There is a tiny chapel tucked away off the stairwell landing at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Cleveland. The cozy space with its comfortable accent chairs and natural light is the perfect hiding place for prayer. Above the small altar, a large olive wood crucifix is firmly mounted against the reclaimed wood panel wall. A red mosaic candle flickers in the corner; a visible reminder of Christ’s presence hidden in the tabernacle embedded in the wall.
Two portraits hang in the corner honoring the memory of the martyrs for whom the chapel is dedicated – the four women martyrs of El Salvador and the Jesuit Martyrs and their companions. A laminated sign on the window sill tells the story of the four women:
Ita Ford M.M, Dorothy Kazel O.S.U., Maura Clarke M.M., and Jean Donovan responded to God’s call to be one with the poor of El Salvador. Aware that the depth of their compassion and commitment could cost them their lives, they freely chose not only to live with and for the people of El Salvador, but also to die with them. On December 2, 1980 they were brutally tortured and murdered by members of El Salvador’s National Guard. Through the memory and witness of their life and death, may we too respond to God’s continuing call to solidarity with the poor.
I have long admired the lives of contemporary martyrs – Saint Oscar Romero, Blessed Stanley Rother, the Trappist Martyrs in Algeria – and the four North American women in particular, because of the presence of a lay woman missionary among them. When given the opportunity to return to the United States, they chose to remain with the people of El Salvador, regardless of the cost to their own safety. I am envious of their courage and faithfulness. What kind of love and complete dedication is required to lay down one’s life for another?
Most of us will likely never face this kind of life-or-death decision. But each of our journeys as disciples will include moments of great love and periods of intense suffering.
How are we called to imitate Christ in our discernment? Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) This scripture reminds me that my life is not my own. It is not about what I want, rather, it is about responding in freedom to God’s call. Do I recognize my own call as a participation in Jesus’ work to bring about the Kingdom? How is my own unique vocation a participation in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?
St. Ignatius speaks about 3 phases of humility, or three modes of being in relationship with God. The first phase is marked by a desire to obey God, where we want nothing that would separate us from God. The second phase is where we are called to grow in deeper love with God, and we come to accept all things as a gift from God including poverty and suffering. The third phase is a desire to imitate Christ and live as Jesus did, including a desire for insults, dishonor, and intentionally choosing hardship in order to imitate Christ.
When I reflect on that third phase of humility, I sometimes think “Not me!!” I might be willing to accept suffering, but I could never desire poverty or dishonor. I could never choose hardship like Jean Donovan or Sister Ita Ford. But God isn’t asking me to be somebody else. God invites each of us to respond in love to that which is immediately in front of us.
Renowned Ignatian spiritual director Joseph Tetlow, SJ describes the third phase of humility in this way, “I find it astonishing that I feel summoned to intimate friendship with Jesus Christ. I know that His way leads to dying to the self. I know His way leads to the cross. While I do not feel impelled to go looking for suffering or invited to inflict suffering on myself, I do feel perfectly ready to take whatever suffering comes along, and I will accept it as from the hand of God because then I will be following Jesus.”
Humility comes from a place of deep love. Given the choice, don’t all of us desire to do the most loving thing? Sometimes the most loving choice inevitably leads us down a road that is messy and uncertain. Perhaps we feel unprepared and pushed beyond our comfort zone. There are times when loving others comes with reputational risk, financial cost, or an inordinate commitment of time.
Most of us will not be giving our lives over to martyrdom, but we make decisions every day to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others:
- caring for aging parents or grandparents
- walking with a friend through cancer or illness
- risking a painful breakup
- befriending someone with vastly different political, religious, or social values
- extending forgiveness when we’d rather hold a grudge
- speaking up for the marginalized and voiceless
- standing alongside communities who are facing unjust discrimination
- praying for people who have hurt us
Imitating Christ is not about choosing the hard road to somehow “prove” my worthiness or to show others that I can withstand physical pain. True humility is never meant to justify actual injustice – like staying in an abusive relationship or accepting racism, homophobia, or sexist remarks. Imitating Christ is always motivated by love, letting go of our need for honor or pride, and knowing that choosing the path of greater love will inevitably entail suffering.
Sister Ita Ford says it best when she wrote to a friend, “I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you. Something worth living for — may be even worth dying for – something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be – that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in the search.”
- Tim Muldoon, 3 Levels of Humility
- Maureen McCann Waldron, Courage and Magnanimity
- Beth Knobbe, Saying “No” In Order to Say a Deeper “Yes”
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on unsplash.com