The next time you find yourself dealing with something that seems difficult or impossible, let this inspire you.
I have a recurring nightmare about starting a Mass in my parish and then realizing halfway through that nothing is prepared – the candles aren’t lit, the wine isn’t there, the tabernacle key is missing — and everyone in the pews watches while I scramble around to correct it all while my face burns with shame.
As a priest, I’m what you might describe as, “detail-oriented.” I like everything to be just right before the Mass begins. I make my list and check it twice, because if an unexpected challenge arises and the prayers don’t go according to expectations, I don’t handle it very well. In spite of my attention to detail — some might call me “fussy” and I wouldn’t deny it — on a few occasions I’ve started Mass only to realize a minute later that I forgot to light the altar candles. Once, I walked out wearing the wrong liturgical color. I’m sure everyone noticed the mistake but everyone was kind enough to say nothing. My absolute worst nightmare is to forget the text of the homily, only to discover its absence when I step up to the ambo to preach. Other priests can speak very well without notes, but as an introvert such a thought chills me to the bone, so this is a unexpected challenge that would have me looking for a hole to bury myself in.
I’ve considered why this scenario frightens me so much. I think it’s because in it I’ve lost control and must confront a challenge not of my own choosing. I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that accepting challenges and attempting to accomplish difficult tasks is what makes for a satisfying life. My kids are probably tired of me telling them, “We can do hard things.” Yes, tackling these challenges will sometimes cause us to fail, but they’re also the path to human greatness. We’re all on a hero’s journey, and the heavier the load we can carry and further down the road we make it, the greater the reward.
Those are the challenges that we choose, though. We take them up of our own free will. What about the ones that choose us? What about the challenge that arrives unbidden and uncelebrated? The one that causes us to collapse in despair, wondering if this might, in fact, be the obstacle that finally brings our journey to a complete halt?
The feast day of Pope St. Leo the Great is this week, and the theme of unexpected challenges brings to mind an incident from his life. In the year 452, while Leo was Pope, Attila the Hun and his horde of warriors entered northern Italy and began pillaging cities. Attila was on a mission. He was going to sack Rome and marry the sister of the Emperor, thus placing himself or a son in the mix as the next Emperor. The armies of Rome were powerless to stop Attila, so a delegation was sent to plead for peace. The worst that could happen, the Emperor reasoned, was that Attila would murder the ambassadors. The man chosen for this unreasonably dangerous mission was Pope Leo. Instead of declining, which nobody would have blamed him for since this type of mission was not in his job description, Leo consented. His secretary said that Leo, having no army to protect him as he rode north, was trusting in divine intervention.
What happened next surprised everyone. A witness records, “Our most blessed Pope Leo – trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task … And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.” Attila turned back to the north and Rome was saved.
What is most impressive about the actions of Leo is that he had the confidence to place himself in God’s hands, understanding that, even if a challenge like Attila the Hun arrives to batter down your defenses, what at first seems so overwhelmingly violent and destructive actually has no power over us. No matter what happened that day, the Church would live on, Rome would recover, and Attila and his hordes would melt away. The barbarians were already at the gate. The challenge was unavoidable, so instead of waiting for it to descend and destroy him, he prepared as best he could and confronted it.
The biggest unexpected challenge of my life was the moment I realized I needed to become Catholic. Once I realized that the Catholic Church was my true spiritual home, I was compelled almost against my will to be converted. This was a challenge I was not expecting at that time in my life. I was happy as an Anglican priest, loved my parishioners, and had no plans to move on. But this was a challenge that had to be met without shrinking back, because I felt a duty to respond to God’s will for my life. Even as I felt lost about what to do next, I took steps to enter the Church. The process required quitting my job, selling our house, leaving dear friends behind, moving across the country, and maybe never being a priest again. In the midst of this, I had a wife and three children for whom I needed to provide.
This kind of situation is enough to stop a person dead in his tracks.
But here’s where the example of Pope Leo can encourage us. When a challenge arises, the kind that rattles you to the bones, the kind of existential crisis that makes you question who you are and the meaning of your life, you put on your coat, get on your horse, and ride out to meet it.