[Jesus] said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household. If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him, but if not, it will return to you.”
Luke 9: 2-6
In today’s gospel account Jesus sends the 72 disciples out to the Samaritans, to a place and among a people who in many cases are not likely to be hospitable to these Jews. In like manner, they would not be the group that Jewish disciples would most likely desire to be engaged with. Jesus calls on the disciples to be aware of the potential hostility and so to begin each encounter with a blessing of peace. If the person to whom they offer this blessing is not peaceable, Jesus says, then the peace they offer will not rest on that person but will return to them.
For a Christian, life is mission. No less than Jesus himself, each of us is sent into the world by God to bring peace to those who will receive it. As Adrian van Kaam puts it, the life of each of us is “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” This being the case, true mission can never be a merely functional reality. We can do many things, but unless we do them with a presence that offers all of our very selves, what we are doing is not really our mission.
Unfortunately in the institution of religious life, we had, and perhaps continue to have in large part, a tendency to somehow conflate mission with “work” in the functional sense. The result, in time, was that at least in the Euro-American experience of religious life, we came to a point where sisters and brothers were said to “retire” at a given time. And even outside of religious life, we often see that persons who have worked very hard their whole lives can have a great difficulty coping with the open time and leisure of post job retirement. If our life is our mission, then, of course, there is no retiring from it. Every day of our lives our identity as “task, assignment, mysterious call” summons us to our unique mission. We are called, each in her or his own way, to bring peace to those we encounter and to abide with them if they receive the peace we offer.
In this way, mission is always relational. Many years ago when I was vocation director for the province to which I then belonged, I would tell young people that “brother” is a title that is not really a title in the conventional sense. Rather it is a description of a mission and call. The mission to which a “Brother” is called is to be a brother “ to all whom we meet in our journey of life.” It is, aspirationally, to live in an openness to relationship with everyone, if our offer of our peace is received. This is why life in community is essential to the mission. For, it is in the school of relationship that is the life of the community that we learn how to be and to become better at being a brother to all we encounter. For all people, it is in their committed relationships to others that they learn how to be brother and sister.
Jesus missions the disciples to bring peace to the households they enter; in the case of Luke’s missioning it is to bring peace to persons in a hostile territory. Without being formed as brother, sister, disciple (“The one who does the will of my father is brother and sister and mother to me.” Mark 3:35) we will not be bearers of peace to others but only another who attempts to use or manipulate others to our own ends. This is true no matter how “holy” or “good” we interpret our intentions. To relate and so to serve others merely from our functional or egoic dimension will always have about it aspects of manipulation. The peace Jesus calls on us to give can arise only out of our transcendent or spiritual dimension.
Jesus’ description in the gospel reminds us of this truth. At the level of our unconscious, what happens when we wish peace to someone and they reject us? We become frustrated, hurt and enraged. Yet, Jesus says to bear peace to another and, if they reject it, that peace will return to us. If we really attend to the quality of our presence and the vicissitudes of our emotions, we must admit that this is seldom our experience. When rejected, we tend to lose our peace. In our work mode, we are not deeply within ourselves. We tend, in the words of Meister Eckart, to “go out” of ourselves. We are not present in the mode of our entire being, which is mission, but rather we are working from our functional dimension that is intent on creating a certain result in the world. When that project or result fails, we are frustrated. This is because “the ego in its essence is frustration.” It works on and manipulates the world.
Thus the power of Jesus’ injunction to the disciples. Go in your poverty (without bag, sack, or sandals) and nakedness and bring all of who you are and what you have to offer, which is “peace.” The peace is the peace of our common humanity, of our relatedness as brothers and sisters. So, even as our going into the world in service includes bringing food, or healthcare, or education, to be mission it must also be an offer of ourselves in relationship as we stand poorly and simply in God. Unfortunately, there will always be stories of how religious groups and congregations became bearers not of peace but of hurt, violence, and abuse. And even when not so extreme, far too often in our own despair, dissociation, ambition, and compulsion, our “service” brings not peace, not greater consonance to the persons or situations we enter, but rather only deeper dissonance.
In order to do what is our “task, assignment, mysterious call,” to live out our mission, we must be discipled to all the ways that God would form, reform, and transform us. We must live in continuing and committed relationship to those who will teach us where we are blind, where we are suffering, and so help us to purify our life, which is our mission. St. John of the Cross reminds us that the most difficult people in community have been sent there by God “to fashion and try us.” It is in moments when others with whom we live do not gratify us that we are offered the opportunity to discover more fully our mission. It is when our spouse or partner tells us things about ourselves that hurt us to hear that we are invited to a possibility of a deeper peace that is not reliant on the confirmation of all our unconscious drives.
When we hear accounts of Jesus’ sending out of the twelve or of the seventy-two, we can hear but a number. Yet, he does so in the same way that he calls each disciple to him by name. The disciples are to go to the Samaritans with none of the “cover” we use in everyday life to hide our deeper longings and vulnerability. They are to go as who they truly are, with only peace to offer. It is a peace they have come to know in companionship and community with Jesus who has taught them as his disciples (students) the truth of their own “task, assignment, mysterious call.”
In any case, the mission of the Brother is not confined to the activity he performs, even when it is apostolic. Mission is the work of evangelization in its most global sense. “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14) The same has to be said of consecrated life and specifically the Religious Brother: “The task of devoting themselves wholly to “mission” is therefore included in their call . . . Indeed, more than in external works, the mission consists in making Christ present to the world through personal witness. This is the challenge, this is the primary task of the consecrated life! Consecrated persons are “in mission” by virtue of their very consecration, to which they bear witness in accordance with the ideal of their Institute.” (Vita Consecrata, 72) On this intimate relationship between mission and consecration is built the unity of the life of a Religious, who is committed to the mission by his consecration and who lives his consecration in the mission.
Activities, even apostolic ones, may vary or disappear because of illness or old age, but the mission always remains. The work of evangelization, lived and invigorated by each specific charism, is the very raison d’être of the Brother’s life and what gives meaning to his consecration. Like Jesus, he has to be able to say: “for their sake I consecrate myself” (Jn 17:19).
Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church, pp. 50-51