St. Isaac Jogues' Life Teaches Us the Qualities of a Missioner
A Benedictine monk and a cat first introduced me to St. Isaac Jogues! I was a young man on a retreat. At the front porch of the retreat house I met the director, a Benedictine monk who took "Isaac" as his religious name. He was sitting on a rocking chair and petting a cat named "Brebeuf" that was sleeping comfortably on his lap. I initially thought it was a terrible name for a cat! I did not get the connection until Father Isaac recounted the story of the North American martyrs. Sts. Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf were two of the missionaries who sailed to North America in the 1640s. Since that retreat, I have heard about these saints only when the Church has celebrated their memorial every October 19.
It was not until I started working at Glenmary that St. Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs became important names in my religious vocabulary. Helping revise the Glenmary Vocation Novena book brought me closer most particularly to the life of St. Isaac Jogues. I believe that a religious vocation discerner can learn invaluable insights from his life as a priest. These three virtues stood out for me:
Heroic perseverance. Even as a young man, St. Isaac wanted to be a missionary priest. Throughout his seminary formation, his superiors would remind him and other students of the hardships awaiting them in mission lands. When he first arrived in Quebec, as part of his "orientation," the superior told him to be prepared for the piercing cold, the unpalatable food, and the ever-present danger of death! I would have quickly asked for a transfer if that were part of my orientation! Fear of any kind did not stop him from being a zealous missionary. Yet fear is the most common excuse that stalls discernment. Fear does not encourage perseverance; it only paralyzes us. Our discernment mantra should be: "Do not be afraid!" This will lead us to perseverance in doing God's will.
Undeterred focus. On his first missionary expedition, St. Isaac Jogues and his companions were attacked. But instead of running for his life and avoiding being caught, he came out of hiding and ministered to the injured. During his many months of captivity, he was tortured and forced to work as a slave. Despite his weak physical condition, he did not miss a moment to serve those around him. He taught them catechism. He baptized them. He offered his life for them. His dedication was undeterred regardless of his own physical health. Discernment needs the same undeterred focus or else the discerner will easily get lost and discouraged. Discernment is not something a person does only when he feels inspired and motivated. It has to be part of who that person is and what he does constantly.
Trusting faith. St. Isaac Jogues saw the suffering and recognized other setbacks that he and his companions had experienced as part of God's divine will. In his prayers he acknowledged the hardships and even asked for courage to endure the sufferings he would face. The tone of his prayers was familiar and ordinary, one often heard between two close friends. Discernment needs that same familiar, conversational exchange with God—so the discerner can easily share his inmost feelings, so he does not need to impress, and so he can come as he is and bring his hurts and doubts. A trusting faith made possible by a strong prayer life is not a luxury in discernment; it is its lifeline.
In the early stages of discernment, heroic perseverance, an undeterred focus and a trusting faith may seem like dreams rather than realities. But through prayer, the person can allow God to help him grow in each of these areas. A good prayer to start with on the way may be the Glenmary Vocation Novena. Contact us if you would like to receive a copy of this book.