M Scott Peck wrote a book in 1978 titled "The Road Less Traveled"." It is a quote of American Poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) who said, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Peck's book was a New York Times bestseller and helped change the minds of millions who were shaped by the hedonistic 1960s and the self-indulgent 1970s. It was for me personally an eye-opener when I read it as a young adult struggling to find my way. I continue to recommend the book to people looking for meaning in their life.
One of the things I learned from Peck is that true discipline is the exercise of conscious choice to delay gratification, sacrificing present comfort for a future reward. He says elsewhere that this exercise of discipline is what propels us on the path of spiritual growth. However, "this awareness comes slowly, piece by piece. The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning. The experience of spiritual power is basically a joyful one." I realized that I was unhappy because I was exercising little if any discipline in many parts of my life and it was causing me to fall away from God. My life was beginning to spin out of control.
I began to learn what Jesus meant when He said in today's Gospel, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" in Mark 8:24 - 9:1 on the Third Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. I always wanted to follow Christ but I was confused by the conflicting messages coming from society. Our society, the world tells us to never deny ourselves. Everything around us is saying, "If you want it, get it; If you have the money, but it; If you feel it, do it." I didn't realize that following Christ required voluntary sacrifice and that meant losing my self-centered attitudes and behaviors.
This what Christ means by saying, "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it." In other words, we must lose our life of hedonism and self-indulgence. If we lose that life, for the sake of Christ, we will save our true self-the one that carries God's image. This is the very purpose for why the Church, through the scriptures and the life of the saints, gives us three exercises to strengthen our soul. It's like a fitness instructor or a coach giving you three things to practice to get stronger, lose weight or improve your skills. Those three exercises are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. If we voluntarily practice these three things, we will improve our self-discipline and strengthen our personal spiritual power.
If we do not do these three exercises daily, we will not be able to do the other thing that Christ says is necessary in order to follow Him — that is taking up our cross. Our cross or crosses are the difficult unique circumstances of our life. They can be externally imposed by others or they can be internally oriented because of physical, mental, emotional illness or weaknesses of character affected by our family of origin. By taking up these crosses we mean to take responsibility for them and deal with them in a healthy manner. Scott Peck helped me understand the necessity of doing this. He said, "Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity." In other words, we become weaker, less able to exercise self-discipline and free choice when we do not take responsibility for our lives, no matter how they ended up that way.
Peck also said that "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers." So, a true cross, given or allowed by Christ is not a punishment but an opportunity for growth.
Jesus says "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14). However, He also says, Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30 (Thu.4th Mt.).
This is the reason why the Veneration of the Cross is placed in the middle of Great Lent. Through Christ's example of being crucified for us, He gives us inspiration to be crucified as well. The Resurrection followed the Crucifixion, life follows death. We must be crucified in order to be risen. We must take up our cross daily. This is the Road Less Traveled. Amen!
Jesus' yoke (vv.29-30) is submission to the Kingdom of God. A yoke may be the symbol of hardship, burdens and responsibilities (1Kings 12:1-11; Jer.27:8 - 28:2; Sir.40:1). Although it may feel heavy due to our sins (Ps.38:4), Christ's yoke is easy. In Him the soul is refreshed and sees the Lord is gracious (Ps.34:9; Is.55:2; Jer.31:25. A sign of Jesus' lordship is His meekness-He is gentle and lowly. King David emphasized that the Lord would teach His ways to the meek (Ps.25:9). Meekness is the mother of love, foundation of discernment and the forerunner of all humility. Jesus finds rest in the hearts of the meek, while the turbulent spirit is home to the devil (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.33).
Peck: "Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity. Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom…love is the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth…true love is an act of will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love."
"Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able" (Luke 13:24). This description of the two ways is widespread in Judaism (Dt.30:15-20; Ps.1; Prov.4:18-19; 12:28; 15:24; Sir.15:17), and in early Christian writings (Didache, Barnabas). Luke's version (Lk.13:24-30) is more eschatological, referring to the end of the age. Because we wrestle against human sins and weaknesses, as well as the spiritual forces of evil (Eph.6:12), entering the Kingdom involves difficult (v.14) labor and struggle (11:12) (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.22).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.