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.
There are lots of things I love about Catholic liturgical worship done well. Simply put, when I walk into a real live Catholic church, I know what I am there to do.
I am there to praise and worship God. (not to be entertained, not to "get something out of it", not to get turned on blah blah blah...)
But I am also drawn up into a mystery which begins, quite emphatically, at a instrument of torture and this causes me some pause.
Think about it. If you walk into the Smithsonian, or the Louvre, in France or any metropolitan art gallery, you are probably going to encounter a lot of pleasant and thought provoking scenery, right? Pretty roses, fruits in bowls, geometrical abstracts, folks and nudes captured in various contortions and poses. Contrast this to what you encounter at a Roman Catholic Church. Sure, you will see loveliness in the "conventional sense" but there is something that predominates Catholic art and liturgy and that is the enigma that suffering.
We went across town to St. Thomas the Apostle this week. It's funny how I discover new things when I change up routine. For instance, I really loved the fact that the cantor canted from the ambo; that the altar boys knelt about the altar during eucharistic prayers, that there are still women wearing mantillas and covering themselves appropriately (and I don't just mean their heads). But another old discovery emerged for me yet again and it was this enigmatic concept of suffering and the cross. My eyes were drawn to the crucifix and to the stations of the cross that were all around me. Why is this a beautiful thought? How is suffering and the ugliness of pain somehow making it into art? Are we masochists? Why do Catholics seemingly glorify the concept of suffering in their worship? I think one of the most vivid reasons why is because it is a mystery that forces us to consider a deeper reality.
Secular society tells us that life should be easy, comfortable, convenient, unburdensome,"beautiful" and bulked-up with pleasure. As consumers we can be captivated by images of easy money, quick fixes, interest-free loans, free sex, convenience stores, leisure pursuits, speed dating, super-sized everything. Hedonism on steroids. The annihiliation of elderliness and the botoxification of any form of decay. (A new virulent strain of age-ism by the way). As though if we ignore it, it will go away! All the gain, none of the pain. All the glory, none of the consequences. All of the surface, none of the depth. We can be fooled into worshipping at the altar of an external facade while our internal 'pearls' are cast to the swine and the dogs. The current divorce rate, abortion statistics, and political climate tend to back this up. (And don't even get me started on viagra).
Take up your cross? This is a deeper reality. We know that suffering for suffering sake is vain, foolish martyrdom or cruelty. It might as well have it's own classification in the DSM-IV. That is not what the church depicts in her art and on her walls. No. Rather, the suffering points up the more problematic concept of pain that most of us would chose to avoid on any given day of the week. Trouble in my marriage means I have a responsibility to look deeper into the mystery of self sacrifice and my own selfishness. Trouble in my personal life or finances might mean that I need to take a long, hard look at my priorities and do some rearranging. Trouble with my health might mean that I may need to embrace the cross of suffering and be a present-day "Simeon"; using the suffering as a means of redemption; as a means of salvation for myself and for others. Trouble in my family may mean that I need to apply my efforts towards prayer and surrender or action towards harmony rather than escape and avoidance. Trouble is the lighthouse of opportunity.
But the world sends us a different message. The world tells us things should be easy. That we have rights to people, places and things...to as much convenience as our elastic stomachs can tolerate. We have permission to exploit any resource so long as it makes us happy and helps us define our relativistic truth. This is an oily un-reality. It's not even a good fairy tale. This is a lie.
Most psychotherapy is built upon this premise by the way. Self actualize at all costs.
The church tells us the Truth: life is hard. We have a path to follow....the early Church's nickname was The Way. The way to joy is (sorry) pain. The way to happiness is (sorry) sorrow. The way to crown is (sorry) cross. The way to glory is (sorry) death. But like I said...suffering for suffering sake is just cruelty...just a giant pointless hairshirt. So what's the rub? This is why we don't go to church at the Smithsonian but in places named St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas, St. Joan of Arc, or St. Mary. Because our sorrow is turned into something by way of an Extraordinary Example: Jesus Christ. Through His Cross and resurrection he has set us free. This is our deeper sacramental reality...God uses some material thing and transforms into something absolutely beautiful. He "loaves and fishes" it into something new; and if he hasn't done that for you in this temporal reality, He will do it for you in the next. I don't know about you but I'll take 70+ years of bad road to parasail in God's glorious eternity. You betcha.
So next time you walk into a church and see the nails, the weeping women, the corpus, the crown of thorns, the blood, sweat and tears-- remember your reality. God gets it. He really does. He went before us in suffering to show us the way through it, not around it. The reason it is hard to embrace our suffering is because someone's been lying to us for a very long time. Maybe we've been buying it. This entry (through the narrow gate of the church door) is our reminder that there is a Truth, the solid food of spiritual maturity.
The Truth...not just an abstract concept. A Person. Grab His hand. And then you can take up your cross.
Take up your cross and follow Christ,
Nor think till death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.