by Fr. Jack McArdle
As recently as last week I had a spin in an ambulance to the local hospital. I have had several such trips over the past few years, but, thankfully, the good Lord has something left for me to do. About three ago I was taken to hospital on a Saturday night. All day Sunday and Monday, as I lay there, looking like a spaceman, with oxygen mask, two drips coming into me, and one tube coming out of me, I quietly concluded that "This is it!" (I found out later that week that the doctor thought the same!).
Anyhow, my abiding memory was the peace I experienced, and my willingness to say 'yes' to whatever the Lord wanted for me. I knew then that I did not have the Brownie points, the Green Shield stamps, the merits, indulgences, and graces that I had set out many years ago, to collect for such an emergency! All of those mattered little anymore, because I was sure that all would be well. I had no idea before that what it would feel like to be in that situation. (I heard of a man who said he wouldn't mind dying when he was ninety, and that was grand until he reached 89!).
My abiding memory of that time was my complete willingness to let go. I would never have rated myself very high on the 'letting go' stakes during my life-time, but now, somehow, it was different. I was quite resigned, and my over-riding emotion was one of gratitude for family, for friends, and for my work as a priest, something through which I have been enormously blessed. Self-preservation is the number one basic instinct, and it has to be said that nobody likes the thought of death.
However, when it seemed to come knocking on my door, I found a ready willingness to let go, and put my faith and trust in the mercy and love of God. That experience of being willing to let go has had a profound effect on my life ever since. If I was willing to let go of life, how much easier is it to let go of resentments, of regrets, or of possessions. I have thought long and deep about this, and I find that the idea of 'letting go' is figuring more and more in my list of priorities. I am not at all surprised that the concept should get a chapter in this collection of Insights.
It is absolutely vital to let go of the past, because the past no longer exists, and what's the point of holding on to something that doesn't exist anymore? The only value the past has are the lessons it taught me. I would be a very wise person today if I learned every lesson that life taught me. Jesus told us "You are my friends".
There is an Arabian definition of a friend that I like. "A friend is somebody to whom one can pour out all the contents of one's heart, wheat and chaff together, knowing that gentle hands will sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and, with the breath of love, will blow the chaff away". That's what Jesus does with my past. He garners the nuggets of wisdom that life has taught, and entrusts them to me as something precious that must never be forgotten, and he blows the rest away. Many people remain imprisoned in their past, and they live on a constant diet of guilt, remorse, and hindsight, with overlayers of bitterness, hurts, and unforgiveness that stifle any hope of living today with any kind of peace or happiness. Jesus is there as Saviour, with both hands held out, ready and willing to take all of that from me, if I will just allow him.
When Jesus asks me "Who do you say that I am?", I have to give serious thought to my answer. If I am imprisoned in the past, then he is not my Saviour. We say "By your cross and resurrection you have set us free", but I may not be free at all. When I was growing up in the country all those years ago, there was a man who used come around buying hens. He would tie the legs of the hen and throw her into the cart with all the others. One day he gave us local yokels a simple lesson in hen psychology. He reached in with a pen-knife and snipped the twine tying the legs of one of the hens. She didn't move, even though I expected her to fly away. He explained that hens are stupid in that, if the others are not free, that hen will have no idea that she's free! If he snipped the twine tying all the legs they would all fly away.
If I live among people who are trapped in the past, I may well pick up their dis-ease. A great deal of our sectarian strife is a direct result of what happened in the past. The sins of the fathers are visited on their children. There would never be a war if somebody somewhere was prepared and ready to say "I'm sorry. I was wrong". When everybody is right, then the truth goes out the window, and injustice reigns supreme. Each of our World Wars was supposed to 'end all wars'.
Today we see Vietnam being repeated in Iraq, and the carnage continues. The future is being jeopardised because of something that happened in the past, because of something that cannot be undone. The past has not taught the wisdom to ensure that such things might be avoided in the future. "Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
Sometimes we have to let go of our dreams, if we are to live in the real world. Mary dreams of marrying some wealthy handsome hulk, and she ends up married to Joe Blogg, who could hardly light a fire, not to speak of setting the world on fire. If Mary holds on to her dream, she's not going to be too happy with poor Joe! I remember meeting a young mother in New York who was striving her utmost to rear her children just as her mother had reared her in a very rural part of Ireland. If she is ever to live in reality, then she will have to let go of the dream. She is functioning at one level, but thinking at another level. That can never bring happiness. To look around me, seeing everyone and everything there, and to be willing to say 'yes' to that, is to bloom where I'm planted.
I am not implying that, if what I see is very wrong, I should resign myself to that. I am speaking of the situation where life is normal, and as good as could be expected. Traditionally, it has been the dream of every Jew to return to live in the Promised Land, and many of them have done that over the years. The story is told of one man standing praying at the Wailing Wall, praying over and over again "I want to be with my people. I want to be with my people". Someone near him whispered "Aren't you with your people here? Where are your people?" "In Miami in Florida" came the reply! Alcoholics are noted for what is called 'doing a geographic'. If I could only get to Australia, and start again, I would cut out the drink entirely. Needless to say, give him enough time in Australia, and he will discover that he brought his problem with him.
"Let go, and let God" is a phrase with which we are all familiar. It is a very simple way of saying that we should stop playing God. God will become God in my life the very second I decide to stop playing God. God will not gate-crash my party if he is not invited. It can be difficult to really understand what is meant when we speak about handing something over to God. I remember a young mother, many years ago, whose husband died of cancer, and she was left with three young boys. The third one was the one who seemed to give her the most trouble. When I suggested that she hand him over to God, she threw her hands in the air, and said "I hand him over to God every morning, but God gives him back to me by ten o'clock!"
Handing my will and my life over to the care of God is something that is worth trying to grasp as a way of doing things. There is a very simple test to know if you are doing God's will. Would God approve how you treated that person this morning? Would God approve how you spend your time or your money? If you believe that he would, then you are doing his will. It's as simple as that. It can become a way of measuring the quality of our lives, and I will often have to give up my own will, and let go of my own selfishness, if I am to act in a way with which God is pleased.
If I am on my way back to the Garden where an eternal hug awaits me, then I have to become a hugger on the way, as my forgiveness extends wider and wider until there is no one left to forgive. This can take quite a lot of letting go. Some people bury the hatchet, but they mark the spot, in case they ever need it again! It is not very realistic to speak about forgiving and forgetting. Some people have been hurt in ways which they could never possibly forget. The pain of remembering begins to ease, though, once the forgiving process gets under way. It is possible, and is quite frequently the case, where the forgiveness is given, but the memory is as vivid as ever. I cannot hurry up the forgetting process; that will take time. Even the forgiving will need time.
I have to start with a desire to forgive, even if I am not yet ready to do so. I don't believe the Lord would put that desire in my heart without giving me what it takes to carry it through. When I forgive, I set myself free. When I have a resentment against another, it is as if I were drinking poison and expecting the other person to die! Unforgiveness is a self-inflicted prison, where I sit in solitary confinement, licking my wounds, and counting my hurts. The word 'resentment' comes from the French 'sentir', or the Latin 'sentare', both of which mean 'to feel'. To re-sent is to feel all over again. In other words, I continue to put myself through the pain, and, as a result, the anger and need for revenge grows within me. I could walk right out into freedom by letting go, and pressing the erase button. This is an area where letting go is of paramount importance.
At the beginning of this chapter I spoke about the letting go that is involved in dying. That is one letting go that I cannot escape. I would suggest that I have many opportunities every single day to practise that letting go in many other areas, and that will make the final letting go all that much easier. Death is like a pile of sand at the end of my life, which I can take and sprinkle along the road of life, as I die to myself in so many different ways, i.e., my tiredness, possessions, opinions etc. If I do this dying during my life I will find that there's no sand left when I get to the end, and I'll be all set for my ascension, with nothing to hold me down! On the other hand, if I wait till the end of my life to die, it very well could be too late…….
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