Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
It was many years ago now and I was sitting in the hermitage of my first ever spiritual director. He was an old man who had been a monk from a very young age and had lived the solitary life of a hermit for close on sixty years. (An Augustinian Canon for those who need to know these things)
I, on the other hand, was a young Methodist probationer. Brimful of anticipation and arrogance, I was seeing a spiritual director because six years earlier my probation had crashed and I had been out of the ministry. Those years of working on the gold mines was the time for recovering some treasure from my shattered evangelical shards. My way back to faith and ministry was now by a diferent road that led me to the deep wells of Catholic spirituality and contemplation. Spiritual direction was the rope and bucket that enabled me to discover and drink from those wells.
We were an odd couple, the old man and me. Our direction relationship lasted for five years and the last news I heard of Anthony was that he had asked to be released from Holy Orders at the age of eighty, so that he could marry! He was, as you can see, an earthy saint and just the right foil for me at the time.
So there I was on my quarterly direction visit to the monastery, and I was in the throes of a classic martyr’s pity party. You know the sort. You are the only guest because the pity party is all about you and only you. The music is all whiny, the lyrics go, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me. I think I’ll go eat worms!”
The canapes are the dry crusts of self pity and the drinks are a pool of pathetic tears.
I was also the keynote speaker at the pity party and was going on and on about how misunderstood I was by my conservative white (American’s readers: I mean WASP) congregation. How no one wanted to hear that Apartheid was evil and how no one cared that I was trying to help them be free of their oppression as oppressors.
Fr Anthony never said a word. He let me wail on.
When I was finished my litany that made the biblical book of Lamentations seem like it was written by a motivational speaker, Anthony asked a simple question.
“Are you a Christian?” he said.
“Of course!” I whipped back.
“What does that mean?”, the reply
My impatient response, “I follow Jesus.”
Then slowly his robes moved as he extracted his huge hand from the bell sleeves of his habit and pointed to the crucifix on the hermitage wall.
“Well,” he breathed, “look what they did to Him.”
It was a pity-party-pooper of note!
I have never forgotten that moment, and when I read this Sunday’s gospel my beloved director and his outstretched arm come to mind.
Like Peter, I rail at the idea of a suffering Jesus almost as much as he did that day at Caesarea Phillipi.
Like Dylan Thomas to his father, I want to say to Jesus, “Do not go gentle into that dark night, Rage rage rage against the dying of the light”
Yet the part of me that Fr Anthony cultivated so skilfully almost thirty years ago, knows that Jesus is correct.
There is no resurrection without crucifixion.
No transformation without putrefaction.
No roses without compost.
And certainly no living without dying.
I am not talking of the idiotic self-martyrdom of the Christian Taliban suicide bombers who think they are serving Jesus by thwarting change and inclusivity with their rabid fundamentalism. That’s just stupid ego, and the suffering they experience is brought on themselves.
No, I am talking about the pain of living on for Jesus in the midst of a dying church. A church, too moribund to sail with the winds of change.
I am talking about preaching the truth of Jesus as he sees it when even the other Christians vilify you as the antichrist.
Speaking about inclusivity and inter-faith dialogue on a weekend when all people want to hear is prejudice as they watch re-runs of the Twin Tower tragedy.
I am talking about doing what it right because like Martin Luther, “I can do no other”
That isn’t really martyrdom is it?
It is simple, honest discipleship.