Meditation on the Cross, Part II

Crucifix in Refectory

In last week's post I began a meditation on the Cross' meaning in the life of the Christian disciple, recalling my own experience of "getting" the Cross. At the end of that post I committed to delving deeper into what that statement might mean, and then to identify the Cross in my own spiritual life as a confirmation of the truth of this statement. My hope is that some of what I write might aid you in your own meditations on the Cross.


When speaking of something as profound as the Cross, the concept of "getting" seems inappropriate. We use the phrase, "I get it," in a variety of contexts to indicate understanding, but when one "gets" something they are normally understanding in a very concrete way—like 2 + 2 = 4. Our Lord's sacrifice on the Cross defies such a concrete way of understanding in the same way that love defies it: wouldn't it be absurd to demand a full account of the concept of "love" before admitting to having experienced love? The Christian disciple does not need to exhaustively understand the Cross before he is able to experience it.


While my mind might have initially fixed upon "getting"-language to describe the resonance with the Cross that I've experienced, a better way of expressing this resonance is with the notion of "sensibleness": "the Cross makes sense." This language allows for an affirmation of understanding without the demand to identify precisely what it is that is being understood. By using this language I have hopefully also dispelled any indications of arrogance on my part for having claimed, "I get the Cross"—although saying this may have been useful for grabbing your attention!


Although it cannot be perfectly comprehended, is there nothing in my spiritual life which might account for the resonance with the Cross that I've experienced? Are my experiences simply emotional responses unmoored from the concrete aspects of my spiritual life? No, but it requires some self-reflection to describe how my everyday spiritual life connects to the Cross.


To begin, there is a particular Scripture passage I tend to think of when considering the Cross, Luke 9:23: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." What most appeals to me about this particular passage is the notion of taking up the Cross daily. Our Lord is not demanding of His disciples only a last, radical push of sacrifice at the end of their lives but a persistent carrying of the Cross each day. Also notice that the Cross is personal: "let him deny himself and take up his cross." The "sensibleness" language which I prefer makes room for subjective experience—"the Cross makes sense to me because..."—better enabling one to connect his own spiritual life to the Cross. This fits what Jesus is asking of His disciples.


It is in this personal, daily taking up of the Cross that I find myself living out Christian discipleship. Most recently I've begun to struggle with the Cross through a dying-to-self along the lines of St. Thérèse's "Little Way." More out of vanity than love for Christ, I often conceive of doing "great things." But St. Thérèse has helped me to understand what I'm actually capable of: little acts of love and devotion offered to the Father in humility, and if anything "great" happens it will be entirely by Providence. In her Little Way the principal Cross is pride, and its burden is mitigated by growing in humility. For me this demands a daily admission to the Lord of my weakness and of my inability to offer even the smallest act of love without divine grace.


Another way in which I struggle with the Cross is related to that yearning for the complete union with Christ which is promised to every disciple. St. Paul's words in 2 Cor 5:1-10 and Phil 1:19-26 express this yearning perfectly: "It is wonderful to live the earthly life so as to serve Christ, but it is even greater to live the new life which we have been promised." Some might dismiss such talk as revealing in St. Paul a negative attitude towards the body, or perhaps assert that he is only saying such things because he thinks the coming of Christ is imminent. But I think Paul is expressing what every Christian deep-down knows: ultimate satisfaction is not to be found in this world. 


Each day I take up this "Pauline Cross," a cross of dissatisfaction or disappointment with the world, only made bearable through remembering the promise of eternal life in the Holy Trinity--that is, the theological virtue of hope. Yet this Cross is tricky, because it can tempt one into a Stoic contempt for creation--a pious cynicism: "If everything that brings delight is vanity, maybe nothing is good." How does one guard against this subtle temptation? With an even more subtle disposition towards the world, and for this we look to St. Augustine's De doctrina Christiana, Book I.


Augustine speaks in Chapter 5 of "enjoyment" belonging only properly to the Holy Trinity: all else is to be "used" for the sake of relating to God. Thus, the Cross of worldly-disappointment is an important one for every disciple because it reminds him of what is ultimately important. Yet St. Augustine also speaks in Chapter 33 of "taking delight" in things of this world, explaining that this is not the same as enjoyment. Rather, it is possible to use things as a means to God through "delight." But this demands of the Christian a recognition of the Creator and a response of gratitude towards Him for having received wonderful gifts. So, besides the theological virtue of hope, the tricky Cross of worldly-disappointment requires growth in one other virtue: gratitude for the goodness of the Creator, Whose goodness is reflected in His creation. (It just so happens that my brother Raymond spoke of gratitude in his most recent post).


Having read over what I've written in these two posts, I fear I have been navel-gazing a tad too much. So I've decided to write a final post in the next two weeks which will focus upon Pope Francis and his preaching of the Cross, juxtaposing my own thoughts with those of a man who knows the Cross in a deeper way.