Last Sunday Jesus proclaimed, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The words “deny himself” have really been sticking with me throughout this week. Those words are contrary to what my life a few years ago seemed to express. In the past I had adopted the notion that in life you got to take care of “number one”. Pursue those personal desires and achieve happiness. The purpose seemed clear and easy enough to accomplish.
Or so I thought…
In my first years of college it would seem I was doing alright in this pursuit of happiness. I could act like a “service doing, church praying Catholic boy” in the day and receive approval and acceptance. I could act like a “booze seeking, lady chasing boy” in the night and receive approval and acceptance. That was until I realized I was, quite frankly, a “sell out”. I had been pursuing happiness through a dependence on being accepted by others. I was darn good at conforming and I was darn good at convincing my peers I was someone I was not. In a crowded room filled with people who had their own purpose I felt alone. It was as if I did not have an identity. This did not make me happy. The purpose of my life was not as clear or as easy to achieve as I had once believed.
(Side note: From the second reading this past Sunday Romans 12:2, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”)
During those nights in college I started to develop a pretty strange habit. I would often come home, sometime after midnight, never quite ready to go to bed. In my unfulfilled state, I would start my favorite movie, “Gladiator”. Now, anyone who has seen this movie knows it is not the best movie for two in the morning. A 171 minute drama that is filled with blood and guts is not the go-to option at that time of night. My roommates loved giving me a hard time for this. I didn’t care. The movie is phenomenal. Russell Crowe plays the role of the Roman general named Maximus who, through no fault of his own, experiences all that gives him hope torn away from him. Seeing Maximus avenging his family, defying all odds, and leading men into battle always got me fired up before passing out. This little habit revealed something about myself.
There is something about having a convicted purpose that speaks to our humanity. A priest once spoke to me in Confession about this conviction. He explained how in the old days men would feed this conviction by going on the great hunt to provide for their families. These men provided for others by accomplishing a mission. Today, not too many men have to go on any sort of “great hunt”. Many college students (like I did) fulfill these desires through a night out drinking. Instead of hunting wildebeest, college students are hunting the next drink or the next high. Instead of gathering around a campfire with battle wounds telling tales of heroism the modern college student gathers around the breakfast table with their headaches telling their own tales (which are not exactly heroic). The sins that I was committing were rooted in a desire that was meant for something greater.
St. Augustine claims that evil is a privation of good (Confessions, Book II). Evil is a lack of truly existing. According to Augustine, evil is a title for how far a human has turned from unity with God. He seems to say that sin is an incomplete attempt to be like God. In examining my life I have noticed that every vice I have has a countering virtue; every virtue a countering vice. My convicted purpose to have fun and make myself happy was unfulfilling because the Lord has a different purpose for humanity.
That purpose: to “take up your cross” to “lose your life for (Christ) sake.” I needed a battlefield. I needed a fulfilling mission. I needed a true purpose. I began to get rid of (or “lose”) my desires that kept me from the Lord’s saving grace. I committed myself to a prayer life; to a sacramental life. I started leading my own Bible studies. I found peace and experienced His love in the Eucharist. I found hope and received His grace in Confession. I enlisted myself in the Lord’s army.
“To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth, that is not living, but existing.” – Pier Giorgio Frassati
“My name is Benjamin Ralph Berning. Disciple of Jesus Christ. FOCUS missionary for the University of Minnesota Duluth. Loyal servant to the true Lord and savior. And I will suffer greatly in this life so that I may be with Him in the next.”
That is my only identity. That is my only mission. That is my only true purpose. I am here to know God, I am here to love God, and I am here to serve God. Join me.
Our brothers and sisters need us. Listen to what Jesus ask of you in the Gospel. Enlist in His army. If a family member didn’t console me. If a friend didn’t invite me to a Bible study. If a FOCUS missionary didn’t mentor me. If a priest didn’t hear my confession. I would still be chasing empty promises. Be His servant, be His servant so that you can be there for Christ to help the lost. Doing this gives us a purpose and a significant one at that. That purpose is not found if we do not first “deny (our)selves”. You are made for a relationship with Jesus Christ. He wants you. He loves you.
“Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45)