One of my fondest memories from my college days at Holy Cross was the annual spring intramurals. While there were a variety of events, the tug-of-war had the greatest impact on my memory. The contest pitted the most brawny and surliest behemoths of each class against each other in an exhausting display of sinewy prowess.
Another kind of tug-of-war surfaced a year after my 1965 graduation. While teaching a religion class at St. Henry’s High School in Charleston, Mo., I used the book “The Gospel According to Peanuts” as one of my textbooks. In one of the illustrations, poor Charlie Brown bemoaned the moral tug-of-war that was raging inside his heart.
I believe that Charles Schulz, the late cartoonist, had used his hapless character to express a deep point of Christian theology. Charlie Brown’s conscience was caught in the invisible vice between the things he wanted do and the things he should do. Schulz successfully underscored the never-ending tension that is a universal quality of our divided human nature. Like Charlie Brown, our moral struggle forces us to focus on the disparity between what we should be and what we really are.
Instead of the brawny linebackers, tackles, and guards in college, this moral tug-of-war pits the world, the flesh and the devil on one side and Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the other.
However, this eternal contest is not a simple black-and-white struggle. While the presumption of victory is always on the side of the Holy Family, there is a grave warning implicit for people who follow Church teachings, devotions and pietistic rituals in the course of this struggle.
A tug-of-war can take a long time, and there are definite strategies that are not apparent to the unschooled eye. In one such strategy the secular team eases up, ever so lightly on the rope, so that complacency, self-satisfaction or pride catches the religious team off-guard.
Mother Teresa is a good example of this. As a young nun bursting with love and enthusiasm for the Lord, she prayed that God would let her share in Christ’s suffering so that she could be one with Him. God heeded her fervent wishes but instead of the physical pains of Calvary He sent her the most agonizing mental struggles of Gethsemane that brought her to the brink of despair. God was not being cruel but recognized that His eager servant could be susceptible to the righteous pride of an enthusiast. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk’s 2007 book, “Come Be My Light” poignantly captured her soul-rendering tug-of-war.
The best way to soften the direct impact of our personal inner tug-of-war is to regard this struggle as one of the crosses we have to bear daily. We can accomplish this by walking the narrow vertical path between the lateral temptations of a secular world and the proud seductions of the interior life.
Both can be devastating to the unsuspecting soul. This salvific route forms a simple cross (+), a symbol of God’s love for us. We should also see this as a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate saving power of the Christian sign of contradiction to the world. With Christ as our helmsman how can any of us fail to navigate the rocky shoals of these worldly and spiritual temptations?