In the Footsteps of Christ
Ego sum via, veritas et vita. I am the way, the truth and the life. In these clear and unmistakable words Our Lord traces out for us the true path that leads to everlasting happiness. Ego sum via: he is the only road linking heaven and earth. He is speaking to all men, but in a very special way he is thinking of people who, like you and me, are determined to take our Christian vocation seriously, so that God may always be present in our thoughts, on our lips and in everything we do, including our most ordinary and routine actions.
Jesus is the way. Behind him on this earth of ours he has left the clear outlines of his footprints. They are indelible signs which neither the erosion of time nor the treachery of the evil one have been able to erase. Iesus Christus heri et hodie; ipse et in saecula. How I love to recall these words! Jesus Christ the very Jesus who was alive yesterday for his Apostles and the people who sought him out; this same Jesus lives today for us, and will live forever. Yet, at times, we poor men fail to recognise his ever-present features, because our eyes are tired and our vision clouded. Now, as we begin this time of prayer close to the tabernacle, ask him, like the blind man in the Gospel did, Domine, ut videam! Lord, that I may see! Enlighten my intelligence and let Christ's words penetrate deep into my mind. Strengthen his Life in my soul so that I may be transformed in readiness for eternal Glory.
How crystal clear Christ's teaching is. As usual, let us turn to the New Testament, this time to St Matthew, chapter eleven: 'Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.' Don't you see? We have to learn from him, from Jesus who is our only model. If you want to go forward without stumbling or wandering off the path, then all you have to do is walk the road he walked, placing your feet in his footprints and entering into his humble and patient Heart, there to drink from the wellsprings of his commandments and of his love. In a word, you must identify yourself with Jesus Christ and try to become really and truly another Christ among your fellow men.
To make sure there is no mistake here, let us read another quotation from St Matthew. In chapter sixteen, Our Lord makes his doctrine even clearer: 'If anyone wishes to come my way, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.' God's way is one of renunciation, of mortification and of self-surrender, but it is not one of sadness or faint-heartedness.
Reflect on the example that Christ gave us, from the crib in Bethlehem to his throne on Calvary. Think of his self-denial and of all he went through: hunger, thirst, weariness, heat, tiredness, ill-treatment, misunderstandings, tears… But at the same time think of his joy in being able to save the whole of mankind. And now I would like you to engrave deeply in your mind and upon your heart — so that you can meditate on it often and draw your own practical conclusions — the summary St Paul made to the Ephesians when he invited them to follow resolutely in Our Lord's footsteps: 'Be imitators of God, as very dear children, and walk in love, as Christ has loved us and delivered himself up for us, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God.'
Jesus gave himself up for us in a holocaust of love. What about you, who are a disciple of Christ? You, a favoured son of God; you, who have been ransomed at the price of the Cross; you too should be ready to deny yourself. So, no matter what situation we may find ourselves in, neither you nor I can ever allow ourselves to behave in a way that is selfish, materialistic, comfort-loving, dissipated or — forgive me if I speak too candidly — just plain stupid! 'If all you want is the esteem of your fellow men, and you long to be respected and appreciated, and you only seek a pleasant life, then you have strayed from the path… Only those who travel the rugged, narrow and austere path of tribulation are allowed to enter the city of the saints, there to rest and reign with the King for eternity.'
You yourself must decide of your own free will to take up the cross; otherwise, your tongue may say that you are imitating Christ, but your actions will belie your words. That way, you will never get to know the Master intimately, or love him truly. It is really important that we Christians convince ourselves of this. We are not walking with Our Lord unless we are spontaneously depriving ourselves of many things that our whims, vanity, pleasure or self-interest clamour for. Not a single day should pass that has not been seasoned with the salt and grace of mortification; and, please get rid of the idea that you would then be miserable. What a sad little happiness you will have if you don't learn to overcome yourself, if you let your passions and fancies dominate and crush you, instead of courageously taking up your cross!
As I speak of these things, there comes to mind the dream of that author of the golden age of Spanish literature — I am sure some of you have heard me mention it in other meditations. The writer sees two roads opening up before him. One of them is broad and smooth, easy to travel, with many comfortable inns, taverns and other places of beauty and delight. Along this road go great crowds of people on horseback or in carriages, in a hubbub of music and mindless laughter. One sees a multitude intoxicated by a joy which is simply ephemeral and superficial, for this road leads to a bottomless precipice. It is the road taken by the worldly-minded, ever seeking material pleasure, boasting a happiness that they do not really possess, and craving insatiably for comfort and pleasure… They are terrified at the thought of suffering, self-denial or sacrifice. They have no wish to know anything about the Cross of Christ. They think it is sheer madness. But then it is they who are insane, for they are slaves of envy, gluttony and sensuality. They end up suffering far more, and only too late do they realise that they have squandered both their earthly and their eternal happiness in exchange for meaningless trifles. Our Lord has warned us about this. 'The man who tries to save his life shall lose it; it is the man who loses his life for my sake who will secure it. How is a man the better for it if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul?'
In that dream there is another path which goes in a different direction. It is so steep and narrow that the travellers who take it cannot go on horseback. All who take it must go on foot, perhaps having to zigzag from side to side, but they move steadily on, treading on thorns and briars, picking their way round rocks and boulders. At times their clothing gets torn, and even their flesh. But at the end of this road a garden of paradise awaits them, eternal happiness, Heaven. This is the way taken by holy people, who humble themselves and who, out of love for Jesus, gladly sacrifice themselves for others. It is the path of those who are not afraid of an uphill climb, who bear the cross lovingly, no matter how heavy it may be, because they know that if they fall under its weight they can still get up and continue their ascent. Christ is the strength of these travellers.
What does it matter that we stumble on the way, if we find in the pain of our fall the energy to pick ourselves up and go on with renewed vigour? Don't forget that the saint is not the person who never falls, but rather the one who never fails to get up again, humbly and with a holy stubbornness. If the book of Proverbs says that the just man falls seven times a day, who are we poor creatures, you and I, to be surprised or discouraged by our own weaknesses and falls! We will be able to keep going ahead, if only we seek our fortitude in him who says: 'Come to me all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest.' Thank you, Lord, quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea, because you, and you alone, my God, have always been my strength, my refuge and my support.
If you really want to make progress in the interior life, be humble. Turn constantly and confidently to the help of Our Lord and of his Blessed Mother, who is your Mother too. No matter how much the still open wound of your latest fall may hurt, embrace the cross once more and, calmly, without getting upset, say: 'With your help, Lord, I'll fight so as not to be held back. I'll respond faithfully to your invitations. I won't be afraid of steep climbs, nor of the apparent monotony of my daily work, nor of the thistles and loose stones on the way. I know that I am aided by your mercy and that, at the end of the road, I will find eternal happiness, full of joy and love for ever and ever.'
Later, in the same dream, our writer discovers a third path. It too is narrow and, like the second, it is both steep and rugged. Those who travel it walk solemnly and regally in the midst of countless hardships. Yet they end up falling over the same terrible precipice that the first road leads to. This is the path of the hypocrites, people who lack a right intention, who are motivated by a false zeal and pervert divine works by mixing them with their own selfish and temporal ambitions. 'It is folly to undertake a hard and difficult task just to be admired; to put great effort into keeping God's commandments with but an earthly reward in mind. Whoever practises virtue for the sake of some human benefit is like a person who sells off a priceless heirloom for just a few coins. He could have won Heaven, but he is content instead with fleeting praise… That is why they say that the hopes of hypocrites are like a spider's web: so much effort goes into weaving it, and in the end it is blown away by a puff of the wind of death.'
My purpose in reminding you of these hard realities is to stimulate you to examine carefully the motives that inspire your behaviour, so that you can put right what needs to be corrected and direct everything to the service of God and your fellow men. Don't forget that God has passed by our side, that he has cast his loving glance upon us, and 'has called us to a vocation of holiness, not because of anything we have done, but out of his own good pleasure and the grace he has lavished on us since the world began'.
Purify your intentions then. Do everything for the love of God and embrace your daily cross joyfully. This is something I have repeated thousands of times because I believe that these ideas should be engraved on every Christian heart. When we advance beyond the stage of simply tolerating difficulties or sufferings (whether physical or moral) and, instead, love them and offer them to God in reparation for our sins and the sins of all mankind, then, I assure you, they do not distress us.
It is no longer just any cross we are carrying. We discover that it is the Cross of Christ, and with it the consolation of knowing that our Redeemer has taken it upon himself to bear its weight. We cooperate as Simon of Cyrene did, who, when he was returning from work on his farm intending to take a well-earned rest, was forced to lend his shoulders to help Jesus. For a soul in love it is no misfortune to become voluntarily Christ's Simon of Cyrene and, in this way, to give such close company to his suffering Humanity, reduced to a state of rags and tatters. For if we do this we can be certain of our closeness to God, who blesses us by choosing us for this task.
Many people have spoken to me in amazement of the joy which, thanks be to God, my children in Opus Dei have and which they spread to others. Faced with this evident truth, I always give the same reply, because I know no other. Their happiness has its foundation in the fact that they fear neither life nor death; that they are not overwhelmed when they meet with misfortune; that they strive daily to live with a spirit of sacrifice, in spite of their own defects and weaknesses, and they are constantly ready to deny themselves in order to make the Christian path easier and more pleasant for others.
While I am speaking I know that you are trying, in the presence of God, to take a close look at your past behaviour. Isn't it true that most of the annoyances which have made your soul restless and have taken your peace away, are due to your failure to live up to the calls of divine grace? Or rather, that you were perhaps following the path of the hypocrites by thinking only of yourself? With the sorry idea of keeping up the mere appearance of a Christian attitude for the sake of those around you, you were inwardly refusing to renounce self, to mortify your unruly passions, and to give yourself unconditionally, in complete surrender, as Jesus did.
You see, in these periods of meditation in front of the tabernacle you can't confine yourselves simply to listening to the priest's words, as if he were giving voice to the intimate prayer of each individual present. I am making some suggestions, giving some indications, but it is for you to make the effort to take them in and reflect on them, so as to convert them into the theme of a very personal inner conversation between yourself and God, in such a way that you can apply them to your present situation and then, in the light that Our Lord offers you, distinguish what is going well from what is going badly and, with the help of his grace, correct your course.
Thank Our Lord for the great number of good works which you have disinterestedly carried out, for with the psalmist you too can sing: 'He drew me out of the deadly pit, where the mire had settled deep. He gave me a foothold on rock and gave strength to my steps.' Also ask him to forgive your omissions, or the false steps you took when you entered the wretched maze of hypocrisy, saying that you desired only the glory of God and the good of your neighbour, while in fact you were really honouring yourself… Be daring, be generous, and say No: you don't want to deceive Our Lord and mankind any more.
It is the moment to turn to your Blessed Mother in Heaven, so that she may take you into her arms and win for you a glance of mercy from her Son. And try at once to make some practical resolutions: put a stop once and for all, even though it hurts, to that little defect that holds you back, as God and you yourself know so well. Pride, sensuality and a lack of supernatural spirit will combine forces to suggest to you: 'That? But what a small and insignificant little thing it is!' Don't play with the temptation. Instead, answer: 'Yes, in this too I will surrender myself to the divine call.' And you will be right, for love is shown especially in little things. Normally the sacrifices that Our Lord asks of us, even the most difficult ones, refer to tiny details, but they are as continuous and invaluable as the beating of our heart.
How many mothers have you known who have been the heroines of some epic or extraordinary event? Few, very few. Yet you and I know many mothers who are indeed heroic, truly heroic, who have never figured in anything spectacular, who will never hit the headlines, as they say. They lead lives of constant self-denial, happy to curtail their own likes and preferences, their time, their opportunities for self-expression or success, so that they can carpet their children's lives with happiness.
Let's take other examples, again from everyday life. St Paul refers to some: 'Anyone who has to compete in the arena must keep all his appetites under control; and he does it to win a perishable crown, whereas ours is imperishable.' All you have to do is look around you. See how many sacrifices men and women make, willingly or less willingly, to take care of their bodies, protect their health, or gain the respect of others… Are we unable to stir ourselves at the thought of the immensity of God's love, so poorly requited by men, and mortify what needs to be mortified so that our hearts and minds may be more attentive to Our Lord?
In the consciences of many, the meaning of Christianity has been so distorted that when they speak of mortification and penance they think only of the rigorous fasts and hair shirts mentioned in the awe-inspiring tales that are found in some lives of saints. At the start of this meditation we took as a self-evident premise the fact that we must imitate Jesus, taking him as the model for our behaviour. It is true that he made ready for his preaching by retiring into the wilderness to fast for forty days and forty nights. But, before this, and afterwards, he practised the virtue of temperance with such naturalness that his enemies took advantage of it to slander him as a 'glutton and a drunkard, the friend of publicans and sinners'.
I would like you to discover the full depth of this simplicity of Our Lord, who lived a life of penance without any special fuss, for it is the type of life he is asking of you: 'When you fast, do not show it by gloomy looks, as the hypocrites do. They make their faces unsightly, so that men can see they are fasting; believe me they have their reward already. But do you, at the times of fasting, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fast may not be known to men, but to your Father who dwells in secret; and then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.'
That is how you ought to practise the spirit of penance: looking towards God and behaving like a son, like a little child who shows his father how much he loves him by giving up the few treasures he has: a spool of thread, a tin soldier with no head, a bottle top… Their value is slight, yet he finds it hard to make up his mind. But in the end love wins, and he happily hands them over.
Let me insist again and again that this is the road that God wants us to follow when he calls us to his service in the midst of the world to sanctify others and to sanctify ourselves by means of our daily occupations. With that enormous common sense of his, combined with his great faith, St Paul preached that 'in the law of Moses it is written: thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treads out the corn', and then he asks: 'Is God here concerned about oxen? Or does he not rather say it for us? Yes, truly for your sake it was laid down; for hope makes the ploughman plough, and the thresher to thresh, in the anticipation of sharing in the crop.'
Christian life can never be reduced to an oppressive set of rules which leave the soul in a state of exasperation and tension. Rather, it accommodates itself to individual circumstances as a glove fits the hand, and it says that, as well as praying and sacrificing ourselves constantly, we should never lose our supernatural outlook as we go about our everyday tasks, be they big or small. Remember that God loves his creatures to distraction. How can a donkey work if it is not fed or given enough rest, or if its spirit is broken by too many beatings? Well, your body is like a little donkey, and it was a donkey that was God's chosen throne in Jerusalem, and it carries you along the divine pathways of this earth of ours. But it has to be controlled so that it doesn't stray away from God's paths. And it has to be encouraged so that it can trot along with all the briskness and cheerfulness that you would expect from a poor beast of burden.
Are you trying to make sincere resolutions? Ask Our Lord to help you to take a tough line with yourself, for love of him; to help you apply, with all naturalness, the purifying touch of mortification to everything you do. Ask him to help you to spend yourself in his service, silently and unnoticed, like the flickering lamp that burns beside the Tabernacle. And if you can't think of anything by way of a definite answer to the divine guest who knocks at the door of your heart, listen well to what I have to tell you.
Penance is fulfilling exactly the timetable you have fixed for yourself, even though your body resists or your mind tries to avoid it by dreaming up useless fantasies. Penance is getting up on time and also not leaving for later, without any real reason, that particular job that you find harder or most difficult to do.
Penance is knowing how to reconcile your duties to God, to others and to yourself, by making demands on yourself so that you find enough time for each of your tasks. You are practising penance when you lovingly keep to your schedule of prayer, despite feeling worn out, listless or cold.
Penance means being very charitable at all times towards those around you, starting with the members of your own family. It is to be full of tenderness and kindness towards the suffering, the sick and the infirm. It is to give patient answers to people who are boring and annoying. It means interrupting our work or changing our plans, when circumstances make this necessary, above all when the just and rightful needs of others are involved.
Penance consists in putting up good-humouredly with the thousand and one little pinpricks of each day; in not abandoning your job, although you have momentarily lost the enthusiasm with which you started it; in eating gladly whatever is served, without being fussy.
For parents and, in general, for those whose work involves supervision or teaching, penance is to correct whenever it is necessary. This should be done bearing in mind the type of fault committed and the situation of the person who needs to be so helped, not letting oneself be swayed by subjective viewpoints, which are often cowardly and sentimental.
A spirit of penance keeps us from becoming too attached to the vast imaginative blueprints we have made for our future projects, where we have already foreseen our master strokes and brilliant successes. What joy we give to God when we are happy to lay aside our third-rate painting efforts and let him put in the features and colours of his choice!
I could continue pointing out a multitude of details (I have just mentioned those that came immediately to mind) which you can take advantage of during the course of the day to come closer to God and to your neighbour. But here let me emphasise that, in giving you these examples, I am not in any way disparaging great penances. On the contrary, they may prove to be very good and holy, and even necessary, when Our Lord leads you by that road, always assuming that they have been approved by the person who directs your soul. But I warn you that great penances are also compatible with great falls, which are brought about by pride. On the other hand, if you continually wish to please God in the little battles that go on inside you — a smile, for example, when you don't feel like smiling; and I assure you that a smile is sometimes more difficult than an hour's worth of cilice — then there is little room left for pride, or for the ridiculous notion of thinking we are great heroes. Instead, we will see ourselves as a little child, who is hardly able to offer even the merest trifles to his father, but who then sees them received most joyfully.
So, does a Christian have to be mortified always? Yes, but for love. For this treasure of our vocation 'we carry it in vessels of clay, to show that the abundance of the power is God's and not ours. In all things we suffer tribulation, but we are not distressed; we are sore pressed, but we are not destitute; we endure persecution, but we are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we do not perish; always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame.'
Perhaps up to this moment we had not felt urged to follow so closely in the footsteps of Christ. Perhaps we did not realise that we could unite our little renunciations to his redeeming sacrifice: to make up for our own sins, for the sins of men of all ages, and for the evil work of Lucifer who continues to oppose God with his non serviam! How can we dare to cry out without hypocrisy, 'Lord, I am hurt by the offences that wound your most loving Heart,' if we don't make up our minds to deprive ourselves of this or that triviality, or to offer up some small sacrifice in praise of his Love? Penance, genuine reparation, sets us on the path of self-giving, of charity. We give ourselves to make reparation, and we live charity to help others, as Christ has helped us.
From now on, be in a hurry to fall in love. Love itself will prevent us from complaining and protesting. For we put up with setbacks often enough, but then we feel sorry for ourselves, so that not only do we waste God's grace, but we also tie his hands and make it harder for him to ask us for things in the future: Hilarem enim datorem diligit Deus. God loves the cheerful giver, the person who gives with the spontaneity of a loving heart, without all the fuss and bother of one who gives himself as if he were doing God a favour.
Take another look over your life and ask forgiveness for this or that fault which you notice immediately with the eyes of your conscience: for using your tongue badly; for thoughts that revolve continually around yourself; for those critical judgements you made and consented to and which now cause you to worry foolishly, leaving you restless and fretful. Believe me you can be very happy! Our Lord wants us to be glad, to be drunk with joy, stepping out along the same roads of happiness that he himself walked! We only become miserable when we persist in straying off those roads, and take the path of selfishness and sensuality or, much worse, when we take the path of the hypocrites.
The Christian must prove himself to be genuine, truthful and sincere in all that he undertakes. His conduct should reflect a spirit — the spirit of Christ. If anyone in this world has a duty to be consistent with his beliefs it is the Christian, for he has been entrusted with a gift that he must make fruitful, and that gift is the truth which liberates and saves. But Father, you might ask me, how am I to achieve this sincerity of life? Jesus Christ has given his Church all the means necessary. He has shown us how to pray, how to get to know his heavenly Father. He has sent us his spirit, the Great Unknown, who acts within our souls. And he has left us those visible signs of his grace that we call the Sacraments. Use them. Intensify your life of piety. Pray every day. And never refuse to shoulder the sweet burden of Christ's Cross.
It is Jesus who has invited you to follow him like a good disciple so that you can journey through this earthly life, sowing the peace and joy which the world cannot give. Therefore — and let me emphasise this once more — we have to walk without fear of life and without fear of death, without shrinking at any cost from pain and sorrow which, for a Christian, are always a means of purification and a chance for showing that we really love our fellow men, through the thousand and one circumstances of ordinary life.
Our time is up and I have to bring these considerations to a close. With them I have tried to stir your soul so that you might respond by making a few specific resolutions — not many, but definite ones. You should realise that God wants you to be glad and that, if you do all you can, you will be happy, very, very happy, although you will never be a moment without the Cross. But that Cross is no longer a gallows. It is the throne from which Christ reigns. And at his side, his Mother, our Mother too. The Blessed Virgin will obtain for you the strength that you need to walk decisively in the footsteps of her Son.