Stop This Train: I Want to Get Off…and On … and …

by Fr. David May

At first things weren’t so bad. When I was growing up, we were told that to find happiness in this world and eternal bliss in the life to come, all we had to do was to obey God’s will day by day.

True, at times this was reputed to be difficult, or certainly not always easy. But hey, what’s a little pain here for eternal gain over there? Besides, much of what was being promoted on the scene called “normal life” looked like self-centered pampering mingled with occasional bursts of civic responsibility.

But this was not very inspiring for youthful idealists or even lovers of adventure.

So, some of us from my generation (coming of age in the ‘70’s and thereabouts) determined to follow God as completely as possible. And even though thinking and acting this way was already kind of rare, it felt good not to be part of a nameless majority wanting a “normal” life and a growing list of comforts.

Some of us set out on a pathway of dedication to God and the Church; we carried the somewhat contagious optimism still around in those days, and we had an inspiring pope, John Paul II, who faced down the whole Communist regime of eastern Europe.

A few of this “distinguished” group of young people visited Madonna House, and a few of these ended up joining. I was one.

After I joined and was later transplanted to the farm to make cheese, I began to learn that there was more to obedience than simply doing what one is told to do!

Of course, that first step is a part of obedience, and a very necessary part indeed. But I soon began to learn of another aspect to obedience—let’s call it interior assent.

It’s one thing to make four 25-lb blocks of cheddar cheese and to do a fairly decent job of same. It’s another to maintain an interior communion with the Lord all during that long and grueling time, thanking him, praising him, interceding with him for others, asking pardon for one’s own sins, etc.

It’s not so easy to be an icon of peace and mercy at all times, but the grace of God, I found, was pushing and insisting that I strive for this, keep it in mind, and not to be satisfied with a batch of cheese well-made and nicely aged, thick yogurt for breakfast, and compliments from my adoring fans at the main house.

Rather it seemed the Lord was more interested in a kind of emptying of self so that one could begin to recognize in oneself the first faint glimmer of the dawn of true humility. This does not generally happen overnight!

Some obediences from the Lord cut deeper than others, and this is, by his design, necessary for spiritual growth. Catherine used to teach us that obedience was like a narrow bridge made of some kind of strong fiber, cast across a great chasm.

Only obedience could persuade someone to cross that chasm, as it swayed in the wind; only obedience could take someone to that new level of openness to God and surrender to him at interior levels that one never even knew existed inside oneself.

Often, the journey of this nature could be dark to one’s own understanding, a true dark night of the soul. One does not see much of any benefit from it at the time.

One only knows that this is what God wants for now, for his own reasons (presumably kind!). And so, one keeps at it, with the help of prayer, encouragement from others (hopefully) and some solid spiritual direction from one quarter or another.

All of this must take place if we are to be fitting instruments for the Lord in this world. Yet, even this is not the end of it, or the goal of it, or the final word about obedience.

For there is yet another level of surrender that is secretly hidden behind the other two. This other level is what St. Paul writes about in Galatians 2 and elsewhere.

He says at one point: I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:20).

Similarly, in Colossians 1: 24-29: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.

But now it is revealed to his holy ones…it is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.

This takes obedience to a whole other level, not leaving the other levels behind, but requiring a surrender of one’s autonomy in a radical act of trust in the Lord.

On the one hand, it can sound kind of attractive: to give oneself as a total gift to the Lord, so that he can make of oneself an effective instrument of his grace in this world!

On the other hand, there can and often does arise a terrible resistance even to the very concept of something so radical as having Someone Else living within to the point that one ceases to live life or “have a life of one’s own” in the ordinary sense of what that term means.

Of course, its foundation lies in what Jesus himself lived in his obeying the Father, so that he could say things like this: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works (John 14:9-10).

Although I have been familiar with these passages and others for many years now, it is taking me a long time to really take them to heart. Occasionally I get glimpses of what it means to live this way: it does seem that, at least to a certain extent, Christ himself is speaking and loving and giving through me at those graced times.

But then the temptation is to take my life back again so as “to catch my breath” and recuperate “humanly.”

Back and forth I go, back and forth, between this deeper surrender and not trusting that this can really work or is really meant to be.

I’m like a man riding on a train shouting to the conductor: “Stop! I want to get off…then on…then off…then…!” It would be a shame to miss “this train bound for glory” because I’m on one of my off days!

But when life’s demands and difficulties exceed all my capacity for dealing with them, I find myself more readily turning to this deeper place inside where Christ lives, who alone has the answers to the many impossibilities facing us in these times.

What if you and I lived that way all the time? What if Christ had the freedom to “be himself” in you or in me non-stop? Would we cease to exist? Or would we begin to be our true selves at last?