Take up your cross…

Matthew 10:37-39 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This passage is taken from the Gospel reading for June 26. It is the same message as Matthew 16: 24-25, one of the readings on which St. Francis based his Rules of life. 

I think each of us probably has an aspect of the rule that is harder to live than the others. For me it is the fasting and abstaining. Food has always been very important to me. I come from a family of “eaters”. Food is not just our sustenance, but often our comfort and even our entertainment. Food has been the guest of honor at every emotional crisis I have ever undergone. It has been there for me through thick and thin, and let me tell you, there has been more “thick” than thin.

When I first felt called to this rule, it was the fasting and abstaining that I dreaded the most. Yet I knew that this was the one area of my life that I most needed to die to—my love of food. How would I manage it? Surely it would take a miracle. But I thought if Abraham could become a father in his 90’s, maybe, just maybe God could work this work in me.

And lo! and behold—he has! For most of my life, the Lenten fast was a dreaded time. I could barely manage the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts. I would far rather perform an act of piety or charity on Lenten Fridays than to fast. But this year, I fasted for 40 days and was sorry to see the end of it. Now that’s a miracle!

It is worth pondering how the Lord has brought this about in me. He did not take away my enjoyment of food. But he prepared me in other ways. The main preparation was through the prayer life of the rule. As penitents, we draw strength from our never-ending gaze at the Beloved. This gaze strengthens us in ways we cannot know about or feel or even imagine. Then one day we need extraordinary strength and there it is. Our personal trainer has given us the spiritual muscle he knew we would need to lift that heavy burden he knew he would send us.

But the other way the Lord prepared me for fasting was more surprising. He gave me food allergies. Not just one, but many. This has been a great blessing in my life. The foods I used to not be able to control, he has taken away from me by other means. He has given me pain, because like a disobedient child, he knew that pain was perhaps the only thing that would bring about the needed change in me. Then, as a special gift, he took away my resentment over it.

As I ponder this, I can see that through no merit of my own, the Lord has helped me to die to self in regards to food. He knew I was too feeble to accomplish this on my own—the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak—so he gave me a cross to make it possible for me to deny myself. The cross was not a burden; it was a gift.

All the while when I thought I was free, living to satisfy my desires, I was really a slave to them. The Lord gave me what I needed to be able to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him. It is his work alone that has accomplished this in me. I have nothing to commend myself for, but like St. Paul can only boast in my weakness, because our Lord has used that weakness to his glory, and in the process he has set me free. Thanks be to God!

Addendum:

This post was originally written in 2005. Nine years later, I can see that initial fervor of the penitential lifestyle was carrying me to a degree. I have hit quite a few bumps in the road in the time since, but I have stayed the course, by the grace of God.

One of my readers expressed that many of you might be thinking the penitential lifestyle is too much. I would like to share my reply to her as I think it may encourage others.

“Sister, perhaps you think one has to be holy to begin, when really penance is the path to holiness. If you came to a BSP retreat you would see how ordinary we all are. If you spoke to any of us you would see how we all struggle and fail at times. If we could do it perfectly we would be tempted to pride. Our struggle is also our penance. We try not to think of our failings, but give everything to God who can use even those! It is all him!

“In the BSP we have a 4 year formation process. We have found that if someone tries to live the whole rule at once, they invariably become discouraged. Grace is given when we need it and not before. The penitent is drawn gently into the life of penance and grace comes when needed. Sometimes the grace is to fail so that we may grow in humility. It is all mystery. If God has called you to a life of penance, do not be discouraged. He can do more with your failures than you can ever do with all your best efforts combined! 🙂 I know, because I am living proof. God be with you, sister.”

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