There was once a movie called Shadow of the Hawk, in which a young couple and their Indian guide were hurrying up a mountainside, fleeing from evil people seeking to kill them. Because the Indian guide knew the mountain so well, he would be able to lead them to a place of safety—if they kept moving. However, at one point the young woman dropped to the ground and protested, “I can’t take another step.” Her boyfriend lifted her to her feet and explained, “But, darling, we must go on—we have no other choice.” However, the woman shook her head and insisted, “I can’t go on! I can’t go on!” At this point the Indian guide said to the young man, “Hold her close to your heart. Let your strength and courage flow out of your body into hers.” The young man took this advice, and the two of them rested together in a tight embrace. Then, after a few minutes, the young woman announced, “Now I can go on! Now I can do it!,” and the three of them continued on and eventually reached a place of safety (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 40). This is what Jesus seeks to do for us. Our journey through life often seems long and hard—especially in a world increasingly hostile to our Christian faith—and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. In fact, on our own, we cannot possibly succeed; we will lose our way or go in the wrong direction, and exhaust ourselves in the process. However, Jesus offers us the guidance and strength we need, along with the solemn promise that only with His help we will reach the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many Christians—including, sadly, some Catholics—have the mistaken idea that they can relate to God solely as individuals, without needing to belong to a faith community. This was never God’s intent, for Israel was always known not as a group of chosen individuals, but as the Lord’s Chosen People—and the Church, of course, is the new Israel, a community of believers forming the People of God. When Saul of Tarsus was converted, instead of withdrawing from society, he rightly sought to join the Christian community, and even though the early Christians were understandably frightened of him at first because of his earlier reputation, they gradually accepted him—setting the stage for him to become St. Paul, a great missionary and a constant promoter of Church unity. Because Paul remained rooted in the truth of Christ, he bore great spiritual fruit, and Jesus promises in the Gospel that this can be true for all of us. St. John tells us that keeping Christ’s commandments will help us maintain a living faith and reassure us that we are pleasing to God. In our human weakness, however, we often find it helpful and comforting to see living examples of this truth all around us; the efforts of other Christians to put their faith into practice serve as a needed reminder that, through God’s grace, true holiness is indeed possible for us. When Jesus called Himself the true vine, He also said to His disciples, “You [plural] are the branches.” If we’re linked to Christ as the vine, we’re also linked to every other branch, some more immediately or directly than others—and through this spiritual unity, all of us can grow in grace.
Once there were two very close friends who grew up together; we’ll call them Brad and Jim. Brad was a natural leader, with a fine character and very strong moral convictions. Jim was a very nice and likeable guy, but he was quite easily influenced by the people around him. As long as he hung out with his friend Brad, there was no problem—but after high school, they went to different colleges, and before long Jim fell in with the wrong crowd. Drugs, promiscuity, and law-breaking threatened to ruin his life; his family feared he’d end up dead or in prison, so in desperation they called Brad and told him everything. Brad helped them stage an intervention and take Jim home, and when Jim came to his senses, he realized he needed Brad; in fact, his chance for a happy and successful life directly depended upon maintaining contact with his much stronger friend and drawing strength and inspiration from him (Link, op. cit.).
As true as this was for Jim and Brad, it’s infinitely more true for us and Jesus. Without Christ, we will spiritually wither up and die; without Him, we literally have no future. Our Lord can hardly be more clear when He says, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me.” This means several important things for us. First of all, we must remain in the Catholic Church, for even though many Christians in other denominations are pleasing to God and presumably will find a place in His Kingdom, none of their churches have all seven sacraments—especially the Eucharist—or the spiritual and religious authority Jesus gave solely to St. Peter and his successors. The Lord is allowing divisions among His followers for the time being, but His long-term plan will once again bring about complete religious unity under the leadership of the Pope—and if we go against His will in this regard, we shortchange ourselves spiritually and possibly even risk our eternal salvation.
Secondly, we must come to Mass every weekend, so that we can be spiritually fed and nourished by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in a state of grace, thus allowing ourselves to be truly alive and capable of fulfilling our God-given mission. Additionally, of course, we should also receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever we fall from grace, or otherwise on a regular basis, so as to make steady progress in rooting out our faults and growing in holiness. Not only does this please Jesus, but it also helps make us ready to enter into His heavenly presence as soon as we die. Lastly, we must pray every day, even if only for a few minutes—for a day without prayer is a day without spiritual growth, a day in which we can more easily be tempted and led astray, and a day which—from the vantage point of eternity—we’ll regret wasting. Quiet time in the morning or evening, and short prayers interspersed with the activities of our day, can be a source of guidance, strength, and inner peace; they will help us remain rooted in Christ, and allow us to answer His call to us, whatever it may be. Many of the saints have testified that those who pray will be saved, whereas those who choose not to pray are in grave danger.
Our intended destiny is to be eternally happy in Heaven, but this joy is not automatic or guaranteed. Only those who are united to Jesus in this life will be united with Him in the life to come. As Our Lord says, we must be rooted in Him throughout our lives—for only in this way will His words remain in us and will we bear fruit that endures.