It was my first day in the classroom. Students began to enter the room in small clusters, slowly filling the empty space with vibrant laughter, youthful energy and joy. They filed past me with shy smiles, and to one another offered hushed inquiries as to who I might be and why I might be there, unaware that I could hear (and understand!) every word they were saying.
As the class began and the talking diminished to a few stray conversations, the teacher asked her students to reflect on their own spiritual journeys: who is God to you?
"God is my Father." Another chimed in, "God is someone I turn to in times of need."
Then nothing. Silence. Students stared sheepishly at the floor or fiddled with their pencils, visibly craving to be anywhere else but this classroom. Then, the teacher, noticing their angst, softly invited them into deeper reflection, and offered a revised question: have you ever felt abandoned by God?
Immediately, every student had something to contribute. The responses overlapped each other as students shouted aloud:
"When my grandma died..."
"When my parents divorced..."
"When my dad lost his job..."
Their comments sounded so very familiar. I had heard them from college students when I worked in Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame. I had heard them from adults in parish RCIA programs. I had heard them during my work as a hospital chaplain in Colorado Springs. I had heard them from my very own friends and family.
Times of uncertainty or sadness can, no doubt, disturb our relationship with God. Our trust in an ever-present, all-loving Father is tested when experiences of abandonment, like the ones named by the students, enter our lives. During these periods of trial, hope in God's promise can seem to make absolutely no sense at all.
This summer, I am spending two months working with our Holy Cross community just outside of Lima, in Canto Grande, Perú. Monday through Friday, I assist at the colegio Fe y Alegría (Faith and Joy) N°25, teaching courses in high school history, English and religion. On weekends, I accompany the choir at one of our nineteen parish chapels.
Before I arrived in Perú, I prepared myself for a unique experience. I knew that there would be many new things to look forward too--different types of foods, different styles of music, dance, and dress. To be honest, I over-prepared myself for these differences. So much so that I did not prepare myself for the striking similarities that I would encounter.
Hearing my students describe their experiences of abandonment made me realize that, despite all of the differences I had previously thought up--food, dress, and otherwise--this place is made up of individuals who share in the same daily challenges as individuals in the United States. This seems so obvious to me now, but I had so distracted myself with the previously mentioned cultural "veneers" that I initially failed to perceive and internalize the commonalities of the human condition. Poverty, drug abuse, violence, the loss of a loved one... the sufferings that exist here are found in every city.
Wherever we minister, our mission in Holy Cross is the same. We are religious who are called to bring the saving message of the cross--the hope of the cross--to each person we meet, to every individual who suffers.
As we cross borders of every kind, we are reminded that Jesus did not redeem the world by his preaching or by his miracles. He redeemed the world by his passion, by his suffering, and by his resurrection.
We are reminded that Jesus is truly the only one who can claim to have suffered alone. We do not. And, because of what He suffered, no suffering is in vain. While it may seem to be pointless or an utter waste, no suffering is in vain because God is doing something with it.
For us in Holy Cross, the challenge becomes not only how to preach ave crux, spes unica--the cross as our hope--but how to stand with those who suffer, reminding them that they have not been abandoned, reminding every individual of the promise of the heavenly kingdom, where we will be united, free from all suffering, and where nobody less than God Himself will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Mr. Dennis Strach, C.S.C., has just completed his first year of temporary vows as a seminarian at Moreau Seminary. He and other seminarians at Moreau post twice each month for the Spes Unica Blog, sharing on their life and formation at Moreau. Meet our other men in formation, and learn more about seminary life in Holy Cross, and specifically about the Postulant Program at Moreau Seminary, which constitutes the first year of religious and priestly formation in Holy Cross for college graduates.