“Whosoever shall follow Me…”

Guest Post by Fr. George Aquaro

Christianity is a struggle with one’s self.

Carrying the Cross, which Jesus demands we do, is a burdensome task.  If we ask what the Cross is, we receive the answer that it is all the hardships of life.  But we often forget to ask, “But, what is the meaning of having to carry the Cross?”

It means that we have to accept that we cannot escape our hardships by setting them down and ignoring them.  They must be carried because, in the end, they will ‘kill’ the experience of suffering by eventually overwhelming that which is ‘fallen’ and lead to a Divine  experience that brings about new life without such sorrows.

The Cross and its burdens are temporary, but lead to an eternity of joy and peace.

A way to understand carrying the Cross is ‘maturity.’  When we are young, existence throws many burdens on our shoulders: our minds, our bodies, our families, our societies, etc.  The world is mystifying and hard, yet as we get older we look back at the ‘stress’ of youth and laugh.  Why?  It is because we see the pettiness of youthful worries, and realize that there were much bigger causes for concern that we were blissfully unaware of.

At least, this is the message the old should give the young.

What we see today is the opposite, where the old tell the young that their youthful worries and fears are immanently real and to be taken with all seriousness.  The Cross of youthful sorrows, so they say, cannot be borne.  “You cannot handle these cares, so we will take them away!”

By accepting and teaching the premise that all difficulties and hardships must be avoided because they are destructive (because they are all the same according to that system of belief), then people who are taught this idea naturally refuse to carry their crosses.  They avoid all difficulties and instead live for pleasure.  Life becomes about consumption and desires.

But, that does not really make the fears go away.  They remain, nagging and tormenting at the fringes of consciousness.  They can only be avoided by increasing the magnitude of sensual experiences (eating, drinking, sex, materialism, etc.).

Many of those torments are focus on one’s dissatisfaction or even utter abhorrence with one’s self.  We feel inadequate, weak, ill-equipped, vulnerable, shameful, and broken.  Our failures remind us not only of these characteristics of ourselves, but our complete alienation from others.  We feel needy, but discover, much to our own horror, that no one needs us.

To be honest, many of these failings are not imagined or even unrealistically magnified by a lack of perspective.  Most are true, and some may be understated.

As someone who has struggled with deep and abiding character defects, I know what this has meant for me.  In my earlier days, I hid my cares, or hid from them.  But, the anxiety of being me was constant and inescapable.  I tried to compensate with what I thought were my strengths, but like a crutch for a man with a broken leg, such efforts never took away the underlying problem.

The problem has been me, and my Cross is about being me as I am.

By entering the Church and accepting the Gospel, I entered into an ‘oath’ of sorts.  While I believed that God was real and would save me from myself, I had to acknowledge that, just like a surgeon trying to save a patient, I was going to have to ‘hold still’ and cooperate with the process.  I was going to have to accept that I was going to have to be me.

That was a difficult proposition to accept, because I hated me and had plenty of witnesses around me who (even to this day) could testify as to what a terrible person I am.  I don’t feel like I have a mere thorn in the flesh, but instead I got the entire rose bush!

The Cross has meant accepting that I am all the terrible things I know about myself, and even more, and accepting all of the consequences for that.  At the same time, I know that I must not act according to that ‘brokenness.’  I have to do better.  I have to change.

Except that I can’t.  I don’t have the strength to change myself.  So, now we have the definition of the Cross, and the ‘death’ of the self.  It is a self-destructive path, which has only one redeeming feature: God promises that if I carry the Cross, that He will resurrect me without such burdens when death finally comes.

One may ask, “Well, since some of those hardships are your socially-unacceptable habits and desires, couldn’t society change and make you feel better by accepting you as you are?”  The answer is ‘no.’  Society exists so that humans can balance their needs.  If we let people do whatever they feel like, we will quickly have chaos.

Even the modern world demands limits to our desires.  We are told not to be racist, or sexist, or environmentally-irresponsible, or a host of other secularist ‘sins.’  To not do those things, we clearly need to deny ourselves what we desire.  The very world which says that the asceticism of Christianity is bad, because it makes people deny their desires, requires its own form of ascesis!

So, in reality, the world does not offer freedom from the Cross, but rather it replaces one Cross with another ‘cross,’ which it promises is lighter and easier.  The question then becomes, which is the better one to carry?

That all depends on what you hope to achieve.  The Cross of Christ leads to death of the self, which in turn leads to transformation and the experience of eternal beauty.  It means reconciliation with all mankind, and the healing of all wounds.  It means forgiveness.  It means we can be united with the Divine.

The ‘cross’ of the world means that death is the complete and utter end.  It means that all wounds are permanent.  It means that accepting the self is not really an option, so one can take whatever measures are necessary to avoid being one’s true self.

Go ahead, get that surgery or put on that outrageous outfit.  You are a mistake.  And, this ‘mistake’ has to fix itself.  The question then becomes this: if the mistake fixes its own mistakes, what are the chances that the mistake will make a mistake?

Then one is left broken all over again, but with a new burden.  If the goal was to change one’s self into an acceptable version, one is now even further away from the goal.

But, if one accepts the true Cross, the one given by God, then one enters into the path of maturity.  The mature person knows his or her defects and shortcomings, and is willing to admit them when pointed out.  There are no secrets, either from the world or one’s self.  When one fails to live up to what is good, then repentance offers a path to healing and recovery.

And, when the weight of the Cross seems like it is overwhelming, God promises help.  And, in the end, He offers Himself to us. The benefits outweigh the short-term ‘costs.’

What are the costs?  Humility, patience, kindness, tolerance, self-control.  They are not easy.  They are often attained through great hardship and even greater failure.  But, they are virtues, and virtues that even the world cannot utterly deny.

And, the greatest of all is love.  God loves us, so much so that He created us in His Image and Likeness, and through the Cross allows us to be like Him and be transformed, of our own free will, into an ever more perfected form of that Divinely-created humanity.

As we mature, we can receive that love, and share it with others.  By carrying the Cross, we repent and are filled with virtues that we distribute throughout our world.  And, in the end, we can come to accept ourselves as we are, and as God is leading us into truly being.

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