Before I went to kindergarten, I knew God. My parents taught me to say my prayers every night, to attend Mass every Sunday and to seek out God in the best and worst of times. I was almost four years old the first time my family gathered in the living room to pray. My uncle lay in the hospital fighting pneumonia, a tough battle before penicillin became available. Uncle Gee’s severely curved spine complicated matters because he simply couldn’t breathe as deeply as the rest of us. When his prognosis dimmed, we adjusted our prayer. Rather than praying for his speedy recovery, we prayed for my dear uncle’s happy death. A few days later, my dad assured us all that Uncle Gee happily embraced his new home in heaven where he enjoyed perfect health and happiness. Little as I was, I thanked God as best I could for my uncle’s good fortune.
By the time I began second grade, it was my dad who received the dim prognosis. Because he continued to work and both he and my mom kept things as normal as possible around the house, my dad’s last year went rather well. This is the year I received First Communion, so I became immersed in pursuing a relationship with Jesus himself. I liked what I learned about him. Jesus took care of everyone he met, and even after dying on the cross, he continues to take care of us. This was the perfect lesson for a little girl who’d soon lose her dad. I’m certain my mom’s demeanor, her gentleness toward my father and her amazing faith helped me along. I’m also certain that my conviction regarding God’s deep concern in all of this also pulled me through. Many a night after my dad passed away, I prayed tearfully to thank God that my dad was well. I always added that I missed my dad terribly.
This conversation between God and me continued through elementary school and my family’s move to a new neighborhood when I began seventh grade. Though our dear Lord never actually spoke a word to me, I always knew deep down that I had a great ally in God. During those emotionally devastating teen years, I sometimes ran the other way. Yet God persisted in touching my heart with encouragement and love. When all else failed and I felt abandoned by the people who should have cared most for me, I held onto my belief that God remained at my side.
I’m happy to share that I enjoyed high school and college far more than I might have because God persisted in shadowing me through those around me, some great authors and a renewed church. I began working at age sixteen and often had to rush from school to make it to my job. Though I ran twenty-four/seven to keep up with my studies, work, life at home and a boyfriend or two, I continued to make time for Mass. I had great reverence for the Latin hymns and prayers that characterized my childhood worship. Still, the opportunity to celebrate Mass in English thrilled me. During the week, I often attended noon Mass at the college chapel because this energized me for what lay ahead. Though lots of tough times and tragedy punctuated my high school and college years, I emerged with my inner peace intact because I held onto the relationship with God that began so long ago.
I’m sharing all of this because I don’t want you to be misled by the tone of today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21-27). When Jesus began to prepare his friends for the inevitable suffering that would take Jesus from their midst, Peter pulled Jesus aside. The last thing Peter wanted to hear was that Jesus was going to suffer and he told Jesus as much. Jesus returned poor Peter’s concern by scolding, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle to me.” Jesus went on to insist that anyone who wished to follow him must take up a cross and lose his or her life in order to find what matters most.
While all of this is true, I join Peter in reminding you that, in spite of his failures, my failures and your own, Jesus never abandons any one of us. Though we sometimes try to refuse our crosses, Jesus helps us to carry them just the same. Though we sometimes ignore God’s presence, God never abandons us. Jesus asks only that we allow God to be a part of our lives. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our joy is exponentially greater. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, our sorrows are lighter to bear. Though his words seem harsh, Jesus’ message to Peter, to you and to me is steeped in absolute love.
©2014 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved