Pacino di Buonaguida, “Cross as the Tree of Life” c. 1320 pinimg.com
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. — 2 Cor. 5:1
In the summer of 1991, I got the chance over 2 months to sit and speak with a priest who had at the time been over sixty-five years ordained. I asked him for words of wisdom from his long life throughout the summer and kept a journal of the gold he gave me. Among his many stories, he interspersed these proverb-like insights. I will share some here.
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Always have the long view. God works with the long view in mind. These days, people find that very hard, which makes real faith incomprehensible. Just look at Scripture and you’ll pick up the long view perspective. The prophets taught hope for what we have received, Jesus, but died without ever seeing it. Just think, without their aching hope for what they would not possess in this life the Gift would never have come. The most important fruits of my work won’t come into existence until long, long after I’m gone.
Only when I give back what I have been given by God can others finally receive all of it. And only when I die will I finally surrender everything back to the Giver. At least, that’s how I should die. I hope I am able to. It’s why the holy Fathers always counseled, memento mori [remember death]. All of life is to be a rehearsal for death.
I found the harder things became in my life, the better it was for me to gain the long view. Our culture makes this hard, which is why we fear suffering so much. None of what I have is for me, none of it is meant to remain here, all of it is for the final Homeland. Hardship wrests things out of our hands. Breaks our will to control, grasp, possess things without giving full freedom to God’s plan for what we’ve been entrusted with; what He wants to do with what we have. Most of that, keep in mind, we are not even aware of in the slightest.
It all seems easy and natural when things are well. Since my late teens, I’ve always professed trust in God, hope in God, love for God, love for others. Yes, with great sincerity. But not until life got hard, till the wheat was submitted to the grinding wheel, did I have a real chance to really choose love, trust, hope. The chance to give them back, to have exposed in me my well-disguised refusal to hand them over to God’s providence.
If I look back at my own priesthood, I’d encourage you in your marriage and family life to see the first 20 years as learning what needs to be surrendered, the next 20 as practicing surrender, and the last 20 as surrendering. If God takes you earlier, He knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.
You know, they say in Russia that “old age is for prayer.” That is wise. When life is so busy in your early years, your exhausting labor is meant to prepare material for the great sacrifice that, later in life, God willing, you will have time to offer gently back to God in quiet prayer for your family and loved ones and the world. Tragic we have lost this sense and see old age as a wasting away, as a sad, pitiful march to death; when it should be our titan moment of spiritual power.
So remember, when you fret, that there’s a time to labor strenuously for preparing the gifts to be offered, and there’s a time to offer. And if you die before the age of prayer comes, God knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.
There are so many people in the years of my ministry that I fumbled over, ignored, drove away, injured, misinformed, frightened off. There was a time when I lived in regret and self-pity. But thank God, when I was much younger than now, [an elderly priest] once said to me, as I wrung my hands over my missteps, “You do no good to anyone this way, refusing to give to God the most precious treasures of all: failure. Give God these for those you have failed.” I thought he was senile as those words seemed foolish, but I never forgot them. Now I see they are the height of wisdom.
Weaknesses given over to Christ by repentance, by surrender, as offering. That’s real power. It’s why the cross is the instrument of salvation. The whole purpose of life is surrender. The finest surrender is not giving God our soaring cathedrals, good as they are, but giving Him our rubble so He can build. Out of rubble, God builds cathedrals. And sometimes He permits the demolition of our life’s carefully constructed cathedrals so He can finally convince us He doesn’t want us to build great things for Him, but to give Him everything, so He, the Builder, can finally build.