Tuesday, February 23, 2016

When Jesus Asks Too Much

There comes a point in the journey of discernment when Jesus asks too much.

During her lifetime, Mother Theresa was known for never, ever complaining about her sufferings. No matter what she went through, she refused to complain to God or to others about what God asked of her. Although she endured spiritual darkness and desolation that would make most people's existential angst seem like a walk in the park, she resolved to "refuse God nothing" and always "to smile at God" -- which meant that no matter what she was feeling, she would do whatever God seemed to require of her -- with a smile.

However, at the end of her life, her physical health broke down, causing her suffering to become physical as well as spiritual. One day, lying on her sick bed in intense physical pain and interior anguish, she said in a whisper to one of her sisters: "Jesus is asking...too much."

She didn't scream or cry or get mad. She simply stated a fact: she had endured much, and this was too hard. Too hard, too much, for too long. He asks too much of me.  

I think that everyone who discerns a vocation to consecrated life faces a moment like this, a moment when Jesus asks too much. A moment when you just can't face the mystery and uncertainty of it anymore. A moment where Jesus calls again, saying, "Put out into the deep," and all you want to do is curl up and be safe. Jesus says, "Follow me in the darkness," and you say, "I've had enough." Jesus says, "Take up your cross," and you say, "It's too heavy." Jesus says, "My grace is enough; I am sufficient for you," and you say, "No! I want arms of flesh around me, and I want a voice I can hear to comfort me, and I want light for my path so I know what you want me to do. This mystery, this trust in the darkness, this cloud of unknowing -- it's too much."

The Too-Much Moment reminds me of the death of Jesus. When Mother Theresa whispered that Jesus was asking too much, I hear an echo of Jesus' cry of abandonment from the Cross. It is the only time during the whole horrific ordeal of torture and crucifixion when Jesus seems to complain, as though it has gone too far. Even when Jesus expresses that what He is experiencing is unbearable, God does not appear to respond. Jesus is left alone on the Cross.

I see a similar pattern in the Too-Much experiences of discernment, my own and those of others. Discernment requires so much trust and faith and patience, and involves so much mystery, darkness, and uncertainty, that eventually, even the strongest of us hit a wall. We want things to be clear. We want to understand where we are going. We want to know what God's plan for us is, once and for all. We want to know what the future holds, where He is calling us, and what it will be like. And yet, it seems like God just continues to ask us to trust, follow, and wait, even to embrace the darkness and the uncertainty of it all. And at times, this will just feel like too much.

And yet, when we remain faithful in these moments that are too much, even if we do so kicking and screaming, even if we just spend the night wrestling with God and saying, "I refuse to let go until You bless me" -- it is out of these times of darkness that our vocation will truly begin to emerge. When we have thrown in our lot with God and we remain with Him even when we feel He has asked too much, that is when the real growth, the real self-understanding, occurs.

I think of Mary Magdalene. All of The Twelve except John deserted Jesus in His Passion; she remained at the foot of the Cross. Undoubtedly, in that moment, she thought that God had asked too much of her. Here was the One in whom she had placed all her hope, the One with whom she had thrown in her lot, the One who gave her life meaning and purpose, the One she followed, the One she had staked her life on. And He was dying! Her faithfulness in that time must have cost her a great deal, more than we can know.

John's Gospel tells how she came alone to mourn at the tomb. And out of her Too-Much experience, Jesus comes and meets her, calls her by name, and gives her a clear mission: go and proclaim that I live! Her life is transformed in that encounter, which springs up from the darkness of the Crucifixion. Her purpose, her identity, her direction and mission are confirmed and clear; the light of the Resurrected Christ has flooded her life.

In the journey of discerning your vocation, you will probably experience a moment where it is all too much, because of the nature of discernment -- all the trust and faith and mystery is very hard. And don't be surprised if it happens during Lent. I would encourage you to remain faithful in that experience, whether you cry, mourn, wrestle, or just be in it. You don't have to like it. But remain faithful. Don't give up, because from the Too-Much moments will come forth the light and clarity and the understanding of God's will that you long for. Mary Magdalene remained with Jesus in the greatest of all darkness, and afterwards, she was the first person to see her life through the lens of the Resurrected Christ.

"I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name."
Isaiah 45:3

Mother Theresa's story is paraphrased from the book Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brain Kolodiejchuk, MC.

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