The sun shone brightly on the green Cottonwood trees as I drove through the Wisconsin countryside. With a long drive ahead, and the radio set to gentle classical music, I found myself wanting to pray.
As I began, my mind drifted to the past week I had spent with some of my closest friends. Rummaging through these memories, I realized I had felt more alive with them than I had in months. It was as if without my friends something in me felt alone.
I was shocked by my sharp sadness. I’d left these same friends behind before, but this time the pain of doing so struck like lightning. Nobody knew me more transparently. I didn’t trust anyone else with my thoughts, my feelings, my soul, as I did with them. I had never really given myself to anyone as I did with them. I never knew friendship could be so intensely intimate and life giving, nor that it could draw me closer to God.
Of course we would keep in touch, my friends and I, but they would no longer be right there. Nothing can substitute for actually being with someone, face to face. Tears began to well in my eyes, my breath quickened, and I tightly gripped the steering wheel. We were off to different places to live, study, and work, not just for a little while, but for years!
As a Jesuit, I discerned and chose to let go of committing to one select group of people. I decided to be available to go where ever I’m needed to love and serve. I decided to commit myself to obedience, chastity, and poverty. I hadn’t known what this commitment would mean, but now I did, and my foundational faith in these decisions began to falter.
I wanted what I did not have and what I thought I should have. I wanted my friends close to me, and yet here I was driving away. I started to shake. A wave of goosebumps rushed out from my chest to the rest of my body. My face flushed, as if something terrible was happening. Anger and resentment began to weave in with grief.
I turned to God, and the dam holding everything back broke. Crying became uncontrollable sobbing. Pain and anger seethed out of my throat, my eyes, my nose, my voice, my hands on the steering wheel.
“God, why would you give me these unbelievably wonderful friends, and then tear me away? Why does it feel like I am losing much more than I am gaining from you? What kind of God are you to not give a person you created what makes them happy and fulfilled? Why allow this loneliness and sorrow to dwell in the hearts of those who try so hard to love you? How was any of this love? Why was any of this worth it?”
It took some time for me to eventually calm down. When I did, my imagination kicked into gear. The words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane came to me: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus knew my suffering. He understood loss. He experienced being led away from his friends to follow where his Father was leading him. I made Jesus’ prayer my own: “If possible, Lord, please don’t let my life permeate with such pain. Please fill my emptiness and grief. Please don’t make me give up what I cherish most.”
I recognized my inability to say, “not as I will, but as you will,” and honestly mean it. All I could do was repeat, over and over again, “Please…please…please.”
I think in any Christian’s life of faith there’s a certain kind of reckoning. God draws us in, woos us with gentle love and mercy. And then there is the moment of our response, to love God in return. To love God as both integral to our lives and as the ultimate horizon that encompasses us and draws us towards God. It is here that we encounter the truth: while God’s love for us may be full and pure, our love for God is not.
God’s love impels us to place God first. This means being willing to detach from everything we are and have, and to give ourselves to a relationship with God. God invites us to let go of our attachments. We may be able to give up meat on Fridays during Lent, but what about a good job? A loving community? A romantic relationship? A family?
I never imagined how much God loved me, or how much God called me to love. And, in God’s love, I never imagined how strongly attached I would be to the good and beautiful gifts in my life that I had to let go of and return to God.
But the good news is this: God does not ask us to overcome the challenge of letting go to follow God on our own. God knows we can’t. On my own I could not say, “not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus did. Christ loved us so deeply that he gave up everything to give us the possibility of being with him, and to love like he does.
After this intense moment in the car, I experienced a strange kind of peace. It was as if I had purged myself of something I had held back from God: admitting my inability to go where God was asking. I could now receive the grace that could only come after I expressed all of my attachment and resentment.
That grace I received was gratitude. True gratitude. And now there was nothing between God and I but clear light. It’s hard to explain, but it was a wonderful freedom of letting go. I could now see my grief was so intense because my capacity for love was so profound. I placed this love in God’s hand. I actually felt even more love for my unbelievably wonderful friends, and more freedom to love deeply. I had “lost” my life in a profound way, but now had found it. I was alive, intensely, in my depths, and God was there. God had brought me there, and now I could love with everything.