There is a quote from St. John of the Cross that I have referenced here many times over the years, and I’d like to reference it again today.
Over the last ten years, I have many times offered it to people who have come to me for advice about a difficult set of circumstances in their life. For me, it offers a universally applicable insight for those who are seeking to define their lives as disciples of Jesus, desirous to abandon themselves entirely to the His will, but believing they face seemingly innumerable and insuperable obstacles along the way. “If only,” we say, “this person or that circumstance were not there, then I could really advance in my life of faith; grow in prayer; trust in God; forgive my father; love my spouse.”
I recall once using the “if only” argument with my very first spiritual director, saying that “if only I had not experienced X and Y, I’d be so much better off and able to do what God is asking of me.” He responded (thank God for journals that preserve such wisdom!):
But don’t you see that your ‘if onlys’ are rejecting the precise shape of the cross Jesus is offering you now. If you simply accept what is, you can truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (cf. Gal 2:20). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced his supreme ‘if only’ temptation, but he triumphed over it by accepting the gnarled wood of the cross. From the cross and the grave, joined to his obedience, love, trust, surrender to the Father, came the re-creation of all things. Jesus turns ‘If only I didn’t have this cross’ into ‘only if you take up your cross and follow me…’ You don’t become a saint by constantly seeking freedom from all of your uncomfortable constraints and irritations. As with any good work of art, edges and limits give life its beautiful form. And holiness is all about the right edges and the right form. Think: grace transforms, conforms, reforms, informs our life with the form of Christ’s cross. Your ‘if onlys’ are the hemmed in frame within which God can paint his masterpiece — you! You’ll become holy by allowing God to frame your life, cut your edges and paint away. Even in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz, Maximillian Kolbe was able to create a work of art the church later canonized.
But as not all hardships and sufferings are willed by God for our life, he taught me to discern which were which (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). “Much of discernment,” he said, “is the art of discerning limits; of judging what the proper limits are that are needed to protect your primary vocational commitments. And when you face trials and hardships, you need to learn your limits. That’s one of the great gifts of life’s crosses, they expose our weaknesses and limits. It’s what I think, in part, Jesus means when he said to St. Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient; for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Power is made perfect because in our exposed weaknesses — our limits, exposed by trials — we learn the what are the delimiting borders of the ‘holy land’ within which we are to live out God’s will. The river runs swift and powerful and clean because it has sharp edges that define it. Without them, your life diffuses out into a murky swamp filled with deadly and poisonous creatures.”
Having worked as a chaplain with Alcoholics Anonymous, he would frequently refer to the Reinhold Neibuhr prayer to help me sort through which hardships in my life I should seek freedom from and which I had to make peace with:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
“That serenity,” he commented, “is what St. Ignatius called ‘holy indifference.’ You want God to help you learn to not simply be resigned to, but to embrace your life’s limitations. If you learn to embrace, nothing will touch you — neither praise nor criticism, success or failure, because you know what you are.”
An even deeper transformation of mindset, though, came to me when years later I discovered this quote from St. John in his Counsels to Religious as I was preparing for my dissertation research. I immediately copied and framed it, bracketing his specific references to “monastic life” so that, on any given day, I would remember to replace “monastery” or “religious life” with my job, my marriage and family life, my parish, and so on. It has allowed me to grow in a vision of every space and time in my life as a potential “theater of redemption” within which God can forms me to be a man “worthy of heaven.” It allows me to see more clearly that, in the words of St. Teresa, “all the way to heaven is heaven,” if I can see God’s hand at work in every detail of life.
My hope is that one day I won’t simply believe this to be true, but I will come to see the world this way. May it be so for us all.
To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to [the monastery] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in [the monastery] are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter [the religious life] for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering [the religious state,] you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.