Just last night, I spent 4 hours listening to a remarkable friend who has led a remarkable life of obedience to Christ for the past 25 years. 10 years ago, I wrote about Natalia in the first issue of the Siena Scribe and 10 years later, she is still at it. 12 years ago, I tried to incorporate Natalia's story into an article on the mission of the laity for a national Catholic magazine and the editor's response was immediate. He asked me to take out her story because "none of his readers could aspire to such a thing."
Oh, really? Good thing Natalia isn't Catholic. Because she's been, not only aspiring, but doing "such a thing" for the past 25 years with the support of her family, friends, her local congregation, and now, a very large and established international organization. Because aspiring to have a real impact on the world for Christ is considered normative where she hails from.
Now Natalia is facing yet another season of personal challenge and life-altering change. But her confidence in God, who has guided and provided through these past 25 years, remains high. Your prayers for her (and her family's) protection and provision would be greatly appreciated.
I re-read the story I wrote about Natalia this morning and the beauty of her long obedience was as fresh as ever. So I thought I would share it with you all.
Just last night, I was sitting with my close friend Natalia in the narrow kitchen of a old, rambling University District home, our chairs drawn up beside the faded linoleum sideboard upon which we perched our cups of tea. Every year, she returns from her home in the Middle East to spend a month in Seattle and every year, we eagerly await the chance to share our experiences with each other.
"Imagine, just last week I was out in the villages," she said with a wistful expression. "I don’t know if this is wrong, but I feel closer to the village women than I do to the westerners who live around me. After seven years, I really feel like those women are my sisters." Natalia loves her desert home. She has become fluent in the language and feels deeply bonded with the people there. She was really distressed when it looked as though the government might refuse to renew her family’s visa for another two years and tremendously relieved when she knew that she could return. What is sometimes difficult for me to remember is that Natalia lives in a country that is internationally recognized as one of the most religiously repressive in the world.
In Natalia’s home, phones are routinely tapped, letters opened, spies attend gatherings, and the government keeps a "file" on every resident, especially foreigners. For a citizen of this place to embrace another faith is illegal and could result in prison or even death. Natalia and I correspond in a kind of code but I know that however much I can try to read between the lines, I will never really know what has happened until I see her in person. Her situation is so potentially dangerous that I can never share publicly the name of the country in which she lives, and I have given her a pseudonym for this article.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to live in such a place, much less love it? Natalia is one of those Christians with the special charism of missionary. The charism of missionary empowers a Christian to be a channel of God’s goodness to others by effectively and joyfully using their charisms in a second culture. No "public" missionary would ever be allowed to enter this country and do openly Christian preaching or evangelization. But Natalia’s passport describes her occupation as "homemaker." As a laywoman, she has the freedom to do what no bishop or priest or sister could hope to do: be a living testimony to the love, life and teachings of Jesus Christ to people who would otherwise have no reasonable opportunity in their lifetime to hear the Christian message.
Westerners are seldom invited to the homes of local people, but Natalia has won the love and trust of many. So she dons local dress and drives out to the villages and the desert and sits on the floor or in a tent, eating goat and drinking spiced coffee and chatting. She has prayed for their sick children in the name of Jesus and seen them healed. She has listened to many women share their struggles with their families and their lack of freedom. She has shared Scripture and prayed with them. And increasingly she finds that she feels closer to these women than to the many western expatriates who live near her.
Natalia is not Catholic and it has never dawned on her that she is a living embodiment of Pope John Paul’s observation that "all the laity are missionaries by baptism" and that "they are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ" (from the encyclical Redemptoris Missio). Natalia has never heard of St. Nino, the fourth century laywoman apostle of Georgia (a country south of Russia that used to be part of the Soviet Union) or of the lay Catholics of Japan who, in the face of terrible persecution, sustained and passed on the faith for nearly 250 years without the pastoral care of any priests. Natalia only knows that she is being obedient to God’s call.
Not only does Natalia not know that what she is doing perfectly reflects Church teaching about the role of the laity, many Catholics don’t get it either. When I recently tried to use her story as an illustration for an article on lay vocations to be published in a national Catholic magazine, the editor told me to find another person’s story to tell. "None of our readers could possibly aspire to such a ministry," was his verdict.
I meditated on his comment last night as I watched Natalia talking. This five-foot-nothing, middle-aged housewife, her rumpled clothes and drooping eyes mirroring her exhaustion and jet lag, was this woman so very extraordinary? Could none of the thousands of lay Catholics who read that magazine ever dream of doing something similar? I knew that this was not true. After all, hadn’t I just taken my lay missionary cousin out to breakfast last month and listened to his stories of his work in Moscow? Hadn’t my roommate in seminary spent five years as a lay missionary in Turkey before marrying a local Armenian? Didn’t my youngest sister turn twenty while leading Bible studies in Nigerian university dormitories? I knew that there were thousands of non-traditional lay missionaries in the world. What was it that made this editor sense that his Catholic readership would find such a story to be "too much"?
Then I remembered a comment that had been made by one of the participants in my last spiritual gifts discernment class. The topic that day was our individual vocations and how our charisms are given to us as both clues to our call in life and as powerful tools that enable us to carry out our mission. "But, of course, just living our normal lives and taking care of our families is a real vocation" offered a warm and wise older woman to a younger woman. A small chorus of verbal agreement and nodding heads followed her observation. There seemed to be real satisfaction in reaffirming that plain, ordinary life was a genuine mission, a full vocation, that God wasn’t probably calling anyone in the room to any of the unusual vocations that we had been discussing. I found myself wanting to say "Yes, but…"
What if we are called both to ordinary lay life and something else on behalf of the world? What if our ordinary life is intended to be the channel through which God can bring the extraordinary to pass? If we are married and working and supporting a family, can we assume that is the full extent of God’s call on our life? It is "too much" for lay Catholics to expect God to call them to that which will not just sustain the status quo but change it? Is it pretentious for us to expect God to use us to transform the whole world for Jesus Christ? Is it excessive for us to be open to the possibility that God will use lay men and women to do dramatic things for his kingdom that could not be done by a priest or religious?
What, I wondered, if we started looking on the Natalias of the world as possible role models for average Catholics? What would happen if we opened ourselves to a whole new level of lay apostolic creativity, initiative, and fruitfulness? I think that we would be astonished at the remarkable charisms and ministries that God would raise up among us if, as a community, we nurtured the conviction that there are many Natalias called to and gifted for critical Kingdom tasks among us, and that for the sake of the whole Church, we must help them discern and take up their God-given mission in life.