Friday, August 26, 2011

"Take up your cross..."

People love quotes. For some reason, we lend much credence to a set of words when quotation marks surround them. On my Facebook page, I resisted listing a "favorite quote" for quite some time. Maybe I'm over-analyzing the whole thing, but I figure that if you've only got one shot (maybe two) at capturing the attention of someone who's interested in knowing more about you with a quote, you'd better pick a good one.

I mean, my life doesn't revolve around any particular movie, any specific song or around the late night ramblings of an inebriated friend. So I guess you'd say I'm something of a quote snob because when I (finally and very recently) chose a quote for my Facebook page (that I've had since 2004, mind you), I felt that I finally found a phrase by which I really try to live my life - nothing less than a personal motto and something that, God willing, will be such for me until my last day: "Tolle crucem tuam et sequere Jesum."

I love that quote. First of all, it's in Latin, the language of the Church that I love so deeply. So if a person comes across it on my FB page and really wants to know what it means, they're probably gonna have to put forth an effort to find out - which makes it sort of a mystery (which I also like). But for you guys, I'll give you a break: it means "Take up your cross and follow Jesus."

The quote is drawn from a book that I read just last year: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis - a spiritual classic. More importantly, though, it is rooted in Sacred Scripture, in a command from Christ to would-be disciples that's echoed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Although it is nothing more than a snippet of Christ's teachings, to me it is an all-encompassing synopsis of my spiritual journey and of my purpose as a Catholic Christian. If I am to be Jesus' disciple, I am to take up my cross and follow him, wherever he leads and however difficult the journey. In short, I am called to imitate Christ, follow his Way of the Cross and die to self.

You see, by nature, I am selfish. I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. I am lazy and in love with creature-comforts. When I am being my "self", I can make rash judgements, and I can even be deceitful. I am quick to over-indulge and slow to be charitable.

But these qualities won't do. These are not the qualities of a son of God which, by virtue of my baptism, I have become. And they will never let me fully become the man that God intends for me to be, nor enjoy the life that he freely offers. In many ways, then, my "self" is a stumbling block for the eternal life for which I was created.

So, as Christ says, that "self" of mine must die. It must die in you, too. Selfishness, vanity and pride must be put to death. Anger, resentment and slothfulness have to be eliminated. They are poisons which do not allow the seed of eternal life to grow within us. They are barriers which prevent us from receiving God's full measure of grace through our prayers and through the Sacraments of his Church.

We must die to "self" so that we may live to serve others. That, my friends, is the essence of Christianity: the radical notion that we are called to heroic charity; dying to self and living to serve. (Is it any wonder, then, why Catholic churches always prominently display a crucifix? It is a visual summation of what we believe.)

It's not easy, though - this "dying to self." It never has been. Just last Sunday, the Gospel recorded Jesus' praise for the faith of Peter, the man whose name he changed and who was hand-picked by Christ to lead the Church. But this Sunday in the Gospel, Jesus dramatically excoriates Peter for his lack of faith! Last week, Jesus gave him the name Peter. This week, Jesus called him Satan. The very same man.

We are no different than Peter.

One week, we may (with God's help) live a life of faithfulness and charity. The very next week, we may slip. The key to spiritual success as a Christian is not perpetual perfection, but perseverance. Dogged determination is a basic ingredient in living out our Baptismal calling, because we will falter as surely as the sun will rise. But we cannot stay down. We must try, try again. Christianity is not a race. It is a marathon.

"Whoever wishes to come after me," says Jesus in the Gospel reading for this Sunday, "must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."

"Why?" you can just imagine the obstinate disciples ask.

Jesus answers quite simply: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Lose our "selves" for the sake of Christ and find your life in the process. So says the Master.

Tolle crucem tuam et sequere Jesum. Take up your cross and follow Jesus.