After these things God tested Abraham a second time. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go again to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And Abraham thought. And then he said, “No.” And God thought. And then he said, “Are you sure your answer is ‘no’?” And Abraham thought again. And he said, “Yes: I did say ‘No’. Do unto me as you will. But I will do no evil to my son Isaac.”
And God thought again. And he said, “Because you have not done this, because you have listened to your heart of love, which I gave you; because you have used the moral compass I gave you; because you have refused to expose your son Isaac to the emotional abuse of a gruesome charade; because you have said ‘no’ to me; because you have put your son’s life before your own; because of all these things, I will indeed still bless you, and I will still make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. For ‘yes’ or ‘no’, nothing in all creation can separate you from my love. My beloved son Abraham: heads you win; tales you win.”
A complete fiction, of course—and I am the culprit. The point: nothing can separate us from the love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Breathtaking words from Paul. Words our souls long to hear over and over again. Heads we win; tales we win.
The gospels give us the image of taking up our cross. But how do we know if we’re taking up the right cross? Sometimes the choice is obvious. Often, it is not.
In spiritual direction we meet with many people struggling with just that problem: deciding which path to take, which cross to take up. Vocational discernment is in some ways about the decision of which cross to take up. The cross that leads to greater life; the cross that leads to the greatest good. Not always an easy decision—as many of you know.
The larger life, the greater good: our moral compasses point us in this direction in a general sort of way. But the moral compass can be vague on specifics. Magnetic north can seem like a moving target. We can agonize over whether choice A or choice B is the better decision for the greater good.
A couple of examples: First, my dad. (He died a year and a half ago, by the way.) His moral compass certainly pointed him in the right direction, toward the greater good. I believe, though, that he endured a job he often hated for the sake of his family. His job was his cross to bear: it ensured a decent middle class life for a wife and four kids. His primary concern was for our welfare, not his own happiness.
But…here is the complexity of my dad’s situation. He might have risked a period of financial instability to find an occupation that he would have been happier with. Had he been more fulfilled personally, had he put down one cross and taken up another, he might have brought to his role as father (how shall I say it?) emotional resources that were sometimes lacking.
I say this with all due respect for him and the difficulty of his decisions—he was a child of the Great Depression and did not want his own children to experience the same deprivations. Such are the complexities of the choices we live with. It can often seem that life is a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” proposition.
Another example: Ennis Del Mar. The main protagonist of “ Brokeback Mountain”. He probably wouldn’t have thought of it quite this way, but the agony of his life was not being sure which “cross” he was to bear. Which path led to the larger life, the greater good. He was a man who was engaged to Alma, fell in love with Jack, married Alma (and fathered children), and stayed in love—passionate love—with Jack. Given the place and time and his own lack of experience, definitely a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” proposition.
Should he be loyal to the woman he married and the mother of his children? Should he stay where he was to make sure his children were provided for? Or, should he, on the other hand, be true to his own identity as a human being, his sexual identity, the sheer power of which, he was, tragically, too slow to recognize? Should he resist his (very real) fears of exposure and take up life with Jack? Would he actually be a better father if he were personally fulfilled? Which cross to take up? Where is the larger life, the greater good?
I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t seen it yet, but it is a powerful story, of heart-rending poignancy. It gives “nearly unbearable witness to the heart under siege,” according to the New Yorker’s little blurb.
The story’s power, of course, derives from its being rooted in an archetypal human situation: falling in love with the “wrong” person. The stuff of tragedies: Montagues are not to fall in love with Capulets. The perennial conflict between promises and obligations made on the one hand, and one’s desire, longing and true identity on the other. The stuff of tragedy; the stuff of life. And the sheer complexity of it all means we may not always know which “cross” to take up, which “self denial” leads to the greater good. Even the best moral compass can be overwhelmed by life’s complexities.
Sometimes life feels like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. I think it may have been for my dad; it is for the Ennis Del Mars of the world. We may be tempted to despair.
So. What shall we say? “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present , nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Ultimately, we shall know the full depth of these breathtaking words. Our moral compasses may sometimes be overwhelmed by the complexities of life’s decisions. But God’s love is not. God, “whose glory it is always to have mercy”. Ultimately, like for Abraham, it’s “heads you win; tales you win”. Ultimately, we shall know this.
In the meantime, we can try to judge each other less and love one another more.
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