Sometimes in Life We Meet Our Destiny on the Road to Avoid It
My friend Carl has spent most of his adult life in prison. The offenses vary somewhat, but are the overall result of long term drug addiction and the consequences that go with it. It's a hard life and the fact that these consequences are self inflicted tends to add to the guilt and the remorse that comes with it.
I was Carl's chaplain when he was in jail, and I knew his mother. She was an impressive lady who stood by her son through thick and thin (and it was mostly pretty thin) during his many years of stumbling in and out of prison. When I met her, Carl was in his early 50's and she was nearly 80, but what she told me has stuck with me ever since, "God don't ever give up on nobody and no matter how old he is or how old I get, I won't ever give up on my Carl either. He's better than this. God knows it and so do I."
This was back in 2009. Carl knew his mother's health was failing and he knew what a blessing she had been in his life as well as how much pain he had caused her. Every birthday, holiday, and Mother's Day, Carl's mom always told him the same thing, "The only gift I want from you is that you get your life straightened out and live like God intends you to." In my talks with him in jail, he would cry as he told me how desperately he wanted to give his mother this gift and how much he wanted his own life back. "I'm tired, Chaplain Phil, just so tired," he would say, as the tears ran down his face and stained the front of his orange jumpsuit.
Carl got out of jail on probation and I helped him get into an intensive in-house drug treatment program that was operated by a local Baptist Church. It was a no nonsense approach with military like regimentation and harsh consequences for failure. Carl stumbled and started getting high again, and quickly found himself kicked out of the program and back out on the streets. He stole identity and used the stolen identity to steal money to buy drugs and quickly found himself back in jail. This time he ended up going back to prison for five years.
Carl and I exchanged a few letters after he went off to prison. Then I stopped hearing from him and we pretty much went our separate ways. Last December as I was preparing my prison Christmas card list, I noticed that Carl was entering the last year of his sentence and would be eligible for parole in early 2015. I decided it was time to check in with him, and wrote him a note inside the card that asked him to write me back and let me know how he was doing. I got a warm and gracious letter back from him, and we've been exchanging letters regularly ever since.
In this first letter from Carl, I received the sad but not totally unexpected news that his mother had passed away. He wasn't able to go to her funeral of course, and his grief was compounded and made more bitter by his own repeated failings, and he found himself confronted by who he was and what he had done with his life in a new and truly deeper way, and on a much more profound level. In the midst of this, he came to realize that he had hurt not only his mother, himself, and all of those in his life on earth who loved him but, and most importantly, he finally understood that he had hurt God as well. "I've been a Christian and talked about how much Jesus means to me for a long time," he wrote. "But for the first time in my life I realized just how much my selfishness and sin were responsible for him going to the cross -- that he was truly there because I put him there. It's like I've known Jesus all this time, but this is the first time I've truly encountered him. I know what that means now and I know that I have been running away from him for years when the truth is I can't do anything without him. Sometimes in life we meet our destiny on the road to avoid it."
This brings to mind the legend of Quo Vadis. In this story, St. Peter is fleeing the persecution of Nero in Rome when he meets Jesus carrying His Cross and walking in the opposite direction. Peter asks, "Domine quo vadis?" (Lord, where are you going?). Jesus replies, "Romam vado iterum crucifigi" (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). Peter is shamed by this and through this encounter gains the courage to go back to Rome and face his own crucifixion, being crucified upside down as he proclaims himself unworthy to be crucified in the same position as our Lord was. He did indeed meet his destiny on the road to avoid it.
Another example of this is St. Paul. Though he may not have been aware that he was on the road to Damascus to avoid the destiny Christ had in mind for him, it would become painfully obvious in the incident in which he would encounter our risen Lord in person. And, like Peter, when he came to understand the truth and embrace this destiny, he became a most powerful witness to our Christian faith, and the greatest evangelist the Church has ever had. The power and beauty of his words in the New Testament means that St. Paul will likely win more converts to Christ today than the rest of us postmodern Christians combined. And he has done this daily for the better part of two thousand years.
Along with the legend of Quo Vadis is another story that tradition has preserved for us in The Acts of Peter and Paul. St. Paul, who traveled to Rome so as to confront the Jews and Nero who would have him put to death, preached Christ with such eloquence that Nero's wife and many other high ranking Romans were converted. St. Peter in turn confronts and defeats the sorcerer Simon Magus, who was favored and extolled by Nero as a god. These two giants of the Church, her first pope and her greatest evangelist, the former who had denied Christ and ran from his destiny, and the latter who had persecuted the Lord's disciples unto death and so pursued a destiny of evil, met their true destinies as men of God executed in Rome for their witness to the faith. And so Peter was crucified upside down and so Paul was beheaded. St. Peter's Basilica is built over the site of an earlier church that was built to mark the place of Peter's death and burial. And there is the church of St. Paul at the Three Fountains on the site where Paul was beheaded along the Ostesian road. Because they met their deaths together, Sts. Peter and Paul share the same Feast Day in the Church on the traditional day that commemorates when this occurred, which is June 29.
If two such giants of the faith as Peter and Paul could meet their destiny on the road to avoid it, that puts Carl and the rest of us in some pretty good company. And what they did was exactly what we all need to do: they put their own free will in tune with the will of God. They followed the example of Gethsemane and based their lives and deaths upon the prayer "...not my will but yours be done."
God gives us free will to wander about the world in sin and does so that we may choose, of our own accord, to give this free will back to Him and make it His again so that He may save us. Jesus was not forced to go to the Cross. He chose to do so by making His will that of the Father. In fact, given the cruelty, pain and horror of His Passion, it is easy to see why He would also pray, "Take this cup from me." That Jesus would give His life over to the suffering and death of the Cross knowing full well what was coming means that we should be deeply humbled in knowing that God expects us to give Him our free will so that He might bless us with eternal life. The cross He gives each of us to bear is nothing compared to the Cross He took up for us so that we might have this privilege of following Him into eternity. This is what Jesus meant when He said to us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He has taken the burden of the sins of the world upon Himself, and in turn burdens us with only so much as we need so as to know what it is that God has done for us.
Our burden becomes unbearable only when we take these same sins of the world upon our own shoulders and find that this is a cross we cannot carry. We are crushed by its weight and at the moment we can go no further, Jesus comes to us as Simon of Cyrene was sent to Him, and He takes the burden of the cross of our sins upon Himself. And not only does He carry it for us, He has Himself hung upon it in our place. This is why each of us must come to know his own self as that disciple whom Jesus loves, and follow Him to the Cross so as to experience what He has done for us. It is not His Cross that He hangs upon at Calvary: it is ours.
Blessed are we when, like Sts. Peter and Paul, we head down the road of our own self chosen destiny in the opposite direction of where God would have us go and, in this process, we encounter the risen Jesus Who redirects our lives. How blessed are we when like Paul, Jesus knocks us from our high horse and blinds us to the world so that He may open our eyes to the sin within us that destroys us. How blessed are we when like Peter, we encounter Jesus as we run from that which God would have us do and we find Him again carrying our cross so as to once again be crucified in our place.
In John 8:21 Jesus says to His disciples, "I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come." Ironically, it is when we encounter the risen Christ on that road that leads away from Him that He exposes our sins to us and removes this restriction contingent upon our repentance. And when it is removed, we find ourselves invited to come and follow Him to that place where He is going, and in which we will live with Him forever.
As Catholic Christians in a world that has come to embrace a new paganism that rivals that of Nero's Rome, and proves this by persecuting Christians at a pace that ancient Rome would envy, it is tempting to turn and run from our responsibilities to proclaim the gospel of life, religious liberty, and God's plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the face of such growing and intensifying persecution, and on the road to avoid our destiny, we so encounter our Lord and ask: "Domine Quo Vadis?" (Lord, where are you going?). His response to us is as it was to Peter, "Romam vado iterum crucifigi" (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). And we would do well to accept His invitation in Matthew 16:24, "Et tollat crucem suam et sequatur me" (Take up your cross and follow me).
And as the person of St. Peter always prophetically represents the papacy descended from him, the hierarchy of the Church must also consider the dangers of downplaying the evil of sin in our world, and practicing a politics of appeasement in such a way as to shrug and say, "Who am I to judge?" To deny the role of moral arbiter, and to cease to proclaim Christ as the sole source of the salvation of the world and all her people, is to desert the Church's responsibility to the world, and those who do this must expect to encounter the Lord Himself, reinserting Himself in history and rectifying this in person. And Revelation tells us this is anything but a journey to Rome to be crucified again.
Carl is right: "Sometimes in life we meet our destiny on the road to avoid it." And when we look at the world around us, we realize that Carl's mother was right also. Like Carl, we're better than this. And God knows it. And the only gift He wants from us is to get our lives straightened out and live as He intends us to.
Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.
All Biblical quotes from The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.