Sunday, August 18, 2013

On Self-Sacrifice

As I prepare to dive back into residence hall living, albeit in a very different setting from undergrad and in a different capacity, I find myself revisiting memories of college and high school that I did not anticipate revisiting. Better said, I am not surprised that I'm revisiting memories of groups and friends and experiences just mentioned, but I am surprised by what jumps to mind, what things catch my mind's focus.

Imaginary reader, when I first entered college, there was a drive that I couldn't quite explain. There was a stirring in my heart that arose from beautiful friendships in high school, a strong foundation in personal prayer, a healthy approach to introspection, and I can't even begin to guess what else. Nevertheless, this stirring served as my North, my compass, and it steered me into the group known as Esto Vir. 
Those in my imaginary audience from my college probably know about the group, but for the sake of exposition, bear with me. Esto Vir is a brotherhood of young Catholic men seeking to acquire and gain the tools to discern what it means to be a Catholic man, especially in a college environment. The name itself comes from St. Josemaría Escrivá's writing in The Way "Don't say, 'That's the way I am--it's my character.' It's your lack of character! Esto Vir! Be a man!"

Be warned: I like giving context. I appreciate the richness of the back story, and so I try to fill in the story as much as I can...perhaps it's a vain hope that others truly feel my experience through my verbal barrage. Perhaps it's just my thing. I just want to throw it out there that you may be entirely exhausted by the time you get to the point of this long entry, so skim ahead if you are.

The guys who started this group, 6 years ahead of me, had spent a lot of time hashing out what the guiding principles of this brotherhood would be. The first virtue that jumped out was obvious: Prayer. It was impossible to grow in being a Catholic man without encouraging both personal and communal prayer, liturgical and non-liturgical. Ultimately to be a Catholic man is to be a type of Catholic human, and that holds to the idea that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Learning to foster, cherish, and strive to develop that relationship with God is necessary in the midst of college's multiple questions and those that persist and appear after college is out.

The second virtue is also fairly obvious in hindsight: Brotherhood. I don't know how much strain went into whether Esto Vir would be called a Brotherhood or a Men's Group. I think that on one level, they took on the identity of Brotherhood to serve as the foil to the stereotypical Fraternity. While we did not live in the same house, we nevertheless assumed the title of brothers. We were committed to each other in recreation, in joy, in pain and difficulty, in prayer, at mealtime, physically and spiritually. I am sure that the group still continues to reflect on this, but to have brotherhood as a virtue and to strive to live by it is to deny the self-serving friendship, the microscopic view of oneself. It invited us to stretch our arms out to each other, both for support and to be supported. It was an invitation and a challenge to see what Christian relationships truly ought to look like. There's a plethora of Catholic Social Teaching extrapolation, but I don't have the words ready to do credit; I'd sound stuffy, academic, and boring. I do that plenty well already.

Thirdly, the virtue of chastity appeared. This was a tough one for a lot of guys, myself included. Oh, not because we necessarily disagreed with it in principle, but because the challenge issued by chastity is one of much more than simply refraining from certain actions or adopting different actions when in an interaction with somebody of the opposite sex. Changing behavior, adding behavior, cutting behavior, was plenty difficult, and we certainly did strive to change in that regard. The idea of chastity being the way in which we embody and express love by virtue of sexuality (which is so much more expansive than sex!), to change the way we thought...what better place to work on this than with brothers in the fight, seeking and striving to live holy lives, to be good men to their friends, their future wives, to be good models for their children and whatever people watch them as role models? My friend Matt writes prolifically and beautifully on this without overwhelming the other elements of the human person. For his writing, look here:

The fourth virtue is what I want to examine, as the title shows. Self-sacrifice. When I first examined this virtue with some energy, I entered into it with the same disposition that I might have entered into a Lenten fast when I was younger, i.e., without a very deep understanding of what was going on. I trained myself to wake up at 6 AM, to go running, to come back and stretch, get my butt over to Mass at kneel without kneelers as a small act of penance. I went vegetarian for a stretch to train for an "Advent penance," which was going meat, fish, and gluten free. I was exuberant, threw myself into it whole-heartedly, and spent most of that first semester sophomore year half asleep. 

I don't say that to disparage what I did! Gosh, I hope to have that spiritual gumption again...and I'm going to work toward it. The problem that kept coming up, that keeps coming up, that will never STOP coming up as long as I'm living and long after I've passed away, is that the bigger offering is HARD. I was happy to offer that smaller sacrifice up to God for any number of good reasons (and some less advisable ones, like, say, trying to pay Jesus back for salvation). The discomfort of kneeling on the floor was genuine, but I could manage because it was only half an hour plus however much other time I spent praying near a tabernacle that day. Then came the whammy: would doing this ultimately wear my cartilage away faster? Was I setting myself up for knee surgery? Was I hurting my running by doing this? It may seem stupid, hypochondriacal, hyperbolical, but when the greater question came to bear, I was either like, "Whoa, shoot, gotta stop that," or dismissive, "Nah, that'll never happen."

The great blessing and curse of living is advancing in age. I'm hardly old, but accruing more years to my tally brings with it scars, illness, injuries, etc., and I've gotten a greater appreciation of my finiteness and fragility through experience. I can't dismiss things quite as off-handedly as I could even 7 years ago, and there will be more that I can't dismiss when I get to double my current age. 

The problem that I think I began to see, and now see far more clearly in myself, is that when those questions arise and I can't dismiss, I don't have an alternative to "Gotta stop that!" There is less decision and more instinctive reaction, which is...well, as it's instinctive, it's natural. The challenge that Esto Vir's virtue of self-sacrifice tries to grasp more fully is to ask the question of whether to continue on deeper into the sacrifice by the route one's been taking when one reaches that critical moment. It invariably happens. There comes the moment in the small sacrifice that the invitation is made to make a greater sacrifice. Perhaps the greater sacrifice is one of magnitude of short-term discomfort. Many times, though, the greater sacrifices ask something long-term. To accept this kind of invitation is to accept a death. It means foregoing a behavior, a lifestyle, an attitude, a habit of being, a guiding principle, a means of transportation through life, a key to process things. Dive into the invitation, and the world may end up looking a whole lot different through the new key or lens it offers. 

To mindlessly jump in is not laudable. To recognize it for what it is insofar as one can, to discern it as a sacrifice worth making and perhaps even necessary to make, and to commit to it unreservedly--that's where virtue lies, I think. 

And here's why I am reflecting on this: because honestly, something in me for a bit less than a year has been amiss, and I have not had anything other than that instinctive withdrawal from that which represents a death to myself. I was never, ever great at choosing the sacrifice if the discerning really came up, granted. But in the face of the unknown, of the lack of control, I've somehow managed to become so insulated as to lose the wild instinct of trust, of adventure...and the last great and true adventure is fidelity to the vocation to become who I'm called to be...In the midst of looking at Christ crucified as the semi-final result of fidelity to God--even knowing that the Resurrection will follow--belief can be so difficult.

So I pray as I reflect on the fourth virtue that I can indeed conform myself to Christ in order to embark on this adventure. I pray for the desire to resume the adventure, because it lies dormant, or perhaps drowned by other noises and calls and clamors and claims for my attention in life. 

And I pray for the other necessary virtue Esto Vir found so important: Fortitude. Without it, one doesn't get very far at all. I could write more, but it's time to sleep.

It's comforting to know that Esto Vir is still so pertinent to my life, even if I never consciously thought it wasn't. I'm just embarrassed by my colossal fall from these virtues and from disciplined striving in brotherhood. Please keep me in your prayers. I don't plan on giving up. Or to stop praying for you.

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