I have never met anyone who did not struggle with someone or something. They struggle at work, or struggle at school. They struggle with a friend or with an enemy. They struggle with the bills and they struggle with debt. They struggle with their spouse or their boyfriend or girlfriend. They struggle with Democrats and liberals or they struggle with Republicans and conservatives. They struggle with loneliness and depression and they struggle even more as they watch those they believe live without depression and seem to have it all. They struggle with mental, physical, and emotional illness and again struggle as they watch the rich and the young and the strong and the beautiful who seem to live above it all. The list could go on and on, but surely the Lord sees our struggle as we bear the cross that life has placed upon us. And now we come to the Orthodox Church that tells us that to be Orthodox is to struggle. Given all my other struggles, maybe this is why I don’t attend as much as I should. I carry enough burdens as it is.
Jesus said that we must pick up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him. Surely all of my burdens and struggles fulfill this command (at least they do to me). Well, not so fast. I came across a statement from the Blessed Augustine that flipped things around. In His Letters to Laetus, 243, he said the following:
“For, when I noticed that you were being slowed down in your divine purpose by your preoccupation with domestic cares, I felt you were being carried and dragged along by your cross rather than that you were carrying it.”
St. Augustine tells me that what is happening is that I am being dragged through life by my struggles. I am not carrying them at all. They are carrying me. I am like a surfer on the waves on my struggles.
Is this what Jesus meant? Not really. After all, if just carrying your own life burdens is carrying your cross, then everyone is fulfilling the Lord’s command. No. Carrying our burdens is not in itself carrying a cross with Christ. What does it mean then to carry a cross and follow Jesus? It means death and it means life.
As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.” So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.
It is a two way street. I am to be crucified to the world, but then the world must be crucified to me. If in my heart I still envy the rich, the proud, the beautiful, the successful, etc., then even if I dress plainly, and live in a modest house and walk to work, I am still alive to the world. The Church attempts to help us. Today, we lift up and remember the Cross of Christ and the command that we follow Him. In Holy Tradition, we have all that we need to break this inner worldliness so that we can not only be crucified to the world, we can also follow Him.
So, the Lord seeks to kill us; that is, He calls us to put our worldliness to death, inwardly and outwardly. How this is possible since surviving our personal struggles is tough enough? Remember these words:
“Cast your cares and burdens upon me….my yoke is easy and my burdens are light…I came that you might have life and have it in abundance.”
We may find that when we let The Master tell us what is true, what is beautiful, what is strong, what is successful, what is rich and what is poor, etc., we may find that the burdens of the heart will roll away and we will find life everlasting.
Let’s not forget that we have a powerful ally, the Holy Spirit who is greater in us than all the struggles that we face. He is the Lord, the Giver of Life. This Spirit can turn the water of our struggle into wine.
It is our choice. We can pick up the heavy load of our own struggles and cry as we carry them under the whip of our task masters; or, we can pick up the Cross of Christ, and being crucified to the world, we can follow Him.