Saturday, January 29, 2011

the cross

Hanging over the altar of St. Thomas More church is a very large crucifix. It's massive. It's not gruesome, but it's also not the usual standard, with a Corpus hanging gracefully and bloodlessly. Christ's knees are bruised; the crown of thorns is cumbersome and blood runs down His face. His features are peaceful in death, but the evidence of His recent suffering and pain presses insistently into one's awareness. I sit in that church every morning, staring at that massive cross (because the eye cannot ignore it!) and reminding myself of one massive truth (that my soul tries very hard to ignore): that cross is the meaning of life.

Richard and I have come to suspect that this one obvious truth is perhaps the most important reason that we've been called to New Zealand. I don't think either one of us really "gets" that truth. Certainly on an intellectual level we would both acknowledge it - for years and years, we've each formulated our life philosophy around it. But the experiences we've had here, the stark homilies of Fr. Michael, the directions our minds have travelled in sketching out our ministries, daily life as parents, spouses and missionaries....all of these have awakened us to the humbling truth that our hearts flat out reject the cross.

The cross proclaims that the good life entails humility and obedience, submission, self-denial, discipline of the will and of the flesh, redemptive suffering, sacrifice, service.  Christ on the cross incarnates every one of those difficult ideals. The 33 years that preceded the cross do as well. How many times and in how many ways does Jesus insist that His followers deny themselves and take up their cross? In today's Gospel, Jesus' Beatitudes promise that this way of meekness and denial is the way of true joy.  The Lord is so consistent and explicit on this point that there's almost no excuse for our minds not to process it.

Yet more than ever before, contemporary thought rejects self-denial and the cross. The good life that we are seduced by is utterly dominated by pleasure: fun, entertainment, amusement, excitement, power to control, comfort, leisure, luxury, relaxation, shortcuts, convenience, ease, indulgence, superficial (or even artificial) "beauty". These things have a legitimate place in life, but it's a much much smaller place than we think. As words and concepts, each is relatively easy to reject as the summum bonum. In real living though, these attractions are the stuff of real temptation. They do offer a type of happiness, but it's consumed and then we're bored again, or seeking something even better, or restlessly impatient to have yet more. We keep pursuing the same things or the same categories of things, never realizing that they really are not fulfilling something very restless and needy within us.

Two years ago I was driving home from some errands with a Snickers bar on the passenger seat (this was back in the good old days when the passenger seat was to my right). It had somewhat recently and unintentionally become a habit of mine to pick up a Snickers bar every Monday while waiting to pay for my groceries and I almost never made it out of the parking lot without tearing open that brown wrapper. I was in a particularly "restless and needy" mood on the day in question. As I ate my favorite treat I thought angrily, "Actually, Snickers doesn't really satisfy". I instantly lost my taste for them. Here in New Zealand, the lesson about Snickers bars has expanded to cover many more aspects of life. But I've kind of moved on to Milky Way bars (literally and symbolically), and I suspect that that was not exactly the kind of conversion that the Lord intended in giving me that moment of grace.

The cross has been a major theme of Fr. Michael's preaching and of our casual conversation with him. It's become the major theme of our individual prayer lives and of our marital endeavor to support each other's path to sanctity. It's become the measuring stick by which we are reevaluating our hobbies and habits and hopes.  It stands in the background as we observe ourselves filling up our free time, our periods of silence, our use of money. We're trying to think of the cross when we reflect on what frustrates us each day, what we discipline our children for, how we speak to our girls and to each other, how we respond when someone in the family "offers us an opportunity" to forego our own ease, convenience, diversion or ability to control time and events. We're each examining how the cross (and our rejection of its message) plays into our routine sins. Most importantly, we're seeking the freedom and joy of the cross - the fruit of loving that which alone is worthy of love. Therein lies Truth, Goodness and Beauty. We've been re-convicted that it is only in this dying to self that we'll find true human fulfillment. Two self-seeking people will never be blissful in marriage, parenting, ministry or even in recreation. Jesus isn't being misleading when He promises that sacrifice and meekness are the narrow path to peace and fulfillment. He's led us out to the desert (taken us far away from all that is familiar) to speak this truth to our hearts in a way that we can hear and understand -  maybe back home we were just too distracted to listen. In turn, we are stewards of the message. Our task is to translate this open secret into words that the youth will find equally compelling. This term we hope to do so - we hope to watch the youth see both Christ and his cross anew, as worthy objects of the greatest love and sacrifice. We'll need a great deal of grace and prayers. Our lives should be more eloquent than our words, although its always so much easier the other way around.  Still, we are confident that the grace is there in abundance, for both the youth and for ourselves.

"Little in the spiritual life comes easily.
Temptation comes easily, 
resisting temptation does not."

-Fr. Hubert van Zeller


  1. Thank you so much for this deep reflection Kelly -- I've been pondering selflessness a lot now in marriage and parenthood.