For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus, only son of the Father, was sent to be among us, to redeem us. Through the institution of the Holy Eucharist, His Body, His Blood, Soul and Divinity, He lives among us and He is with us every step of the way on our pilgrimage of life.
Yes, we are on a pilgrimage, a trip. This is not a trip to some amusement park or to one of the wonders of the world, this is better. In short, if you live your life in an honest and God-adoring manner, and you do onto others as you would have them do onto you, then you will not perish and you will have eternal life.
Eternal life. Many people, even those who are good people, who honor the Lord and keep His commandments, do not think about Eternal Life and the full import of what this means, or should mean, to them. Like almost all of us, we struggle with the daily vexations in life, the joys and the sorrows, the pain and the periods of peace, and "Life Eternal," is very far away. Often, people in their seventies and eighties start getting serious about the preparation for what is to come. That's great. But if we were to begin this process earlier in life, then this world would be a better place.
I spoke with a friend who has cancer. The cancer is out of control and he's been given only a short time to live. But he is happy, happy to be closer to Jesus, to that promised life in eternity where there will be no more pain only happiness, because he's been living in God's grace and been a close friend of Jesus all his life. What a beautiful prospect, a soul preparing for heaven. The joy one sees on this man's face is a wonderful thing to behold. Because I know where he's heading... to eternal life with Jesus, with His Father, Our Father, our "papa" (Jesus called Him "Abba" which means papa), and with the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the love that exists between Jesus and His Father. Catholics believe in One God, in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
My road to where I am now, has been a rocky one. There were years I had been away from Church. Maybe these were my years of rebellion. These could have been my years of "going it alone," and you know what, it was a flop. These years were unfocused, on the edge of sin, in the morass and out, and I could have spent these years in a much better and spiritually productive way. I am sorry for these years because they set a rift between myself, my ego, and the beauty and love of Jesus, His Father, and of Mary, Our Mother, and the Angels and the Saints. But these years were forgiven and forgotten and now I'm again, on my pilgrimage heading, at least, in the right direction. One's pilgrimage is littered with pits, snags, big rocks, it is a bed of thorns, temptation and worries. They can be overcome. To overcome them we must have backbone. We must be able to say "Enough!" This is unproductive. This doesn't get me anywhere. I don't need this in my life.
"Spiritual backbone." One of my aunts, Sr. Benedicta of Saint Joseph, O.D.C. (died 1989), who lived a very troubled life until she realized she hadn't gotten anywhere. She realized she was further away from God than ever. She also said "Enough!" and although this took a few years, she joined the Discalced Carmelites as a contemplative nun. She sent me a little parchment placed on a magazine picture of a squirrel in a tree (because from her cloister window she looked at a squirrel now and again in a nearby tree). The parchment and picture is on my wall, and although in German, it reads: "God could remove all difficulties but He really wants conquerors." God is looking for people who will go the extra mile for Him. People who don't give up.
For our jobs, we often go the extra mile. If the company does better, makes a bigger profit than our jobs are secure and we get a bigger pay packet. One could say, if our soul thrives in God, in His Grace, in His Love, and we work at it day by day, to be more receptive to the Gifts He gives us, then we are secure in Him and we receive even more of His guidance and grace. Why? Because we are at his disposition and we are open to His Word. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."
Saint Francis of Assisi, a holy man who lived about 800 years ago, well known to people of all Faiths, was a man of God. He began his life as a rich man, following worldly desires. He had a time of rebellion in his life, as I think we all have, a time to choose, to find ourselves, to find what we want to do with our lives. But Francis heard God's call, "Rebuild my Church!" So Francis found this broken down abandoned edifice, once a Sanctuary, and with mortar and stones began to rebuild God's Church. Francis has done more than rebuilding a broken down chapel with stones. His following, the devotion to Francis by thousands, Franciscans of many ages, both male and female, priests, religious brothers, deacons, contemplative nuns, mendicant [begging] friars and many thousands who follow Franciscan ideals as a lay person (Secular Franciscans), have and continue to shape and thus, rebuild, the Church. And what is Church? We are Church!
So when Jesus told Francis to go "Rebuild the Church," He wasn't talking about a building, but Jesus was talking about us. He was addressing the Cross... we are the Church but we are also the Cross. Jesus died for us to redeem us, to save us. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."
To follow Jesus whether through the example of St. Francis or another Saint, we must take a stand. We need to take stock and say "Enough!" "Stop!...it's time for some honest self-examination." Knowing that God desires people who go the extra mile for Him, like St. Francis who suffered the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ, or similarly like Saint Pio of Petrelcina, who millions know as "Padre Pio," who also had the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ, not as adornment but as living reminders of the pain and suffering Jesus felt for our sins. But you know something, when Saint Pio died in 1968, the wounds of Christ disappeared. This is a wonderful confirmation that when we get to heaven there is no more suffering, there is only peace. There is only God and in God there is all in all.
We seek a life in Jesus not because we wish to be pain free. We seek that life in Him, because we love Him above all else. St. Francis exhibited this love for Christ by living as a humble servant. Francis had no desires to be rich. His richness came from washing and caring for the outcasts of society in those days, the lepers. About 17 years ago, I visited the leprosarium in a forgotten corner of Louisiana. It is a visit I will never forget. Not because the wounds and deformations of bodily tissue was so awful, not because the pain was written all over their faces. Sure that was pretty bad, but I shall never forget that hospital because the people who are victim to this horrible disease were simple people who were happy in their lot. It was evident that even this awful disease, now largely under control by modern medicine, had not even begun to scar their souls. They were close friends of Jesus. I pray that if we become ill, with a life-threatening condition, that we won't blame it on God, but that we may see this suffering come our way as an opportunity to endure it as Jesus did on the Cross: without complaint! You should be so blessed to suffer as Jesus did, for all of us are involved in God's Creation, and in caring for our brothers and sisters be it through services for the poor, or through suffering offered up for the people of God.
Saint Francis, poor man of God, lived a strict life of penance and pain. Nowadays his followers in friaries all over the globe know that they cannot live like Francis in a strict and unwavering ascetical style. In such a radical way. It somehow is counter-cultural in this the 21st Century. Lately (after Vatican II), there has been a resurgence, of religious (and the Friars of the Renewal, Fr. Benedict Groeschel's people come to mind) who wanted a harsher life, a life of self-denial, so that they can direct all their faculties and energies to God through prayer and to those who need God's help the most. I've met some holy men in my dealing with religious. They didn't have a note pinned to their tunics that said "holy," no, their holiness was evident in their sense of humor, in their deep caring for others, in their simplicity, their love for all, equally as Jesus loves us. They said "Enough!" They took a stand. They said YES to follow Jesus through that "impossible dreamer" (Fr. Groeschel's description of St. Francis), St. Francis of Assisi.
I certainly am not implying that the friars or for that matter any religious who are not in these newer and perhaps ascetically stricter groups aren't close friends of God. Of course they are. I've met many religious who quietly go through life struggling for the love of God, helping hundreds find Jesus and ultimately, find Him in eternal life. But I like the idea of "Renewal." That's what we should all do, stop the train. Examine how we might do it better. Take a stand, and say "Full steam ahead for God." There isn't a moment to lose. Jesus loves us and encourages us. He's egging us on, like an impatient football coach, hoping we will score big, because that "Touchdown" in heaven will be stupendous. Not like any other we've ever experienced. Eternal life. Be there. The Father is counting on you. He gave us His only Son.
May He richly bless you this and every day!
Fred S. Schaeffer, OFS
February 6, 2014
(First written in 2003)