My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord,The word "ordeal" means an extremely severe or trying test, experience, or trial. That's what Sirach promises us if we plan to follow God. Not health and wealth, or an easy life. Not even a life that averages good and bad days. He tells us that if we want to serve God, we should be prepared for trial-by-fire type misery. Throughout the second chapter of Ecclesiasticus, he gives us the impression that this ordeal isn't going to be a one-time deal, either. In fact, let's face it: the martyrs get off pretty lucky. They get their painful trial all at once, and then their reward. For the majority of us, however, the ordeal is one of endurance, of perseverance, of continuously striving to do the difficult thing because the difficult thing is so often the right thing. Growing up Pentecostal, that wasn't a teaching I heard very often. Maybe that's because Pentecostals don't have Ecclesiasticus in their Bibles. Whether it was taught explicitly or implicitly, suffering and hardship were seen as God's disfavour. How many people do I know who started out with the noble aspiration to serve the Lord, only to find their faith shaken and shattered when the ordeal came. Where was God then? That kitschy "Footprints" poem rings a little hollow when it says God carries us through the hard times, when we look around and our world has fallen apart more than once. If we believe that God's role in our lives is just to bless us or heal us or make us happy (because that's what the Bible promises us, isn't it? Isn't it?), then we'll be woefully unprepared for the ordeals of life.
Prepare yourself for an ordeal. (Ecclesiasticus 2:1, NJB)
Sirach tells us to prepare for an ordeal. We need to expect difficulty, to steel ourselves for it. We're not going to always experience the consolations of an emotional sense of God's nearness. Jesus, who was God, and was always immediately present with the Father, nevertheless in His human nature, felt alone and abandoned by the Father on the Cross. Shall we, who are only human, expect to always feel that God is with us? Bl. Mother Teresa suffered through the agonising sense of separation from God every day for the last twenty years of her life. When this admission of hers was published posthumously, many people immediately jumped to the conclusion that she had somehow abandoned her faith. Yet the fact is, her commitment--to the poor of Calcutta and to God--never wavered, and she continued to do what she had always done. She was prepared for the ordeal. She knew that feelings are unreliable, but that faith and the knowledge that God will never leave us, no matter how we feel, is what is true.
This is our preparation: to know that the trial will come, and to know God, to know that His presence and His love are not dependent upon our feelings, and that our suffering doesn't mean He doesn't love us. How do we achieve this preparedness? I can think of no better way than to gaze lovingly upon the Crucifix and meditate daily upon His Passion. For love of us, He endured His own ordeal, in order that when we surrender to Him in ours, the very suffering and pain that we endure will be the source of grace. God did promise that if we serve Him, we will be happy, but He didn't promise that we would be happy in this valley of tears. So we must be prepared to persevere in hope.
You who fear the Lord, hope for those good gifts of his,
Everlasting joy and mercy. (Ecclesiasticus 2:9, NJB)