By Fr. Paul August Gros
Peace in the Lord Jesus! When I was in seminary at St. Joseph Seminary College almost 20 years ago, it was a custom for seminarians to put holy cards on their bedroom doors for all those walking by to see. Usually, it was a holy card of a favorite saint that a particular seminarian had a devotion to or a particular prayer they were accustomed to praying. I remember my holy card was a quote taken from the second reading this Sunday from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians – “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). It was a good reminder to me that this huge transition in my life from the secular university to the seminary was going to happen not on my own strength but on the strength Jesus would provide for me. It would be a good reminder for me not to fall into the trap of self-reliance for the next 6 years of seminary formation (and still a reminder for me today as a priest).
This had to have been true for St. Paul as he was writing this letter to the Philippians. The letter to the Philippians was one of St. Paul’s last letters to write and he was writing from behind prison bars. He writes about what we might call “secret to life” – that whether one goes hungry or well fed, in abundance or in need, with or without, he was content simply with Jesus and His grace. This “secret to life” flew in the face of the popular philosophy at the time called Stoicism. Stoicism taught that “if you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions, but take away from his desires” (Barclay 84). In other words, to be content in life rather than constantly seeking after the pleasures of this world (only to find oneself constantly disappointed), one must eliminate all desires of the heart. This of course was a human philosophy that failed miserably, ultimately because our desire is a part of what it means to be human. The human desires not only enable us to seek the basic necessities of life like food and drink, but desire also enables us to love. Made in the image and likeness of God, to love and be loved is what it means to be human.
Essentially, St. Paul was saying “my contentment is not based on a false sense of self-sufficiency or desire lessness, but rather what Jesus Christ gives me.” You might say that St. Paul was “God-sufficient” rather than “selfsufficient.” “Stoicism failed because it was inhuman; Christianity succeeded because it was rooted in the divine. Paul could face anything, because in every situation he had Christ” (Barclay 85)!
Thus, rather the food in the cafeteria was not so good that day, or I didn’t get the grade I was hoping for on that paper I spend all night typing, or I seemed to fail miserably at giving that talk to those high schoolers…it was all ok because it was Christ who strengthened me and kept me going through seminary formation one day at a time. In the end, it was the holy card on the outside of my bedroom door that I saw day every day that constantly reminded me that the one who walks with Christ can face anything – “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
Finally, I will be out this week on a silent retreat in Black Canyon, Arizona just north of Phoenix at a retreat center in the desert called the Merciful Heart Hermitage. Please keep me in prayer as I promise to do the same for you!