Ten years ago I was wrapping up my process of what is more popularly known as midlife crisis. This was a two-year journey that started in 1999.
The term or the phenomenon “midlife crisis” was coined in 1965 by Eliott Jaques to describe “a period of dramatic self-doubt… triggered by transitions experienced. The result may be a desire to make significant changes in the core aspects of day-to-day life or situation.”
Although some have questioned the phenomenon, I think it is safe to say that we do come to certain points in our life when we stop, step back and reassess, to put it simply.
In one of my last re-integration or synthesis sessions with my spiritual director, the late Fr. Benny Calpotura, S.J., he told me something which I think has influenced my life since then and guided many moments of key decisions thereafter.
“You now come to a point of a very important choice, maybe the most important choice. You need to choose whether you will enter the core of your relationship with Christ or stay in the periphery,” he told me.
We both kept quiet for a while. I felt a tinge of warm energy flowing through my entire body. Then Fr. Benny continued, “Some choose to stay in the periphery and never really live life to the full. But when you choose to enter the core of your relationship with Christ, it is always entering the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection.”
The mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, the Paschal Mystery, the central mystery of our Christian faith: This is the mystery—or the invitation—that confronts us in this Sunday’s Gospel. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Denying the self is very often associated with penance and sacrifice. I fully agree with this, and even as a teacher, I believe self-denial and sacrifice are important virtues young people must and can positively embrace. In the ‘90s, this was known as delayed gratification, as popularized by the emotional intelligence framework. Another way of looking at it is through Nietzsche’s famous line, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
My belief in this important stage in the development and formation of a person, I must admit, has evolved. As a young teacher fresh out of college, I saw this from both a very romantic and macho way, a you-and-me-against-the-world attitude that makes one bear whatever pain there is and, with steely resolve, gets things done.
Later on, as a principal, I became more tempered. My view still carried a sense of toughness, since I handled an all-boys’ high school, balanced by care and compassion. It became clearer to me that self-denial and sacrifice done out of love is the only way to do it for the healthy development and formation of a person. Otherwise, you end up developing or forming dysfunctional people.
After years of priestly ministry, I have come to see this self-denial as very much part of the Eucharist. To deny oneself, one must know and possess oneself; one must be aware of who one is, and as I would say, why one is—our favorite terms, identity and mission. It is only then that one can “deny” oneself and offer. One cannot give and offer what one does not have. A healthy sense of self-possession is what allows the denying of oneself that the Lord talks about in the Gospel.
The choice to enter the core of our relationship with Christ is this moment of denying oneself and taking up our cross.
Without glossing over the liberating grace of the pain and suffering that comes with taking up our cross, allow me to view this from a more holistic perspective. Let me back track to the self-possession necessary to get to denying of oneself.
In my seminars and retreats, I always point out the danger of spiritualizing. How often have we gone on retreats and experience a spiritual high? Then, when we get to the realities of the day-to-day, we soon see the high disappear. This is why there is wisdom in dealing with the psychological issues first, and then bringing oneself to prayer. I often team up with a psycho-therapist who processes the person first, and when the realm of the spiritual is ripe to address, the psycho-therapist asks me to come in for spirituality and prayer.
I went to one of them myself for burnout therapy back in the early 90s. He told me, “Our role as therapists is to make you aware of what is going on in your life, especially the obstacles to grace in your life. In my 15 years as therapist, I am convinced that unless the grace comes, the healing will not take place. But you will have to decide to clear the obstacles to grace in your life.”
The denying of self and the taking up of one’s cross come after awareness of what is going on in our life, seeing the obstacles to grace in our life, and, most importantly, getting a glimpse of the meaning, the mission in our life. That moment can bring us back to our authentic self, the authentic self that has been covered up by roles we needed to play, expectations we needed to meet, other people’s dreams we needed to live out, traumas that gripped us in fear. We can go on and on with our list of experiences that help draw us away from our authentic selves.
Then when the “crisis” comes, we say, “stop!” and, pardon the “irreverence,” “What the hell am I doing?!” There is that yearning to go back to our authentic self, to listen to the “voice that calls within”: Follow me.
Let me end with excerpts from a song and a poem. This song, “Pilgrim’s Theme,” music by Fr. Manoling Francsico, S.J. and lyrics by Fr. Johnny Go, S.J., is standard fare in all my seminars and retreats. It tells of the story of St. Francis Xavier. It is the story of our journey: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Tired of weaving dreams too loose for me to wear.
Tired of watching clouds repeat their dance on air.
Tired of getting tied to doing what’s required.
Is life for me routine in the greater scheme of things?
Through with taking roads someone else designed.
Through with chasing stars that soon forget to shine.
Through with going through one more day, what’s new?
Does my life still mean a thing in the greater scheme of things?
I think I’ll follow the voice that calls within.
Dance to the silent song it sings.
I hope to find my place, so my life will fall in place.
I know in time I’ll find my place in the greater scheme of things.
Over a year ago, I was invited to give a seminar by Moonyeen Singson, who passed away less than two months ago. She had battled the big C for years, but in this “crisis” she slowly rediscovered her authentic self. With her family, she put up the Field of Faith sanctuary in Calauan, Laguna, where we had the seminar. It is a beautiful, peaceful place for prayer, solitude and rediscovering the authentic self.
I played “Pilgrim’s Theme” during the seminar and, this, I was told by her daughter recently, started a new stage in Moonyeen’s journey. Soon after, she came across a poem by Derek Walcott, “Love After Love.” This captured the core of Moonyeen’s journey and her discovering, or re-discovering, “her essence and her God.” This is also our journey—our essence and our God.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger
who was your self
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger
who had loved you all your life . . .
Sit. Feast on your life.
(With gratitude to Moonyeen Singson and her family)