In today’s Gospel Story (My 16:21-27) Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themself, take up their cross and follow me”. What does he mean? What is he saying to me? What do I have to deny? What cross do I have to take up? How can this be more than just a nice story for me?
Pope Francis teaches discernment, a process where we look at our life, our values, our choices, our goals, and ask the Spirit for insight, without saying what insight we want. We believe Jesus meant it when he promised to send the Spirit to help us learn to live as his disciples in our own life and circumstances. We try to listen to what the Spirit is saying, believing that the Spirit is saying something. This happens in unexpected thoughts and ideas, notions, feelings, etc. A key element is our openness to being surprised, especially at something that is totally unexpected. After a while this becomes a way of living, and can be an especially difficult experience for people who are used to thinking and analyzing just about everything in their life, but it is a worthwhile journey of trust and growth. We come to find the Scriptures not as “proof texts” but as often unexpected invitations to insight, to growth, to new and unexpected ways of seeing things and people.
It could be that our experience of the Spirit, or even of God, is different in our process of discerning from what we learned about God in our studying the Scriptures or our recollection of what we’ve learned from others. This is why our own journey of trust is so important. We might find ourselves drawn to follow Jesus, trying to imitate how he lived and treated people, or get the sense that we are called to live our Father’s, and our, love for people in new and unexpected ways. This is where “take up their cross and follow me” might come in. We see what happened to Jesus as he was living his Father’s love, and cannot expect anything different as we try to follow where we believe the Spirit is guiding us. Father Michael Judge, the Franciscan Chaplain to the FDNY who died on 9/11, used to pray: “Take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way”. This prayer reflects our desire to trust and to act, to do what we can to live our Father’s love for everybody we meet. This is no simple thing. As we know, people can be very difficult, even as we ourselves, even with our desire to do what is good, can be difficult to and for others. How do we deal with this in our own circle of people in our life?
There is no one path to discern the Spirit in our life. While there are similarities, each of us is on our own journey and writing our own story. The Spirit happens in our life as it really is, with all its confusion, activity, relationships, etc, and not as we wish it were or as someone else, even the Church, tells us it should be. This is especially true these days with the angry polarization happening all around us, especially in the Church.
The Spirit doesn’t seem concerned about my need to know and feel in control. In the military it is well known that the first casualty in battle is “the plan”. To paraphrase one of our great military leaders,” prayers are useless, praying is essential”. Praying is a way of life, a way of openness and trust, and so I have to ask is my prayer like, “God, please fix this, and this is how I’d like you to to fix it for me”? Or can I pray along the lines of, “Lord, this is a mess, what are you saying to me, is there something you are calling me to do?”
A worthwhile question could be, “is there anything in my life that has to die so I can live more open to the Spirit? Do I have any unhealthy attachments that are keeping me from living more trustingly? Discernment helps here. I have to be ready to face and deal with things in my life that I might not want to because they have been with me for so long, whatever they may be. Facing and dealing with them can also be my cross to carry every day. They may be keeping me from living a fuller life, and so they have to go. Our crosses happen in our everyday life in just dealing withe folks we might find annoying. Also, from time to time in our life bad things just happen. We learn that while God does not cause the bad things, God is with/in us as we deal with them. A friend says God protects us from nothing but sustains us in everything. I have come to know this really is true.
Nothing has to change for me to Iive discernment, only my attitude and willingness to trust and grow. The Spirit is real, grace is real. An interesting thought: ”You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” Graham Greene. And yet I try, I put up walls where Jesus built bridges, and blame and accuse others of things, while I overlook what is in me. Just sayin. . . .