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Christ, Our Strength
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We do not normally think of Christ or speak of Him as our strength. More frequently we refer to Him in the terms He used of Himself when He said He was the Way, the Truth and the Life. Moreover, we usually ask our Lord to give us strength, but we seldom think of Him precisely as not only giving us strength, but as being our strength.
What, then, do we mean when we talk about the Savior as literally the strength on which we rely and without which--better, without whom--we would be unequal to the trials of life?
We mean many things, but especially two. Christ is the strength of our minds; and He is the strength of our wills, as we struggle with our weakness and so often seem to be all but crushed by the burdens that the providence of God places on our shoulders to bear.
Christ the Strength of Our Minds
We speak correctly of having a strong mind, by which we mean that some people have deep convictions about things in which they firmly believe. They are absolutely certain that certain things are true, and that other things are untrue. And we all admire such people, provided their convictions are strong about the right things, and they are unwavering in their certitude about the truth.
This is where Christ is indispensable for His followers, and so desperately important in this age of massive confusion. His presence in our souls by His grace affords us, if only we are willing to let Him act within us, absolute certitude that He IS the Truth, that He IS the Light, that He IS the Wisdom of God in human form, and that apart from Him all is a jungle of darkness and the blackness of starless night.
At this point, we could correctly speak of the sure guidance that Christ's words, recorded in the Gospels, assure those who believe in Him. And it is impossible to exaggerate the need for daily meditation on the life of Christ, to give us the strength we need to know what God wants us to do, since He came down on earth to teach us as a member of our human family.
But there is another role, less adverted to, that Christ plays as the strength of our minds. According to His promise at the Last Supper, as recorded by John, He dwells in the depths of our souls, which means in the recesses of our minds, by the spirit (His Spirit) whom we received at Baptism and who was more abundantly infused in us in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
What are we saying? We are saying that Christ by His Spirit lives within us, that He is here in the inner sanctum of our intellects, interpenetrating our faculty of knowledge in a way that beggars description but is no less true for being a mystery that we cannot fully understand.
Very close, therefore, is our Teacher--right inside the minds with which we think. We do the thinking, indeed, but He is there in the classroom of our spirit, teaching us what we need to know. He is telling us, better than any book or merely human pedagogue could ever instruct us. And all He asks of us is that we believe in Him. Remember what He told us, "I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness." (Jn. 8:12). Having come into the world, He has remained in the world. And what is so comforting to know, He is in the world of our own inner consciousness, teaching us the truth, if only the ears of our spirit are attuned to listen to Him.
Christ the Strength of Our Wills
But the Savior is not only the strength of our minds by the wisdom He infuses into these dull intellects of ours. He is also the strength of our wills that are so vacillating and fearful, so in need of courage to face the responsibilities of our state of life. Another word for this strength of will is courage.
Too often, I think, we look on courage as having to do with undertaking a new enterprise, or facing impending danger, or pioneering in some work that no one else has tried. No doubt it does take courage to plunge headlong but not rashly into something that we foresee involves a great risk.
But the courage of the Gospels, and the one meant specially for the disciples of Christ, is the virtue of endurance. Christian fortitude, therefore, is more an affair of repressing fears than of moderating rashness. The principal act of courage, as we understand it, is to endure and withstand difficulties firmly, rather than to attack them.
As we reread the message of the Savior in this light, we see how important it is to understand what He meant by those frequent exhortations to courage:
"I say to you who are my friends: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and can do no more" (Lk.12:4).
"So do not be afraid of anything. You are worth more than an entire flock of sparrows" (Mt. 10:31).
"Do not live in fear, little flock. It has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom" (Lk 12:32).
"You will be hated by all on account of me. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not become known" (Mt. 10:22; 10:26).
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me" (Jn. 14:1).
"I tell you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage: I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33).
Why, we ask, does Christ so often remind us to be brave, not to falter, to be courageous? Because He knew that our greatest obstacle to serving Him as we should is fear- fear of the opposition that loyalty to Jesus always brings in its wake; fear of the indifference of those whom we have come to love, or, as Christ put it, the enemies in our own household; and above all, fear of ourselves, whom we know all too well and by whom we have been so often betrayed.
We need the courage that comes from Christ and, indeed, in Christ, if we are to successfully conquer these inveterate fears.
What is He telling us? He is saying that just as He dwells in our minds to enlighten them and give them true wisdom, so He dwells in our wills to strengthen them and give them the fortitude that, of ourselves, we do not have.
Recall the parting message to the disciples before He ascended into heaven: "...I send down upon you the promise of my Father. Remain here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (Lk. 24:49). And again, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you, then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
After He ascended into heaven, Christ sent this Spirit of power, which is His Spirit, to dwell in our hearts. And since, as God, Christ is eternally united with the Father and the Holy Spirit, it is the, infinite power of God that mysteriously envelops our souls. Our wills are, to use a crude expression, wrapped up in divine power and while still remaining our own human wills, they participate in the all-powerful will of God who, by grace, makes His home in us.
It is one thing, however, to tell ourselves that all of this is true. It is something more to also act on our belief and make the divine indwelling an effective mystery in our lives. How can we rise above merely believing that the power of Christ abides in our souls to putting the fact into practice?
My first recommendation is best expressed in St. Paul's declaration that he actually gloried in his infirmities. By this he meant something which takes a long time for most people to learn: it is the fact that our failures and weaknesses are God's way of arousing us to rely more and more on the power that comes from Christ and less and less on the strength that we ourselves so obviously do not have.
There is more here than we may suspect. It is possible we have become so conditioned to look for improvement in our moral lives that when clear evidence of it is lacking, we get discouraged at our notorious failure to live up to the high expectations we have (or had) about our spiritual potential. "Look at me," we say to ourselves, "here I am, twenty, thirty, or more years in the priesthood, or the religious life, or marriage, and I must honestly confess I am no better than I was two decades ago. If anything, I am more irritable, less patient, more selfish, less understanding than I know I was when, say, I first married or entered the postulancy."
Before saying anything else, let me be clear in repeating what the Church teaches us: God is the true judge of our spiritual vitality--not we ourselves. Consequently how WE think of ourselves is not important. It is God's estimate that matters, not our own subjective and necessarily prejudiced opinion.
Having said this, however, let me go on. Let me insist with all the emphasis possible that God has a providentially fundamental purpose in allowing us to see our moral weaknesses and our apparent inability to overcome certain faults of character.
He knows better than we how prone we are to pride. I do not necessarily mean the pride of a domineering personality that considers itself, like the Pharisee, superior to others or goes around boasting of its achievements and belittling the efforts of others. I mean the pride of complacency that blindly fails to give credit where credit is due, namely to God, for whatever virtue we possess, and that stupidly forgets to praise the divine goodness for whatever moral goodness we may have.
So what does God do? To make sure we remain spiritually humble and to protect us from our own folly, He permits our failures to plague us, maybe to our dying day. He wants to keep us, moreover, constantly aware of our need of Him, which concretely means constantly in touch with Him by prayer.
True enough, He could not be closer to us. His nearness to us is beyond description. No human person is as near to his friend, no wife to her husband, and no child to its mother--even in the womb--as our God is to us.
But God's closeness to us is no guarantee of our closeness to Him. We can forget Him, be unmindful of Him and, in fact, ignore Him without whose presence we would not even exist, let alone do anything worthwhile on the path to eternal glory.
So, in order to make sure we do not forget Him, He permits our human nature to assert itself. He lets us make fools of ourselves, in order to have us turn to Him in frequent, childlike prayer, telling Him, "Lord, You know me and You probe me. You know how helpless I am without You and how much I need You."
We are humiliated in our own eyes, which is healthy, and we discover what only the humble of heart can learn: that the foolishness of men is the wisdom of God and the littleness of men is the greatness of God.
Then, what used to be, perhaps, only beautiful passages in the Scriptures, become filled with meaning. Then we are ready to say, and know from experience how true it is, that when I am weak, then I am strong because of the strength of Christ who abides in me.
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