We believe that the Creative Spirit that we name God speaks truth to us not only in the Scriptures but also in the lives of persons all around us. The divine messages are there for the taking, and we would be the poorer if we did not listen with attention and eager expectation.
In a hallway of a nursing home recently, I came upon a woman whom I was not there to visit. She greeted me, not warmly but respectfully, from her wheel chair. But we quickly became engaged in a conversation that lasted for maybe a half hour. She began it by telling me that it was almost certain that she would remain in that institution and in that chair for the rest of her life. And then, with heightened emphasis, she said that she had been to Mass on the previous Sunday for the first time in many months.
I asked if this was good news that she was sharing with me: that, while she was too ill to be at Mass all those months, she was feeling much better now and was happy to get back to Sunday worship. She answered, “No, not at all. I didn’t go for so long because I did not want to go. I was angry at God because I have suffered too much and too long.”
I’m sure that I’ve made this abundantly clear many times before, but I’ll confess again that I am among those Christians who are convinced that, on the one hand, God does not assign sufferings for us to endure and, on the other hand, we ought not to be seeking suffering as something spiritually beneficial to us and pleasing to God. Unless the penitential, self-punishing exercise is undertaken as an all-out effort to control unruly passions and appetites, I don’t see the salutary purpose or benefit of hair shirts or their modern equivalents of any kind. It seems to me that what the Scriptures and Jesus are telling us is that if we are trying to do what we perceive as right and good, then hardships and suffering are inevitable and we will certainly get our share of them. The very pursuit of a life patterned on the teachings and example of Jesus will invariably be met with crosses for us to carry.
I’m afraid that my friend in the nursing home lost sight of those principles — or maybe just grew tired of living them out. And who could feel anything but compassion for her?
It is a fact of life that we are always living both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be surprised or disillusioned when we discover time and time again that even while trying our best to be good and kind and loving and forgiving and generous and helpful we get hurt or we fail or we are misunderstood and rejected or we get sick , and so on. That’s simply the nature of this imperfect present life.
Jeremiah was ready to quit proclaiming the word of God because, as we heard in today’s first reading, all he seemed be getting in return was abuse by the very people he was serving. And in the Gospel passage of today’s liturgy Jesus insists that we are not worthy of being his disciples unless each day we renew our commitment to carry the inescapable crosses of our life.
What makes sense of it all is that Jesus has gone before us and has shown us in his life, death, and resurrection that the sufferings and burdens we accept when truth and love demand nothing less are but the reverse side of happiness and success beyond our wildest anticipation.
Don’t judge by human standards, Jesus says; use God’s.