Practicing the Cross
September 5, 2004
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are the words of Jesus and we are called to obey them. But, what is most difficult in Jesus’ command is not simply carrying our cross, but remaining open to life as we do so. The greatest challenge for a disciple is not picking up the cross, but carrying it and still being a joyful and positive person.
We do not have a choice whether we are going to carry our crosses or not. They just come to us. We turn a corner in our life and suddenly we realize, “I’m going to have to deal with sickness, or divorce, or rejection, or unemployment.” All of us would rather avoid these troubles, but they come to us and we have no choice but to take them up and carry them. But, what we can choose is how we carry them. We can choose to let our crosses absorb all of our energy and joy, or carry them and at the same time remain open to life.
Betty was a remarkable woman that I came to know while serving in a previous parish. She was in her forties with two boys in grade school and a loving husband. Betty had the worst arthritis of any person I had ever seen. Her hands were like gnarled fists. She could, only with the greatest difficulty, hold anything. The arthritis certainly caused her considerable pain, but she never complained. She remained involved in our parish life and whenever she would come to a parish meeting she always greeted everyone with a broad and sincere smile.
One day I questioned her about her positive attitude. “Betty,” I said, “how can you be so happy with your arthritis?” She smiled at me and she said, “It’s the only way I can be happy. I don’t have the choice of being happy without my arthritis. The doctors tell me it is here to stay. Therefore, my only choice is to be happy with the arthritis or to be depressed with the arthritis. Several years ago, I decided to try for happiness.”
“It can’t be easy,” I said. “No, it’s not easy at all,” she replied. “But I try to see it as a kind of discipline, as a kind of practice.” “Discipline? Practice? What do you mean?” “Well, I look at it this way, Father,” she said, “This arthritis causes me pain, but it is not fatal. God willing, I still have many years to live. And there is a lot of good in my life. I have a loving husband. I have great children, good friends, satisfying hobbies, a parish that I care for. So, I decided to practice the discipline of focusing on what is good in my life rather than what is wrong.
“Every morning that I get up, the first thing that I feel is the pain in my hands. It cries out to me for all of my attention, all of my energy. I try to establish the discipline of refusing to feed it. Instead of thinking of my pain, I try to get up from my bed and go to the window and appreciate the sunshine in my back yard. As I wake up my boys, I choose to tell them that I love them and to appreciate how beautiful they are. As I look forward to my day, I try to anticipate the enjoyable moments that are to come. I try to look forward to a lunch with a friend or a walk in the park. I try to develop the discipline of asking myself ‘Who needs me today?’ and then to call a friend who is struggling or to consciously speak a kind word to my husband as he comes home from a difficult day.
“What I find is that when I develop this discipline, when I choose to appreciate, to listen, to give, I put goodness in the center of my life. And that goodness gives me joy, even with the pain that is still in my hands.”
Betty continued, “this discipline is wonderful practice, because I know that there are greater burdens to come. I know that one day I am going to grieve the loss of someone I love deeply or have to face a sickness that will lead to my own death. When those greater burdens come, I believe that I will be able to deal with them better because I have practiced being joyful with my arthritis.”
Betty remains for me one of the greatest examples of what it means to take up your cross and follow after Jesus. We can follow her example. We can use the troubles of today to practice for the bigger troubles that are likely to come. There is nothing wrong with taking our present frustrations, disappointments, and burdens and use them to build the discipline of choosing life. There is an advantage in using those disappointments to develop the skill of focusing in on what is good. This is how we can carry our cross without letting it crush us. This is how we can bear our pain and at the same time embrace the joy of living.
Our Weakness; God’s Strength
September 9, 2007
Holiness is not being perfect. Holiness is claiming our weakness in the presence of God’s strength. All too frequently you and I place ourselves in the center of the gospel. We imagine that our successes and our failures determine what our relationship with God will be. Therefore, on a day when we are feeling particularly generous or patient or just, we feel good; we feel holy. We feel that because of our successful our efforts our relationship with God works.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom explodes such an understanding. The Book of Wisdom says, “Who can discern what God wills? The reasoning of mortals is worthless. Our designs will often fail.” The Book of Wisdom is saying that we are not at the center of the gospel, God is. It is not our actions, but God’s action that make our relationship with God possible. We have a relationship to God because God has freely chosen us, chosen us as sons and daughters. God’s free choice took place prior to any of our successes and despite all of our failings.
Are we called to do good and avoid evil? Yes we are. Are we called to work for justice and to love others with patience? Absolutely. But it is not these efforts on our part which establish our relationship with God. God does that by God’s free choice to make us sons and daughters. Therefore, we can be disciples not only when we are successful, but even when we fail. We can be holy not only when we feel God’s presence, but even in those times when we feel that God has abandoned us.
Recently the private diaries of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were made public. To the surprise of almost everyone who has read them, these diaries make clear that this woman, who many think was the greatest saint of the twentieth century, who many point to as the clearest example of what it means to be a follower of Christ, struggled with her faith on a daily basis. At times, her doubts about faith were so severe that she even questioned the existence of God. She revealed to a priest confidant, “Inside my soul there is only darkness. I feel myself totally cut off from God’s love.”
Now this is not the robust faith that we imagine would be present in the heart of a saint. But Mother Teresa was a saint. She continued to do her work with the poor even though she doubted so profoundly and so regularly. She was a saint because Mother Teresa knew that it was not her faith or lack of faith that determined her relationship with Christ. She was willing to claim her weakness in the presence of God’s strength.
Our journey of faith is not some self-achievement effort. It does not proceed because of our successes in living the Christian life. Even though we are always called to strive towards the good, when we fail to reach that good, it does not exclude us from God’s Kingdom.
Is it a blessing if we have a strong marriage and our family is secure in love for one another? Absolutely. But even when we have to face the pain of divorce and people who we love reject us, even when our family fails, we can still be holy people. Are we being followers of Christ when we work for justice, when we love one another, when we forgive with all of our heart? Of course we are. But even at those times when we give in to selfishness, when we act out of prejudice, when we find we are unable to love, God is still with us, God has not forgotten us. Is it a joy when we can pray easily, when it’s easy to hope about the future? Of course it is. But even in those times when our prayers are empty, when our hope evaporates, and when we feel that God has abandoned us, even in those times, Christ still walks with us.
Our relationship with God does not depend on how successful we can be. It depends only on God’s love, and God has chosen us. God does not make mistakes. If Mother Teresa can be a modern saint even though she struggled regularly with doubt and darkness, then there is more than enough room for our doubt and failures and shortcomings. Holiness is not being perfect. Holiness is claiming our weakness in the presence of God’s strength.