Little deaths and little resurrections

“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

These words we spoke as we genuflected at each Station of the Cross. After bundling up to shield ourselves from the cold with our toques, gloves, and boots, we retreatants transitioned from the indoors of the Mount Saint Francis Retreat Centre into the frosty air of the cool outdoors on the outskirts of Cochrane, Alberta.

Passing a white statue of Saint Francis camouflaged in the snow, we then stood at the base of the mount at the First Station. According to this source: “The Stations of the Cross are an ancient form of Christian devotion. They were originally observed by pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and were popularized by the Franciscans when they were given custody of the holy sites in Jerusalem in the 14th Century.”

At each Station, one of us would read a reflection. One knee bended in the snow, the front of the bottom of our jeans became dampened by the cold wetness. Soon, the bitterness of the cold was becoming sweet as we yearned for some slight discomfort that we might unite our discomfort, however pathetic, to the sorrow of Christ, to his friends, and to his Mother.

The last time that I had participated in the Stations of the Cross was in Mexico on Good Friday. This weekend, I was participating in the Stations in wintry Cochrane at a Fransciscan retreat Centre. I reflected on the continuity of this practice, the consistency of the devotion. Across time, cultures, and weather, the ritual remains.

Our ascent up the mount was simultaneously a descent into the humility of Christ’s passion. I gazed up at the trees that were beautifully covered in snow. Every branch was coated perfectly. Some of the statues were covered with snow. Brushing the snow aside from the faces of statues, we sought to uncover the mystery of the characters who were there with Christ when he carried the cross. We could taste the crispness in the air. The sky was white. We did the stations of the cross, uniting our own suffering to the suffering of Christ. Journeying through this ritual affirmed the smallness of our anxieties compared to the ultimate sacrifice of love made by Christ. The final reflection called us to reflect on how the Christian life is a journey of little deaths and little resurrections. We humbly imitate the salvation story through our lives. Even in the face of profound sorrow, there always remains the hope of immense joy.

This weekend I was on a retreat for youth ministers who serve on the Diocesan Youth Retreat Team. We lead retreats for students of the Calgary Catholic School District and also facilitate retreats through the parishes for sacramental preparation in the diocese.

On Sunday morning, youth minister Michael Chiasson gave an excellent talk. He spoke the topic of anxiety. “Google this word,” he says, “And there will appear 172,000,000 results in 0.18 seconds.” He proceeded to discuss how God brings us in over our heads so that when we get through things, we will look back and know that we didn’t do it by ourselves.

Throughout his talk, I though about two quotations almost in such a way that the first became like a question to which the second served as the answer:

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Søren Kierkegaard
“Peace is the tranquility of order.” – Saint Augustine

We love our liberty, yet we resent anxiety. Peace is perhaps the love of liberty along with the recognition that this liberty includes the anxiety of responsibility for the fruits of our freedom, for our choices.

Hannah Arendt eloquently says, “Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity. ”

As Augustine understood that “peace is the tranquility of order” which includes disorder, so Arendt understands that liberty is the the tranquility of freedom, including necessity.

It seems reasonable that the desire for liberty, like the desires for knowledge, perfection, etc. cannot be achieved in their fullness in this life. Why, then, should liberty be different? This does not diminish the goodness of liberty, but disposes us to seek moderation even in its pursuit and its defense. Could it be that extremism in the defense of liberty is, in fact, a vice? Libertarians can and will busy themselves their whole lives long seeking liberty. Liberty without limits is boundless, but it is also meaningless. Chesterton said that the liberty of which he chiefly cares is the liberty to bind himself. Socrates said that all that he knew was that he was ignorant. The paradoxical truth seems to be that it is the nature of our liberty to be limited.

In thinking about the relationship between liberty and responsibility and between volition and action, I have been reflecting on this passage in scripture:

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6

According to the Gospel of John, the man who Jesus came upon in Jerusalem had been ill for thirty-eight years. That is a really long time. If you have been in any state for such a length of time, I too would wonder if you are not simply desiring to maintain it. And so Jesus asks the sick man if he wants to be made well. This is a very interesting aspect of the story and one that we can easily forget.

A friend of mine recently shared one of his favorite non-biblical verses and that is the oft-repeated saying: “God helps those who help themselves.”

Is not the story of the man who is asked if he wants to be made well a sort of variation of this saying though? If the man did not want to be made well, Christ could have still healed him since he can do anything, but I doubt that he would have.

When I was a child, I was very curious about one part of the Mass. We would say, “Lord and I not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed!” I would tug on my mother’s shirt and ask her, “What’s the word?” I thought that there was some magic word that we should say to be healed and then she answered me, “The word is: ‘I want to be healed!'”

Too easy, I thought. Is that really all it takes?

Sometimes it seems that instead of wanting to be made well, which requires some work on our part, we would rather that others be made worse. That would be a much easier solution.

Why do people like watching reality television? Recently at the Mustard Seed, after the vice-presidential debate, the show that came on television was Beyond Scared Straight. “The series follows at-risk teens who have been in trouble for everything from fighting, theft, and drugs to promiscuity, gambling and gang-relations. They are forced to spend a day in jail, interact with convicted felons and truly experience what a life behind bars is like. In the end, some change for the better, but for others, nothing changes at all.”

With my Mustard Seed friends, I debriefed this. One resident, with whom I disagree on almost all things political said, “For once I agree with Amanda. This show is exploitative.” What does it say about the state of our culture or even human nature that this show is so succussful and that people delight in the suffering of others?

To whom do you think this type of show appeals? I asked.

“Middle class Americans.”

“Why is that?” I wondered aloud.

Both of us answered nearly in unison that it is because those who view it watch and say with satisfaction, “My life is not that bad.”

As we lead our lives, we find peace when we get glimpses of the fullness of reality as consisting of liberty and limits, healing and vulnerability, order and disorder. Will we be among those who sit on couches watching reality television and delighting in the suffering of others?Will we be like Simon and emerge from a crowd to help strangers and friends to carry their crosses? Perhaps there is a time for all of these activities, in our lives that ever consist of little deaths and little resurrections.