I tell you solemnly: as a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will.”
As fall creeps over us once more, I think about the inevitable dénouements we face – the ends of things, summer, the season for garden tomatoes, cut flowers, balmy weather, long days. One thing becomes screamingly clear. Change is inevitable and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Youth, health, even life itself relentlessly pass with the same inevitability as the seasons. There is a time for laughing, and a time for weeping, for birth and death, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us.
For about 10 years I was privileged to have the job of visiting the local rehabilitation hospital in our parish. To the dozen or so patients I saw on each visit I brought the Eucharist, prayer, a smile and the most encouraging words I could muster.
Many of these patients seemed to me to be emotionally at rope’s end. It was moving – many were brought to tears when the Eucharist arrived at their hospital bed. But always something traveled along with me that I did not want to bring – dread of someday having to endure similar suffering.
When I walked out of the hospital toward the car into the sunshine and clear air with the strength of my own legs, I felt a shiver of relief: it was not (yet) me who was lying in that hospital immobilized and in pain.
I saw the cars whooshing by on the road outside, each perhaps on their way to some purposeful appointment, maybe on cell phones, totally engaged in this life and today’s projects. They had no idea what trials were taking place behind these walls.
A good friend once told me about a time when her mother-in-law moved, with deadly reluctance, to a nursing home. My friend had a vivid image of Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:18, as quoted above, about the foretelling of “the sort of death by which Peter was to glorify God.” Yet even without formal martyrdom, it is the human condition to progressively lose freedom, come smack up against the impossible, the unthinkable, the “anything but this!” moment – and probably more than one.
Our parish book group just read a wonderful little book, “Interior Freedom,” by Jacques Philippe, a primer on facing just such moments with a tad more lightness and grace.
The book’s premise is that even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances – from debilitating illness to prison camps – we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away because God is its source and guarantee.
While one should not seek suffering, Philippe points out that the most painful suffering is the suffering we reject, when, to the pain itself we add the angst of rebellion, resentment and upset.
As Etty Hillesum wrote in the diary she kept on her path toward death in the prison camp of Westerbork, “Man suffers most from his fear of suffering.” While no philosophy or theological argument can explain it completely, God can draw good out of even the most negative if only we ask for faith, hope and love.
St. Peter, with his Lord’s prediction of a horrible death hanging over him, went on to pour his lively energies into developing the early Christian community for over 30 years. As human and as fallible as he showed himself to be several times, he must have lived in the grace of each present moment as it comes from the hands of God.
As Philippe points out in perhaps the most comforting thought I, so prone to fear of future calamities, found in “Interior Freedom,” “To live today well, we should remember that God only asks for one thing at a time, never two.”
Almighty God, You have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses. Grant that we, encouraged by the example of Your servant, Peter, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with him attain to Your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
Joan Forde is a writer and member of Our Mother of Consolation Parish.