“You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.” (Psalm 16.11 NAB)
A Reflection by Sharon Nelsen
In my younger years, I frequently prayed that God would show me my path to life. I prayed, thinking God would show me a numbered path, like “Walkway #38,” and even put me on it, just as He had set the planets in orbital paths. Later, I believed that it was my job to find the right path. Once I found it, (because there could only be one right one) I knew I would have peace. I would be able to move ahead in my life’s journey with confidence— I am on the (legally) right path!
God is always challenging me to grow up; to move beyond legalism, literalism and its easy answers. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.14, affect me: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” But somewhere in my thinking a wisp wonders if the Divine One is playing some kind of game with me, having selected MY path and now is watching closely to see if I find it. What kind of image of God is that?
It is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, my patron and good friend who bumbled a bit finding his path to life. I think about him, his various paths, and write:
Well-worn is the path of suffering
Thorny is the path of doubt
Delightful is the path of praise
Challenging is the path of justice
Wearying is the path to peace
Joyful is the path to wholeness, to holiness
Smooth is the path to acceptance of God’s Good Way
I recall from years ago the words of a woman in our faith-sharing group: “You know, sometimes we think that God is saying, ‘I wonder if she will find the path I have picked out for her?’ But, I think the truth is that God is looking at our lives and asking, ‘I wonder which path she will choose out of all of the many options before her?’”
I think about how I looked at the choices our children made as emerging adults. When one declared a triple major upon entering university, I thought, ‘Now, that’s a challenge.’ Yet, I respected his right to choose his path even as I wondered about his choice.
We can be certain that God knows the life-giving path for us in each situation in our lives. We can be equally certain that God respects our free will, the God-given freedom to choose that the Deity will not take away-- even if we make it harder on ourselves, even if we are setting ourselves up for failure, even if we don’t do it right.
One of the most difficult challenges in our walk to become adult Christians, mature followers of Jesus, the Master Teacher, is the act of choosing. It is much easier if someone tells us what to do. Why? Because now it is not our responsibility—we are just doing what we have been told. And if we are told by an ordained clergy person -- all the better, for now it’s someone else’s fault if things go wrong (as we intend to explain to God on the day of judgment).
My pre-Vatican II religious formation reflected the times – it was the adult’s job to tell us what to do: The doctor told us what we needed to know about our bodies; the teacher told us what we needed to study and learn; the priest told us what we needed to know about God, and our parents told us everything else we needed to know--except about sex. I am grateful for the healthy, foundational formation of my childhood that existed because a wiser, experienced generation told me what to do. The wounding began when the being told didn’t stop. Guidance became a method of control that hampered growth and abandoned us not only to figure out how to choose, but to assimilate the fact that we had the right and the duty to choose. That process of accepting choice, especially in religious matters, took many years of struggle. In order to move healthily into the adult arena of making real choices and taking responsibility for them, we need awareness—the conscious examination of our childish ways, thoughts and behaviors. Wise guidance in that process, especially in learning to hear the word of God within, is not only helpful, but necessary to nurture our growth as a mature people of God.
One day, while praying about this dilemma in my theological thinking (which at the time only the rebels seemed to be addressing in our Church) I heard God say to me: “Sharon, the pope has responsibility for pope things; the pastor has responsibility for parish things; and Sharon has responsibility for Sharon things.”
Well, that was a welcome relief and, yet now I had something else to ponder: Exactly what are my things? Fortunately, by that time I had acquired some tools (searched for diligently by seeking out mature guidance) that helped me recognize and honor questions arising from within. Those tools were prayer, contemplation, studying God’s Word, sharing my real life situations with a listening faith community, reflecting on what was life-giving in my day’s events, and, learning to recognize manifestations of God’s Power and Presence in a word of knowledge, a dream, or through a special anointing.
I looked at my domain --the “things” God had given me: family, friends, neighbors, communities of believers, resources, talents, skills, a healthy body and mind, an education, political freedom, opportunities, inspirations and, most importantly, the Holy Spirit, empowerment to choose what is good, what is life-giving in my domain--for immediate situations and for the long journey.
I began to grasp the narrow way as very specific to my life.
Preceding Jesus’ words about the narrow way, is his proclamation that “the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many.” (Matthew 7.13 NAB) Those words summarized what we did as teenagers-- we sought to discover life by grouping on a wide road with our peers. We wanted to be grown up and we thought the best way to accomplish that was to swarm together. We were quite concerned about appearances, our possessions, how we were compared to our peers and what those peers thought of us, and, we tended to discount any input (especially the unasked for variety) of wisdom from our elders or ages past. It was a wide and crowded road. If we didn’t step off of it as we progressed through our teen years, putting the childish behaviors behind us, we could not step into maturity. Rather, we morphed into a kind of empowered teenager with enough religion to tinge our selfish desires with pious thoughts and guilt without actually transforming them.
The seeds of many behaviors planted in childhood are good seeds, but like all seeds, they have to mature into the fruitful plant. For example, when we were children, we often felt sorry for another’s plight. It was our response to seeing hurt. That is a seed, a beginning. But if the same response persists into adulthood, it ends up diminishing self and others, labeling all as helpless victims. Those seeds of caring that began as feeling sorry for someone need to grow into the mature Christian gift of compassion, a gift that focuses on the person, not on the circumstances. Compassion strengthens the giver and the receiver; it communicates and shares love through appropriate assistance, aware of each person’s struggle and the challenge to grow in the midst of difficult and challenging situations. Compassionate Christians trust in God and in every person’s ability to make conscious choices within the milieu of grace without diminishing the person who is suffering.
God asks us to be grown-up Christians and shows us how to get there, asking only our cooperation in the process. God gives us Jesus, who sets us free and heals our crushed spirits; God sends us the Holy Spirit to empower us and enlighten us so that we are able to recognize our options and to make informed choices; God gives us each other in the Church that He promises to be with until the end of time; God entrusts us to make choices that are life-giving for us, for each other, and for our world.