Some questions from Nicolas Stebbing CR
Why did Our Lord’s disciples follow Him? They left boat, tax desk, and family when He called them, not knowing where he was going. There must have been something utterly irresistible about His call for them. He called other people, like the rich young man, and they didn’t follow Him. The disciples could have refused but they chose not to: they saw something in Jesus that made them want to go along with Him. What about us? Jesus calls us to something. If we are young it may be something really adventurous, really radical. Are we prepared to leave all and follow? Do we love Jesus enough to do that?
Many people start following Jesus, but give up. Some, like Judas, actually betray Him. Others, like those mentioned in John 6, found His teaching too hard and decided to back out. Peter, James, John, Philip and all the others stayed on. It was a tough life. True, they were pretty tough people in those days, but still they spent their time walking the length and breadth of the hot country of Palestine. Often they had nowhere to sleep, or slept in really crowded places. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” said Jesus. Often they ran out of food. “We have no bread,” said the disciples more than once. Often they squabbled amongst themselves. They became saints in the end but it took them a long time to get used to living together.
One thing made it all worthwhile; and that was Jesus. He was clearly a fascinating person to be with. Half the time they didn’t understand Him, but they knew He was saying something really important, something that would change their lives if they stayed with Him. Jesus did not create a cosy little club. He walked long distances, demanded a lot of them, gave them hard teaching, healed people in front of them and told them they could do the same. He was challenging. He expected a lot of them, but He gave a lot. He gave everything He had; and in the end He gave his life on the Cross. Then they realised they too were being asked to give everything. They tried to get out of it, but when He reappeared, risen from the dead, they knew they had to go on. And of course they wanted to go on. What they knew now was so amazing they simply had to start telling everybody, whatever it cost them; and it cost them a lot.
Nor was it just Jesus who was fascinating. He also revealed God to them in a new way. This was not a new God. It was clearly the God they had always known through Moses and the prophets. But Jesus showed how loving His Father was, how forgiving, how interested in everything they did. He made it clear that God was for everyone, not just those who strictly kept the Law. God is fascinating. When we listen to someone who really knows God talk about Him, we realise just how fascinating He is. We want to know more and more, to listen more and more. We realise we could spend a lifetime getting to know this amazing God. We realise too that we won’t be able to do this unless we give ourselves completely to Him. We must turn aside from our way of life, from family, career, possessions, and dreams. We must look for the pearl beyond price; we must seek the Kingdom of God; we must give up the ordinary way we have been living; we must stop thinking the way the people around us think, and follow a new way that will lead us to God.
There are many of ways of doing this, and each of us needs to listen carefully to the call of God. Here I speak of only one such call – the call to the religious life. Why do men and women step aside from “normal” ways of life and become friars, monks or nuns, wearing distinctive habits? It is for the same reason the disciples did: they heard a call and found it so attractive they could not ignore it. They found Jesus fascinating and had to find out more. They found the life hard, but worthwhile. Anything else seemed cosy or suffocating; they needed larger horizons. “You have set my feet in a large place,” says the Psalmist, and that is how it feels: quite exhilarating. And then there is the attractiveness of God. Isn’t it worth giving up everything to get to know God?
God still calls people to the religious life. It is hard to answer this call, for there is so much to leave behind. Yet we shouldn’t get stuck on looking back. “He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10.37). It’s far better to look ahead at all the excitements in store for one who follows Christ in a really radical way.
I believe that some of you who read this article are called to this life. Have you thought about it? Are you content to be a Catholic Christian just as you are? Or would you like to take a really big step out in faith, to go on an adventure which will take you to a whole new world? To be a Catholic Christian does not just mean nice vestments in Church and going to mass. Catholic Christians live in a very big world: a world that embraces heaven and earth; a world of sacraments where God himself comes to meet us; a world of prayer where God takes us and changes us; a world of self-giving, and of sacrifice as we give ourselves to other people whom God also loves. St Francis famously abandoned everything, even his clothes, to enter that world. Jesus told us to abandon family, home, lands, and everything if we want to follow him. He promised that we will get it all back, a hundredfold, but we have to do it first to find out what that will be like.
This is not a life for the faint-hearted or the half-hearted. It takes a lot of courage to get started, and we all get frightened from time to time. But God is watching over us. He doesn’t necessarily make it safe, but He does make it good.
The Revd Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community of the Resurrection.