“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15). Here is what is new: the disciple must not only serve the little ones, but also acknowledge himself as a little one. And every one of us, do we recognise ourselves as small before God? Let’s think about it, it will help us. Awareness of being little, awareness of the need of salvation is indispensable for receiving the Lord.”
— Pope Francis, Angelus, October 3, 2021
This is a difficult lesson to write about. On one hand, there’s the danger of being the scold who tells you to “offer it up” or who tries to hammer you while you’re down with messages like, “this is God’s will” or “God won’t give you something you can’t handle.” On the other hand, too often this topic either turns into a fairy tale (“it turned out that God had something even better in store!”) or a tragedy (“some things just aren’t meant to be”).
Sometimes people say that the experiences that lead to grief, sadness, depression, disappointment, trauma, humiliation, anxiety, physical pain, mental illness, disability, and self-loathing could strike anyone. Sometimes people seem to believe that bearers of such hardships usually deserve them or brought them upon themselves. But doesn’t it seem that some folks can simply never catch a break?
Pope Francis’s Angelus message today speaks to anyone who finds themself in a life situation that they didn’t ask for, never wanted, and don’t like. Most of us have been there. Some of us are there now. And yet the great paradox of the Christian faith is that this is where the Lord is nearest to us. Pope Francis said:
We must seek out our smallness and recognise it. And there, we will find Jesus.
In life, recognising one’s littleness is a starting point for becoming great. If we think about it, we grow not so much on the basis of our successes and the things we have, but above all in difficult and fragile moments. There, in our need, we mature; there we open our hearts to God, to others, to the meaning of life. Let us open our eyes to others. Let us open our eyes, when we are little, to the true meaning of life. When we feel small in the face of a problem, small in front of a cross, an illness, when we experience fatigue and loneliness, let us not get discouraged.
During the most difficult struggles of our lives—when we know there is very little we can do or say to impress the people we want to impress, when we are powerless to tangibly improve our situation, when our influence over others is non-existent—that is when we allow ourselves to become vulnerable to the Lord and each other. The veil is lifted, there’s no more faking it. We’re as naked as Adam and Eve standing before the Lord in the shame of their sin. We’re the four-year-old calling for her mother because she’s afraid of the dark. This is when, according to Pope Francis:
The mask of superficiality is falling and our radical weakness is re-emerging: it is our common ground, our treasure, because with God weakness is not an obstacle but an opportunity. A beautiful prayer would be this: “Lord, look at my frailties…” and to list them before Him. This is a good attitude before God.
Indeed, it is precisely in weakness that we discover how much God takes care of us. The Gospel today says that Jesus is very tender with the little ones: “He took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands upon them” (v. 16). The difficulties and situations that reveal our weakness are privileged opportunities to experience His love. Those who pray with perseverance know this well: in dark or lonely moments, God’s tenderness towards us makes itself, so to speak, even more present. When we are little, we feel God’s tenderness more. This tenderness gives us peace; this tenderness makes us grow, because God draws close to us in His way, which is nearness, compassion and tenderness. And, when we feel we are little, small, for whatever reason, the Lord comes closer, we feel he is closer. He gives us peace; he makes us grow. In prayer the Lord draws us close to him, like a father with his child. This is how we become great: not in the illusory pretence of our self-sufficiency – this makes no-one great – but in the strength of placing all our hope in the Father, just like the little ones do, they do this.
This address reminds me of a graced moment in my life I experienced at a daily Mass over ten years ago. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself at the time: my wife and I were broke and constantly arguing about money, my career to that point had been one disappointment after another. I feared for the future. I was deeply depressed and I didn’t see a way out.
During the homily, the priest said these words: “Don’t let your station in life discourage you.”
After Mass, when I was back in the office, I wrote those words on a 3″ x 3″ Post-It note with a black fine-tipped Sharpie, and I taped it to my computer. It remained there for six or seven pretty mediocre and unsatisfying years until the day I boxed up my things after they laid me off.
Those words didn’t magically make my life better. My situation remained pretty much the same for a long time. But those words reoriented me. They reminded me that my self-worth and God’s love for me didn’t depend on my job, my status, or even how I felt. And even when I felt worthless or voiceless or unappreciated, I knew that God loved me and was with me through it all. And I had those words on that yellow sticky note to remind me whenever I forgot.
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