The only thing better than seeing a long lost friend is catching up on the twists and turns of your lives. Last night, I happily was able to speak with a friend after almost two years of radio silence. As often happens when two 20-somethings begin chit-chatting after a long hiatus, our conversation turned to careers, romance, and life goals. Or, the stagnation of all of the above.
While discussing other friends having children, my friend confessed a reservation about future family life that, I think, is common amongst people in their twenties for both single and married: once you have children life as you know it is over.
Extrapolated, the usual worry becomes once life is over goals will fall by the wayside unachieved and life experiences will become mere figments of the imagination. Which all begs the question, for whom do we run the race? St. Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 4:7),
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Obviously, this is far too broad a question to answer in a simple article, but a few thoughts and questions might narrow it down enough to make things a bit clearer. This question of who we are running for is all the more important in this season of Lent as a time of sacrifice and penance.
So, goals, family, careers, travel, and the many worthy things life has to offer. Where should the focus be? Is there a right answer? None of these things are intrinsically evil and each, in the right context, can be wonderfully good for ourselves and others. Often, we rank these in some order of priority.
Perhaps, the order is based desire, a hoped for sense of accomplishment, time or money constraints, or what we feel called to do or become. In each, however, is a priority of self. What do I want? How do I wish to spend my life? Where do I want to be in five years?
St. Thomas a Kempis wrote the following in The Imitation of Christ and it is worth quoting at length.
CHRIST: My child, if you desire true happiness, then I must be the ultimate goal of all your works. Too often your affections are inclined toward yourself and other creatures; direct them toward Me, and they will be purified.
If you set yourself as the end of your work, you will soon lose heart and become dry. Refer all things to Me, for I have given all. Consider all as flowing forth from My sovereign goodness, and return all things to Me, as to their source…If heavenly grace and true charity enter into your heart, there will be no room for envy, no narrowness of heart, nor will self-love rule in you. For the Charity of God overcomes all and will expand and set on fire the powers of your soul. –Book 3, Chapter 9
In a phrase, we are to die to self. The world compels us to constantly be looking to our own interests to the point we seem to collapse in upon ourselves and all else fades. Instead, God calls to put our trust in Him in every life path. Trusting God includes times when we have difficult decisions, the days where our future seems lost in a fog, and especially the days when we simply do not know what to do. Offer every struggle and joy to God.
Trusting in the Lord is scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your path.” Or, Matt 6: 25-34’s exhortation to not be anxious and to ‘seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.’ Our race is run for Christ and the promise of Heaven.
With Easter only a few weeks away, it is important to remember what this time is for in our relationship with God. When we abstain and sacrifice, we are given a variety of spiritual benefits. Removing distractions, focusing our attention on our call to holiness (Catechism 2012-2016) and, for the race, we are able to more clearly see that God and Heaven is our ultimate goal.
All things pass but we often forget this in our day to day lives. Work, family obligations and joys, tragedy, and daily annoyances push God away from the forefront of our thoughts. St. Teresa of Avila discusses the difficulties of abandoning worldly loves for God in the initial stages of the spiritual life where we are beginning to die to self and recognize our great need for God and spiritual growth.
But it is a very great mercy that they should contrive to escape from the snakes and other poisonous creatures [worldly goods and sin], if only for short periods and should realize that it is good to flee from them. In some ways, these souls have a much harder time than those in the first Mansions;…I say they have a harder time because the souls in the first Mansions are, as it were, not only dumb, but can hear nothing, and so it is not such a trial to them to be unable to speak…These souls, then can understand the Lord when He calls them. –The Interior Castle
For myself, despite sometimes forgetting my race is for Heaven, my greatest struggle is patience in God’s timing. Trusting in God is not only having faith that God’s will directs me to the greatest good, because He is goodness itself, but trusting all will happen in the fullness of time. My heart tells me I trust God, but my mind tells me God should know I trust Him so He should get me where I need to be now. That is not trust but my own desire for events to unfold according to my will.
Preparation for what God has in store for us, then, is the name of the game. For example, I am single but I am not waiting for a woman to call me to become a better man. I must begin now to become the man my future wife deserves.
So it is with Christ. We cannot wait for the twilight of life to prepare for death or the beginning of Holy Week to get ourselves ready for Easter. Fasting, abstaining, penances, and the like are nothing but vainglory if their purpose is not to draw closer to Christ, and they mean little when thrown in half halfheartedly at the end of Lent. We do not want to look back, years ahead, and discover the path we have been running no longer looks the same as it once did and the destination is a worldly dead end.
This race can be a great struggle, but Gal 2:20 reminds us, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons echoes a similar sentiment in his Against Heresies (189 AD).
This able wrestler [St. Paul], exhorts us to the struggle for the immortality, that we may be crowned, and may deem the crown precious, namely, what is acquired by our struggle, but which does not encircle us of its own accord. And the harder we strive, the more valuable it is; the more valuable it is, so much more should we esteem it. And indeed things that come spontaneously are not esteemed as highly, as those that are reached by much anxious care.