The entire litmus test for this life is the very one we don’t want. It’s love or charity (caritas). It is the very meaning of our lives. It is what grounds every moment of every day, but even as we say it’s what we want, we are also repelled by it. Why? Love always costs us everything. Love is the Cross.
As Christians, we believe that the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, took on human flesh in the Incarnation in order to bring about our salvation by dying on the wood of a Cross and rising again from the dead three days later. This is the absolute center of our faith. We proclaim it in the Nicene Creed (or Apostle’s Creed) at every Mass. We give our Amen when the priest extends to us the body and blood of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, declaring our belief in this reality. It surrounds us completely, but the Cross itself is largely held at arms length in our lives.
We don’t really want it and by extension we don’t really want the demands of love. Our culture is obsessed with love. Free love, everyone should be able to love, etc, but we don’t want actual love. The love that underpins all of existence is not based on feelings, sentiment, or warm fuzzy emotions, it is based on self-emptying. It is based on suffering. It is to forget one’s self for another’s good.
Of course we don’t want that love. It hurts. It requires everything we have and more. Love is to sit by your husband’s hospital bed wondering if you will be planning his funeral soon, but to enter into the pain of that moment anyway. Love is pouring out everything for the stranger who wants to abort her baby, but who God has called you to walk beside as you grieve the loss of the child you desperately wanted even to the point of giving this stranger all of your own baby items because God required it of you. It is the searing pain that cuts so deep we don’t think we will survive. It is pouring out everything we have and our entire being to God and others.
It is to willingly wage an intense battle against powers and principalities for someone who can’t understand that depth of charity because love in essence is to desire that those around us become saints. Worldly, even sinful inversions of love, are easier to understand than hard fought holy love in this Fallen world. That kind of love we flee from because that’s the love that comes from God. Love truly is to will the good of the other, even when that good is rejected and we are left alone. I know this not only as a theologian. More than anything, I know it as a Christian disciple who has seen this play out time-and-time-again in my own life. It is the Cross God has called me to. It is the Cross He handed to me when I quite literally held His True Cross in my hands, not once, but twice. Both times producing the same result.
We want our safety. We want comfortable Christianity where we don’t have to risk much, especially in a time when we are all trying to stay above water. All of us in the Church are treading water. The real answers are hard ones and they require us to move from our complacency to the path we were always supposed to be walking: the path to sainthood. It is personal holiness and deeper communion that will bring about the much needed purgation and renewal in the Church, but these are the two things we don’t want to have to do.
All of us want easier answers. We want to be able to point a finger at someone else and blame them for the mess we are in, when in truth, we are in this mess because all of us have failed to live up to the call Christ gave to us in our Baptism; when we died to self and became a new creation in Christ. The call to holiness means confronting the darkness within us and allowing Christ to transform us. It means enduring the pain and agony of the Cross so that our brokenness can be purified and refined so that it is holy and pleasing to God.
The Enemy wants all of these dark places to hold us back, to keep us trapped, and afraid. Shame and fear are how the Enemy keeps us from moving forward into deeper love of God and of others. What the leaders in the Church–and all of us–fail to see is that if we allow the light of God to penetrate all of our weaknesses, darkness, and failings then He will give us the strength to get back up and begin again. We are not held back by God for our failings. We are strengthened through them and our love is purified, so that we can love as He loves.
It is through trials and the struggles that love deepens. This is what the saints understood better than us. They knew that the only way to grow in love of God and others is to be willing to fight the good fight, knowing they’d fail at times. Through this fight, through embracing the Cross, they came to see that they became entirely dependent on God, entered fully into His love, and by extension came to love others with the love of Christ. To do so, they chose to enter the fight that is the path to holiness. The same fight you and I are called to today.
In order to grow in holiness and in order for us to love one another as Christ loves we must embrace the very thing we are all desperately fleeing from the same way the vast majority of the Apostles did: the Cross. We must be willing to suffer together, confront our failings together, battle the world, the Enemy, and ourselves together, and be willing to fight the most intense fight of our lives. We must be willing to allow our love to be intense–even though it’s terrifying–and we must be willing to endure and persevere in our love for God and others.
There is a reason battle imagery is used so often in spiritual warfare throughout the Church’s history. We are in a war and most of us–including our leaders–are blind to it. We have come to believe that most of what goes on in our lives is material, when in truth, most of what goes on in our lives is supernatural. That temptation you or I battle often is the lie of the Enemy. He will attempt to seduce us, lie to us, accuse us, and shame us. And the more we become aware of it, the more intense the battle becomes because the last thing he wants is for us to be able to see him or his minions in the open. We underestimate how much he hates us. More than anything we underestimate the power of Christ to transform us through such hardships and fights.
Every aspect of our spiritual lives is tied to the Cross in this life. We enter into those Crosses in confident hope because we know that all will be made right in the end. We know that the battles we wage now, the victories and the losses, will be used by God for His plan and as a reflection of His glory. This is why we can praise him in our pain, trials, failings, rejections, betrayals, and afflictions. We know the pain now will give way to joy, even if it is not until the next life. In order to enter into this reality, we must be willing to play the long game. We must be willing to accept that we may not see victory in this life. Instead, we must fix our eyes on Christ crucified–our thorny-crowned Captain–and walk deeper into the piercing love He shows us by His sacrifice. It is why even if everyone around us rejects us, we can go on in faith, hope, and charity.
None of this is easy. We will want to quit. There are countless times, especially in the last few years, when I have had to fight through a lot of pain and confusion in prayer. I’ve repeatedly asked God if I can walk away when an affliction, hardship, or temptation seems to be too much for me. His response is always the same. “Yes, Constance, you can walk away or you can learn to love as I love.” Every single time without fail this is what Our Lord tells me in prayer.
He told me the same thing when I almost resigned from my ministry last week. The same thing whenever I’ve been hurt and betrayed by others, when I had to watch my husband suffer, when I had to give all I had to a stranger, when I agonized over the loss of my four babies, when I’ve held my daughter in her agonies, when I have been mocked, derided, or the victim of gossip, when I have felt alienated because of the depth of my charity and my desire to bring people deeper into the mystery of God, or when a friend admitted to me recently that she had betrayed me and abandoned me for a while because the intensity of my faith life and my charity proved too much for her at the time (all unbeknownst to me). The latter is all God’s doing. Any goodness and love in me comes from Him.
In essence what is God saying? He’s saying “Get back up. I’ve called you to love.” That’s what is required of you, me, and of all of us. It’s as simple and as deeply painful as that. When I feel the most beaten down, when I want to quit, God reminds me to keep going. The answer to all of our questions is love. We are to love with everything we have and more through grace. We can only love if we are willing to hurt. Love is not a remote, distant endeavor. Willing the good of another is to see them for all of the good and bad within them and still desire to see them succeed on the only path that matters: heaven. It’s to walk together despite those failings. This means forgiveness is necessary and it must be extended freely and repeatedly. We are all meant to help each other succeed. This is something married couples know well and it’s something real friends come to embrace once they see what real friendship is supposed to look like.
As brothers and sisters in Christ we are meant to fight side-by-side, not with one another. We are not in competition with one another. Our goal is supposed to be the same for all of us. Before we can embrace that goal, we must first ask God to place us firmly on the path to holiness and pray for the grace and strength to endure what will be required of us. It’s not an easy path. We can’t go into it thinking it will be or we will fail utterly. Instead, we must come to see that Our Lord is everything and then order our lives around that reality. Once we give everything to Him, we can embark on the journey and in so doing begin to walk with those around us. We can go on the journey because Christ is the one walking beside us.
As God works in each one of our lives to transform us into the saints we are meant to be, we will see our parishes flourish. We will see the renewal we all desire begin to unfold slowly in God’s time. We will see the love of the Cross transform all of this darkness into a new dawn. We will see the world through the eyes of faith, through the eyes of Christ, and we will be able to love as He loves. This is the answer we are seeking, but it’s the one we don’t want, because at the very center, looming large, is the Cross.