When I was a second year in the seminary in Korea, I met one priest who seemed really happy being a priest. His presence among people exuberated and was full of joy and life. I asked later how he became such a joyful priest. He answered that he was not happy when he was a seminarian. However, he realized that once he decided to become a priest in love and service for the people of God he was supposed to be happy. He tried very hard to become a good seminarian as well as an efficient leader. But he was not happy until he had to give up the most important thing to him for the love of God. “What’s that?” I was anxious to know that. “It is myself. Until I give up choosing myself, God who gives me freedom and life cannot help me.”
“Deny yourself to come after me; empty yourself to be filled with my love.” That’s why St. Ignatius prayer starts, “Oh, Lord! Take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding and my will.” I believed that I had practiced to deny myself for a long time, leaving home, my country and family. However, it was not quite enough. When my nose hit the cold marble in the sanctuary during the ordination, I was scared to admit that I plunged into something I didn’t know what it entailed exactly. The moment when the people prayed to all the saints to strengthen my zeal for the priesthood, I understood the mind of the prophet Jeremiah saying, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me and you triumphed.”
Now I am standing before you as a priest who tries to preach the gospel—deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. At the same time I admit this would be my cross. If I preach and do not practice, I tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on your shoulders. I will be a hypocrite or a blind guide whom Jesus pounded all the time.
However, God has not left me alone to take up my cross. In his love and grace, I have had a living example of denying oneself, taking up the cross and following Jesus to imitate. One is my friend Sr. Paul who has a stomach cancer and lives fully every moment. The other is my sister in spirit Sr. Anthonia who entered the Carthusian convent on the first day of this year. Sr. Anthonia is allowed to write a letter and to send it to me occasionally because I am known to her novice master as her spiritual companion. Fortunately, I have learned the life of Carthusian the strictest order in Roman Catholic Church through her six-page long handwriting letters, books, and a movie called “Into Great Silence.”
The Carthusians devote themselves to prayer in silence, living in their own hermitage that has a little garden. Their prayer fills a whole day; they work in the garden, study and eat a meal in their hermitage. Once a week, the sisters take a two-hour walk together outside during which they may speak. In her letters, she talked about her life that is harsh and difficult in the beginning, but it is to get easier and eventually become a life in heaven while the life many pursue in the world is pleasant and easy in the beginning, but it gets harder and leaves sadness in the end. And she also shared her difficulty in coping with the prayers and her desire to eat and sleep a little bit more. However, she said, “Some live Jesus’ life through joy, some through passion, some through devotion, but I want to live Jesus’ suffering.” And she continues, “Fr. H.Paul, I pray that I live the contemplative life in the convent, praying and listening to your stories of the world and you live the contemplative life in the world, praying and listening to my stories with God in my hermitage.”
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I believe this is neither an impossible mission nor a cliché. Rather, it is an open invitation for us to experience freedom and life in this life. I pray when we say “Amen” in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, this would be our yes to the Christian commitment in denying oneself, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. And this is possible through the Lord who gives all the strength we need and the good friends who become our example to imitate.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”