Monday, October 16, 2006

Not Yet Unto Blood

I wrote a while back that Our Lady “spoke” to me about the treasure of the heart when I was praying before her icon. Not long ago I had a similar experience, but in a different context, and with a somewhat more stern (though always loving) response.

The situation was that of a trial or temptation, though I don’t remember precisely what it was. But I was struggling with something, and in prayer I just sort of lifted my eyes to her with an inarticulate plea for help or deliverance. Again the response came, and as usual she replied in the words of Scripture, but these were words that I wasn’t exactly ready to hear: “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). Yikes! It wasn’t, “there, there, everything will be all right,” but it was more like, “stop complaining, you have not yet begun to fight!” I have to then reflect: did the Lord tell St Paul, for example, that He would smooth his path and preserve him from severe struggles? No, He said (to Ananias, about Paul): “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

Perhaps that is a message that we Christians who live in an affluent society ought to reflect upon more seriously. We would like our life in Christ to be not too demanding, but rather consoling—or at least not constantly yanking us out of our comfort zones! Millions of Christians face persecution or even death every day as part of their fidelity to Christ. But we would rather use our weakness as an excuse to be dispensed from the demands of the Gospel, instead of being spurred on to the limits of our endurance, whether it be in resistance to evil or laboring for righteousness’ sake. We would like to set boundaries around the extent of struggle we feel we can handle, and then struggle no further. We grow weary or fainthearted instead of looking to the example of Christ (Heb. 12:3). But we are shamed by the examples of the saints, those who really did shed their blood for Christ. I just read a historical novel on the life of St Francis Xavier (Set All Afire, by Louis de Wohl), who was a zealous missionary, converting many pagans in India and Japan in the 16th century. He didn’t die a martyr, but he did shed his blood, whether from enemy arrows or his barefoot treks to the far reaches of heathendom to baptize and preach the Gospel.

Perhaps in excusing ourselves for our lack of fervor or willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake—and for the keeping of his word, come what may—we may actually be setting a course for ourselves that gradually drifts away from the fullness of truth and life. I recently read this in Ephesians: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart… Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:17-24). What struck me most was the phrase, “alienated from the life of God.” That is the state of sin, a state which is brought about through ignorance, hardness of heart, and “corruption due to deceitful lusts.” When we do not resist evil, or do not labor for the Gospel, unto blood, that is, with our whole heart, mind, and strength, then we gradually slide into a state in which we are alienated from the life of God. For if He is not worth giving our all in the keeping of his commandments, then little by little He will not be worth much of anything to us—in actual fact, if not in our perfunctory confessions of faith.

In one sense, all this is to say that the little things count—the little victories, the little defeats. Our choice to fight temptation or to give in to it, to give of our best in service of the Lord or to “get by” with doing the minimum—all this reveals who we are and whether or not we are in fact alienated from the life of God. It seems to belong to fallen human nature to be rather forgetful, drowsy, and slothful regarding the demands of our higher commitments, and so we often need wake-up calls, proddings, exhortations to give a little more, fight a little harder, love more genuinely, think of ourselves less frequently.

So I thank the Mother of God for reminding me that I have not yet resisted unto blood, which means that there are untapped resources of grace within me, and the Lord expects me to make use of his every gift in order to manifest the glory and power of his Kingdom in my own little life, a life which nevertheless can have a “ripple effect” throughout the Body of Christ, making more grace available to all who desire to fight the good fight and be crowned in the Kingdom of Heaven. All efforts in service of the Lord, in witness of his truth and love, are worth it, as long as they are willed and guided by his Spirit. Christ sacrificed Himself unto blood, for He knew that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22), and now He calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Don’t paralyze your spiritual growth, however, by fear of what it costs. Just take the next step. As long as you keep moving toward Him, your eyes will not be on the cost, but on the reward.