On Loving the Cross

By John Mallon

The Sooner Catholic, December 4, 1994

There are times when it seems like everyone is having a hard time. This was first brought home to me in August of 1992 when I went back to Boston to be best man in a friend’s wedding. I was in a wretched state of depression, and while I attempted to conceal it at the wedding for obvious reasons, I visited some old friends hoping to find some words of affirmation, consolation and encouragement. They were kindly offered, but I soon sensed to my horror that they were having just as many difficulties as I was, if not more. I felt that I must have sounded like a terrible crybaby, and imposing on them insensitively, too much focused on myself. I wrote and apologized later, and, happily, one of them wrote back saying that’s what friends are for, and if one can’t impose on friends when in need then who can you impose on? He also said that as the Body of Christ we are supposed to ask each other for prayers when we need them and so to think no more of it. Thank God for friends like that!

However, it got me thinking and it occurred to me that so many of God’s friends are going through so much suffering.  We often hear about the Church being purified but that means “Hey! That’s me!” That’s us. Sometimes God seems to be sandblasting individual souls from the inside.  I personally think we are on the brink of a true Golden Age for the Church unlike any ever seen, but some blood may be spilled first. The preparatory polishing hurts, and all the dross is floating up not only in us but in the newspapers and TV screens. 

It is a shock to find that real suffering is not the kind of romantic spiritual suffering we imagine after a mountaintop conversion experience where we say, “O Lord, I love you! Let me suffer for you! I’ll die for you!” We mean it, of course, but it looks different when God takes us up on it: “Wait a minute, Lord, this isn’t what I had in mind! Where’d you go anyway?” I recently read that sweet little Therese, the Little Flower, had to struggle against the temptation to hate God when on her deathbed. Hardly a “little” way!

In Hannah Hunard’s wonderful book Hind’s Feet on High Places, little Much Afraid learns the lesson. Sorrow and Suffering are her constant companions and she wants to get rid of them. But somewhere she crosses a line and comes to love them.  The question becomes not just can we take up our Cross ever day, but can we kiss it as we do so? Just when we say, “Wait a minute, I’m beyond this! I’m more advanced in the spiritual life than this! This is like starting all over! I’ve paid my dues!” may be the time we have to say, “Yes Lord, I will follow.” Even when it seems He’s walking us straight into what appears to be hell, and rubbing our noses in our worst fears. The sandblasters come on. 

There is an odd consolation in surrendering to it. Every loss of love, friendship, money, job, status, health, familiar supports, every failed love affair (or even attempt), every death, every newly discovered ache, pain, or limitation, passed year, illness, disappointment, humiliation, rejection, weariness, abandonment, exhaustion, betrayal, insult, failure, misunderstanding, accusation—not only from our enemies, but our friends—becomes more grist for the holiness mill. We don’t even feel the need to defend ourselves anymore, in fact, we’re stripped of our defenses and realize that’s not so bad. The new-found clarity of our wretchedness frees us—we just submit. We welcome the flames of purification once we get over the shock of having to face them again. We start to see truth in the insults and accusations leveled at us and say, “Yeah, I really am kind of wretched! Praise the Lord!” There is a freedom and comfort in it—not to fight it anymore, we can just fall on the Mercy of God and take refuge in the shadow of His wings. Al Jolson had a song called, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” Amen. It all clicks us into a deeper and more real identification with Christ. (Who was, after all, misunderstood, betrayed, abandoned, insulted, rejected, whipped and stripped, and finally nailed to a tree by those He loved—why should we expect any different?) 

Fr. Michael Scanlan wrote an insightful article called “Problems+Prayer=Perseverance” on a phenomenon he called “The Wall of Suffering” in a magazine called Faith and Renewal. (March/April 1993). He uses a metaphor of trying to pull a plane out of a dive by pushing the stick into it. I’d like to stretch the image by saying there’s a kind of joy in pushing the envelope—breaking the sound barrier into the smooth clear, cool, silence of God after all that shaking and sweating. Perhaps when we reach this point where we can kind of laugh as we say, “Okay Lord, what are you going to strip me of this time that I thought I couldn’t live without?” I think—I’m no expert—perhaps that is when we begin to love the Cross. And know the Resurrection. What better time than Advent?

© 2004 By John Mallon