When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going …
I n the year 2010 the movie, 127 Hours, was released starring James Franco, who portrayed an adventurous man Aron Ralston. The main character falls into a crevice while on a canyoneering venture in southeastern Utah. His right forearm gets pinned underneath a boulder, which traps him for five days and seven hours (127 hours). He lays there for several days trying to extricate himself from the rock, but to no avail. Finally, convinced that he would die of exposure, he grabs a small, dull pocketknife out of his backpack and begins to cut off his own arm. Despite the unspeakable pain, he completes the task. Ralson then ties a crude tourniquet around the stump of his arm and makes his way through the remainder of the canyon, in which he had to rappel down a sixty-five foot sheer cliff face to reach safety. He later comes to a road where he flags down a car.
Some months after this terrible ordeal, he appears on the David Letterman Show, where he tells his story, to a spellbound audience. When he finishes, the normally light-hearted and sarcastic Letterman becomes unusually serious. Looking at his guest intently, he says with great admiration, “You know something about life that I don’t.”
What is the point of describing this terrible, yet fascinating tale? Because Jesus speaks with incredible bluntness about cutting off ones hand, ones foot; about plucking out ones eye. If these become a block to salvation, get rid of them, he says; better to enter eternal life maimed, than going to Gehenna with all your members intact.
These are hard, blunt, surprising words but, are we to take a literal, fundamentalist understanding of them? I think not. In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation of modern biblical interpretation by recognizing that the Bible is packed with rich symbolic language, which communicates special meaning regarding what Jesus actually said. So, he distinguishes between the literal sense of a passage—what the words of Scripture actually says; that is, the obvious meaning of the text. Then he notes that there is a spiritual sense in a passage which goes beyond the literal sense of the words and thereby to consider the religious meaning, conveyed symbolically.
So, I do not think Jesus is encouraging us to cut off our hands or feet or pluck out our eyes. At the same time, we are being challenged to look at this teaching with a certain spiritual seriousness. We should not be to blasé over the language Jesus is using. “Oh, our Lord is only exaggerating; He is just using metaphors to get our attention.” Rather, I would caution you to read the passage (Mark 9:43-48) through the lens of Aron Ralston and his experience. Let us look at Ralston who found himself in mortal danger when his arm was pinned underneath a boulder. So desperate was his situation that he judged quite rightly, that he had to sacrifice an essential part of his body in order to save his life. He knew that something drastic had to be done and he was willing to pay the price, despite the pain, to do it.
Does it ever occur to us that we can be in a similar kind of spiritual situation in which we are in danger— that, if we do not do something drastic, we could die spiritually? Indeed, we could be in mortal danger, pinned, as it were, under a “rock.” Jesus is warning us of spiritual dangers, of spiritual warfare, of spiritual death, and the drastic things we have got to do in order to save our spiritual lives.
So what are the three things that Jesus identifies? Let us have a look at these from a spiritual standpoint.
1. Grasp the Nettle
Your hand is the member by which we ‘grasp’ and ‘take’ things. In the course of our lives, we take and grasp for all sorts of things: money, pleasure, sex, power, prestige, security, and comfort. Go all the way back to the book of Genesis in which our original parents grasped for the fruit from the tree of good and evil. They grasped at godliness but without God! From the beginning our hands are a problem because they grasp what the ego wants.
What are you grasping at in the course of your life?— worldly things, honor, creating benefits for yourself and pleasures. Is that grasping putting you in spiritual danger, keeping you from receiving the one glorious essential which is God’s own Life? Are you willing to cut off the attachment, right out of your life? You may be thinking now “There is no way! I can’t live without so and so.” It could be riches power, pleasures or honor. If so, perhaps your grasping has pinned you down, and is keeping you from being fully alive.
2. Pick Your Way
What is the foot but the member why which we walk, by which we set ourselves on a definite path. We are meant to spiritually walk towards God, who is the goal of our life. Saint Aquinas says that if you want to find joy, walk the path that leads to God alone.
What do we do with so much of our lives? We walk down errant paths; we chose paths that move us away from God—path that leads us to wealth and consumerism, status and prestige, control and dominance, and hedonistic pleasure. Very early in life we get on these paths and we walk and walk. As we get older, we may pick up the pace because we do not have too much time left; so, we accumulate more and more, thereby moving us in the wrong direction. There are many stories in the spiritual tradition that talks about path, roads, and ways of life. Think of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which begins:
“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost” (The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Canto 1).
So, if your foot is your problem, cut it off. What does that mean spiritually? If you are walking along the wrong road, you must be willing to change the direction and set off on the right path. This is “rubber hitting the road” spirituality. You may be thinking, “You mean this road that I have been walking most of my life, where I have devoted most of my energies, is the wrong one?” Yes! And, you must be willing to abandon it, to cut it off.
3. You are What You See!
Finally, Jesus speaks of the eye. If it is your problem, pluck it out. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas say that the beatific vision is to “see” God face to face. The goal of the spiritual life is the knowledge of God, a love of God, of seeing very deep into the very essence of God. That means that the spiritual life is a constant seeking and seeing the things of God.
Unfortunately, most of us spend our lives looking at all the wrong places—we are often looking for and seduced by the goods of the world. If your eye is your problem, pluck it out. Take that challenge with spiritual urgency. If you have been looking in the wrong places, if you have been intrigued and beguiled by the wrong things, you must be willing to eliminate that thing from your life. You must be willing to do something drastic to deal with it.
In the recent years, we have lost a since of urgency with the spiritual life. Somehow, Catholic spirituality has become soft, and too easy: “God is love, God is my friend; therefore, whatever I do will be forgiven; so, it really does not matter what I do.”
Yes, we will be forgiven if we seek it; but, the spiritual life is the consummate high adventure: it is demanding. In Saint Paul’s language, an athlete is willing to sacrifice all sorts of things to win a perishable crown. What are we willing to sacrifice, to cut drastically out of our lives in order to gain eternal life? That is the hard question raised by the challenging language of our Lord Jesus.
O Lord, help us to make a strong resolution to follow close, the print of Thy dear footsteps and cut off all that which hinders us from Your path which is righteousness and peace.
Deacon Jim McFadden
Deacon Jim McFadden ministers at the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Folsom, California. He is a teacher of theology and serves in the Adult Faith Formation, baptismal preparation, spiritual direction, and prison ministry.
During a silent retreat a number of years ago, as I was quietly kneeling before my Eucharistic Lord in adoration I was overwhelmed with the desire to pour out my heart and soul to Jesus. I began to silently weep. As the tears began to flow, I started writing these words from the depths of my heart: Lord, deliver me from the depths of my own personal hell. Deliver me from the darkness within my soul. Deliver me from the bondage of the snares and traps of the devil. Deliver me, Lord, from the fear deep within that keeps me from loving You fully. Deliver me from my sinful pride that encompasses my being. Deliver me, Lord, from my self- reliance that keeps me in bondage to self. Deliver me from my guilt and shame that keeps me from being still and know that you are God. Deliver me from the self-hatred that keeps me from embracing my King’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Deliver me Lord from the inclinations toward sin. Help me Lord to allow you to be God And I to be your child. After pouring out my heart to my Eucharistic Lord Jesus Christ, He gently began to speak in my heart these most tender and healing words: “My child, I have come to set you free from all your bondages. I enter into the garden of your heart. I root out the sin of pride. It is rooted up and tossed into the sea. I cast out all your fear with My perfect love. I shower you with My ocean of mercy and love which is never-ending. I clothe you with purity. I clothe you in the white garment of salvation. I call to you my precious child. Come and allow Me to hold you and wash you clean. I toss your stony, sinful heart into the depths of hell. I give you a new heart. I place my heart in your heart. You are my child. I make you whole. Enter into the kingdom the Father has prepared for you. You are washed clean. You are as white as the fresh, fallen snow. You are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. You are my beloved child. You are My light for the world to see. Walk in My light and bring others to me so I can set them free.” “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your body your stony heart and giving you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel: 36: 25-26) May these words bring you comfort and peace. No matter what you are going through at this moment in your life, there is hope and healing. Allow Jesus to enter into the mess of your life. He is the healer of your heart. Jesus is waiting for you.
The sound of yelling, accusations and cursing brings to my mind a lot about suffering. It is a well-known fact that trauma imprints itself vividly onto the brain, and I am no exception. I often cringe when hearing someone pop open an aluminum can. It is a grim reminder of my alcoholic husband and what transpired after that first drink. Mostly, my life was full of traumatizing experiences many times. There was no blood or visible damage to my body when I was being verbally abused. Those hurtful feelings turned into intellectual torture; it is really difficult to put into words the pain I experienced on a daily basis. A few months ago, I received the flyer for a Shalom retreat and I simply registered. It was a time of great suffering and little did I know that the retreat would forever change my life. During the three-day retreat we were given the living word of God by Father Jilto George CMI, Father Wills Combs, BBD, and Sister Ranis Matthew MSMI—all were proclaiming the word from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms and the Gospel. The word of God was sung in hymns. The ample opportunity to make a good confession and to hear the Word of God opened my eyes to the truth that God was always by my side, no matter how traumatizing my life was. I felt an amazing connection with God, especially with the Holy Spirit. Praise the Lord for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God so generously bestowed on me. I am truly grateful for the praise and worship we had at the Shalom retreat. The abundance of blessings was so great when we reached the third day. God deigned to give me a whole new perspective about my burdens. I felt the Holy Spirit lift off those heavy burdens from my arms. During the healing time I was cleansed from my disbelief and my heavy heartaches became lighter. The movement of the Holy Spirit strengthened my faith and helped me realize that God never abandons us. The gift of God’s presence and His warmth gave me much clarity in my belief. With a feeling of assurance and protection I felt the Holy Spirit rain down on me. I could not stop crying as the Holy Spirit filled my soul with goodness. God took away my shame, pain and guilt. He made my whole being new! I received immense grace through this retreat but never expected a surprise when I went back home. On the second day of the retreat God’s amazing grace did a miracle for my alcoholic husband who was at home. On that day I was in deep prayer, offering my husband to the merciful hands of God. When I had returned home, he narrated about his experience. That Saturday, while I was praying for him, he had a moment of deep prayer for his back pain. The next day his back pain had healed completely. I shared with him that at that same moment, when he was asking for healing, I was praying to God to heal him and to draw us closer to God. My husband did not seem to believe that my prayer intercession partly had led to his healing. I know now that this unbelief was due to his disease. God had granted me patience and acceptance. My prayers continued ever more for him and I believed that the power of prayer could break his bondage from alcohol addiction. Until then I had grieved over the emotional hurt my husband hurled at me and it broke my heart over and over again. Pain is a very real thing to the person experiencing it. Those who have not felt a similar level of pain have trouble empathizing. Even though my emotional hurt came through heartbreaking experiences, it has helped me understand my and others’ sufferings in a way I previously could not have imagined. Despite the enormity of my husband’s addiction, I was aware that my experience seemed somewhat minor when compared to some of the pains others suffered. The experience I had at the Shalom retreat heightened my empathy for those who suffer more than me and this proved as a turning point. I am hopeful that my testimony will not only strengthen my healing, but also give insight for others who have similar aching life experiences. Aside from having an alcoholic husband, my life has been blessed. Though I still feel a mild sense of panic when he drinks, I am very grateful for the love and support of my children who have literally been there for every step. It is unclear how long it will be until I am able to re-train my brain and overcome the mental issues associated with an alcoholic husband. Hopefully, I will soon regain a more normal life with the help of the Holy Spirit. I have already begun to see my life through a different lens—a lens of forgiveness and hope. The Shalom retreat brought me closer to our Blessed Mother and to Jesus. I have accepted my faults and regained control of my emotions through prayer, which is indeed our lifeline to God. Thanks be to God!
On a lofty evening at the pediatric clinic, every now and then little cherubs made a grand entrance, as if in a pageant. Their innocent smiles and looks of admiration from parents added to the happiness. My little son of seven months never got tired of flashing a glee that perfectly entertained even those tight-mustached men. My eyes were met with smiles all around, including from complete strangers. Yet behind the smile I posed with the little one sitting on my lap, nobody knew what it was like when I stepped into the same clinic a few years back with my daughter. A Wind of Change I still remember what I had earnestly prayed for on our wedding day and that was for children, the grace to raise them in holiness and to make them into great saints! Our happiness knew no bounds when we discovered that I was pregnant. I soon felt a strange notion that something was wrong. My worst nightmare happened at around 27 weeks of pregnancy, when baby’s movement was not felt. We immediately went to the hospital and found that her heart beat was dropping. An emergency, impromptu cesarean section was done and our premature baby, now on a ventilator, battled for life. I had to see my tiny little one strapped on all fours with cannulas and put through many needles to inject medicines or draw blood every hour. When she cried in pain, my heart wrenched but I trusted in God. I knew that nothing happens without His knowledge and my tiny one was safe in His heart. A miracle happened when, after 45 days in NICU, we finally had our baby in our arms; I thought life would be peaceful again. Tossed by the Waves Day by day she gradually grew stronger. When our daughter was about three months old, the doctors diagnosed her with microcephaly—a condition of small headedness that is caused by brain injury. As the reports came we understood that our daughter was suffering from severe brain damage which led to cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. It was after the delivery when we came to know about the congenital problem with my uterus—it was bicornuate (heart shaped). In the doctor’s words, “The uterus is compartmentalized into two sections—there was no space for the baby to grow and that led to the emergency.” Worst of all, “Your future babies will have to be operated out at around seven months of pregnancy and put in the NICU ...” My anguish at knowing that all the time the baby in my womb was struggling and, much worse, that my defect put our baby through such an ordeal was shuddering. It was the darkest period of my life, and I began to blame myself for her condition. My heart broke every time I saw her having strange epilepsy convulsions. In those days it was not easy to wait at the pediatric clinic, where little toddlers were prancing around in bliss, while the little girl sprawled on my lap stared blankly at the walls—she would not look or smile at me. Those happy parents stared at my little girl, some even probing around with curious questions. I grew weary of waiting for my turn and it was a relief to go home. Into the Storm Until then I thought I would never have to confess to being jealous. Now, seeing a little bird hopping around, loomed my mind: even this little bird with so small a brain can hop and fly but my baby cannot do anything. With time God’s grace allowed me to appreciate His creation, to thank Him always for the perfection I saw around and to not grudge over what lacked in my child. By this time I had conceived three times but miscarried each. I was also diagnosed with PCOD, which meant it would not be easy for me to conceive a baby again. I began to hate my body and myself. This is my fault. If only I was born with a normal uterus, I could have had a normal pregnancy and normal, healthy children. My heart longed for the impossible. A little Rosary book in my hand had the picture of Blessed Virgin Mary with the child Jesus gazing at her lovingly and the Holy mother intently looking back at her Son with an unfathomable love. To Jesus I never complained but to His mother I poured out my heart. I even took the freedom to say to her, “You had baby Jesus who looked back at you, smiled and did all that a normal baby could. Mother, how would you be able to understand my plight?’ Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear. – Isaiah 59:1 Prayer from the Heart Many suggested praying for a miracle, by placing a prayer card or a rosary in my hand. All I could was cry in His presence. If I said the rosary aloud it turned out into a long wail. I never complained to God but surrendered everything to Him. This was not easy because most often I felt wearied. Whenever I prayed for a miraculous healing, I felt sad—not because my faith was ebbing but because of the thought that I was asking God to correct His gift. Our daughter was indeed the most precious gift from God. I did not know what to pray for then. Sitting in His presence, I gazed at Jesus exposed in the Holy Eucharist. Did He really know what I was going through? Could you really see me here Jesus? Once a friend of mine told me reassuringly, “Our God is not seated on His throne somewhere up in Heaven and by chance looks down to see you and exclaim, ‘Oh! I did not know this would happen to you!’ No! God’s eyes are always on you. He does not make mistakes or miscalculations. Everything is known to Him.” These words really helped me to TRUST in His mercy and goodness even though my life was going astray, like a ship tossed in a great storm. I knew that Jesus was sleeping peacefully in the boat and I did not want to wake him. Eye of the Storm In my dream Jesus deigned to see my anguish. On an August day in 2017, we and our little girl attended a one-day retreat at the Marian Retreat Centre, led by Father Dominic Valanmanal, a really gifted priest. Fully accepting my condition and the sickness of our daughter I prayed to Jesus “If it is Your will, please heal my daughter. But if it is not Your will I accept her whole heartedly, with only a plea for a healthy baby ...” I knew this was impossible given my condition. Yet I believed nothing was impossible for God. Just one month later we came to know about the pregnancy of our fifth baby. I understood that the fount of life and unfathomable divine mercy of God enveloped our life that day at the retreat. Strangely, I felt much more serene, without a trace of fear in my heart. Be Still Jesus had swept away all my fears like a cloud. An ultrasound scan was done and by God’s grace the baby was doing well. To our utter surprise, they could not find a bicornuate uterus or poly cystic ovaries. The doctors were more surprised than me; they could not even find a slight bend in my uterus! By the mercy of God, I carried our baby for 39 weeks! God blessed us with a healthy baby boy, thriving in His love and mercy! After the caesarean, the first thing I asked the doctor about was my uterus. She said my uterus was normal and had only a single whole cavity (she even put her hand on it to check thoroughly). God blessed us with a healthy baby and gave us hope to have many more healthy babies. He cured me completely. This is impossible for man. There is no operation that could change my condition or the one-percent chance that my uterus would change by itself. For God, everything is possible! Know That I Am God My baby now looks at me and smiles. He never gets tired of looking for me. My baby wants to SEE me always. This thought crossed my mind: just like my little one, God was always watching. He sees us even in our bad times. When plunged into waves of despair in life, we may not feel God watching over us. We may wonder if there is a God looking down from heaven. It is true, He is there! Today, as I sit at the pediatric clinic pleasantly amused by my little one’s antics, no one knows about my angel at home who is four years old and still unable to sit or stand by herself. I do not know if she will ever call me “Mamma” or play with me as any child would. In her own ways she expresses a love that is untainted by worldliness. Our little boy’s smile brings happiness to our lives, but it is our daughter’s smile that sparks a greater joy in our hearts. Do Not Be Afraid! Jesus calmed all my fears and made everything new! He can do it for you as well! Surrender everything unto Him for He cares for you. No matter what the situation in your life is, God knows it and His eyes are on you! Just trust in His mercy. For the path to peace is not found in summit meetings, stockpiling arms or in acquiring more material goods; it is only found by trusting in God's mercy for our lives. Lord Jesus, we offer ourselves to you—all our anxieties, fears and our nothingness. We trust in your divine mercy that overflows from Your merciful heart. Immerse us in Your ocean of mercy, O Jesus, so our lives may become new and strengthened by Your grace as we face the storms of life valiantly and reach the eternal shore of our Fatherland. Amen.
Susan paced the hospital corridor with her infant daughter crying in her arms. Fear gripped her and she was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. As she waited with unabated breath, at the paediatric clinic, for Eve their two-year-old daughter, Susan could not withhold her anxiety. The moment of truth lay in a blood test result kept inside her daughter’s medical file just inches away from where she was standing. She and her husband Joe were already dealing with the devastating news of Eve’s leukaemia and the knowledge that she needed a bone marrow transplant. They had been told that matching donors and patients is much more complex than matching blood types and that it might take time to find the perfect match. Both Joe and Susan had volunteered as donors, and they were waiting for the results at their scheduled appointment. Not at all! The consultant’s door opens, and Dr Grainne sees Susan and invites them to come forward. Susan shakes a little more, and her husband puts his arm around her waist to support her. The doctor speaks in a soft tone and asks how Eve has been since their last visit. She picks up on Susan’s anxiety and is gentle in her approach towards her. She speaks to Susan first and tells her that further tests will be needed to ascertain if she is the close to a perfect match. Dr Grainne then addresses Joe, and she tells him that he is not a match at all. He hears the words ‘not at all’, and he questionably repeats them. “Not at all! How is that? I am her father!” The doctor retains a calm and steady voice, and she tells him that he has a different blood type to Eve. Searing Pain Three months later the incomprehensible words are still resounding in his ears. The reality of him not being Eve’s father sends volts of shock through him. The news has not changed his love for his baby girl with whom he fell in love the moment she was born. Susan had taken a gamble that Eve might be his child and figured that if she was, then she was taking the risk of telling her husband about a brief affair with a work colleague for no reason. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him” her friend had advised, and she thought it was a phrase worth applying to this situation. Science had proven differently, though, and the results had taken an overwhelming toll on their marriage. Joe was incredibly angry and had moved out of the family home. He continued to attend the hospital appointments, and at Susan’s invitation, for his input into decisions about Eve’s care. Eve’s biological father relinquished all responsibility, and he refused to go for donor testing. He had a family of his own, and he did not want his life wrecked by this scandal. Food for Spiritual Thought Three years later, Joe was attending the twenty-fifth Medjugorje Anniversary Conference at the RDS in Dublin. And I was also actively involved in the conference. He still has not come to terms with Susan’s affair and deceit, and he is far from forgiving her. The conference committee has organised a captivating line-up of speakers from America and Bosnia-Herzegovina for the weekend event. Their stories of spiritual healing, physical miracles and conversions are a testimony to the power of prayer and God’s infinite, loving and tender mercy for the incurable, depraved, and lost souls. “One could be forgiven for thinking that nothing could be done with him”, Joe said, referring to Father Donald Calloway’s ( from the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary) story about his raucous, rebellious and juvenile delinquent years. “Does it give you hope, Joe that maybe one day it will be possible to forgive Susan and to reconcile and return to your family home?”, I asked. “It is certainly food for spiritual thought”, he replied. Never Stop Believing In the afternoon session, Colleen Willard from Chicago told the story of how she was miraculously healed in Medjugorje from thirteen complicated medical conditions including an incurable brain tumour and a ruptured disc that confined Colleen to a wheelchair. “How are you doing, Joe?”, I enquired when I caught up with him before the evening prayer programme began. “Wow”, he said, “I am beginning to believe that everything is possible through prayer and with God.” I encouraged Joe to never stop believing that God could heal the brokenness of his marriage and his heart. “You know Jesus was betrayed too, and He knows the pain of that,” I said. Joe loved his wife and was very close to Eve, and she called him “Daddy” which constantly evoked tears of pain, pity and more often of joy. The Journey from Pain Eve had received a bone marrow transplant and was in remission. Joe could not contemplate the idea of not having Eve in his life, and the word remission was one he ignored. Susan had invited him to adopt Eve officially, and he was pondering on the idea. He was hindered, though by his inability to forgive her. Susan had deeply suffered the consequences of her reckless actions, and her family had erupted into war with her. She was struggling with their coldness toward her, and she felt alone and isolated. She knew she had caused all this pain to herself and everyone else around her. She asked them for their forgiveness and had asked Joe many times also for his. To the Shores of Peace Our last speaker at the conference was Goran Curkovi from Medjugorje, and he was scheduled to speak on Sunday. His inspiring story of recovery from heroin addiction, homelessness, paranoid schizophrenia and self-harming over many years evoked tumultuous tears and roars of laughter from the attendees. Joe had heard more than enough to convince him that God existed and was the maker of miracles. Joe did not leave the RDS without going to confession. He shared his story with many tears of anger and disappointment. He held close to his heart the advice his confessor told him, and it ran along the lines of; forgiveness will bring healing, peace and love. Bitterness and anger will culminate in more chaos and emotional self-destruction of yourselves and your daughter. It was time for Joe to make his mind up. Many years have passed by and Eve is now fourteen-years-old. Joe officially became Eve’s ‘Daddy’. Susan and Joe reconciled. They are now a very active faithful couple and a silent witness to their journey of forgiveness. Prayer Lord, help me to forgive the person who has caused me this pain, anguish and hurt. Give me the strength to say the words that I least want to pass my lips. I bless (name) in your name O Lord. Amen
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