By Br. Casey Cole, OFM
During a trip to Greenville, S.C., last month, Br. Casey Cole, OFM, spoke to parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua Church during several weekend Masses. Describing God’s constant and supportive presence in our lives, he shared a bit of his own experience and how it colored his decision to become a Franciscan friar. The trip was especially meaningful to Casey because it afforded an opportunity to reconnect with a number of people who were influential in his vocation journey, including pastor Fr. Patrick Tuttle, OFM.
Following is the text of Casey’s reflection, which he posted on his blog, Breaking in the Habit. In introducing it, Casey says, “I hope that God is able to speak through this to you, or to someone else you might know that could use this.”
[After a brief introduction specific to each community], and so I’m here to share a little bit about how God has worked in my life over the past four years, how I felt a call to follow God, and how I believe that he is calling each of you.
And what better way to begin than with our first reading and psalm: “The Lord hears the cries of the poor.” We are reminded once again that God knows our concerns, cares about us, and is willing to intercede for us. Just as he heard the cries of his people when they were slaves in Egypt, the Lord has heard our own cries and has come to free us from our burdens.
How often have we been a poor and oppressed people? How often have we looked around and asked, “How am I ever going to get through this?” Whether it’s been a demanding job, a difficult relationship, bills that keep piling up, or just lack of direction, we’ve all felt the weight of oppression, have been tempted to lose hope. DON’T LOSE HOPE! God is here to answer our prayers! All we have to do is cry out to him. In my own life, money has always been a worry, and school is very expensive. Each year in college I would pray that I would have enough to get by, that they wouldn’t kick me out or that I’d run out of money half way through the year. God answered my prayers, and each year I made it through.
But it’s been my experience that God is not one for theatrics, that he does not answer our prayers through shock and awe miracles, but through our brothers and sisters we see each day. When I was struggling to find a way to pay for college, I didn’t happen to find the money miraculously sitting in my back account one day, nor did twenty-dollar bills fall from heaven like manna.
No, it was the sacrifice of my dad who changed jobs, drove over an hour to work each day at a job he hated because they offered tuition exchange. It was the dedication and perseverance of my mom who has worked at the same job for more than 25 years that has kept my family above water and made it possible for me to get an education at all. It was a teacher who saw potential in me and invited me to apply for a program with a scholarship. God heard the cry of the poor, but he answered my cry through the works of others who were willing to be God’s hands and feet.
Which got me thinking. If I truly believed that God heard my prayers and answered them through others, if I truly believed that I was nourished by God in the Eucharist and in the word, that God truly dwelled in me, then it meant that it was time for me to start hearing the cries of the poor as well, and to be God’s hands and feet. I realized that God was calling me to his service. I realized that God was calling me to a life devoted to others in prayer, poverty, and fraternity.
But there is a great danger in stepping up and being God’s representative. I’ve seen it in myself and I’ve seen it others: the moment that God starts working through us and letting us bring his grace to others, we are tempted to turn into Pharisees. You see, the sin of the Pharisee was not that he fasted. Fasting is a good thing. It is not that he paid tithes. How else would we have this church and new school? It’s not even that he prayed in public, seeking validation from others. We’re doing that right now.
No, the sin of the Pharisee is that he began equating the grace God had worked in him with his own ability. Since he was a Pharisee, God had no doubt blessed him with a good education, a stable upbringing, and enough money to remain comfortable. He did not deserve these things, he did not earn them. The reason that he had everything was because of the grace of God, God’s freely given, unmerited favor. And how did he thank God? By praising himself and judging his neighbor. “I pay tithes. I fast. I did all of these things without anyone else’s help, so why can’t you?” How ugly! The Lord says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
There’s a story of a group of scientists that got together and figured out a way to create life, not by putting together things that were already living, but by simply mixing together chemicals and water and dirt and a few other things. They created life out of nothing. So proud of their own skill, they called up to God and said, “Hey God! We don’t need you anymore. We can make life ourselves.” “God responds, “Oh. Is that so? All by yourself? Where’d you get the chemicals and water and dirt? Your ability to think, your passion for science, and the life you have? Did you make those things too?”
These scientists, like the Pharisee, forgot how blessed they were, how you can’t even walk out the door without running into God’s grace. This is an absolute tragedy because it is the acceptance of a lie. We are fooled into thinking that we are in control, that we determine our own fate, that all we have to do is work hard and we can accomplish anything all on our own. It is a lie in believing that we do not need God.
As St. Paul tells us, this could not be further from the truth. He says, At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.
I’ve experienced it and so have you: people will let you down. It’s a fact of life. Your kids will disappoint you. Your parents will embarrass you. Your church, your government, and your best friends will do things that infuriate you. I will let you down, and at times, you will even let yourself down. When we try to be our own lords and do things without God’s help, we will let each other down.
But God will never let you down. God will never abandon you. God will always be there at your defense, hearing your cries.
All you have to do is act as the tax collector did, and return to God will humble heart and be open to God’s grace working through you. We don’t know what the tax collector did to make him a sinner. But does it matter? His example to us is that knew that he couldn’t make things right without God. He knew that God would listen, and he showed to tell him. He could have let his sin get in the way of his relationship with God, too afraid to ask forgiveness; he could have chosen to deny the fact that he had sinned at all; he could have acted prideful, believing that he was big enough to handle it on his own.
But he didn’t. He recognized that all that he had been given up until then was grace, and if he was ever go to make it to another day, it was going to be because of more grace. He recognized that his life meant nothing without God. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
My life as a Franciscan friar has just begun, and I couldn’t be happier. I could speak for hours about how free I feel, how much fun I have with my brothers, how my mind has been stretched so far with philosophies and theologies about God, how I have been challenged to do work that I would have never done otherwise, work that no one else is doing. But we don’t have that sort of time.
Instead, I’ll end with a question for you. If you believe that God has worked wonders in your life, that God is capable of great things in you, that our world is in need of God’s faith, hope and love, and that our church is something worth preserving; if you believe all this
Would you be God’s ears to hear the cry of the poor and his hands and feet to answer their prayers?
Would you live a life for the life of the Church?
Would you let God poor you out like a libation wherever he needs you?
I pray that you may be given the openness to hear God’s call, whatever it may be, and the courage to answer it. I’m here to tell you, you won’t regret it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made and I couldn’t be happier. But I don’t want to do it alone. And so I ask you,