One of the most striking aspects of the Passion accounts is how largely alone Our Lord is in His final hours. Most of His beloved disciples, followers, and friends flee from Him and abandon Him in His hour of need. St. Peter goes so far as to deny Jesus three times in order to avoid any connection to this man whom he had referred to as the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). It is the few dedicated followers, including Our Heavenly Mother and St. John, who stay with Him to the foot of the Cross and watch Jesus be crucified and placed in a tomb.
As we make our way through this Lenten season, it is necessary to ponder those times when we too flee from the Cross and from Our Savior. We all do it at one point or another. A period of suffering for ourselves, a loved one, our neighbor, or even the people we encounter in our daily lives occurs and more-often-than-not we flee. We may not be able to flee physically, as in the case of illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, trauma, or any other manner of suffering, which is dished up so generously in this life. When that suffering occurs, we often block it out with distractions such as television, Internet, food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, and the list goes on and on. We do anything to avoid confronting the reality of the Cross. We flee.
Fleeing from the suffering of others.
This is especially true when it comes to encountering suffering in others. Americans are largely individualistic, as are many Western European cultures. This is a trait that is diametrically opposed to the Catholic understanding of the Mystical Body. We are a communion. We are connected to one another through the Holy Spirit at the deepest levels of our being. We are the arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. of Christ here on earth. He is our head. When one part of the Mystical Body suffers, we all suffer. We may not acknowledge this reality and we may ignore it all together, but it is true nonetheless.
In loving one another as disciples of Christ, we are called to enter into the suffering of our neighbor. It isn’t easy, but there is nothing about the Cross that tells us the spiritual life and the path to holiness will be easy. Our Lord and Savior died on the Cross and He tells us we must follow Him. There is a final Cross for each and every one of us that we will face before we can enter into eternal life. Death awaits us all. The Cross comes before the Resurrection. This life is largely a series of Crosses leading us to the same fate as Our Lord. Even in this knowledge we live in hope thanks to what occurs after the Cross.
When Our Lord instituted His Church here on earth, He meant to unite all of mankind through a visible sign to the world of the ontological reality of the interconnectedness of humanity and the gift of salvation. Christ took on human flesh, which united Him to us in solidarity and united us to one another. It is because of this deep unity that He commands us to love our neighbor. Love requires a desire within us for the good of our neighbor. That means asking the Holy Spirit to help us gain fortitude because love requires the Cross. We need courage to enter into the Cross of our neighbor, but love compels us to do just that. We lighten the load of one another and we expand our own capacity for love when we choose to walk with those around us who suffer. Entering into the suffering of others is not just for the likes of St. Teresa of Calcutta; it is for you and me.
What does this entering into the suffer of others look like?
Most of us are not called to give up everything in order to live in the slums and serve the poor full-time. Those of us in the laity have family obligations which are an integral aspect of our vocations. The Cross of another may appear in a wide variety of ways and we must foster a habit of seeing the need in those around us. We must carry the heavy weight of our own Crosses, while also looking out for ways to lessen the burden of our neighbor. A start may be visiting someone in a nursing home or hospice, checking in on our elderly neighbors, consoling the sobbing stranger at Mass, offering assistance to the single mother, bringing a basket to a family grieving a recent miscarriage, meals for the sick, a card or note to someone you know is suffering, a phone to call, asking the clearly stressed our cashier if he/she is alright, looking into the eyes of the homeless person you give food or money too and truly seeing them as a person made imago Dei, visiting the friend who is being crushed under the weight of mental illness, and the list continues. The single greatest poverty in the West is loneliness. St. Teresa of Calcutta saw it and I have seen it with my own eyes and experienced it myself. When will we stop fleeing? The possibilities for loving our neighbor are endless because there seems to be no end the possible ways to suffer here on earth.
Will we continue to flee?
Do we flee from the Cross? Every single one of us can answer yes to this question. All of us have ignored the suffering of someone else. All of us at one point or another have found ways to avoid our own Crosses through distractions. Christ uses these Crosses to increase our capacity for love. He uses them to make us holy. It is not easy. I write this piece on the day I was due to have a brand-new baby boy, but he died last summer. At the same time, my good friend next door and her husband grieve their daughter who died at 12 weeks’ gestation a couple of days ago. I had a choice. Focus on my own grief or walk with them and grieve alongside of them. I could ignore their suffering and flee into my own shell of pain or I could seek the grace to be like Our Heavenly Mother and stand with them in this hour. By God’s grace, I chose the Cross. I have only been given this grace because He continues to teach me that it is through the Cross that we are made like Him. It is through the Cross that we become holy. It is through the Cross that we truly learn how to love. It is agonizing, torturous, heart-breaking and heart-rending at times. The pain is so intense I feel like I won’t survive, but I do and God widens my heart a bit more each time. He opens me up to more love. He will do the same in you.
What do we imagine Heaven to be?
I will tell you what it is not. It is not a bunch of individuals minding their own business holding onto their rugged individualism. The do-it-yourself attitude of the West is the anti-thesis of Heaven and discipleship. Heaven is the communion of human beings who have been conformed to the love of the Most Holy Trinity. It is communion fully realized. It is the constant giving of self. It is the continuation of love in action as the saints intercede for the living. It is the entering into the Crosses of others until the end of time. Love requires the Cross. One of the ways God prepares us for Heaven is in teaching us to enter into our own suffering and the suffering of our neighbor. The Cross is transformative. The Cross makes us saints. This Lent, let us pray for the strength and grace to enter into the Cross with Our Lord and our neighbor so that we may grow in love and holiness.