Saturday, April 8, 2017

Becoming a living cross

Having finished reading Guardini's short, but very impacting, book The Rosary of Our Lady, I started reading the short book The Dying of Jesus, by Owen Cummings. Owen, who is a permanent deacon, is a teacher, mentor, and, I daresay, friend of mine. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone, with maybe the exception of Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, who has influenced me more not only theologically, but spiritually. Theology that does not nurture spirituality, that is, help you draw closer to God as well as to your sisters and brothers, your neighbors, is worse than useless and perhaps even dangerous.

The Dying of Jesus contains Owen's reflections on the Stations of the Cross and our Lord's Seven Last Words. In his conclusion on the section in which he reflects on the Stations of the Cross, which I finished just this morning- I am saving the Seven Last Words for Holy Week, Owen quotes at length a passage from Benedict Canfield's Rule of Perfection on what it means to follow Jesus to the cross:
Therefore our own pains - insofar as they are not ours but those of Christ- must be deeply respected. How wonderful! And more: our pains are as much to be revered as those of Jesus Christ in His own passion. For if people correctly adore Him with so much devotion in images on the Good Friday cross, why may we not then revere Him on the living cross that we ourselves are?
Being in no position to comment on how anybody else conforms herself to Christ in this way (being conformed to Christ means becoming cruciform), I can say that for me what the sixteenth century English recusant Capuchin friar asks here remains merely an aspiration. Most of the time, including this very morning, I grumble, complain, stew, even explode in the face of the slightest difficulty, inconvenience, or perceived slight.

Bearing wrongs patiently is not merely one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Bearing wrongs and other sufferings that come my way, not merely passively, but consciously using them to unite myself to Christ, "offering it up," to use the old words that these days are usually invoked in a sarcastic way, is what it means to follow Christ. In the Christian calculus, you add by subtraction and you win by losing. While the path of following Christ ultimately leads to the glory of the resurrection, it passes inevitably through the cross. In the words of a hymn:
Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me
Lord, give me a willing heart.

Perhaps the central paradox of the Christian religion, which is a religion of paradox, is that of the cross of Christ (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Stated simply, if I am to be salt, light, and leaven, I must become a living cross. A six word sentence is easy to write. How far away I am from realizing those words! Too often I resist the death Jesus himself insists I must endure with every fiber of my being. Instead, I frantically scramble to save myself. Especially this last week, I keep hearing the question Jesus asked Martha when, after telling her he is resurrection and the life and that everyone who believes in him will never die, he said to her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).

Pondering the Lord's question "Do you believe this?" all week led me to make an important, even necessary, distinction between wanting him to be the resurrection and the life and actually believing that it is true. After all, wouldn't actually believing him lead me to follow him, to imitate him in the way he insists I must? Grasping the necessity of this distinction enables me to understand two things. First, faith is much more than intellectual assent. Even I believe in the sense that I give my assent. Second, hope is not synonymous with optimism. We often speak of hope and optimism as if you can't have one without the other, but my experience teaches me again and again that hope lies beyond optimism. I think this is the lesson of Christ's cross.

What the Cross of Christ shows me is my my inadequacy, my refusal to become fully human. However, reading the words of Benedict Canfield this morning reminded of something vitally important: the need to gaze on myself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on me. Too often I am content to just beat myself up, accuse and condemn myself, or, in the words of the late Passionist priest, Harry Williams: "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee [within that I] call God and who despises the rest of what [I am]." Such a god is an idol, a diabolical one.

My wounds are dear to Jesus' Sacred Heart and so they should be dear to me and offered lovingly to him. In the end, it's all I have to give to him who loved me, not just to the point of death, but to the extent of rising of from the dead. Just as love is the reason for creation, love is the power that raised Christ from the dead: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est.

Who crucified Jesus? I did. But I rely on his words, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Despite the fact that I often know full well what I am doing, I trust in Christ's mercy. I am convinced that Jesus never looked on us with more tenderness than when he hung dying on the cross.

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