Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
This familiar reading happens to be one of the Scripture passages on which St. Francis based his Rule of Life. There is much for we penitents to ponder in this passage, but I want to concentrate on the concept of “self-denial”.
Christ’s instruction on self-denial has always been counter-cultural, and our time in history is certainly no exception. This instruction has perhaps never been more relevant and challenging than it is today. The wide-spread teaching that children need “self-esteem” in order to grow into healthy adults has instead led to a society peopled with far too many self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking rebels.
Christ teaches that “God-esteem” and “other-esteem” are the practices that will save our life. The two Great Commandments of love of God and neighbor flow into this teaching. Self-esteem, according to this passage, leads to death. These days it is getting harder to ignore the evidence that our social experiment has had deadly consequences. What we have sown in self-love we are reaping in the Culture of Death.
But there is hope—in Christ there is always hope. Take St. Francis. Was anyone more self-absorbed than Francis Bernardone before his conversion? He was rich, spoiled, popular and dripping with self-esteem. But after his conversion, Francis became a master at imitating Christ in the virtue of self-denial. He employed every discipline that came his way, and he gave thanks for every humiliation. He became poor, shunning comfort and pleasure. He esteemed God above all, and next he esteemed God’s children and all creation above himself. In return for dying to self, he was given new life, an abundant life that has not stopped giving to this day.
St. Francis showed us it is possible to die to self, to turn away from the Culture of Death to the promise of life. If we let him teach us, we will progress on this holy way and we too will “find our life”.
I would like to share with you a personal story that illustrates this. I used to work in a small public school. One advantage to being in a small school is that I was able to get to know in some way each individual student. For the first few years that I worked there, I had trouble exercising my authority. I was afraid the students “wouldn’t like me” if I reprimanded them, so I let them get away with things I shouldn’t have. But one day the Lord showed me that by running away from my own authority, I was failing in my duty. I was letting my self-love get in the way of what my employer expected of me to the detriment of those students God had placed in my care.
Chastised in spirit, I began to change the way I interacted with students. I asked the Blessed Mother to teach me how to reprimand with love. This did not come naturally to me; some days it was a life and death struggle with my will. I did not always prevail, but by the grace of God and the guidance of Mary I made steady progress.
As I began to change my approach, I was convinced that the students would hate me for it. I was wrong. Often, the students whose behavior I called into question were the students that seemed most drawn to me. I also began to notice a new respect for me in the students, even the difficult ones. In losing the life I thought I had, I gained the life I didn’t know I wanted.
If God can do this much in one small part of my life, why do I still refuse to give up all that I think I am? I should be running down the path of self-denial instead of having to be coaxed, pushed or dragged.
Oh, St. Francis, teach me! I have such a long way to go! Help me to meditate often on this Scripture passage as you did, so that I may learn to run down the path of self-denial into the life the Lord has prepared for me. St. Francis, brother and mentor, master of self-denial, pray for us.