Breyan Tornifolio approached the Mass with a full yet heavy heart. It was her last time worshiping at Ryan Hall, where she served as a minister for students at the University of Notre Dame since the building’s opening in 2009. At the end of Mass, after Tornifolio blessed the graduating seniors, the presider surprised Tornifolio by inviting her to come to the center of the chapel and sit, looking out at the community she had given so much to, yet also received so much from in return. The community of 110 women stretched out their hands and joined in the blessing, saying, “You have given your life to us; we now return it to you.” This simple blessing highlighted the kenosis, the self-gift, at the heart of ministry.
Countless blog posts, articles and pundits have opined about how women might find the perfect work-life balance. Yet this dichotomy unfairly separates “work” and “life,” as though work is not a meaningful part of one’s real life. It is perhaps even more troubling that this approach reduces women to three categories: professional, mother and wife. Anyone lacking any of these titles is deemed insufficient, and for many, anything more seems impossible.
We need a new framework for this discussion, one that allows for the reality and spirituality of work itself. Fortunately, we need look no further than the Incarnation. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, gave of himself throughout his life. Theologically, this is called kenosis, the Greek word for “self-emptying.” Through kenosis we empty ourselves of our will and become filled with God’s will. Simply speaking, this is self-gift.
If we are to truly give of ourselves, we must first recognize that all aspects of our lives are inherently integrated. To give of oneself is the deepest, most profound thing one can offer. It requires a vulnerability that opens the door for transformation, both for the person giving and the person receiving. It is raw, authentic, integrated, transformative and, most important, grounded in a relationship with God.
Any form of self-gift is predicated upon a relationship with God. From this, giving of oneself becomes giving of God. It is not about me as a person with incredible gifts, but rather about God working through my experience and gifts. In this way, we are earthen vessels that hold and share the greatness of God. As a vessel, we are not called to empty ourselves in such a way that we lose ourselves. Rather, we must have an intimate relationship with God such that when we give of ourselves, we also give of God. This kenosis is a strong calling that takes effort, intentionality and ultimately grace.
An Integrated Life
No areas of our lives are off-limits to God. The Ignatian idea of finding God in all things is not just a simple way of viewing our lives. Rather, it makes strong demands on us to respond accordingly. My friend Katie Bignell, a book editor, described it this way: “Saint Ignatius encourages us to find God in all things. I believe that in return, we are called to give God in all things, whether that be the way we listen to a friend who needs to talk, interact with colleagues, or approach a project at work.” Living an integrated life is demanding. It is tempting to limit self-gift to areas of spirituality or intimate relationships, yet we are called to practice this in all aspects of our lives, especially those we resist most. When we lead integrated lives, we can see the kingdom of God as the source and summit of our lives: it is the font from which all flows as well as the point to which all our energy and efforts is directed.
One might mistakenly assume that self-gift does not require boundaries. As a person formed in ministry in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, I value boundaries and understand the urgent need for them. Furthermore, as someone who works in an all-consuming, live-in ministry as a residence hall minister, I recognize the potential for burnout without proper boundaries and self-care. The call for self-gift is not a call away from boundaries; instead, it leads one to ask about the purpose of boundaries. Boundaries are not about shutting others out but about giving of oneself in a healthy way.
Issues of boundaries and self-care can quickly devolve into self-centered questions. Self-care often plays upon society’s fascination with overachievement by framing the goal as, “Take care of yourself so that you can do more.” Kenosis shifts the emphasis away from an I-centered approach to focus upon the presence of God in my life. Questions like “How am I going to do all this?” become “How is God calling me?”
Even in fields where it is advisable to leave work at the door, one can still benefit from a nuanced understanding of self-gift. Jennifer Anderson, an occupational therapist in New York, contrasted the experience of giving out of obligation with giving out of God: “When I have given of myself most freely, and most deeply, it was hard. But the ‘yes’ to give was so easy. I left those circumstances weary, but not depleted, not ‘less than.’” Authentic kenosis calls us to remain in God when we feel ourselves being pulled away and attempting to do things apart from God. This highlights that even in fields where self-gift may take a different shape, kenosis reaps untold rewards.
An Ecclesial Tradition
Catholic heritage reveals a rich legacy of self-gift. This is especially true of Ignatian spirituality. In the “Suscipe,” St. Ignatius prays: “You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will.” This prayer perfectly captures the spirit of kenosis. It calls me to intentionally set aside my own will for that of God.
A foundational element of kenosis is the involvement of the Holy Spirit. In a homily at the Casa Santa Marta on July 6, Pope Francis proclaimed, “Being Christian ultimately means, not doing things, but allowing oneself to be renewed by the Holy Spirit.” Once again, the emphasis switches from me completing acts to being transformed by the Spirit—a kenotic process. The Spirit guides us to give of God and ourselves, and this renews us, others and ultimately the church.
Approaching our lives through the lens of kenosis has the potential to revolutionize the church. Kenosis creates a symbiotic relationship between the people of God and the church. Every act of self-gift becomes an act of bringing God into the world. As a result, the faithful are continually giving to the world and building the kingdom of God, renewing the church. Kenosis is a path to actualizing the vision of St. Bede the Venerable that “every day the church gives birth to the church.” Every day the church as the faithful gives by kenosis, and God, working through us, transforms the church and the world.