Just before I was ordained a deacon, I hurt my back and it caused me a lot of trouble. It was the classic lower back injury that so many people end up with. A few years later when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I ended up talking to a one of the back surgeons about it. Along with the various bits of advice he offered he said: ‘Beware of anyone who promises to completely get rid of all pain; it’s usually not possible.’ I thought this was very wise. He said with physical therapy or different kinds of treatment, most of the pain can be got rid of or managed, but hardly anyone has the ability to completely fix you like new.
I read something very similar a few days ago written by our present Pope Francis. Before he was elected Pope and while working in Argentina, he used to have a regular dialogue with a Jewish Rabbi named Abraham Skorka. They decided to publish their conversations which is now a book called Heaven and Earth. In this book they deal with all kinds of issues. One of the topics they mention is religious leadership. Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) says that we should beware of any religious leader who demands absolute obedience or who promises perfect happiness in this world. There must always be room for us to make choices because that is the freedom the Lord has given us. No one has absolute authority over us, except God, and God does not force us to do anything. Rather, God calls us to live a certain way and to be in relationship with him, but we are free to make the choice ourselves.
For me as a priest I am amazed at this stage (after 15 years) at how often I have been tempted to quit and find an ‘easier’ way of life. I thought once I was ordained that that would be it, faithful to the end. But I realize as I go along that it requires a new commitment every day. Mostly I don’t think about it, but there have been several crisis points where I’ve really had to decide, ‘I choose to continue as a priest’ and this was because I felt the Lord still calling me to follow him, not necessarily because I felt I wanted to. Having said that, I thank God that I am still working as a priest today; I consider it the greatest privilege of my life.
I know that for those of you who are married it is the same. It is an ongoing commitment. We try to be faithful and we ask God to help us, which is why we make vows. Without vows I think it would be much easier to give in to the temptation to quit. Marriages and religious vocations don’t always work out, but we do our best to remain faithful; that’s all the Lord asks of us.
No matter what way of life we find ourselves in, married, single, or religious life, the Lord’s call to us to follow him continues in a very personal way. This call to enter into relationship with God, which is really what our faith is all about, is a very mysterious thing. I often think that it is amazing how many people still go to church at all, given the many excuses we could come up with not to. So what inspires people? It is of course the Holy Spirit of God speaking to each of us in our hearts, inviting us to come to worship God, to receive the Eucharist, to keep coming back even though we may often feel we could do better elsewhere.
I am reminded of an episode of the Simpsons where Homer, the main character, decides that he will not go to church this particular Sunday. He stays at home and has the best day of his life, while his wife and children do go to church, get caught in a snow storm, have to sit through an abysmally boring sermon and eventually get home exhausted. I laughed when I saw this because for many of us that can sometimes be our experience. There always seem to be more attractive things to do, even more worthwhile ways to spend Sunday, but the truth is that God keeps inviting us to try and be faithful, to keep coming back even though often little seems to happen. It requires a sacrifice on our part, even if it’s just a small sacrifice. But the Lord invites us to make that sacrifice just for him. It is one way we can show our love for God and each time we make the effort we are reminding ourselves that we are not the most important thing in the universe. We try always to put God first.
'Once the hand is set to the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'