A visiting priest came to talk to us on Sunday. Yes, he did get around to requesting money for his mission to the rural villages of the Philippines. Before that, he brought tears to our eyes with his simple homily delivered in beautiful, broken English.
The Gospel was Mat 16:21-27, and he focused on the moment in that Scripture when "Jesus began to show his disciples he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed on the third day and be raised." Because this did not fit with the typical understanding of the kind of political Messiah the Jews envisioned, the disciples were confused and even a little angry that Jesus would propose this eventuality. In response, Peter "took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, 'God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!' [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.'"
The paradox here is that the greatest triumph -- eternal salvation of millions upon millions of souls from death row -- is shrouded by the appearance of absolute defeat. Many had placed their faith in Jesus to deliver them from earthly, political bondage when all of the sudden things went terribly wrong. He was killed. Had He accomplished nothing? To be caught up in that appearance of defeat is to think not as God does, but as human beings do.
I can become easily obsessed with my failures, and I spend a lot of time berating myself for all the ways that I've failed others or fallen short of my goals. Can I learn to rejoice that I am defeated? Space is created for me to stop thinking like a human being, and start thinking in absolute terms -- thinking as God does. Now my failures are triumphs -- now I am being asked to rebuild my house on the Rock, wherein I may safely place my trust, and cease building up my confidence on such shifting sands as my own moody self and my waxing and waning competencies.
Suffering is an epidemic that is spreading to every family I know. Friends and fellows they trusted are betraying that trust. The economy brings varied levels of difficulty to my own life, and the lives of all those I love. "Natural" disasters bring death and destruction. Far across several oceans, endless unrest continues senseless killing; poverty is suffocating; hope is unrealistic, absurd, long forgotten. Those wealthy enough to help are often too caught up in their own troubles to give the help they could. (Yes, I confess I am passing judgment on the wealthy.)
What can I do? I want so badly to help! There is nothing I can do to touch the suffering of the world! I feel trapped in the daily cycle of survival -- will I ever get out of taking care of myself paycheck to paycheck and become an instrument of hope and change in the world? There is a flame that burns inside of me, trying to reach the nooks and crannies of self-obsession and self-pity and short-sighted focus on all the temporal comforts I am longing after, trying to burn them away so my heart will function with more freedom and guide my mind in making the right kind of decisions for the future -- decisions based on thinking not as human beings do, but as God does.
The very present truth that occurs to me is that people right here, right now, in the United States of America, the richest country on the earth at this time, are in desperate spiritual poverty. I don't mean this even in the sense of condemning our lack of morality, but in the sense that the ordinary person has lost all hope. We have no hope for resolving conflict between family and friends -- we've lost sight of the true meaning of love and forgiveness. We have no hope of overcoming depression or obsessions or addictions or compulsions. We have no insight into an eternity of freedom from the strangehold of sinful habits and self-destructive habits. There is a cycle of self-defeat and disappointment with ourselves and our little failures that add up to a grand scale disillusionment. There is such high value placed on "doing what's right for you" and protecting ourselves first from those outside; no value placed on laying down our lives for our friends. We never get to experience the sustaining grace of Christ, because we are striving at all times to experience our own grace to ourselves.
I am taking to praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, "for us and for the whole world," so that we may persevere in carrying the flame of hope inside us to the darkest places of this country as well as the far corners of the earth. I am praying that God's particular mercy toward us will be to give us the grace to continue in hope and faith, not to reach defeat, not to rest our understanding on shrouds of appearance meant to discourage us into covering our flame with a blanket of silence. I pray that I and my friends will be found faithful, like the apostles and all the other martyrs for the cause of Christ -- when times get tougher, which they most certainly will, that we will perservere.
Stop looking for signs of hope in the world, and start bearing the sign of hope.
"When the Apostles preached the cross, and embraced it in their own lives, it seemed to others to be 'absurdity' and a 'stumbling block.' Today's Scriptures confront us with the stark figure of John the Baptist. He lived an ascetic life and died a martyr's death. Yet, Jesus lauded him, 'among those born of women there has been none greater' (Mat 11:11). So, too, most of Jesus' first followers, like their master, died at the hand of persecutors.
"The cross is the mysterious wisdom of God. To others this may seem to be folly. But for us who follow the master, the cross is the 'power of God.' As we embrace the crosses of our lives, we find the hidden life of God buried within." ~Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti