Recently a close friend came to see me for spiritual conversation. He thought of me because I “introduced” him many years ago to a song that became a prayer and a north star for him, “Fill the World with Love.”
He once posted on Instagram a shot of an early morning scene with a caption from the song’s first stanza: “In the morning of my life I shall look to the sunrise, at that moment in my life when the world is new; and the blessing I shall ask only God can grant me; to be brave and strong and true, and to fill the world with love my whole life through.”
Then later, when he was doing his mid-day “examen” (an Ignatian prayer that reviews the events of the day to sense God’s presence and his direction for us), he experienced deep consolation as he recalled the early morning experience. It was the sunrise of an important stage in his life journey.
As he relished this moment of grace with great clarity and peace, he said, “The Lord was telling me in my heart and soul, ‘I will be favorable to you from here on.’”
What I heard struck me. I could not help but recall a moment in Ignatius’ life when he, with great clarity, received God’s confirmation of his mission. He had made his way to Rome to place himself and his small group of men, the first seven companions, at the disposal of the Pope.
As described by the New Orleans Jesuits: “At a chapel at La Storta, a few miles outside of Rome… God the Father told Ignatius, ‘I will be favorable to you in Rome’ and that he would place him (Ignatius) with His Son. Ignatius did not know what this experience meant, for it could mean persecution as well as success since Jesus experienced both. But he felt very comforted since, as St. Paul wrote, to be with Jesus even in persecution was success.”
On Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration, a turning point in Christ’s life, God the Father said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Such was the Father’s favor—Christ is the beloved son. And the shining, eternal proof of this favor is the power of the Cross and the Resurrection which lives on in the hearts, the souls, the stories of countless men and women who chose to follow the beloved son.
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the one and only way to follow Christ: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16: 24)
This is consistent with what we have been reflecting on: We will suffer for what we believe in; we will suffer if we have a dream to follow.
But this Sunday we go deeper into the why, the meaning and mission that come with suffering, which we see in Christ’s words: Deny self, take up our cross, follow him.
A reflective word on self-denial, one cannot deny what one does not know or possess. Similarly, one cannot give what one does not have. I think self-denial presumes a sense of self-possession and self-knowledge. Here we turn to another statement of Christ:
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22: 19) Christ asks us to follow him through, with and in the grace of the Eucharist.
The first stage is to “take,” what we referred to in past reflections as taking stock of things in our life and person, a self-possession through self-awareness and self-acceptance that lead to a sense of healing and coming to wholeness.
As we experience this, we move to the second stage, we give thanks.
Gratitude and self-denial
Gratitude is the only ground for genuine self-denial. Only a grateful heart that truly loves the self can genuinely deny the self. It’s born out of gratitude and thus lifts the human heart and soul to give back. Genuine love of self leads us to discovering the source of all love, Christ.
I e-mailed my friend who “heard” God’s confirmation (“I will be favorable to you from here on”) to ask how this experience has influenced his life.
His first response was it gave and continues to give him a sense of balance, equanimity.
But while it did not relieve him of stress and moments of instability, he found a “safe haven,” a home in which he opened up to God’s presence and movement in the moment.
Ultimately, this led him to surrender, “to let go and let God take over.”
Recently a journalist interviewed a friend of mine who has excelled in his career for years. The journalist asked me what I thought kept my friend at the top of his game.
Greater life through surrender
Without missing a beat I said my friend’s secret was that, at a certain point, he surrendered. There was something more meaningful that he still needed to do.
The operative word in today’s Gospel is not “deny” or “take up” but “follow”—to follow Christ.
Ignatius had one constant prayer in his life: “Place me with your son.” This was born out of a desire to see, to love and to follow Christ more in his life.
In La Storta his prayer was granted.