Imagine that you have been planning a vacation for months. You have worked hard to be able to afford all the expenses and have even made certain sacrifices in your own personal and social life for the sake of being able to take this vacation. You wake up on the first day of your vacation, and for the first time in months, you are genuinely excited about life and bubbling with happiness. You arrive early at the airport, go through security and are now waiting patiently at the gate to board your plane. Once your row has been called to board, you jump up from your seat and rush to the front of the line. As you board your plane, you smile at the flight attendants, stow your luggage in the overhead compartment, and introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. While the flight attendants close the door to the plane and make a final check of the passengers before takeoff, you look out the window and breathe a deep sigh of relief and say quietly, “Thank you God.”
After a few moments, the pilot comes over the intercom and introduces himself and his crew and tells them that the flight they are about to embark on will experience a tremendous amount of turbulence. Because of this turbulence they will have to wear their seatbelt for the entire flight, and they will not be able to move around. Also, he says that they will be flying through several storms on their flight and the plane will, most likely, get struck by lightning. Because of this, the flight attendants will not be able to serve them on this flight. There will be no food or beverages available, which is probably good, since they will not be able to get up and use the restroom. The pilot then reassures all the passengers on board not to worry, because he says, he knows how to fly under such conditions.
Everyone on board begins to look at each other in horror and disbelief, “Is he serious?” many ask? “This can’t be happening.” Some jump up from their seats and demand to exit the plane, while others frantically try to call the flight attendants for help or scroll desperately through their phones seeking other travel options. Suddenly, your calm and peaceful vacation that you have been waiting for has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. You are now left anxious and afraid and begin questioning whether taking this vacation was the right decision. What do you do? Do you stay on the plane? Or do you consider other options?
Most likely, we have never heard such an announcement in our life. Thank God! However, what this story attempts to illustrate in a dramatic fashion, is a fact about life that most of us would rather not admit:
The only thing certain about life is that it is uncertain.
No matter how much we plan, prepare, and even pray, none of us can be assured that life will follow exactly as we expect or even hope. The truth is it rarely if ever does.
And why it should it?
Neither life nor God promise to fulfill our plans, ideas, and goals. Yet we often feel offended, slighted, annoyed, and frustrated when life doesn’t work out the way we expect.
We think that life, and even God, owes us something and that our life, instead of being a gift given to us by God, is a right that we deserve or have even earned, and one that God should reward us for in earthly measures. If this is our attitude about life then obviously, we will be continually frustrated, for we will be searching for certainty in the one place it most assuredly is not, namely in one’s own life.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes an announcement to the disciples that is even more dramatic than the one the pilot made in the opening story. He tells them, “Nation will rise against nation…there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and pestilences (Luke 21:10-12). As if that were not enough to scare us Jesus continues, “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons…You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake (Luke 21: 12:16-17). Jesus concludes his announcement by assuring us, “Not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18).
Hidden amid all the apocalyptic images and themes in this Gospel passage, Jesus is intending to teach us where true consolation and hope can be found, which is in the fact that there is nothing more certain than God. Specifically, there is nothing more certain than God’s presence, as Jesus Himself affirms when he tells us “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). There is nothing more certain than God’s love, since “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Finally, there is nothing more certain than God’s care for us, as Jesus reminds us of when He says, “if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30)? Jesus is reminding us that even when everything else may seem and feel like it is falling apart, even amidst the turbulence, the lightning strikes, the rude passengers, God is certain. Therefore, Jesus says at the end of his “announcement,” “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed” (Luke 21:18). Why? Because He is with us.
Several years ago, I was a preaching a retreat to a community of Poor Clare nuns. The superior asked me on the first morning of the retreat if I would be willing to spend an hour or two speaking with their novice director.
“Of course,” I told her, “Should I meet her in the chapel this afternoon after my talk?” I asked.
“No father,” the superior said. “She is in the hospital. I can drive you there after your conference.”
The novice director, I would discover, was a deeply beloved sister in the monastery who at the age of 53 was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and at the time I was there preaching the retreat, was only given six months to live. On my way to the hospital the superior was telling me how desperately they were all praying for a miracle and how saddened the entire community was because of what appeared to be her imminent death. Despite their tremendous faith and their extraordinary prayer life, this nun’s sudden sickness shook their entire community, not only because they loved her so dearly, but because it was a reminder to them of the uncertainty of life, even their life with God.
When I approached her room at the hospital I knocked and heard a faint but calm voice telling me to come in. Even though I had never met this nun before in my life, as soon as I entered she smiled at me as if I was an old friend whom she hadn’t seen in years. She was holding a rosary in one hand and a small crucifix in the other and told me to come and sit down next to her. For the next hour or so we talked about everything from her childhood, her vocation, to her suffering with terminal cancer. She shared with me how much she loved being the novice director because, as she said, working with the young women who had just entered the monastery helped to rekindle awe and wonder at her own vocation. When I asked her what the most difficult part was about being in the hospital, she said it was being separated from her sisters and having to pray alone all day. Despite these sufferings, being in very serious physical pain, and living with the awareness that her days on this earth were limited, she radiated a peace and joy that I have rarely seen in anyone.
At one point in our conversation, she looked up at me with a smile on her face and said, “Father, nothing in my life turned out the way I planned or expected.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “and for that I am so grateful, because it turned me away from myself and towards God.”
I was shocked by her words.
Usually what I hear from others, and what I have said at times, is something like this: “My life has not turned out the way I planned or expected. Why has God allowed this? Why has God abandoned me? Because of this I am miserable.” Instead of searching for God in the way our life really is, and being grateful for the way our life has unfolded, most of us become sad, annoyed, and deeply troubled when we realize that our life has turned out very differently from what we either planned or hoped.
After talking for a few more minutes, it was time for me to return to the monastery to give the next conference to her sisters. I smiled at her, blessed her, assured her of my prayers, and thanked her for her witness of faith and began walking towards the door to leave. As I opened the door to leave, her faint but calm voice cried out, “Father!”
“Yes, sister,” I said and turned towards her.
“God is certain, do not be afraid of anything,” she said. Then she quoted the beautiful words of St. Teresa of Avila that she not only had memorized but had clearly interiorized as well: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
All throughout the Gospels, Jesus affirms the uncertainty of life whether in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), Jesus’ teaching regarding where our true treasure must be (Matthew 6:19-21), the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and so many other instances. The conclusion found in all these passages is a very sobering one. Jesus never promises us peace in this life. In fact, He tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth” (Matthew 10:34). Therefore, we can guarantee that things such as wars, natural disasters, scandals in the Church and in the government will remain, and that sickness and even pandemics will continue throughout history. It also implies that humanity’s great efforts to thwart some of this uncertainty, which is good and necessary, is limited and that humanity despite all her intelligence and good will, will never be able to erase uncertainty from life as a whole and from our own individual lives.
Therefore, how do we respond and live in a world filled with uncertainty?
We must turn our hearts more deeply, not away from the world and all its uncertainties, but more intensely towards God, the one and only thing that is certain. When our faith, hope, and love are centered completely in God, our lives and our hearts will be as Jesus says, “built upon the rock” (Matthew 7:24). In other words, we will not be as shaken and terrified when we experience turbulence, storms, and difficult people in life. This does not mean that we will never struggle in life or that we will understand everything that is happening in the world and to us perfectly. Something greater than worldly wisdom is being offered to us: namely, the grace to see through this world to its ultimate source that is God. A God who seemingly keeps trying to tell us throughout our entire life, “Don’t worry, I know how to take care of you under such conditions.”
No matter how much turbulence we may face in life, God is guiding the plane, and he always brings us home.
 Pope Benedict XVI. Doctors of the Church. Our Sunday Visitor, 2011.