a room with your mother and siblings. They’re all gathered around your father who is lying on a gurney. “What happened,” you ask. The nurse shares that your father was in an accident that was so bad, he’s now in a coma. He can’t move, he can’t react to anything you say or do, but he can still hear everything that’s going on. In a sense, he’s still “there.” You ask, “How long will he be like this?” You’re told that there is no certainty to that answer, only estimations. It will most likely be weeks, but he could wake up in a matter of days or months. However, there’s a 1% chance he will never wake up.
Here’s my question for you: Your father will appear to be unresponsive, like he’s not “there”, for an indeterminate amount of time. But he can still hear everything that’s going on and you have faith that he’s still aware of your presence. How, if at all, do you spend time with him from that moment on? Do you wait at home until he wakes up and you can communicate with him more easily, knowing that there’s a 99% chance that he will wake up eventually? Or do you vow to spend a set amount of time with him every day even though it will be difficult holding the hand of someone who doesn’t seem to be holding yours back, even though it will seem unproductive speaking into his ear about something as mundane as how your day went? Will you remain with your father even though it will appear on the outside to be a fruitless endeavor?
If you truly love your father, you will still spend time with him. You’ll hold his hand, you’ll speak with him, you’ll simply be with him even though you don’t seem to be getting anything out of your interactions. Because that’s one of the things that true love entails: loving for the sake of the other and not for the feelings you get out of it.
When I experience periods of spiritual desolation, when prayer becomes dry and I don’t feel like God is with me, I picture this scene in my head. I imagine God allowing me to see himself as my heavenly Father in a coma. I know in my head that he will wake up eventually and that he’s listening, but he tests my heart by asking, “Will you still stay with me? Will you remain with me for one hour every day even though it doesn’t feel like I’m responding to you?” As I learn to say “Yes” to that invitation, I begin to learn what it means to love. I start to evaluate my relationship with God not so much on the external factors of my prayer (“God didn’t say anything to me today,” “No Bible verse stuck out to me today”) but rather on whether I’m striving to consistently choose to love God for who He is even amidst the discouraging external factors.
Some of us have experienced something similar to this in prayer before, but almost all of us have faced this challenge in our efforts to serve others. Many teachers, missionaries, social workers, and a countless number of service-oriented professions have experienced feelings of worthlessness in their work. Have you ever been working with a patient/student/client and thought, “Gosh, I wonder if my time with this person is actually making an impact on them at all”, “Man, I’ve been with this person this whole time and they don’t seem to have grown at all since Day 1,” or the more simple and synthesized question that crosses all of our minds at one point or another, “Why am I here?”
In a culture that instills in us a desire for instant self-gratification and the idea that our worth is based on what we can accomplish, we often get frustrated when we can’t see the fruits of our labors right away. We truly want to make an impact in the lives of others, but we get impatient when the impact doesn’t seem apparent or doesn’t progress in the way we originally envisioned it. By worldly standards of success, we appear to be failures. And that’s ok.
Many of us have heard the quote attributed to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “God does not require that we be successful, but faithful.”However, there’s another saint you should get to know who experienced failure throughout his entire life; Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
After an incredible conversion experience at the age of twenty-eight, Blessed Charles decided to devote his entire life to the service of God and to the poor. He spent the late years of his life living as a solitary monk in the Sahara desert surrounded by a majority Muslim population. In his lifetime of complete abandonment to the will of God and love for all those he met, he produced no visible fruit. He tried fervently to found a religious order but was consistently denied permission to do so. He tried to get brothers to join him in his ministry, but no priest was willing to keep up with his radical lifestyle of self-denial. As a priest he only baptized one person his entire life; no one else he encountered in his ministry ever expressed a desire to convert. His dedication and work-ethic earned him nothing in terms of earthly success. He appeared to many as a failure.
Yet now as people look back on his life they are inspired by his patience and his complete abandonment into the hands of the Father. Conversions today, a century after his death, have been attributed to folks reading about this simple monk’s life. Three hundred and forty fraternities of the Little Brothers and Little Sister of Jesus, the order Blessed Charles wished to start during his lifetime, have now been formed and provide service to the poor around the world. And Blessed Charles never got to see any of this take place. What was the secret to his perseverance? He followed God’s will and loved others for their sake and not for what it would mean for him and his legacy. He did not judge his success on the immediate fruit his efforts bore, otherwise he may have sank into a deep depression in the face of his constant failures. He simply remained steadfast in his love and knew that if God wanted growth and fruitfulness to come about, it would come about in His time and in the way in which He wanted it to come about.
To those of you struggling in prayer, just spend time with God. The “success” of prayer is not based on accomplishments or good feelings you get out of it so much as it is rooted in a deep sense of communion and fidelity.
To those of you who have dedicated your life to the service of others, be you teachers, missionaries, counselors, etc., do not be discouraged by what you perceive to be a lack of results/progress. Do not be discouraged by thoughts of uselessness just because you can’t see the fruits of your labor right away. You may see it down the road, or you may never see it. In either case, you’ll find that all you can do is carry on, loving for the sake of the other, trusting that this is the love we were created to give and receive. To the world you may appear to be a failure…and that’s ok. We are not called to be successful, but faithful. We are called to have a pure, self-giving, no-strings-attached, persevering, selfless love for God and others. Love calls for sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice entails not being able to see the fruits of our love right away. Love can make us look like fools and it can make us look like failures…and that’s ok.