One day, while I was walking around the city, I saw the following sentence on a painted wall: “Trees do not eat their own fruits. Rivers do not drink their own waters. The wealth of gifts is always for the benefit of others.”
I do not know the graffiti artist nor the original author of the sentence. However, it has been used many times by Pope Francis. This phrase — whether it was originally thought in a Christian sense or not — leads me to a deeper reflection on vocation, from the beginning of vocational discernment until its daily living.
We are often tempted to look at our life only from a personal perspective, almost independent of the world around us, in a tangle of phrases and questions where the I/me is always at the centre: What do I want to do with my life? What future do I want for myself? I want to be happy!
I want to be fulfilled. There is nothing wrong with the personal desire for happiness and self-realization. The problem arises when, by repeating these phrases so centered on “me,” we start thinking of vocation and life from a selfish point of view, as if it were possible to live fully without personal effort and being a gift to others.
In wanting to be the first beneficiaries of the gifts of our vocation, we unconsciously set out with a self-centred perspective that makes us look at vocation as a lottery that we are going to win and not as a gift that we receive, a gift that places us at the service of humanity around us.
Pope Francis warns us of this problem, cautioning that the vocational experience cannot be understood as a banner that we raise for all to see and enjoy. It is like a gentle breeze that, in a discreet way, caresses, refreshes, and calms as it passes. Its action is neither exhibited nor self-centred; it is discreet, but ever-present.
For this very reason, the pope recalls the words of Saint Alberto Hurtado who stated that “being an apostle does not mean wearing a lapel pin; it is not about speaking about the truth but living it, embodying it, being transformed in Christ. Being an apostle does not mean carrying a torch in hand, possessing the light, but being that light. The gospel, more than a lesson, is an example. A message that becomes a life fully lived.”
As in the graffiti I found in which the gifts imply effort, generosity, and renunciation (the tree must be fruitful. It must bear fruit and it must renounce it so that others can benefit, be strengthened and, in turn, also bear fruit for others), the missionary dimension of vocation is always present.
When we think about it, what would a full life be like if we were completely isolated from the world around us? What would happiness be, if we lived only for ourselves? We all have good experiences—a good mark on an exam, an acceptance to college, a job offer, or some kind note of appreciation from someone we didn’t count on. And what do we actually do when this happens?
Do we simply take the time to enjoy the moment? No! We immediately call someone to tell them what happened. Often, we can’t even contain the joy we feel and immediately share the feeling with our family and friends. How sad it would be to have no one to share good news with! Our happiness is reduced when we realize we can’t share happy moments with others because of our loneliness.
It is the same with vocation. It is something bigger than us. It grows and expands as joy and a challenge beyond ourselves, as we become missionaries and a gift to others. It ceases to be a prize and instead transforms into a joyful service—a true gift—for all those we love, for those around us, and even for those we don’t even know personally.
The ideal of an easy happiness that many times society, the media, and even our circle of friends seem to want to “sell” is far from possible. The virtualization of happiness leads to a funnelling and drastic reduction of existence and the very meaning of life.
When we think about the great names in history, of those who are examples of life for us, we find that these are people who have given up a lot and lived in concert with their vocation, whose gifts have been fruitful in their lives. As such, they were able to transform the world in a way that their names are still remembered until today. Of course, we don’t have to “stick to history,” but can we refuse to be part of it?
Certainly, people like St. Daniel Comboni or Jesus Christ himself continue to mark us, but were their lives easy or lived in a self-centred way? How much self-resignation did they demonstrate, and how many sacrifices did they make?
However, when we think about meaningful and fulfilled lives, these names come to mind. Despite the many trials, difficulties, and obstacles they had to face, they were able to live happy lives, not because they lived in the midst of laughter and financial wealth, but because each tear, every pain, and each moment of suffering was experienced for a greater good—not for oneself, but for the benefit of others.
Because God never leaves those who love him, all those painful moments have turned into triumph, joy, and true life.
Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all yearn for a life that, despite the difficulties, is a fruitful sign of hope that generates a greater joy? (Susana Vilas Boas)