Fifty years ago, Kay Cronin, wrote a book entitled, Cross in the Wilderness, chronicling how, in 1847, a small band of Oblate missionaries came from France to the American Pacific Northwest and, after some bitter setbacks in Washington State and Oregon, moved up the coast into Canada and helped found the Roman Catholic church in Vancouver and in significant parts of British Columbia’s mainland.
She describes these men, no doubt with some over-idealization and hagiography, as tough, totally dedicated, and completely without concern for their own comfort and health. They left their beloved France while still young, knew they would probably never see their loved ones again, and accepted to live lives that were constantly in danger both from the harsh elements of their frontier environment and from the threat of death from various Native tribes and various government forces and mercenary soldiers who distrusted them, for opposite reasons. They were threatened many times, chased out of various missions, some were kidnapped for periods of time, and a number of their houses and missions were burnt down. They lived perennially on the edge of danger, never secure, never free from threat.
Moreover, they had next to nothing in terms of creature comforts. They lived in log and mud hovels, ate bad food, and sometimes no food. They had virtually no access to doctors, little access to what might make for good hygiene, and often, while travelling, had to sleep outside without proper shelter from rain and cold, causing many of them to develop rheumatism and other such illnesses at an early age. Moreover, they were never able to sink roots, to get comfortable at any place, to make the kinds of friends and contacts that could be a comfort and support to them. They had faith, God, and each other, and little else.
But they were able to take all of this in stride, without undue self-pity or complaint. They wrote very positive and idealistic letters to their motherhouse in France and to their families and kept journals within which they expressed mostly joy about their modest successes in the ministry, seldom uttering a complaint about the bad housing, bad food, and instability in their lives.
As an Oblate missionary myself, as a member of the same religious family, I read all of this, of course, with pride. I am proud of what these men did, and rightly so. They were selfless to the point of death.
But, that being said, reading their story is also very humbling. Looking at their radical sacrifice of all comfort, for me, is a mirror that I peer into with considerable trepidation and shame. I look at my own life and see far too much in the way of an addiction to comfort and safety. I don’t want what they had: I want healthy food, clean water, proper hygiene, regular rest, access to good doctors, access to news, to information, access to travel, regular contact with family and friends, opportunities for retreats and vacations, access to ongoing education, and, not least, I want safety. I want to be a good missionary, but I want to be comfortable and safe.
I take some consolation in the fact that times today are much different than they were when these French missionaries landed in the Pacific Northwest. I couldn’t do the work I do, at least not for a very long, without proper housing, proper food, proper hygiene, access to education and information, regular rest, and healthy recreational outlets. My life and my ministry are a marathon, not a sprint, and proper self-care is a virtue not a vice.
Still, it’s easy to rationalize and become addicted to comfort and safety. St. Paul, reflecting upon his own missionary life, once wrote that he was comfortable with whatever was dealt to him – much or little. I like to believe that too for my own life, but, and this is true for most of us, the more we live with much, the more we tend to protect ourselves inside that plenty.
Thomas Merton once said that what he feared in his own life was not so much a massive betrayal of his vocation, but a series of “mini-treasons” that lead to a different kind of death. And that’s the peril that I fear too, for myself and for our culture.
As children of our culture, I believe, we easily become addicted to comfort and safety. Once we have grown used to safety, good food, clean water, proper hygiene, access to good doctors and proper medicine, access to constant entertainment, access to instant information, regular connection with our loved ones, boundless educational and recreational opportunities, and wonderful creature comforts of all sorts, the danger looms large that we will not easily, or at all, be able to let go of any of these. Consequently we will end up as good persons, no big betrayals, but no big self-sacrifice either; not only unable to give up our lives for our friends but unable to give up even our comfort.