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For Lent: The Best Advice I've Ever Heard

"Don't let anyone prevent you from becoming the person you want to be," he counseled. "He has no right to do that, nor does he really have the power. God desires you to become loving and charitable."
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So it's Lent. And I'll bet you're thinking of what to give up, right? Well, instead of that, how about putting into effect a few insights?

I've been a Jesuit for 24 years. I'll spare you the complete description of my seemingly endless training. (Short version, lots of prayer, lots of study, lots of work with the poor.) Instead I'd like to boil down the most helpful things that I've heard from my elders: those Jesuits who have trained me, who have been my "spiritual directors," and who have been my colleagues and friends. All of these pieces of wisdom stopped me in my tracks; all left me speechless; all of them changed the way I look at life, God and my fellow human beings. And all of them, I hope, will be helpful to you.

1. Allow yourself to be human.

In 1989, as a brand-new 28-year-old Jesuit novice in Boston, I was told that I would be sent to work for four months in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica. Though working with the poor is part of our life and training, I was terrified. Never having spent any time in the developing world, I was almost paralyzed with fear. What if I got mugged? What if I got sick? (It didn't help that one of the second-year novices kept telling me how dangerous it was: he was, by the way, exaggerating.)

The night before leaving for Kingston I was sitting in the living room of our novitiate staring at (I was too nervous to read) The Boston Globe. An elderly Jesuit came in to say hi. Joe McCormick, an experienced spiritual director, was one of the freest people I knew: warm, open, joyful.

"Ready for Jamaica?" he said. Out came my worries. Joe patiently listened to them all.

"What's your biggest fear?" he said. I told him that I was worried that I'd get so sick I would have to come home. That would be embarrassing, I thought darkly.

Joe nodded slowly and said, "Can you allow yourself to get sick, Jim? You're a human being with a body, after all, and sometimes bodies get sick. The worst that could happen -- coming home -- isn't the end of the world. So why not just allow yourself to be human?"

A cloud lifted. Yeah, why not just relax and be human? Getting sick wouldn't be the end of the world. I went to Jamaica... and never once got sick. But I got more human.

2. "You don't have to be someone else to be holy.

Too much of my time as a young Jesuit was spent trying to be like other people. I knew that I wasn't holy myself, and saw other novices who seemed far more holy, so, I figured, I needed to be like them.

One guy in our novitiate, for example, was soft-spoken and diffident, and he was pretty holy, so I decided to be meek and mild. "What's wrong with you?" another novice said after seeing me piously moping around the house. Another novice woke up super-early and prayed before our morning prayers at 7 a.m. He seemed holy, too: so I started to get up super-early. "Wow, you look tired," one guy said. "Aren't you getting any sleep?"

Finally I said to my spiritual director, David Donovan, "I'm not sure how to be holy. Who should I imitate in the novitiate? Who's doing it right?"

"Jim," he said, "you don't have to be someone else to be holy. Just be yourself. That's the person God called into the Jesuits, after all." David's advice helped me to relax, and to be appreciated for who I was, not for who I wasn't. Plus I got more sleep.

3. You're not married to everyone.

When I was in philosophy studies at Loyola University in Chicago, I lived in a great Jesuit house, where I made tons of friends. But there was a problem: many of the community members had, not surprisingly, different likes and dislikes. It was the first time I had lived in a large community with so many different ways of looking at life.

For example, one guy got annoyed if you didn't move his wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. (Why didn't you put them in the dryer? They're all wet!") Another got angry if you did put them in the dryer. (Why did you put my clothes in the dryer? They'll shrink!") Another guy didn't like to talk about his studies at meals: too stressful. Another did: it helped him let off steam. I found it hard to keep track. How could I please everyone? One day I said to my superior, "I feel like I have to remember what everyone wants. And what everyone's little likes and dislikes are. It's driving me nuts."

Dick Vande Velde, the director of the Jesuits in formation in Chicago smiled and said, "You're not married to everyone, Jim. There's no need to please everyone. Plus, you couldn't if you tried. Just be kind and generous and the rest will take care of itself."

Behind the good desire to please everyone was the not-so-good desire to have everyone like you. Which is impossible. Even Jesus in his earthly life wasn't universally admired. Why should I be?

4. Don't let anyone prevent you from becoming the person you want to be.

I'll keep this story vague. At one point in my Jesuit training I lived with a difficult person in my house. He had many good qualities, but he was also argumentative and combative. (Eventually he would leave the Jesuits.) Since I was always running into him, it seemed that I was slowly changing in response. I was always on guard -- combative and argumentative myself -- in order to protect myself.

At one point, I told my spiritual director that his personality seemed to be making me into a different person, someone I didn't like. I was becoming someone in reaction to him.

"Don't let anyone prevent you from becoming the person you want to be," he counseled. "He has no right to do that, nor does he really have the power. God desires you to become loving and charitable. Don't let him distract you."

It was hard advice to follow. But it was essential. Rather than let someone else's problems mold you, become the person God wants you to become.

5.) "You're not Jesus."

After philosophy studies, I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service for two years, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was fantastic work. (Needless to say, I had gotten over my worries about working in the developing world: I asked to go!)

Gradually, though, I started to fret about doing all that needed to be done. Our work was helping East African refugees start small businesses, which meant: meeting with them on a regular basis; checking on their businesses (tailoring shops, bakeries, restaurants, chicken farms); helping them navigate their way through government agencies; arranging for them to get medical help when they were sick; and just listening to them. How could I do it all?

After a few months, I confessed to my spiritual director, George Drury, a New England Jesuit stationed in Nairobi, how overwhelmed I felt. "Where did you get the idea that you had to do everything all at once?" he said.

What a dumb question, I thought. Well, I said, that's what Jesus would do. He would visit them. He would check on their businesses. He would fix their problems. He would help to heal them. He would listen to them. And George said, "That's true. He probably would do all those things. But I've got news for you: you're not Jesus! No one person can do everything. And even Jesus didn't heal everyone in Palestine."

Accepting my limitations and my "poverty of spirit," that is, my own limitations, helped me to do my best and leave the rest up to God.

Later on another spiritual director put it more succinctly: "There is Good news and there is the Better News. The Good News is that there is a Messiah. The Better News is that it's not you!"

A form of this essay originally appeared in The Jesuit Post.

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