Since I am a St. John Paul the Great Catholic, I thought of writing about him today, the day of his canonization. Of course, everyone else in the world is writing about him today, too, so I wrestled with maybe waiting a week or so. Then last night I suffered an injury. It is an acute, but not serious, lower back injury. It is identical (actually a mirror image) of an injury I suffered 16 years ago. It will hobble me for a few days, maybe a week, and then I will be fine (well, not really fine, but back to normal anyway). But there is a striking peculiarity about it that persuades me I should write about that today, so the decision is made for me.
It was Dec. 7, 1995, when I was shown the most complete vision of what was upon us – and told that very soon I would have to decide whether to fully accept the work God had prepared me for all my life. It took me almost two years to give my definitive yes, which I gave in the very late summer of 1997. There were two things that became decisive in my affirmative decision. You should know that I had been assured that my salvation was in no way dependent on accepting the work. Near the end of the vision I had asked what would happen if I said no. I was immediately surrounded by a great abyss, with agonized people swirling around and being swallowed by it, all cursing me as they fell in because I had known and done nothing. It was a moment that haunted me throughout the period of indecision – and still occasionally causes me to shudder
The second thing was an incredibly extravagant promise of a great privelege. I was told that if I accepted and kept faith until the end, not one person I loved would be allowed to perish. All would join me in heaven, through often extraordinary graces. After I did accept, thinking I was a clever fellow, I decided to meet as many people as I could and love them all – even if I didn’t much like them. I thought that was pretty clever until the Lord visited me and told me that was what He had expected me to do – and I would not have been the right guy if I had done otherwise. I felt a little guilty that it was not pure love of God that had tilted me over the edge – until He chuckled and told me genuine love of neighbor is the purest form of love for God we are capable of in this life. He instructed me that those who ignore their neighbor thinking their love is reserved for God alone deceive themselves and are easy prey for the devil.
With such powerful incentives to go forward, you might wonder what took me so long. Well, I was also assured that upon my acceptance, I would almost immediately enter into a prolonged period of several years of intense suffering. This was to prepare me for the vicissitudes of the Storm later, when it would be vital that I not faint – and to burn away most of my vanity. I was not given details, but I was shown accurately how intense it would be. I do not like to discuss it much, but for five years I was in torment constantly. My priests, my son and one very close friend are the only ones who have any idea of how bad everything was during that time. I carefully hid as much of it as I could, for I knew well that we should live in a manner so we do not impose our cross on others. Besides, what value does suffering have if you complain of it all the time? But my priests several times commented on how I was living the life of Job. My friend who saw much of it has told me many times that my grace in handling and hiding most of that inspired a profound deepening of his faith. My son is a noble man, one who walked through the suffering with me, helped me bear it, and now lives in a way that helps carry others burdens while never lading them down with his own. I have seen the fruit of suffering lived well – and so have all the more trust and confidence in the Lord. Ironically, except for the suffering, I look back on those days with great fondness. My relation with my son – and with a few friends – was forged in a purifying fire. There was real joy in the midst of all the sorrow. In a very real way, while I would never want to repeat them, I look back at them as a sort of glory days.
I learned much through that time. What if you were called to do what was right, even if it looked wrong – when you were also presented with the option to do what was wrong, but it would look right and relieve you of much of your burdens? What if you were called to suffer temporal defeats in order to secure spiritual victories, knowing ahead of time what you must deal with? I don’t have to guess about these questions – and more like them. Unless I cling to the Lord I would surely go apostate in the future – but I know that in the past I have said yes to agony I knew was to come in order to keep genuine faith. That engenders a certain holy confidence. It also wipes away a lot of the transient vanity that assails us. Above all, it creates a great trust in God – and He graciously lets you see a little bit from how He sees; the tenderness towards His people. When you see how weak you are yourself and how much in need of mercy, it creates a very deep sense of mercy and tenderness towards those around you. After all, how could you be such an ingrate as to be miserly with others with what you, yourself, have been given in such abundance from above?
How, you may ask, does this relate to my injury? Sometimes God speaks directly and plainly. Sometimes He speaks ambiguously. Other times, He just leaves a marker and lets you figure it out. Sixteen years ago I slipped on the ice on a stair and badly bruised the right side of my lower back. It was so intense I could barely walk for several days. That incident was the gateway into my years of intense sorrows. They followed almost immediately upon that injury. Last night I fell and badly bruised the left side of my lower back. I can barely move without agonizing pain today, much less walk. It is identical to the old injury, just on the other side. It may mean nothing, or it may be a marker to pay attention to. If it is the latter, I have already been through that wringer. I think it may be everyone else’s turn. If so, I have been there and I tell you, be not afraid: God calls all men to salvation.
And whether it is a marker or not, I think today about how much I like the sound of the words, St. John Paul the Great.