The subject matter of this column has been rattling around in my mind and my prayer for some time now. If my spiritual director reads my columns (which he says he does!), he will easily recognize it, since it stems from something he said to me a few months ago.

I must have been whining a bit and complaining about some of my challenges and personal struggles, when he suddenly shared with me a bit of Christian wisdom that his own spiritual director told him many years ago. He told me that I must see all of the “if onlys” in my life as the cross that I am called to bear at this time. What did he mean by this?

We all have our own list of “if onlys.” Some examples: “If only I did not have this illness, then…” “If only I could find a better job, then…” “If only my spouse had not died, then…” “If only I was better off financially, then…” “If only my marriage wasn’t in trouble, then…” “If only I did not have to care for a sick family member, then…” “If only my children weren’t in this trouble, then…” “If only I did not have to deal with this person, then…”

We can all make our own personal list of “if onlys” that we have to deal with on a daily basis. I would invite the reader to pause here and think of the “if onlys” that are present in his or her life at this particular time. These would be very personal to each one of us.

The not so subtle inference is that “if only” I did not have this problem, challenge or struggle in my life, then my life would be better and happier. I suppose on a purely human, natural or worldly level, there is some truth in that. But as believers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we do not view life on a purely human and natural level. We see life from the supernatural perspective of faith.

The fact is that we will always have “if onlys” to deal with. Life is never “perfect,” or if we think it is so for a while, it does not last long. A sudden illness or death, a financial stress, a family problem or something else will intervene. That is simply life.

I can look back over my 26 years as a priest and/or bishop and see this to be true. In every ministerial assignment, there have been particular problems and challenges, and I used to think that “if only” I could get a new or different assignment, these problems will go away, only to discover new and sometimes more difficult challenges that come with such a change. Again, that is life.

Where does that leave us? Well, back to the wisdom of my spiritual director, we need to see these “if onlys” as the particular cross that we are called to bear at this time in our life. It is precisely these crosses that help mold and strengthen us in our Christian lives and witness. These crosses are the path to true holiness.

It is in the ordinary ups and downs of our lives that God is present and forming us into the disciples he wants us to be. But we must see in them our own communion with Christ in his sufferings and passion for the sake of our salvation. In his human nature, we can even see that Jesus had his “if onlys.” Remember the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Jesus knew that his impending passion and death was the very means by which he would redeem the world. The road to the Resurrection and new life was the way of the cross.

One of my favorite saints is St. John of the Cross. He gives us a profound bit of spiritual wisdom, born of his own suffering and the bearing of the cross. “Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross” (Spiritual Canticle).

Oh how we wish it were otherwise! “If only” there were some other way. But there is not. The cross comes. We simply cannot avoid it. The question is, how do we face it. We face it in faith and trust in God. We must come to believe on the deepest level that the way of the cross is indeed the path to true happiness, fulfillment and peace.
That is a hard lesson to learn, and it takes a lifetime to learn it.

But do not lose hope, abandoning yourself to despair. The Father loves his Son with the deepest and greatest love, and the cross he endured for us was the way to our true and lasting happiness. We must unite ourselves to Jesus and let him strengthen us in our trials. In Him, we experience consolation and joy in the midst of all our “if onlys.” May the peace of Christ be with you all!