Fr. Michael tells the story of Admiral Jeremiah Denton visiting Fr. Jim Willig and sharing how faith and prayer helped him endure suffering as a POW.
Jesus said to the crowd:
“They will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents,
brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
Lessons from the School of Suffering – Transcript
My first reaction on hearing today’s reading where Jesus says in a very somber tone, “they will put some of you to death, but not a hair of your head will be destroyed,” is, ‘Well, thank goodness you know, our hair will not be destroyed.’ Jesus also said in the gospel today, “don’t worry about preparing your defense beforehand,” so I thought, ‘Well I don’t have to prepare a homily today, I’ll just wing it and ask for the Holy Spirit to be inspired.’ But I don’t think that was what the Lord had in mind.
Here we are in this last week of the liturgical year and the readings for the last couple weeks have been eschatological dealing with the end times; with the coming judgment; with the end of the world; with facing the end of our own lives. In our gospel today Jesus speaks about the persecution that is inevitable if we stand up for truth; if we witness to Jesus as the Christ.
St. Luke wrote these gospel words over 2,000 years ago and would that they and are no longer applicable to today’s situation, but the reality is there are as many martyrs for the Christian faith today as there are at any time in history. This summer I was scheduled to go to Cameroon to give a priest retreat. The bishop in Cameroon in that diocese wrote to the organizers of that retreat asking us not to come because he couldn’t guarantee our safety. If you’ve been following the news, you know that there’s a civil war going on in Cameroon between the English-speaking and the French-speaking sections of the country and the church is caught in the middle. I just received a notice yesterday that yet another priest had been murdered in the English-speaking section of Cameroon. That’s just one little sliver of the persecution of Christians around the globe—those who witness to the truth of the gospel.
Perhaps that direct suffering of standing up for the sake of the faith isn’t going to touch our lives directly, but all of us in some small or large ways, feel the pinch of the gospel: When we walk away from gossip… When we refuse to tear down another person’s reputation… When we face humiliation or mockery because of our own Christian values… When we refuse to give in to the secularization that is encroaching in our culture in so many ways… When we stand up against the materialism… When we stand up for what we believe to be true…we pay a price for that. There is deep suffering that will touch all of our lives and in the midst of that suffering Jesus says, ‘Stand with me. Surrender your life to me and I will be with you.’
Many of you have heard me speak about my friend Fr. Jim Willig who died of cancer in 2001. He wrote this book, Lessons from the School of Suffering, in the midst of that. Fr. Jim wasn’t suffering because of his being a priest, or because of the of his Christian faith, he was suffering from cancer a natural reality. What brought that on, we’ll never know. In the midst of that, Fr. Jim learned more from his suffering—he wrote in this book—than he did in the previous 25 years of his priesthood.
I visited him in the midst of his cancer journey and he invited me—at his parish where he was pastor—to do a proclamation of the passion and resurrection according to John; a dramatization. In the midst of that dramatization, there was a gentleman who walked into the church a little late, walked up to the front row and sat beside Fr. Jim. Well usually when people come in late to church or to a presentation, they sit in the back but this man came right up, sat next to Fr. Jim, and in the midst of the intermission, he turned to him and Fr. Jim looked and recognized him as Admiral Jeremiah Denton. Admiral Denton said, “Fr. Jim, I’ve heard of your deep suffering from your cancer and I want to tell you a story.” He said, “As you know Fr. Jim, when my plane was shot down I was captured by the Vietcong and I spent 7 1/2 years in prison and they brutally tortured me in the midst of that. They were trying to break me. They wanted to turn me against my country; turn me against my faith; turn me against all the values that I stood for. The torture was long and brutal.” He went on to say, “One day in particular, they had stretched me on a rack and there was a young soldier who was assigned that day to break me and I came closer than I had ever come in my entire life to giving up everything that I held dear. I wasn’t praying, but in the midst of my mind a prayer came—a very simple prayer: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.’ The prayer kept repeating itself over and over again in my head and I surrendered to that prayer praying silently in the midst of brutal torture, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.’
Admiral Denton turned to Fr. Jim and he said, ‘Fr. Jim, in the midst of that there was a blanket of peace that came over me and even as the torturer continued to his best to break you me, I was protected by this blanket of peace and all I felt no matter how hard the torture was—no matter how hard his blows and whips were—what I felt was only peace because I knew my life was united to the sufferings of Jesus. The young man who was torturing me saw the change, saw that his brutality had no effect and it unnerved him. He turned to his commanding officer and said, ‘I cannot continue doing this.'” They returned Admiral Denton to his cell and that was the end of their trying to break him.
Admiral Denton turned to my friend, Fr. Jim, and he said, “Fr. Jim, I share this story with you because I know you’re suffering at this time in your life is deep and intense and I invite you every day to pray that prayer that transformed my life: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.” Fr. Jim wrote that story in his book, Lessons from the School of Suffering and reflecting on that story he said, “There’s really three steps there, aren’t there? One to recognize that when deep suffering touches our lives we are rendered powerless and there will be some time in our life—and we don’t know when and we don’t know where, but that it will happen is inevitable—that we will be brought to our needs; we will be brought to the edge of our own wisdom and power and strength and will recognize, ‘I am not sufficient for what I am facing right now.’ Step number two is to recognize that there is a power so much greater than ourselves that can get us through whatever suffering comes in our life. That is the power of Christ Jesus our Lord. The third step is to surrender our lives to that power.”
Ironically those are the first three steps of the 12-step program for those whose lives have been devastated by addiction, be it alcohol or drugs or sex or gambling or food—whatever it is. The truth is, all of us are addicted to something and those addictions force us to face our own powerlessness and to recognize that we are not sufficient unto ourselves. We’re not made of God’s. But when we recognize that reality, there is a deep choice and it leads us to either despair or surrender. What we gather to celebrate every day, when we come into this chapel and we hear these words, and we gather for the table of life, is that God’s grace is sufficient and there’s a call here for transformation. God takes no delight in seeing the sufferings of our people, but it seems to be the mystery of life that the only way—the only way—we think human beings get it into our heads, is through suffering that transforms us into the saints God wants us to become.
I think the most powerful section in father Jim’s book, is this one paragraph:
There’s absolutely nothing good about suffering in and of itself. As a matter fact, Jesus spent much of his ministry healing people and alleviating suffering. Nevertheless, there is much good that suffering can bring about, if it brings us closer to Christ. [Here’s the key sentence.] Therefore, the most helpful thing I have learned in my bitter suffering, is to unite myself with Christ on the cross, who unites himself with me, on my cross. …the most helpful thing I have learned in my bitter suffering, is to unite myself with Christ on the cross who unites himself with me on my cross.
Brothers and sisters, when we will suffer, how we will suffer, is known only to God, but that we will suffer deeply in our lives is inevitable. Whether it means something is optional. Whether it transforms us, is optional. That’s the choice of faith. That’s why we gather day after day, week after week, year after year, so that we understand that our God is not indifferent to that suffering. God is with us. God is Emmanuel. God is King and Lord of this universe. God’s desire is that we are transformed by that suffering; that we become icons of grace; ornaments of love; symbols of the power of God’s grace at work in our world.
That’s our mission. Why we gather is not simply for our own personal sanctification. We’re called as we walked out that door every day to witness the power of Christ within our life. That’s why we’re here. Let’s learn from Admiral Denton’s words. Let’s learn from Fr. Jim’s words. Let’s learn from the truth of the gospel, not just on our lips but in our lives.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you. Pray it with me: Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you. One more time: Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.