From the time I started discerning with the Apostles of the Interior Life, and even to this day, two words have always intimidated me a little bit about our mission: “holy initiative”. For me, they described that which I did not naturally have. I never considered myself one to take the first step, always too shy and concerned with my own reputation or image to risk making a mistake. Everything had to always be planned out word for word when approaching a stranger, and I needed to feel decently confident about a positive outcome of the encounter in order to act.
I still remember that beautiful sunny Friday morning on the Texas A&M campus about three years ago. I was in my first year of formation with the community. Three times a week I would venture out on campus for an hour of evangelization with the idea to allow myself to slowly “try it out for size” and find my own style. That day there were many students outside on the various benches or sitting on the grass in the shade of the great oaks in front of Academic Building. Few were studying, many were sitting alone, and hardly anyone had headphones in or was engrossed in their smart phone. It was the perfect set up for a morning of evangelization. So what did I do? Naturally, I walked around for 45 minutes without saying a word to anyone and walked home like a dog with its tail between its legs worried about what the sisters would think…
Although the sisters were very accepting that day and encouraged me to “get back on the horse”, for quite a while I personally referred to that experience as proof of my lacking in holy initiative. I was discouraged by my inability to get over my shyness in order to at least say “hi” to someone, and I was disheartened by the temptation to believe that my love for God wasn’t strong enough to do something uncomfortable for Him. You see, the reason that I didn’t act is because I was too caught up in thinking about myself. I was worried about making a mistake, doing or saying something ridiculous, making a fool of myself. My mind was focused on one thing: me.
At the time I didn’t realize how wrong my idea of holy initiative was. In fact, it has only been with experience that I’ve learned more about what it actually is.
First of all, holy initiative is not equivalent to evangelization. It is certainly an integral part of evangelizing but it is a much broader concept in itself and can (and arguably should) be lived out in many other areas. In family or community life, for example, someone with holy initiative pays particular attention to the emotional state of those around him and to the overall harmony in the house. In reality, his actions are quite simple. Noticing an unusual frown on the face of his housemate, he takes an interests and asks how he’s doing. Or, recognizing an overflowing trashcan, he stops what he is doing to take it out. If the dirty dishes are piled so high that he can no longer see the counter top, he may offer a hand to the person who has that chore. If an idea comes to him on how to enjoy an evening together, he doesn’t hesitate to share it and make it happen. As the word “initiative” would lead to believe, this person is always alert and ready to act when he sees something that needs to get done or someone in need of a helping hand.
Secondly, with time I’ve learned, and am still learning, that holy initiative is not about me. Actually, an essential part of living out this quality is forgetting oneself and thinking of others. Two risks come with constantly thinking about oneself: (1) one doesn’t even notice the needs that aren’t one’s own, and (2) even if one notices a chance to take initiative, thoughts about oneself and attachment to one’s self-image could become obstacles to taking action.
And like everything else, growing in holy initiative, if it does not already come naturally to us, is not something that happens overnight. Creating a new habit requires desire and commitment.
But why would we desire to have holy initiative? It kind of sounds like a lot of work! The most obvious reason is that Jesus Himself lived with holy initiative. As we read in January’s meditation from Sr. Michela on “Jesus’ Way”, it is always Jesus who takes the initiative in encountering us. In His earthly life, He was never too centered on Himself to notice someone around him. In fact, He often chose others over Himself and His own human needs as we see in a particular way in Mark’s Gospel (Mc 6:31-34). Therefore our desire to grow in holy initiative is really just a necessary consequence of our desire to imitate Jesus. In addition to this, holy initiative has another advantage: it is a very concrete way to live out the commandment to love our neighbor. Any time we recognize the need of another and seek to satisfy it, we are loving. Even when we do something that seems disconnected from others, like folding the clean laundry piled up on the couch, but that contributes towards harmony among others, we are loving. And each of these types of actions requires a certain holy initiative. Therefore, holy initiative becomes for us a real avenue towards living out one of the two greatest commandments Jesus entrusted to us: love one another. In fact, it is this motivation of love that puts the “holy” into “holy initiative”.
And what kind of commitment are we talking about in order to create this new habit? How can we concretely grow in holy initiative? The first part of us that we need to train is our vision. Like Jesus, we need to train our eyes to see those around us, to recognize the needs that surround us. In order to arrive at acting with initiative, we need to first be aware of the circumstance that asks for our action. Our eyes must be capable of noticing the plant that needs watering, the piece of trash to pick up, the lonely person that could use a smile… And as our vision becomes more accustomed to noticing the needs around us, we must train our will to respond. This really just comes with practice. Asking ourselves the following questions could help: Do I see a need around me? Can I do something about it? If the answer is “yes”, we act. We take initiative.
I’m going to be honest. This aspect of our mission as Apostles of the Interior Life remains a challenge for me. I’ll admit that I’ve been embarrassed many times by not knowing what to say to a stranger I met in evangelization, and I’ve been disappointed by not receiving recognition for a household chore I did when no one was around. But even when the result wasn’t always enjoyable, I have never regretted acting with holy initiative.
As a wise priest once told me: our job is to share God’s love, not to assure that it is accepted. For me, holy initiative allows me to imitate Jesus and put others first, and therefore provides me with a sure and concrete way to do my job and share God’s love.
Today I will pay extra close attention to my surroundings and ask myself these two questions: (1) Do I see a need? (2) Can I do something about it? And if the answer is “yes”, I will act with holy initiative assured that I am responding to Jesus’ commandment: love one another.