Jesus tells his disciples that in the world they would have trouble, but to take courage for he had overcome the world. Sometimes some Christians imagine that they are somehow removed from deep suffering. That they are blessed and therefore God will keep them from this. They might believe that either by praying hard enough, being devoted to the sacraments, by works of charity and rigorously living their faith, then God will protect them. I hope we will not feel this way. Suffering is a reality of human life and things happen, sometimes very bad things. We do not know why.
But how many times do we pray that God will protect someone we care about, that God will prevent anything bad from happening to them? How many mother’s have prayed that their children will get home safe after visiting? How many times have we prayed that someone sick will recover? These prayers seem appropriate, actually. Certainly we can pray for healing, can’t we? That we can pray that those we love be safe? And that is true, except are we asking God to change or alter outcomes for us? Are we saying no to what will be?
Unfortunately, most of these kinds of prayers are actually based in fear. We fear certain realities and we want to run from them, deny them or try to bargain them away. We dread that certain things will happen. We tell ourselves that if that happened it would be the worst thing that could happen. But if we believe that, then it will be the worst thing that could happen. If instead we sought to accept whatever happens and rely on God to get us through it, it would bring us more peace and less fear.
When Jesus says that we are to take courage for he has overcome the world, I do not believe that he meant that he has done away with pain. By overcoming the world the Lord, rather, has shown us the way through pain and suffering. So much depends on our attitude. So much depends on trying to overcome our fears. So much depends on acceptance.
When I was a scholastic I worked for a summer in a hospital called Goldwater which was on Roosevelt Island in NYC. It was a city hospital for those with chronic illnesses. Basically people who went there did not come back out. All the nurses there told me that i must visit this one patient. She was paralyzed from the neck down and lay in a special bed all the time. Walking into her room I wondered what I would find, how would I deal with this poor woman. What would I say? What I found was a young woman who beamed with joy. She was radiant with it. She spoke of happiness and peace. Her smile was beautiful and real. This woman had been like that for years and yet she was totally at peace with it and full of joy. It was an extraordinary experience. I, the so called chaplain, could bring nothing to her but it was she who brought it to me. I will never forget her.
The Lord certainly overcame the world for her. He did not change the world, he changed her. And that, I think, is the secret. If our hearts change, then the whole world changes for us. It can be less a place of fear and dread, less threatening and become more the place where we find God in all things. If our hearts change, we stop labeling so many things as good or bad and simply accept what happens with God’s grace. That is a prayer that will always be answered, Lord, give me an accepting, loving heart. Lord, give me gratitude. What will be, will be. If we can turn and embrace it instead of running away from it somehow, it will be like getting out of prison. It would mean true freedom. Freedom from fear and worry. Freedom from the self. We all need to pray for this freedom with great faith and trust in God who has overcome the world. As Jesus also told his disciples that night before he died, it takes courage.