I was asked to write a palanca, or love letter, to a young girl, a junior in high school, who will be on a retreat in a few weekends. Her last note to me included her reflections on her experience of spending a couple of weeks working in a rural hospital filled with children who had AIDS and other diseases. Her father, a physician, and older brother, a senior in college, had also gone, while their mother stayed home and prayed for their safety. Her father told me that one of the most difficult things he had ever done was to let his two children go off alone to this hospital, while he stayed and worked in a different one. He knew they would be around many victims of AIDS and in an environment that was not all together in terms of clinical practices to prevent the spread of the virus. Still, he let them go, entrusting them to God's care, and with the sense that they needed to be off on their own, to help in their own way, and to grow in their own way. They both came back safe, and forever changed by the experience.
A palanca, (the Spanish word for "plank", apparently) is meant to be like a wooden plank that becomes a fulcrum to hurl one towards the love of God. I reproduce it here, because I think it is something that many of us, including me, need to hear more often.
January 31, 2007
I am delighted to write this palanca to you, because you are such a wonderful young woman. I really was moved by your Christmas letter describing your experience in Nigeria. You seemed to have begun some kind of transformation from that rich, yet troubling encounter with children – many who are orphans – who live with poverty, AIDS, and little hope. I believe your heart is responding to the gentle call of Jesus to "come out into the deep."
It seems hard to believe that you are a junior in high school! I'm sure you're receiving lots of letters that say the same. Soon, you'll be off to college, then a career. I pray you seek your vocation, not just a career. By that I don't just mean your "state of life calling," like marriage, religious life or single life. Jesus has some unique work of love for you to do, and the keys to what that is are – or will be – found in your heart! You don't have to look far, do you!? You just have to be honest with yourself, attentive to your talents, spiritual gifts, and your personality. You'll know your spiritual gifts by those activities that help others that also make your heart sing, "This is where I belong! This is what I was created to do! These are the people I was made to serve." Perhaps you've had that experience already. You'll know your spiritual gifts when you have the experience of doing something that people respond much more positively to your efforts than you would expect. Pay attention to the feedback you get from people. They're offering you clues as to your calling, even though they often won't know it!
And then, don't forget to look around you. What are the problems you see in the world that make you say, "something should be done about that"? Perhaps Jesus has given you eyes to see what many others are missing. Frederick Buechner defined vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." Caroline, if you discover that place, you will have discovered your mission, and have heard the call Jesus has prepared for you from before the creation of the universe! And it will be good! Just as you, created by the unique love God has for you, are good! Oh, Pookie, so many people are afraid to trust their call because they're afraid to trust God. They have a hard time trusting His love. But just consider all these cards and letters you're receiving! You are loved, and our love for you, expressed so poorly in these frail sheets of paper, is just a shadow of the love Jesus has for you. He said, "there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." Then he did that for you, so that you, and all those you love and who love you, might be with him in heaven.
But not only will you be with Jesus in heaven if you do His will, you can be with Him here, too. Jesus is with you in the sacraments! He feeds you and unites himself to you - and you to everyone else who receives Him, including some of the children you met in Nigeria - in the Eucharist. He tenderly embraces you when you fall in sin and turn to him in sorrow in the sacrament of reconciliation. In that beautiful moment you can recommit yourself to your baptism into Him! He has shared with you the mutual selfless love of Father for Son and Son for Father we call the Holy Spirit in your Confirmation. He gently will offer you healing in mind, body and spirit through the anointing of the sick. Perhaps one day He will join with you and your spouse in the lifelong self-emptying that is Marriage. What wondrous love He has for you, as the old song says! Trust that love, Caroline, and follow Him fearlessly.
Caroline, your mom said that your experiences with the poor and sick in Nigeria, and probably lots of other experiences, have turned your mind towards medicine. It would be wonderful if you pursue that vocation. I know you have a heart for those who suffer, and in medicine you would cooperate with Jesus' ongoing desire to heal our wounds. If you do become a physician, don't forget to pray for your patients. You will never be a source of healing, only an instrument in the hand of our Divine Healer. If you don't become a physician, you can still be an instrument of healing through your willingness to forgive, your desire to love and serve others, and your thoughtful, generous presence with those who are lonely, anxious or sad.
Whatever you do, whatever life choices you make in the pursuit of your call, remember that Jesus has given you the authority and power to stand in his place! You should never ask, "What would Jesus do?" – as if he weren't truly present. Instead, remember what He told his disciples, "the one who has faith in me will do the works I do, and greater far than these." (John 14:12) So every day when you awake, I hope you ask the question, "What will Jesus do today through me?" Because of his love for you, He says, "I am with you always, until the end of the world." (Matthew 28:20). Expect to see the signs of His power at work in you – even in your young age. Cling to Him now! Speak to Him with confidence and honesty as you would to your closest friend. Make His will your own, and you will discover a peace this world can neither give (John 14:27) nor take away.
I write these things to you, Caroline, for two reasons. First of all, because I love you and desire what's best for you, and there's no greater gift than knowing Jesus' saving love for each of us. Secondly, because I need to be reminded of them myself. You see, there's so much in our society that tells us we're not good enough, not worthy of love until we've changed. Constantly we hear of people who commit sins and whom we are told we should not forgive. All of that is a clever, consistent lie that makes us disbelieve the truth: so long as you or I exist, so long as one breath follows another – and even beyond life – you and I are treasured by our heavenly Father who knows all that we need (Matthew 6:32).
Finally, I conclude this too-long letter with a prayer from John Henry Cardinal Newman (after whom Catholic campus ministries are named). He wrote it during one of his darkest hours. I hope it gives you light and comfort throughout your life, because it, too, expresses the truth of who you are.
“God has determined . . .that I should reach that which is my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, He calls me by my name, He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and He means to give it to me.”
God bless you, dear one!
Fr. Mike, OP