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Martyrdom & Suffering

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Cost of Loving God

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We are strange creatures. We can be so inconsistent. Take the matter of buying and selling. We know perfectly well that in order to buy anything we must pay for it. The very word "buying" means that we pay whatever an item costs and only then have a right to possess it. In fact, taking something that belongs to someone else without paying is stealing. We may complain about inflation and shop around to get an article of clothing or food or a piece of equipment or furniture at a lower price, but we assume without a second thought that to obtain what someone else has that we need or want, we have to pay whatever the owner asks for what we wish to buy.

Then we turn to the order of spirit and the supernatural world of God and His grace. All of a sudden we seem to change our minds. We know better, of course. But we have to struggle to overcome the peculiar idea that where God is concerned He owes us what we need and that we somehow have a right to what only He can give without bothering to pay for what we want. Inconsistent? It's contradictory! The phrase goes, "You get nothing for nothing." How come some people have a different idea about God? They seem to expect Him to give everything for nothing.

There is, we may admit, some basis for our strange attitude. After all, God brought us out of nothing into existence, without our paying anything for the privilege of creation. He might, in fact, have made us any one of the million other creatures, like a rose, or a lily, or a lowly weed. And, even then, had we been grasshoppers who could speak, we should still have told God, "Thank You." Yet, God made us and made us what we are not only without cost on our part, but even without the possibility of any contribution from us. For the best of reasons, we were not around to offer advanced payment for our future existence. And so on through life. There are so many things we possess and enjoy that God gives us and does not demand so many hours of labor or so much effort in return for what we receive.

God’s goodness, therefore, can be taken for granted. What we get used to we think we have a right to. What we've always enjoyed we think we have a claim to. So we can mistakenly assume that because God has given us so much without cost to ourselves - after all, it's God, you know, God - He just gives and keeps giving, and He will give us not only in time, but He will even give us eternity with no exertion from us.

Faith and reason tell us this is not true. No doubt God is loving, and in fact His name is love. but this same God is also just. He is, let us keep telling ourselves, the Creator and Lord of the Universe. His very- outpouring of love, we would expect, must call for some requital from our side. We are not robots or mannequins. We are not irrational vegetables or beasts. We are human beings with a free will, and what pray tell do we have a free will for, if not to use it?

Part of our freedom is the sublime but awful power we have to say "yes." and can you imagine, to say "no" to God. God wants us to use this power of freedom, and as the Scriptures make so clear, depending on how we use this freedom we shall finally be saved or lost.

Our purpose in this article, however, is more refined. We shall concentrate on only one aspect of God's expectations of us free human beings, namely, that if we wish to love God as He wants to be loved and thereby merit his fruitful love in return, we must pay the price that this demands.

Even among ourselves we know that the true love of friendship is demanding. Of those we love and who love us we expect much and they expect much of us. When people are in love they ask from one another what they would never think of asking from a stranger. "I hate to ask her. I don't really know her well enough."

So true is this that two people who are afraid to ask of each other what they respectively need or want, for fear of seeming to impose well, they may respect one another and have a high regard for one another, but they are not selflessly in love. What holds true in the order of nature is equally and eminently true in the order of grace. It is precisely because God loves us so much that He expects us to love Him in return. And the price of being loved by the Almighty is high, as also is the price of growing in His love. The more precious the commodity, the higher the price; the most precious possession in the world is the love of God. You don't get this, I don't say for nothing or cheaply; you pay, and you pay dearly.

Can we be more specific? What does God expect of us who claim that we love Him as recompense for His prior goodness to us and as the wages, so to speak, to merit an increase of His bounty on our behalf? He finally expects these two things:

  1. That we are willing to give up whatever pleasant things He may want us to surrender.

  2. That we are willing to take whatever painful things He may want to send us.

Between these two, surrender and suffering, or as I prefer, sacrifice and the cross, lies the whole price range of divine love. Go where you will, seek where you will, consult whom you will. Pray, read, speculate and meditate as much as you will, you will always come back to this fact of the spiritual life and there are no exceptions. The love of God is paid for as Christ paid for the love of His Father with the hard currency of willing sacrifice and the holy cross.

When I was younger, and I thought, smarter, I didn't talk quite this way. But experience is a good, though costly, teacher.

First, then, sacrifice.

Sacrifice is not quite the same as the cross, although they have much in common. When I endure the cross I am ready to accept whatever unpleasant things God in His love wants me to endure and God can be uncanny in what crosses He can send us. Sometimes we think it takes a divine imagination to conjure up the varieties, large and small, different sizes and shapes, of the cross. On the other hand, when I sacrifice I'm rather giving up pleasant things that I already enjoy.

The variety of these pleasant things that God's love may ask me to give up is all but infinite and they will differ with different people. Much will depend on what we as individuals already have. Some have one thing, others have another. What one person has is dear to him. What another person has will be dear to her. Some people have one thing, say, money. Others have something else, say leisure, or privacy or independence (I make sure I have none of these things) or successful business, or a good professional practice, or prestige or authority or any one of the thousand amenities that no one naturally wants to give up. And the strange thing about not wanting to give up is that even when the person has rationally convinced himself, "This is not a good thing," like smoking or drinking, yet once a thing becomes part of us, giving it up is like cutting off an arm.

But there are certain things that everyone considers precious no matter who he or she is, whether young or old, rich or poor, bishop, priest, religious or layperson. These things are the common source of sacrifice that God will certainly ask of all of us to prove that we love Him and to pray for growth in His love. I would single out especially the following: time, convenience, customary habits and personal opinions and our own preferred way of doing things.

If we are to love God the way He wants us to we must be willing to sacrifice our time. It takes time to pray. It takes time to do some daily spiritual reading. It takes time to visit the sick or the shut-ins at home or in hospitals. It takes time to help some aged person with shopping or tidying up their house. My secretary in New York who was dying of terminal cancer found it very hard to find anyone to help her cook her meals; and she was willing to pay. People just don't have the time.

It takes time to write letters, answer the telephone, especially with some people, or do some necessary repairs around the house. It takes time to listen to a person tell his story of misfortune or sit perhaps for hours on a bus or train to pay one's respects to a relative or friend.

If we are to love God the way He wants us to we must be willing to sacrifice our convenience. It is not convenient to get up early in the morning to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, You would think after all these years of getting up we couldn't wait, what a strange expression, to get up in the morning. It is not convenient to go out of my way to perform some favor that I know would be appreciated. It is not convenient to miss one's meal in order to be available when I am needed or to miss a radio or television program because I am on an errand of mercy. I have long ago decided, I don't have a right to three meals a day. It is not convenient to kneel when sitting is so much more comfortable, or to be satisfied with less food or some delicacy in order to share with someone who would enjoy what I give up.

If we are to love God the way He wants us to we must be willing to sacrifice our customary habits. The way we've been doing things perhaps for years can make us addicted to patterns of life that more than once may have to be broken if we are to serve the Lord and love Him, as He tells us, with all our strength. This, I believe, is one reason why so many marriages do not succeed. Husband and wife or both simply do not want to give up their customary ways of behavior before they were married. She wants her freedom and he wants his-the kind they had when they were still single. No marriage can succeed on these impossible terms. If we are to love God the way He wants us to we must be willing to sacrifice our personal opinions and ideas and way's of doing things. Why do people argue? In most cases because one or both parties in the argument are wedded to their own judgment. They are unwilling to yield in conversation or where they’re given employment, or as I know among religious, in obedience to a superior. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. She doesn't know what she's talking about.” Maybe she doesn't, so I make a representation. She insists, so what do I do? It all depends on how much behind the superior I love God, who faith tells me is giving me this opportunity to prove my love.

To say that the sacrifice of our own ideas and way's calls for humility is only to restate what must be a spectacle to the angels. The Church's authority tells the faithful to accept her teaching and her directives on pre-marital chastity, on priestly celibacy, on chastity in marriage by not interfering with the life process, on the value of confession for children, on the strict and very rare conditions for general absolution. on the vestments that a priest is to wear at Mass, or the recitation of the Divine Office by those in priestly orders, on the rubrics to be observed in the Eucharistic Liturgy, on the whole gamut of Catholic doctrine like the papal primacy, the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the meaning of sin. I said when the angels see what's going on on earth it's a spectacle. I don't quite know what I am saying, but I am sure the angels must weep at the lack of humility as a result of which those whom God has called, even to His deepest intimacy, fail in loving Him. They reverse the prayer of Jesus in the Garden, "Not your will, but mine be done"-and they mean it, they really mean it. I've reasoned, I've argued, given people every possible cogent reason for not insisting on something which the Church said was wrong. "Don't you see that the Church insists: 'You may not do this, you may not teach this'?" But they have a reason and the reason is their will. In the bible of Satan the first verse reads: "in the beginning was the deed. And the deed was contrary to the will of God; and God was left to take the consequences.

The Cross

The cross, we said, is in one sense already a sacrifice and every sacrifice includes the cross. But properly speaking the cross is something different. When God's love sends us the cross He enters our lives, as it were, unbidden. He does something to us-what a blessed preposition-He does something to us that we do not naturally like. He causes us some pain and as you know pain is anything we do not like. The most philosophical definition of pain is: what the human will does not like. And then God watches how we accept the suffering that this brings. The pain may be physical, like some infirmity or ravaging disease: it may be social, like the estrangement from someone we really love; it may be emotional, like an unjust accusation never rectified or undeserved criticism for something someone else had done; it may he psychological pain, like dryness of spirit, confusion of mind or a despondency that we seem unable to shake off; it may be spiritual pain, like darkness in prayer or a siege of scrupulosity or loss of that clarity of faith that we used to have. No matter. God who is master of His gifts has the right to take them away. He can take away the precious things; He can also impose the painful things. And let's never, unlike Job, fail to bless the same God.

Some implications:

As we look over what we have said about sacrifice and the cross we may be frightened, and little wonder! None of us naturally likes to surrender what we like: it's almost too obvious for words. And none of us is naturally drawn to pain. But just here is the difference between nature and grace. What nature fears grace can actually learn to desire; and what nature runs away from, grace-would you believe it-can make us seek. This is where we need the wisdom of the saints.

St. Ignatius did not write much on the spiritual life. His vocabulary was very limited but what he said is worth quoting. I quote from my father in God: "If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of the great holiness to which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of divine love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the cross which the infinite charity of the Savior uses to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ, that is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ. Suffering endured for the love of Jesus Christ should be reckoned among God's greatest benefits."

The trouble with quotations like this from the mystics is that we are liable to think they were unlike ourselves. Not so. They shrank from sacrifice and the cross as much as we do. But here precisely is the secret of sanctity. It is possible, through divine grace, for the love of God to reach a degree in our hearts where we experience joy in suffering. Honest, really and it is a taste of this joy which the Savior promised to all who sincerely strive to become like Him by embracing what He embraced-the cross-He, out of love for His Father; we, out of love for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The cost of loving God is high but God comes through. He rewards the price we pay with an experience of His presence, a sense of His intimacy, and a joy, that the saints tell us, is so sweet they would not exchange their sufferings for all the pleasures in the world. Let's ask our Savior to not just listen or hear what those who have learned to love God tell us but to teach us from experience that this great wisdom is true.

Strain Forward
September, 1979

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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