GRATITUDE MOVES US TO STRUGGLE
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” (Mt 25:14-15) Jesus’ story of the talents is very familiar to us but, like all of Scripture, never ceases to invite us to a greater understanding of our life with God.
At its core, the parable Jesus tells is of a master who lavishly entrusts a huge portion of his wealth to three of his servants. In so doing, he doesn’t treat them as servants, but as children. He implicates them. Seen in this way, it seems that “entrusts” is precisely the word: he doesn’t give them detailed instructions, telling them exactly what to do. He leaves it in their hands. Judging by their reaction - the eagerness with which they strive to multiply their master’s wealth - two of them understood this. They experienced their master’s gesture as a sign of his confidence and trust in them. We could even say that they saw it as a loving gesture, and thus they lovingly sought to please him, even though no demands or conditions were given to them. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. Their decision to invest their master’s wealth, their willingness to run that risk, and their decision to become protagonists who strive and who involve themselves, all speak of a perception of being loved and how that awakens a desire to respond to the best of their abilities.
The other servant, however, perceives something very different. He feels that he is being put to the test and therefore that he must not fail. For him it seems that not making the wrong decision and to avoid failing is of the utmost importance. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” He dreads displeasing his master and the consequences that he imagines will result from this. Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’”(Mt 24:24). Since he believed his master to be harsh and unjust, he did not feel that anything was being entrusted to him. Rather, he saw it as a burdensome test, and not as an opportunity. And not wanting to fail the test, he chose to act as safely as possible with someone else’s belongings and interests - “here you have what is yours.”
In these two very different reactions, we can consider how we ourselves are responding to what we have been entrusted with by God our Father: our life, our Christian vocation, and our path within Opus Dei. All of these are of immense value, dearly prized by God. And he has placed them in our hands. How will we respond?
Struggling out of gratitude, rather than fear
For the first two servants, their master’s trust was a genuine gift. They knew they didn’t deserve it, nor was it something that they had any right to expect from him. In a crucial way, they grasped that their relationship with their master was not based on the success or failure of what they did, but on how their master saw who they were. Not only did he see what they were at the present moment, but he saw what they could become. Seen in this way, we can easily imagine the profound sense of gratitude that would arise. Being looked upon with hopeful eyes is truly a gift, and the most natural response to a gift is to want to give in return.
We can mistake the importance of struggle in our Christian life if we lose sight of this. If we strive in order to be successful, and therefore loved, it will be very hard for us to experience genuine peace in that struggle. Striving to be loved, however unconsciously, always means that failures and setbacks lead to deep discouragement, or, much worse, cynicism can overtake the soul. Founding our struggle in gratitude helps us avoid this.
The parable also suggests that the first two servants found in this gift a sense of mission, a mission that was unique and personal. The master, we are told, gave to each one, “according to his ability.” It is unlikely that the servants would have previous experience investing and overseeing vast sums of wealth! Rather the ability that the master sees is what they can become. By entrusting them with what he values highly, he is in fact calling them to be more, to strive to become what they are not yet. In other words, he bestows on them a unique and personal mission by this gift. And since they see the gift in these terms, they are inspired and encouraged to rise to this calling. Feeling themselves implicated in their master’s business, they make it their own and strive to undertake something they as yet had no experience of. They make the effort to learn, to grow, and to challenge themselves, not out of fear, but out of gratitude.
As in the parable, God the Father also calls each of us according to what He sees us becoming. This is what is most important, and what we must strive to see anew in our prayer: how God sees us, not how we see ourselves. We want to ensure that our struggle is focused on him, not on ourselves. Precisely because I can be certain of God’s attitude towards me, I can forget about myself and throw myself into striving to develop and grow the riches entrusted to me for His glory and for the benefit of others. Such a struggle will bring us to grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and in all those human virtues that enable us to work with excellence and to be a true friend of our friends.
A Struggle Inspired by Jesus’ Example
It is understandable that we tend to avoid the discomfort and the struggle that following Christ and growing in virtue necessarily involves. Everyone of us longs for peace and for consolation, a rest from all our labours. Jesus understands this very well: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30). This rest, however, will be fully experienced in the resurrection of the body, when all of creation will be filled with God as the waters fill the seas (cfr, Isa 11:9). In our present moment, however, the peace and the rest that Jesus offers us comes precisely from taking up his yoke and struggling to follow him.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34) These well-known words of Jesus are not a harsh requirement arbitrarily imposed. They are actually an immense consolation. Jesus goes before us and experiences in his own flesh the challenges, fears, and pains that arise from freely responding to the Father’s calling. In short, Jesus does not bid us to struggle from afar. He has been there before us; he always precedes us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:15-16) Jesus invites us to what he himself has already lived.
Speaking of the way that Simon of Cyrene carried the Cross with Jesus, St. Josemaria encourages each one of us to discover how we are invited to live out that same role: “For a soul in love it is no misfortune to become voluntarily Christ's Simon of Cyrene and, in this way, to give such close company to his suffering Humanity, reduced to a state of rags and tatters. For if we do this we can be certain of our closeness to God, who blesses us by choosing us for this task.”(St. Josemaria, Friends of God, 132). The discovery is that my struggle - a struggle that I might feel unjust, in the same way Simon would have - is actually with Jesus. It is union with him now, in the present moment of the struggle, not only if I have been “successful” in that struggle. To accept struggle voluntarily, as an inherent consequence of the gift of my Christian vocation, is to open the door to this discovery that Jesus himself is striving in me and with me. Therefore, “it is no longer just any cross we are carrying. We discover that it is the Cross of Christ, and with it the consolation of knowing that our Redeemer has taken it upon himself to bear its weight”(ibidem).
At the same time Jesus also invites us to see the results of a life that embraces the Cross: the victory over sin and death and his glorification by the Father through his bodily resurrection. Because of the Resurrection, in Jesus we have absolutely unshakeable proof that striving to be faithful to what God our Father has entrusted us with is worth whatever sacrifice and suffering might arise. As St. Paul tells us, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor 4:17). At Jesus’ side we can look back at the Cross and not see pointless pain, but victory and redemption. Seeing this should frame how we see the challenges and the difficulties that necessarily arise as we try to faithfully follow Christ in his example to multiply and make fruitful what the Father had entrusted to him.
Grace Transfigures Struggle, Without Eliminating It
Perhaps the servant who eventually buried what was entrusted to him felt overwhelmed, saddened even by the effort involved in what he saw his fellow servants doing. Comparing himself to them, feeling inadequate to such a task, thinking himself hard done by - it all made him seek an easier, safer path. So he dug a hole and buried the gift entrusted to him, along with all the possibilities that came with it. This basic plot repeats itself whenever we avoid the effort and the discomfort that pursuing anything worthwhile in life entails. But we must never forget: struggle and effort in the loving pursuit of what is good is not unfair or arbitrary. It is the very nature of life itself, the life that Jesus has sanctified. As long as we live in the age before the Resurrection, union with Jesus will always occur precisely in a free and loving struggle to grow in the supernatural and human virtues. This is the case because God’s grace does not replace the dynamic proper to all life and to human nature, but unites it to God himself.
Our efforts and our striving need not be an expression of self-reliance.. We should never forget that, as saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Flp 2:13). Struggle, thus, “no more opposes the action of grace in us, which must be the principle of all our good works, than the divine intervention suppresses or diminishes our own proper activity. Quite the contrary, if God acts in us, it is in no way somehow to substitute for us, but rather to foster an activity which, when it manifests itself, is not less our own from having come wholly from him”(Louis Bouyer, Introduction to the Spiritual Life, 169) The struggle to grow in the theological virtues then actually is love - both Divine and human - and holiness is precisely “the fulness of love”(Cfr. St. Josemaria, Furrow, 739).
St. Josemaria expresses this same theological truth from the perspective of prayer: “while talking to Our Lord in your prayer you understood that struggle is a synonym for Love, and you asked for a greater Love, with no fear of the struggle awaiting you, since you would be striving for Him, with Him and in Him”(St. Josemaria, Furrow, 158). The more we try to live our struggle precisely as “Love”, the more we will be moved with desire for that love - for that struggle - to increase. We will overcome the temptation to bury what we have received out of a desire to avoid what is uncomfortable, and will instead invest it with all the struggle this necessarily involves.
Free to Grow, Free to Learn
In his recent pastoral letter, the Prelate of Opus Dei has helped us consider more deeply the intimate relationship between freedom and struggle in our lives. “The freer we are, the more we can love. And love is demanding: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). The opposite of this formula is also true: the more we love, the more we experience ourselves as free, even in moments that are difficult or unpleasant. “The more intense our charity is, the freer we are. We also act with freedom of spirit when we don’t feel like doing something or find it especially difficult, if we do it out of love, that is, not because we like it, but because we want to.”(Pastoral Letter, 8 January, 2018) This is not a “technique” for getting ourselves to do what we don’t feel like doing, airbrushing away a grim reality with the words “love and “freedom”. Rather, it is a profound truth about our souls that each of us is invited to discover. For the truth is, the more we identify ourselves with the gift that God has entrusted us with, our talents and our mission, the more willing we will be to struggle to cultivate that gift whenever it is necessary. Thus we will not be moved by fear, nor by the burden of an extrinsic obligation, but by gratitude towards God and the desire to respond to his love. “Our faith in God’s love for each one of us (cf. 1 Jn 4:16) leads us to respond with love. We can love because he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). It fills us with security to know that God’s infinite Love is to be found not only at the origin of our existence but also at every moment in our lives. For God is closer to us than we are to ourselves”(ibidem).
In recent times, much work has been done to understand anew the importance of struggle within an integral human development, especially within the area of professional work and education. “Think a moment about those of your colleagues who are outstanding for their professional prestige, their integrity or their spirit of service and self-sacrifice. Isn't it true that they devote many hours of the day, and even of the night, to their jobs? Isn't there anything we can learn from them?”(St. Josemaria, Friends of God, 60). Surely we can learn how to struggle better so that we can be free to love more. And what we can learn from those who struggle best, is that they tend to have an “open-ended struggle”. They don’t see their abilities - their “talents” - as fixed or determined. Like the first two servants in Jesus’ parable, they understand that what is entrusted to them can grow through effort and struggle. This belief makes the struggle itself seem worthwhile; it helps them see setbacks and difficulties as chances to learn and to improve rather than as failures; it helps them experience effort as a sign that they are practicing and progressing rather than as a sign they don’t have what it takes; it helps them want to know their weakness and to receive feedback from others, rather than be wounded or hurt by others seeing their shortcomings. Surely the first two servants of the parable believed that what they were entrusted with could grow. They were drawn and inspired by their master’s trust and confidence in them. We should be just as inspired, just as free when we discover once again how God our Father’s love is found precisely in the unique mission that he has entrusted to each one of us, a mission that involves sacrifice and struggle to see it through.
Just as he did with the characters in the parable, God has entrusted us with a wondrous mission. He has chosen to involve us in making his infinite Love present in the world in which we live:“Realising that God is waiting for us in each person (cf. Mt 25:40), and that he wants to make himself present in their lives also through us, leads us to strive to share abundantly with others what we have received. And in our lives, my daughters and sons, we have received and we receive a lot of love. Giving love to God and to others is the most proper act of freedom. Love fulfils freedom, it redeems it. Love enables freedom to discover its origin and goal in God’s Love.” The two servants who grew the gift of their master eventually discovered a reward much greater than anything they could have imagined: “‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’” (Mt 25:23). This is the joy we seek, it is the joy that accompanies us as we struggle well, filled with the hope that made St. Paul exclaim: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Rm 8:18)