There once was a kid named Billy, our priest explained at mass this morning, who was obsessed with the game of tennis. Billy spent hours practicing, 8 hours a day sometimes. When he got to high school, Billy was focusing so much on tennis, that he didn’t have time for friends and most of his peers rejected him. A local newspaper wrote an article about Billy and in it the reporter, quite appropriately, stated that the loneliness Billy experienced was all part of the sacrifice for the game.
Our Catholic history is overflowing with people who have loved the Lord so deeply and so completely, that they come to see relationships and things others esteem as dust and ashes. Some of us, when we choose to follow Christ, we choose to leave everything (and everyone) else behind. Consider missionaries like the Canadian Martyrs, who left their homelands, many against the express wishes of their families, and travelled to the uncharted wilderness of Canada, on fire with the Love of God and willing to give their lives to share it. Or St Francis of Assisi who, after his profound conversion to God, gave all his possessions to the poor (including the clothes off his back) and much to the consternation of his father, walked away (quite naked) from the riches that the life of a merchant would have brought him. St. Therese of Lisieux, like many cloistered nuns before and after her, left her much beloved father (who ended up suffering a series of mini strokes before his death) to enter the convent at the tender age of 15. Scripture tells us specifically of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Matthew who quite literally dropped everything to follow Christ. Though in truth, doesn’t every disciple and friend of the Lord worth their salt experience a moment where following him costs them – the loss of a friendship or even a spouse, or the renouncement of possessions or desires or expectations they may have been idolizing? It’s hard and painful, but wouldn’t we gladly pay the toll when the outcome means a peace and confidence in the divine we have never known?
Some of us don’t necessarily get the choice to say goodbye to everything and everyone we hold dear when we choose to follow Christ. For some, the circumstances of life force us to take on that ‘divine alone-ness’. For those of us whose lives haven’t quite gone the way we thought they would, think on St. Joseph of Cupertino. Scorned and ridiculed by his family for the ecstasies he experienced at a young age, he became a burden to them, in part, because of his uncontrollable outbursts of anger. Having applied and, after a while with them, been rejected by the Capuchin Friars (due to his lack of education) he was forced to return home, which only increased the derision of his family. Nobody wanted Joseph - until he finally pleaded with the Conventual Friars to allow him to work in their stables, and there he stayed for a short time, where he could experience his ecstasies in peace. Eventually he was ordained a priest, but his ordination only intensified his raptures, which came to include levitation and “fits of giddiness”. Joseph was eventually deemed disruptive by his superiors and church authorities, denounced as practicing witchcraft during the Inquisition, and sentenced to a life of full seclusion, which he lived out with little to no contact with the monks of each monastic community to which he was ordered. There is also Blessed Margaret of Castello. Born severely disabled, Margaret was abandoned by her parents and eventually ended up living with a group of nuns who were so lax and worldly, Margaret’s fervor for the Lord reproached them daily - whipping the nuns up into such a tizzy that she was driven out of the convent.
The fact is that following Christ demands something of us, sometimes something very dear. If it didn’t, following him would be pointless and barren. But the expense is all part of the sacrifice. For what he loved, Billy willingly gave up fun and friendship during the years where fun and friends are (sometimes) all that matters. St. Francis gave up riches and family. St. Peter, St. Matthew and St. Paul, lucrative careers and the creature comforts, amongst other things. I have given up, for the Lord, that sense of control I held close for so long, the idea that money solves all problems and the expectation that my life would be the “white picket fence and all.” In reality, each one of us has a story – has a painful and at times heavy cross which we have had to bear, that necessarily turns us away from created beings and things, and directs us right into the watchful gaze and loving arms of our heavenly father. Or do you suppose, says James 4:5, that it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he was made to dwell in us?” Do you think God doesn’t earnestly pine for your love, your affection and confidence?
He does. The Lord waits for us every minute of every day. And the mysterious part is that once we truly surrender that of which we are most afraid to let go, we experience a deep freedom and peace, and contrary to what we think we know, we become more of ourselves in the process. Surrendering inappropriate and unnecessary attitudes or people or expectations, we clear a mysterious kind of cosmic space in our souls for the Lord to specially fill, and instead of tearing us down to nothing, when we allow him, he builds us back up into what we were meant to be, before we filled ourselves with the screwy expectations and cluttery things. It’s a most bewildering and exciting experience and (un)fortunately it never stops. Our whole life long we are shoving created things into the ‘God-shaped hole’ in our beings. It takes perseverance and a ton of old-fashioned work to take them out, one by one. But the prize is the Lord himself, every day, every hour, every minute. What could possibly be worth more?