Friday, April 15, 2011

More Questions: What Does the Cross Mean to You?

This is one of those not-for-the-faint-of-heart posts.  But yesterday's generated such interesting answers (which will surely lead to another post eventually) that I thought I'd try something similar today.  

This one began with  a piece Michelle wrote on Wednesday, in which she says that "[i]t is difficult for us who make the sign of the cross when we pray, who let the crucifix lead us into and out of the church, who finger the rosary in our pockets when we are worried to see the cross as anything other than a familiar icon of protection and comfort."  I commented that protection and comfort are not the things I think about when I encounter the cross.  But, of course, she got me thinking . . .     .

As a Protestant, I am accustomed to seeing an empty cross, rather than a crucifix, in church, and I tend to see it as a symbol of victory.  In my home church, however, the center of the simple white wooden cross is encircled by nails, and so for me the cross has often become a focus for meditation on suffering.  I often thought, before Josh died, that I would like to do a sermon on that particular cross.  Now I'm not sure that I have it in me.

In the Catholic church which I began to visit after Josh's death (a complex story involving a need to be with people in prayer and the sense of trauma that bubbled up every time I tried to enter our own sanctuary),  an enormous crucifix hangs above the altar.  One day I happened to glance up as the priest raised the cup and plate and sang the words, "Through him, in him with him, in the unity of the holy spirit . . ".  That cup and plate looked so very small and that crucifix so very large; I was quite struck by the simplicity and fragility of the eucharistic act in the face of the overwhelming evil represented by the cross, and that one man's act of compassionate love had overcome all terror and evil.  It was a significant moment for me as I sought to contend with the horror of suicide and to find some sense of reassurance that my son had found welcome and safety in God's embrace.

Two years later, still contending, I spent a lot of time with the Stations of the Cross while I was on retreat at Wernersville.  I wasn't too clear on what the Stations of the Cross were ~ they represent stops in Jesus' final journey, from his appearance before Pilate to his entombment ~ but my retreat director provided some help and sent me off for what became several days of on-and-off focus on Jesus and his mother.  I'm not sure that I'd recommend that particular pilgrimage for a person in my shoes without the companionship of someone who is both a priest and a psychologist, but it was a powerfully healing journey for me. 

Did that experience transform the cross into an icon of protection and comfort for me?  I can't say that it did.  It remains a symbol of anguish and evil, albeit one that has convinced me that every moment of my son's pain was shared. 

I do wonder, though, whether a long-enough confrontation with the cross, of the nature into which I have been forced, might alter its impact.

And what about you?  What has your experience been?


  1. Need to think about this, will do and comment if there is anything fruitful.

  2. When Mel Gibson's movie came out, my daughter was 15 and kind of in the throes of a protestant, evangelical youth group and so we went to the theater to see it. During the scourge we bolted. The two of us sat on a bench outside the theater and talked about violence, imagery and how it really caught us off guard. I go back to that moment a lot.

    One of the reasons I go back to that moment is because the thing that really, truly struck me about the movie (and that gets very little discussion) is the role of Mary. She walked every step of that journey with Jesus, and never took her eyes off of him. She even cleaned up the blood at the pillar. (I went back to watch the film in its entirety alone).

    I felt something rush into me in that image. That unblinking motherhood. I wanted to be able to do that. I felt called to it. I felt like FINALLY there was something I could do. And maybe do well. Be a mother without blinking.

    I (probably) would not have a child who was tortured and killed before my eyes. But I knew enough at that point to know that I may have a drug-addicted, alcoholic or sexually promiscuous child. Could I love her and be present without blinking? I may have a child who would be killed, die or cause another to die. Could I love her and be present without blinking?

    This idea took me back to the Church, back to the Cross, back to the Stations and back to Mary. And for me, Mary and her relationship with her son, her son's suffering and her unblinking motherhood took me into a place in The Church and into my relationship with God that I had never imagined possible.

    I have more to say, but I think that is enough for now.

    Thank you for this, Robin.

  3. Some clarification ....

    The group we went to the movies with was her youth group, and I'm not sure they even saw Mary.

    For me, seeing my daughter's tremendous discomfort and making space for her to leave the theater and talk was part of the path of being an unblinking mother. She did not need to be like anyone else, nor please me or others. She could be allowed to feel what she felt and I could be present with that.

    As I have gotten more involved in my Church I have come up against or bumped into people who really thrive on the bloodiness and gore of the Crucifixion. I cannot understand this. Not that I make much of an effort. But they seem to get a lot out of it. For me, I just couldn't ever see why? Why go through it? Why is that love? Why is that the best way to show God's love for humanity? It was an enigma beyond my ken.

    But Mary, why would you watch? I can grasp. For me as a mother, how could I not. (And I don't mean literally - I don't think a mother has to literally do what she cannot do). But I mean the spiritual and emotional and to the extent possible bodily presence in the life of my child, yes. I can see that. I may not be able to do it, but I can get a glimpse of how and why.

    And through that tiny pinprick of light Mary has show me Christ crucified. And how I might also participate in this thing we call The Passion.

    My devotion to Mary deepens by the day. And it is one of the most real, least sentimental, most comforting and hardest to articulate relationships I have.

    Okay, I think I"m done hijacking your post. :)

  4. Robin's question is making me think (again!). For me, the cross is associated with both comfort and shattering pain, in a very complex way. I resonate with Cindy's comments here, which could describe much of my experience of the Passion while making the Exercises. Unblinking witness. A mother's eyes.

    Robin, I've been spending time with those stations at Wernersville of late....

  5. I grew up and still live in a place where torture is a fact of life, where I know people who have been tortured. Innocent people mostly. And I also know the torturers, and they are not always the monsters I would like them to be. A place where the act of closing my eyes doesn't shut out reality.

    The Cross has always made God in Christ relevant to my life.

    In the place of loss and painful death and blighted life, there is God offering His Son as an atonement. He does not turn away, nor run away but walks toward and through horror that we would avoid. And even during such a death can say gently to John here is your mother, and after to Mary Magdalene go and tell my brothers.

    I guess the word for me also "unblinking".

  6. I am not an aficionado of blood and gore either, but I think I am an unblinking person. Perhaps that would be one way to articulate the healing power of the cross, at least from a mother's POV: you experience the suffering of the loving observer, which you think will kill you, but you emerge intact because of the gift of life offered in that terrible vanquishing of death.

    Thank you all for your responses.

  7. I've been visiting here for possibly two years now, finding you via Wayne Stratoz. Your post today links to my own thoughts just "put to press" on my site concerning an initial entry into the first few chapters of "Into the Silent Land". I'd be interested in your opinion, giving an invite, but not disgruntled if you'd rather not. Your own thinking here remains a "table spread", always a good place to find food for the soul...

  8. "because of the gift of life offered in that terrible vanquishing of death"

    Robin -

    I think for the first time someone has articulated for me a ray of insight into the whole darn thing.

    I'm taking this sentence into some prayer and meditation and asking for it to sink in deeply.

    Thank you.

  9. The cross for me: my only hope... future, resurrection, death to death. Beauty and love and truth overcoming evil.

    Cindy's words were quite inspirational. I so identify with Mary now that Joey has died. My son, her son, both of us broken-hearted mothers, loving with everything in us. I love the word "unblinking". What a great insight on that movie.

  10. Sometimes I have to re-focus myself and remember the insanity of the crucifixion particularly when life stops making sense. I have to specifically remember what experiences brought me back to God. It reminds me of this verse:

    For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
    1 Corinthians 1:18-20

    Two scenes in The Passion really stood out for me:

    1) The most tragic heart-ripping scene of Mary helping Jesus up from his fall juxtaposed with a childhood memory. (My electrolytes likely went totally outa wack with tear-shedding.) But, right at that moment, Jesus looks directly in her eyes and says: "See, I make all things new." He says it in the most sweet and delicate way, almost like a child saying: "See, I made you a drawing."

    2) As Mary is in the mob trying to follow Jesus, she spies Satan across the way who is also looking at her. Their eyes meet for a short time and then Mary, without changing expression, turns her gaze back to Jesus where it remains. Beautiful!

    I keep having to force my gaze back to Jesus.