There are days when we are reminded more than others that life only makes sense if we remember where we are going. Blessed James Alberione succinctly states: "We are travelling toward the Lord; we are on a journey in this life. Let each one of us, then, fix our eyes on the Lord."
The other morning the first reading at Mass was read from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24. In this reading, Joshua states how Esau was given by God Mount Seir to possess it, but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. The words "down to Egypt" were to me an understatement to what would become the dramatic struggle of God's saving his people. Jacob died 198 years before Moses spoke to Pharoah beginning the exodus from Egypt: the experience of slavery, of the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, the conquest of Canaan, the struggle to be faithful to the Lord, the exile and eventual destruction of the Temple when they abandoned the ways of the Lord.... Hundreds of years of individual and collective struggle to remember where they were going.... Esau was given Mount Seir to possess it, but the children of Israel--and we--are given no lasting city on this earth. Here we are on a journey, and a journey is often unpredictable and usually not quite easy.
C.S. Lewis would speak about it in another way: "What do people mean when they say 'I am not afraid of God because he is good?' Have they never been to a dentist?" A dentist cleans or pulls a person's teeth in order to preserve the person's health. We wouldn't call that dentist "bad." We would say that this dentist is "good." A "bad" dentist would be one who negligently or maliciously allows a person's teeth to decay creating further complications for her or his health. Likewise, as we say that God is "good," we can assume that this may also require at times experiences that are not pleasing to us. "Suffering can be the road to transforming grace. Lewis walked that road. When [his wife] Joy's cancer was taking its toll, Lewis wrote to a friend, "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be" (Letters of C. S. Lewis [Harcourt, 1966], 477).
If we remember that life is a journey and that in God's goodness we will be transformed along the way so that we are entirely ready for our eventual destination, what we suffer here can be borne with grace and dignity. It is a passing reality and, as painful as it is, it can still find its place in the great mosaic of God's dream for our salvation. Commenting on St. Paul who urges us to remember that all that we suffer here is but a drop of vinegar in a great ocean of delight that we shall experience as heaven, Alberione writes: "Heaven will never end; it is eternal. Our homeland is heaven. It will be a day without sunset, youth without old age, joy undisturbed by the fear of suffering. Heaven is the one and only true treasure, and ours forever! We shall have more courage if we think of it."
I'm reading the life of Father Arseny in the evenings. Father Arseny, priest, prisoner, and spiritual Father who was held in the brutal 'special sector' of the Soviet prison camp system, somehow moved among the other prisoners sent there to work until they died, offering consolation, wisdom, and spiritual strength. I could never imagine my life journey taking me to such extremes as he experienced, but I am deeply impressed at how he prayed through every moment. "Have pity on me, Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Mother of God, be with me," was on his lips as he carried out his duties or suffered violent interrogations. After what we would call a "near death experience" he was sent back to the death camp by Mary herself, in order to be a spiritual presence in the camp. Father Arseny is teaching me as I read the account of his life two important secrets for my journey through life: 1) stay present by praying here and now for God's mercy and love; 2) seek to be a spiritual presence of healing and charity for others along the way.
The final arrival at our destination may not look at all like we had dreamed, but by our present presence through prayer and love, we will discover that though it may be different, it will be more beautiful and wondrous than we could ever truly have imagined.
by Sr Kathryn Hermes, FSP