BY CASSIE CLEMENTE | August 23, 2016
It has been ten years since I got off a plane in the Quad Cities airport in the middle of Iowa and started my journey with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). I never would have predicted that I would celebrate that anniversary as a JVC staff member traveling to four orientation retreats—welcoming and getting to know the 270 Jesuit Volunteers who are just starting their own adventures with us in 37 U.S. cities and six countries abroad.
At times over these days and weeks I felt so filled with energy, gratitude, and hope for our future, and yet I also struggled to find God and connection in prayer. This challenge was unexpected, and the harder I tried to force myself into prayer the more I seemed to push that possibility away.
On the last night of the last retreat, I sat in a familiar chapel in Indiana as we celebrated a Commissioning Mass for the 88 Jesuit Volunteers serving in the central region of the U.S. In full surrender, I entered into this August evening with a heart and hands as open as I could bring and I tried to stop trying so much. I know God is there whether I force the feeling of connection or not (in fact, I had offered these exact words to the Jesuit Volunteers not three hours earlier!).
And so I tried to listen much more than speak, both to myself and with God. Deep breaths and careful focus on my heart allowed me to hear the words of a fellow former Jesuit Volunteer Bobby Kerle, S.J., as he shared a reflection and a reminder that we as part of JVC are called to be: “A fire that kindles other fires.” It is a reference to words from the Society of Jesus’s General Congregation 35. These words echoed in my heart, my ears, and my open hands. They filled my eyes with tears and my skin with goosebumps. I did not expect this wave of emotion—in fact I had been feeling frustrated by how easy, laid back, and even non-emotional the prior few weeks had been!
The image of fire can be so charged, so powerful, beautiful, and dangerous. The fire of the burning bush reminded Moses that he stood on holy ground and called him to take off his sandals to reverence the space (which I use to my mother’s displeasure to validate my strong preference for bare feet). The fire of the Holy Spirit poured out on the apostles giving them wisdom and courage to go forth from the comfort of the upper room and spread the Gospel, an image that gives me strength when I struggle to live the Kingdom of God on earth in a noisy, busy life. Images of fire also haunt me when I remember how I watched my home city of Baltimore burn just a few years ago and this past weekend when fires raged in my JVC city of Milwaukee. Fires that burn and yearn and long for connection, community, respect, and peace. Fires that light my heart with anger, helplessness, and desire.
This call to be the fire that kindles other fires both scares and excites me. The call isn’t just in the glimmers of hope and joy felt in the context of a JVC Commissioning Mass. It extends to moments in the office, on a campus, in my own family home, at a Jesuit Volunteer house; moments when I struggle with spiritual dryness, moments when I question if our work is having any impact at all, and on and on.
This summer I pray in gratitude for the past decade as part of a sixty-year-old, 10,000 alumni strong JVC community. A community that kindles and re-kindles my own fire for a more just and hopeful world in moments of laughter, tears, silence, and noise.
Cassie Clemente is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Milwaukee in 2006 and is currently Director of Advancement for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.