September 5, 2004
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are the words of Jesus and we are called to obey them. But, what is most difficult in Jesus’ command is not simply carrying our cross, but remaining open to life as we do so. The greatest challenge for a disciple is not picking up the cross, but carrying it and still being a joyful and positive person.
We do not have a choice whether we are going to carry our crosses or not. They just come to us. We turn a corner in our life and suddenly we realize, “I’m going to have to deal with sickness, or divorce, or rejection, or unemployment.” All of us would rather avoid these troubles, but they come to us and we have no choice but to take them up and carry them. But, what we can choose is how we carry them. We can choose to let our crosses absorb all of our energy and joy, or carry them and at the same time remain open to life.
Betty was a remarkable woman that I came to know while serving in a previous parish. She was in her forties with two boys in grade school and a loving husband. Betty had the worst arthritis of any person I had ever seen. Her hands were like gnarled fists. She could, only with the greatest difficulty, hold anything. The arthritis certainly caused her considerable pain, but she never complained. She remained involved in our parish life and whenever she would come to a parish meeting she always greeted everyone with a broad and sincere smile.
One day I questioned her about her positive attitude. “Betty,” I said, “how can you be so happy with your arthritis?” She smiled at me and she said, “It’s the only way I can be happy. I don’t have the choice of being happy without my arthritis. The doctors tell me it is here to stay. Therefore, my only choice is to be happy with the arthritis or to be depressed with the arthritis. Several years ago, I decided to try for happiness.”
“It can’t be easy,” I said. “No, it’s not easy at all,” she replied. “But I try to see it as a kind of discipline, as a kind of practice.” “Discipline? Practice? What do you mean?” “Well, I look at it this way, Father,” she said, “This arthritis causes me pain, but it is not fatal. God willing, I still have many years to live. And there is a lot of good in my life. I have a loving husband. I have great children, good friends, satisfying hobbies, a parish that I care for. So, I decided to practice the discipline of focusing on what is good in my life rather than what is wrong.
“Every morning that I get up, the first thing that I feel is the pain in my hands. It cries out to me for all of my attention, all of my energy. I try to establish the discipline of refusing to feed it. Instead of thinking of my pain, I try to get up from my bed and go to the window and appreciate the sunshine in my back yard. As I wake up my boys, I choose to tell them that I love them and to appreciate how beautiful they are. As I look forward to my day, I try to anticipate the enjoyable moments that are to come. I try to look forward to a lunch with a friend or a walk in the park. I try to develop the discipline of asking myself ‘Who needs me today?’ and then to call a friend who is struggling or to consciously speak a kind word to my husband as he comes home from a difficult day.
“What I find is that when I develop this discipline, when I choose to appreciate, to listen, to give, I put goodness in the center of my life. And that goodness gives me joy, even with the pain that is still in my hands.”
Betty continued, “this discipline is wonderful practice, because I know that there are greater burdens to come. I know that one day I am going to grieve the loss of someone I love deeply or have to face a sickness that will lead to my own death. When those greater burdens come, I believe that I will be able to deal with them better because I have practiced being joyful with my arthritis.”
Betty remains for me one of the greatest examples of what it means to take up your cross and follow after Jesus. We can follow her example. We can use the troubles of today to practice for the bigger troubles that are likely to come. There is nothing wrong with taking our present frustrations, disappointments, and burdens and use them to build the discipline of choosing life. There is an advantage in using those disappointments to develop the skill of focusing in on what is good. This is how we can carry our cross without letting it crush us. This is how we can bear our pain and at the same time embrace the joy of living.