We are all familiar with the cliche “No pain, no gain” and I think most of us get it. It makes perfect sense that a professional athlete will make many sacrifices and work hard every day if she is going to compete to win. Frequently the athlete will push his abilities out to the limits of human endurance. Often the athlete will feel like it’s more than she can handle and she will want to give up. However, many of us are confused and even shocked when we hear the following words from this Sunday’s gospel: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The radical meter seems to red line when Jesus says “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus, what could you possibly mean by this??? Surely you don’t want me to hate my family. I believe when Jesus says these things he is trying to teach us the “no pain, no gain” concept on a spiritual level. If we choose to follow Christ there will be difficult decisions, sacrifices and hard work every day. Our fallen nature bids for a life immersed in comfort, pleasure and security while our born again baptized soul longs to transcend creature comforts and enter into true and lasting peace and happiness. An event from the life of St. Francis of Assisi helps to illustrate this point.
At the end of some days spent in prayer and fasting, Francis reemerged back into society, but he was so disfigured and poorly dressed that the people would make fun of him as if he was a crazy person. Very taken aback by the behavior of his son, Pedro Bernardone, a wealthy clothing merchant, took him home, beat him furiously (Francis was 25 years old) and locked him up in a bedroom. Francis’ mother made sure to set him free when her husband was away and, that way, Francis was able to return to San Damiano. His father went again after him, hit him on the head, and threatened him that if he did not return immediately to his house then he would have to renounce all of his inheritance and pay him the money from the clothing he had taken. Francis did not have any difficulty renouncing his inheritance, but he told his father that the money from the clothing belonged to God and the poor. His father forced him to appear before Bishop Guido of Assisi who exhorted the young man to return the money and to trust in God, “God does not desire that His Church enjoy goods that were acquired unjustly.” Francis obeyed the bishop’s order to the letter and added, “The clothing that I am wearing also belongs to my father and so I have to return it to him.” At once he took off his clothes and handed them over to his father, telling him joyfully, “Up to now you have been my father on earth. But from now on I could say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’.” Pedro Bernardone left the Episcopal palace “trembling from indignation and profoundly wounded.”
In this instance Francis had to choose between his own Father and his commitment to follow Christ. Jesus desires that we love our family members deeply but there may be those rare and unfortunate circumstances where we are forced to choose between faith and family like Francis was. This is one example of what Jesus means when he says “If anyone comes to me without hating his father…he cannot be my disciple.”
Recently I was downtown running some errands when I was approached by a stranger who asked for money for coffee. I don’t normally give money to strangers because often they will spend it on their addiction. However, I told the stranger I would buy him a coffee at a nearby coffee shop. I also felt compelled to go beyond just purchasing the coffee for him and take some time to visit with him. I was keenly aware that, if he accepted my offer, my schedule would be disrupted and I would probably have to finish running errands the next day. There was an interior battle between my desire to respond to the stranger’s needs and my desire to hold on to my own agenda. This example reminds me that I need to hold on loosely to my plans and my desires and always be ready and willing to pick up my cross and make sacrifices like the athlete who is competing for the prize.
Monks and mystics describe this process of self denial as asceticism. As with other spiritual disciplines such as meditation, asceticism may be viewed as beyond the reach of those of us who live in the hustle and bustle of daily secular life. However, the gospels and the church encourage us to take this discipline seriously no matter what our state in life. It’s also important to keep in mind that asceticism is not an end in itself. I think this gospel passage is often misunderstood. I’ve met many Christians who are joyless and they seem to believe self denigration is the only path to holiness. They seem to interpret Jesus words “If anyone comes to me without hating…his own life he cannot be my disciple” quite literally. They live in a black and white world where this life is the “valley of tears” and if we get to heaven that will be the only place where there is any kind of happiness. Yes, the goal is to be happy forever in heaven but I believe we get a taste of it down here. Pope Francis stated this loud and clear in his first encyclical “the JOY of the gospel.” St. Theresa of Avila also prayed “from silly devotions and dour faced saints spare me O Lord.” It is a strange paradox that our lives grow in peace and joy as we learn to die to self. True ongoing conversion leads to increasing inner freedom and joy that is contagious.
As I sat down to write this blog I noticed what a beautiful warm sunny August day it was. Something inside beckoned me to put off writing and go outside and enjoy the sunshine. I had to pick up my cross and follow. For the committed Christian “no pain, no gain” becomes “no cross, no crown.” Through faith and prayer we will have eyes to see that many choices we make every day present an opportunity to die to self and rise to new life.