Blessings that are Difficult to Receive
When our prayer takes us to the Mount of Olives, we discover the mystery of the Cross in all kinds of trials. Before that impending evil life throws at us, we often find our desires on a collision course with God’s desires. Some of these trials come from “without” in the form of difficult circumstances. This could be in the form of a grave injustice or natural catastrophe. The Lord does not always shield us from disaster or illness or the loss of possessions or reputation. He allows us to be vulnerable to the betrayal of those we trust and even abandonment by both friends and family when we most need them. As challenging as such changes in fortune might be, the mystery of Gethsemane also suggests that the Father can even ask us to patiently endure many extremely painful interior trials, hardships from “within,” spiritual difficulties so overwhelming that we can only face them with special divine assistance.
In Paris, at World Youth Day 1997, Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan recounted to the young people of the world how he dealt with these trials in his own life. On August 15, 1975, the communist authorities in Saigon took him into custody and sent the Archbishop to be re-educated in prison. This would begin thirteen years of humiliation and torture, nine of which he spent in solitary confinement.
In the beginning, his prayer was an anxious complaint. Why would the Lord allow him to be imprisoned when there was so much important pastoral work to do? Did not the Lord know that those entrusted to his pastoral care would suffer if he remained in prison? Probably, he was also anxious about cracking under torture and betraying the Church. The Lord questioned why he was tormenting himself, “Do you not know that I have called you here for Myself?”
As he felt the Lord question him in prayer, the future Cardinal was moved to make a beautiful resolution, a resolution that would require him to welcome blessings he otherwise would not have wanted to have. He realized that there may never be a definitive moment where he would heroically stand firm for the faith. So it was no use trying to imagine what it would be like or what he would do. Instead, all he really had was the present moment. So he resolved to fill each moment that he was given with all the love he could trusting in the Lord to supply everything he needed for that moment.
Sometimes, because of the torture and humiliation heaped on him, this effort was so difficult that he found it impossible to pray. He knew all kinds of interior trials, feelings of abandonment by God or discouragement over whether his prayers were achieving anything good at all. Sometimes, he even broke down under torture and interrogation. Yet, he constantly renewed his effort to love not only his fellow prisoners but even the guards who brutalized him. This had its effect.
The authorities found that they needed to move this priest from prison to prison — he contaminated every place they sent him transforming communist re-education camps into schools of hope. In the end they released him and exiled him from Vietnam. He eventually oversaw the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and the efforts to develop the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Cardinal Van Thuan’s example helps us see the mystery of Gethsemane in Christian prayer, a mystery that welcomes those difficult blessings God wants us to have. Christian prayer realizes fruitfulness when it drinks from the cup of these unwanted blessings with Christ. In this moment of prayer, there is the beatitude of sorrow. It is a moment of blessed poverty in which we access the inexhaustible riches of Christ. It is a moment of purifying enlightenment in which a ray of divine darkness transfigures our awareness of the will of God. In this discouragement, humanity discovers the courage of the Almighty. In this crushing disappointment, a deeper hope in the Lord is born.
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