On July 1, 1993, on the eve of my laminectomy for an L4-L5 herniated disc, I smoked my last cigarette, seated on the ledge of the window in my hospital room. Since then, I have had no compelling desire to pick up the vice again after close to 22 years of enjoying it, a pack a day. I went cold turkey.
This scene came back to me vividly as I mulled over this Sunday’s readings on Elisha’s story, leaving everything behind and following Elijah the very first time they meet, and becoming Elijah’s successor as a great prophet.
Paul proclaims his freedom from the slavery of sin because of Christ, and uses this freedom for service. Paul, who also changes course midway, becomes one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists.
With these as introductions, Christ then issues the call to follow him, cold turkey—no fuss, drop things and get on to mission right away.
This Sunday’s Gospel is probably one of the most straightforward Gospels on the call to discipleship. It comes after last Sunday’s dramatic exchange between Christ and his disciples, and then a succession of dramatic events, which include two predictions of his Passion and the Transfiguration. Today’s Gospel opens with: “He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” You cannot get more emphatic than that.
Christ moves to his final destination, the end of the journey in his mission on earth. He makes his way to Jerusalem, the City of Destiny where he is to fulfill his mission to die on the Cross and to be raised up by his Father.
Elisha, Paul and Christ’s “demands” for discipleship show us one central grace of a follower of Christ, of a Christian—freedom, the spiritual freedom that allows us to follow Christ, cold turkey, yet with undramatic passion and devotion.
Recently, I have been dealing with the mystery of aging and dying. Ministering to aging relatives and friends, accompanying them in their spiritual journey through old age and mortality, then confronting death, one of the blessings I saw was a deeper appreciation of devotion.
A deeper meaning of devotion
The word “devotion,” especially in a spiritual sense, connotes a tradition of the observance of novenas and other devotional practices and prayers in which the Mass and the rosary are often included, and are on top of the list.
Devotion assumed a deeper meaning for me as I saw and accompanied people who brought home their loved ones to Christ in the mystery of death. It was devotion to the departed loved one; a devotion to the Blessed Mother through the rosary; a devotion to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, the central mystery of our faith, in and through the Mass.
This devotion, rather than a sign of superstitious or fanatic faith, is an act of freedom in love. It is an expression of a deep love for the departed loved one brought home to the love of Christ and the Father.
It is with a freedom of love with no frills, cold turkey, that we offer back a loved one to God. There is pain, yes, but it’s meaningful because God’s love is far greater than our love.
Devotion to a loved one leads us to the depths of human pain in death, and there we meet the divine devotion—God’s love for us that overcomes sin and even death, the love that is the greatest of all freedoms.
This is why Christ asks his disciples to follow him, cold turkey, without any hesitation or reservation. At times, such “demands” seem to trivialize human drama—“Lord, let me go first and bury my father”; “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home”—to which Christ responds, “Let the dead bury their dead.” And this: “No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
But human drama sometimes needs to be “trivialized” to allow the divine reality to unfold. As Fr. James Martin, SJ, put it, human despair meets divine hope. In this sense, we leave the realm of the human, cold turkey, and with greater freedom, open our lives to divine grace.
Twenty-three years ago on July 1, I gave up smoking, cold turkey. Yes, because of the health hazards, and also because I was leaving for studies and I knew cigarettes would be a burden to my student budget.
I was newly ordained then, just over three months, and going back to my first love, or close to it, taking up my masters to go back to high school work. A whole new life was opened to me and, cold turkey, in my own simple way, I wanted to take the path “resolutely determined” to follow Christ and, in following him, “help the youth of the high school discover Christ in their life.”
Sometimes, we need to do things cold turkey to make us “resolutely determined” in our journey to follow Christ.