About seventy years ago there was a boy named Eugene Orowitz—a skinny, unimposing 100 pound high school student who seemingly had nothing going for him. One day in gym class the track instructor taught the boys how to throw a javelin, which is a sort of spear. All the other students tried hurling it; the longest throw was 30 yards. Then it was Eugene’s turn. Some of the kids taunted him: “Hey, stupid, can you lift it? Careful, don’t stab yourself”—but they were stunned into silence when he hurled it twice as far as anyone else. As a result of finding something he could do well, Eugene’s life took on new meaning. He went out for the track team, and began throwing the javelin for up to six hours a day; in 1954, by the end of his senior year, he could throw it farther than any other high school student in the entire country. Eugene won an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, and even dreamt of competing in the Olympics. Then one day, because he hadn’t warmed up properly, he tore the ligaments in his shoulder—ending his career as an athlete, his scholarship, and his dreams. It was as if God had allowed all his hard work to be wasted. Eugene Orowitz dropped out of college and took a job in a warehouse.
Sometimes tragic or disappointing things happen in life, and we can’t make sense of them. Many people have very heavy crosses to bear—but our faith teaches that God can give them great meaning and value. Eugene Orowitz found this to be true. While working in the warehouse he met a struggling actor who asked him to help him learn his lines. As a result, Eugene himself became interested in acting, and enrolled in acting school. Eventually he got a break: he was cast as Little Joe Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, which ran for 14 years. Later he had the lead role on Little House on the Prairie, and still later he directed and starred in the series Highway to Heaven, a wonderful and inspiring program showing how God’s grace can make a difference in human lives. Eugene Orowitz, of course, was the actor Michael Landon, now deceased, and he once said that tearing his shoulder ligaments was the best thing that could have happened to him—it changed his life and eventually opened up doors he never would have imagined (Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year A, Series I, p. 97). What seemed an unfair cross was actually a great blessing. That can often be true for us—particularly in terms of faith. Carrying our cross for the sake of Christ can seem like a great burden—but it leads to the blessing of everlasting life.
In his Letter to the Romans (12:1-2), St. Paul tells us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern [or judge] what is the will of God. . . .” I think this means, among other things, judging success and failure by God’s terms, not those of the world. In the eyes of the world, the prophet Jeremiah was a miserable failure. At one point (21:7-9), Jeremiah poured out his heart, stating what a terrible burden it was to be God’s spokesman. Jeremiah was young and he stuttered, and so people made fun of him. He always had to preach a message of divine judgment and doom for a sinful nation, so he was very unpopular; when he warned of forthcoming national disaster, he was labeled a defeatist and traitor, and on one occasion he was thrown down a dry well and threatened with death. Jeremiah considered himself a failure, and some years later died an unhappy man while exiled in a foreign land. Was his life wasted? Not at all! Jeremiah was a great man in God’s eyes, and he is surely now immensely happy, and has a very special place in heaven. In the Gospel of Matthew (16:21-27), Jesus announced that His experience would be similar to Jeremiah’s: He would be scorned, rejected, falsely condemned, and executed. In worldly terms it seemed Jesus was a failure—but we know better. He is our Lord and Savior, and is exalted as the King of the universe and ruler of all creation.
A United States senator was in India some year ago, and he made a point of visiting Calcutta and observing Mother Teresa’s work among the poor and dying persons of that city. Overwhelmed by the poverty he saw, he asked her, “Mother, how can you bear the load without being crushed by it?” The future saint responded, “My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, but faithful” (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 289). Mother Teresa’s response is important for all of us, for Jesus warns us that if we want to share in His victory, we must first follow in His footsteps; we must bear our cross, whatever it may be.
What cross are you asked to carry: poor health, financial worries, family problems, job-related stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, self-doubts, concern over the future, or shattered dreams? These can all be very sad and difficult things, and even the little worries and inconveniences of daily life can get us down. We have a choice, however: we can struggle with our particular cross as merely a miserable burden, or we can see it as somehow serving a higher purpose. If we offer our sufferings to God, He can give them a meaning and value we never would have imagined. Maybe we’ll be lucky like Michael Landon, and see our cross turned into a blessing while here on earth; maybe something that seemed unnecessary or unfair will suddenly make sense. Even if this doesn’t happen, however, we still have reason to hope. Heaven may seem a long way off, but it’s very real, and very much worth whatever sacrifices we have to make in order to reach it.
Jeremiah had a difficult cross to bear, but he remained faithful, and is now considered one of the greatest Old Testament prophets. Mother Teresa underwent a “dark night of the soul” for several decades, a time in which she felt no spiritual joy nor any sense of God’s presence—yet she remained faithful in her ministry. Jesus Himself, though completely free of sin and undeserving of all suffering, nevertheless suffered more than anyone else in history—but He remained perfectly obedient. Each one of us has our burdens and challenges, but we can remain hopeful, with the help of God’s grace, for we have Our Lord’s promise: if we try to live our lives for Him, He will share His life with us.