Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Jesus invites us to deny our self-centered default position which places I, me, and mine (As George Harrison sang) at the center of each of our decisions. We can deny ourselves when we resist making excuses for our sins and come to a genuine place of sorrow for the pain we have caused God, ourselves, and others. By acknowledging our sins and confessing them, we die to our selfish ways, and then we rise again through the power of Christ. Empowered by our humility and the strength of Jesus we are better equipped to resist those temptations when they rise again.
We are also in a better position to then take up our cross, which is to follow the will of God. Jesus showed us the proper orientation of surrender when he said at Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus followed his Father’s will to the cross and endured horrific suffering, excruciating pain, humiliation, and abandonment, to death and into new life!
Many a mother I have talked with has shared the struggles of labor, but also expressed the joy of giving birth; many students I have taught have been exasperated by the time and effort expended for an examination, a sporting event, art show, musical or theatrical performance and yet experienced the joy from the feat they accomplished; and how many times have we faced a challenge, trial, or cleared some obstacle and felt the exhilaration of overcoming the hurdle?
Taking up our cross and following the will of God means accepting a disciplined approach to our lives. When we follow God’s will, as opposed to our own solely, the difference is that we are not alone in our persistent effort. Seeking God’s will in the midst of our decision-making process and trials for our everyday physical as well as spiritual pursuits is the key.
In my mid-twenties, I entered the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province to study for the priesthood. In the year and a half of discernment, from time to time I would imagine my ordination day. To my surprise, I did not feel intense joy. I enjoyed every aspect of my experience with the friars and the ministries but there was something or someone missing. I took a leave of absence and about a year and a half later, I realized what was missing was a family.
About two years later I met JoAnn, and her three children, Mia, Jack, and Christy. Six months after that we were married and seventeen years later, I was ordained to the permanent diaconate. This is the short version of the story. There were bumpy moments as we learned to grow together by being willing to see each other’s point of view, some perspectives took a little longer than others, and we were at our best when we were willing to sacrifice for and serve one another.
The journey took its roughest lurch in the summer of 2019 when JoAnn was experiencing her final weeks with us on this side of heaven. From the beginning of JoAnn’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, we both prayed, not that our will but God’s will be done. This cross was the heaviest to bear, yet Jesus shouldered it with us and blessed us richly in our surrender. I am truly grateful for those final months that we had together.
Grief and sorrow have their own time frame and their expression is just as unique as each individual. One thing I miss the most is holding Joann’s hand. Over the past two months, I have been blessed to journey and experience the various wonderful people of our diocese. In experiencing their lives, I have felt as if I have been holding the hand of my bride to be – the Church. For the path of becoming a priest is a willingness to become like Jesus who is espoused to his Church.
Embracing the sorrow and allowing the tears to flow when they will, has helped me to heal and I have been better able to experience the joy and appreciation of the twenty-three years we had together. I am beginning to learn to live again, knowing JoAnn wanted me to be happy and fulfilled. Doing so is the best way to honor her life.
In embracing the cross, as Jesus did, we can participate in his death so that we can participate in his life. Death does not have the final answer, Jesus does. Each day is a new opportunity to begin again, to live life anew and to the full.
Photo: The last time we were all together, July 4th weekend of 2019 with Levi and Harley, Mia’s wee ones.