It’s been a trying time lately in the parish.
It seems every time I blink there is either a new disease afflicting a family in our community- physical or spiritual- or worse, a new life challenge that is putting strain on an individual’s spirituality. Questions about relationships, people shaping the outlook of their lives, etc. all of which necessitate speaking or visiting with their priest, and having him lead them in prayer.
To be sure, this is why the Church- and everyone in her, clergy and laity alike- exist, that is, to help one another and to be a place of healing. I knew what I was signing up for, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love feeling like I’m making a difference of some kind, or, more accurately, God is making a difference through me, a broken vessel.
Recently, after listening to a young man going through significant struggles in his own life, I found myself offering a simple piece of advice which I give quite often. That is, God does not afflict us with our struggles, but He does allow them to happen at times so that we have an opportunity to grow (as difficult as this may seem when we’re going through our challenge). In other words, everyone has moments in their life that define them as a person. We all go through something that tests our mettle, something that ultimately either makes us stronger or turns us further away. Literally, it either makes or breaks us.
Of course, this can, and has been applied many times to our faith, but in broader terms, I believe it can be applied to our life as a whole. There are those who find themselves in an unhealthy marriage, leave, and ultimately remarry someone who is the right fit. Others never remarry, sometimes with abuse involved, not having the strength to move on. Some lose a job but find their career going in another, better direction (often with the frequently coined philosophy of “one door closes and another opens”), while others have a difficult time overcoming their grief and never recover fully. There are tragedies great and small, and everything in between, which ultimately determine the outcome of our lives.
Even gold must be tested to determine if it is real or fool’s gold. Real gold does not break, but can be fashioned into jewelry. Fool’s gold crumbles and breaks; it cannot be used for anything.
In the world of popular fiction, in a very exaggerated sense, this is what happens in superhero origin stories as well. Many superhero characters have origins that are steeped in some kind of tragedy. It is a powerful plot device that resonates and that all can relate to. Amidst this tragedy, however, and in fact born out of it, the hero motivates him/herself to do better, and to become something more. Their tragedy never goes away, but it pushes them to use their energies for good. It always informs their life, but never hinders or debilitates them. Conversely, the villain is the other side of the coin. They too, are faced with a tragedy of some kind but allow it to destroy who they are. Thinking only of themselves, they take their pain out on those, and by extension the world, around them. Often they find themselves face to face with the hero, at odds over why the other would do what they do, and respond to their tragedy the way they have.
In the film Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays a self-centered but brilliant surgeon who is driven solely by fame and fortune. One night he undergoes a car accident which damages his hands and severely limits the use of his fingers, effectively ending his career. After trying all kinds of unsuccessful medical procedures, he finds a great mystic in Nepal who he believes can cure him of his pain. What he finds is ultimately a cure, but not for his hands. He is taught a way of life which unlocks the hero within himself, thereby curing his egotism and self-centeredness, becoming someone who helps others in a profound and very different way. Conversely, in the same film, Mordo, another disciple of the great mystic, is faced with a similar emotional conflict which pushes him to ultimately become bitter and filled with hate.
Although fiction, it is important to note the lesson here: in both cases, the transformation would not have happened if the tragedy had not happened first. What was within both characters ultimately determined their path, not the tragedy itself. We too, have choices in our life, whether to use similar experiences as a motivator or a handicap. We can use it to bring good, or bring more pain, both to others and to ourselves. How we do respond ultimately determines who we become, and some would say where we end up could only have happened by passing through the storm first.
Saint Basil once remarked that after passing through an adolescence in which he did not follow God, it was only after undergoing a shipwreck that he finally woke up! He realized that all along his soul had been crying to God through the pain, and God was crying to Him. This event which profoundly impacted his world and shook him to his core was ultimately his great motivator in pursuing the life that he did. Would Saint Basil have become the great saint and spiritual father which he became without this hardship? Only God knows, but this transformative moment, and how young Basil responded to the great shock, gave the world a great light.
It is up to us if we ultimately become the hero or the villain in our own story. Although rarely is real life as black and white as in fiction, it does illustrate to us some of the truths which we find in our own life. We may oscillate between heroism and villainy at different points, but so long as we ultimately stay with good and aim for what is best, we will be fine with God’s help.
May we too, face our struggles like Saint Basil and the greatest of superheroes did and still do- as an opportunity, one through which God is trying to impart or teach us something. If we are determined to do so, He will not let us down.
“Since then in the same place evil comes to one but not to the other, the difference of free choices distinguishing each from the other, it is evident that nothing evil can come into existence apart from our free choice.”
– Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Life of Moses