When one of my closest friends was in elementary school — parochial, to be exact — she was given a fairly typical 4th grade writing assignment: “What I want to be when I grow up.” Sarah will tell you that at the time they had just finished studying some great saints and there was no doubt in her mind that being a saint was what she was going for and so Sarah eloquently wrote her class paper. She opened with a great line that she sincerely meant: “When I grow up, I want to be a saint. I just don’t want to go through the torture part and would like to find out how to be a saint without it.”
Sarah — at an early age — knew that being Catholic wasn’t all fun and games. Indeed, sometimes Catholics get a bad rap for the way they focus on the Crucifixion and not enough on the Resurrection. And maybe that criticism is justified; however, life is tough and times are tough and raising kids is tough and marriage is tough. But I use the word “tough” in the most Catholic way. I use the word “tough” in a way that can reflect joy.
The adjective “tough” reflects the very real fact that Christ called us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. He didn’t just say, “Come on, friends, let me lead the way.” He made a point of saying that first, before we follow Him, we ought to pick up our crosses. That was our ticket to the big game, that cross. It enjoined us to Him in a unique and salvific way.
Sarah is now a grown woman and is as saintly as they come. She has had many crosses to bear in her life and has done so as eloquently as she wrote that precious 4th grade paper. Sarah has weathered health issues, battled depression, and is the sole care-giver for her mother, now suffering dementia. Yes, Sarah has lived up to one part of her goal but not the other. She has lived in a saintly way but not without the “torture” part.
As we all can assume, “torture” for a 4th grader has only one real aspect. It is meant in a physical sense and for Sarah that meant avoiding beheading, burning at the stake, and the various other physical tortures that were common sufferings for our blessed saints and martyrs.
But this doesn’t translate into a life that isn’t without tortures of its own. This became so apparent to me recently while reading an article on Obama’s nomination of Dawn Johnson to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that I felt a bit sick when I read a statement by Johnson regarding her views on the need for complete access to abortion. The contrast between Sarah and Dawn Johnson was almost unnerving.
I had always known that my dear friend Sarah longed for children but had never been able to conceive. Working her way through various health issues and then different medications, pregnancy was something that neither her body nor her emotional condition could handle. Her whole reason for diligently pursuing physical and emotional well-being was to come to the point where she and her husband could have children. At one point in time, when it became clear that the biological possibility of pregnancy was not to be, they did seek out information on adoption; but, sadly, there were a number of reasons that did not work out for them, either.
In the end, not having children was the one “torture” with which Sarah has learned to live. On rare occasions she will share some of the pain but for the most part it is a topic we have silently put aside.
So when I read that Johnson, Obama’s nominee to head OLC, called restriction to abortion the equivalent of “involuntary servitude” as it makes a woman give “continuous physical service to the fetus,” I felt sick.
I thought of my friend who would welcome such “involuntary servitude.” I also realized — with that sick feeling in my stomach — that there may have been a woman who would have considered carrying her baby to term, and then allowing that child to be adopted by someone like Sarah, if such radical abortion views and laws had not become commonplace. Ironically, I thought of how so many post-abortion stories reveal a woman’s “torture” as she lives with her choice, years down the road. The sadness of both sides of this issue is palpable.
This Lent, as we journey through our own wilderness, I can’t help but think of the ways in which we all are called to bear our crosses and suffer tortures that, with God’s grace, make us able to follow Christ. I think of my dear friend, Sarah, who was influenced so greatly by the blessed saints and martyrs and how she has triumphantly been able to withstand the tortures of her own life and how Sarah inspires me, now.
A few years ago I received an email story that is worth sharing. It has been awhile but I will do my best to retell it: A woman cried out to God that her cross was too heavy to bear. God heard her cries and invited her to enter a sanctuary where a multitude of crosses had been abandoned by others. So many people do not wish to pick up their crosses nor carry them once the weight of them is revealed. The woman entered the room and placed her cross against the wall. She then meandered through the room and was more than a bit frightened by the size and weight of all the crosses she saw before her. Finally, she spotted a cross that seemed just about the right size. She approached it and called to God, “I will take that one, please.” To which God replied, “That is the one I gave you.”