Take up your cross

Watch this procession. "They were on the road; going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; the disciples were in a daze and the crowd were bewildered" (Mark 10:28). What's strange about that? Nothing, except that they would appear to be going in the wrong direction! In Jerusalem he would meet his death. Everyone sensed this, and that is why they were bewildered. They should have been going the other way! It's natural to try to escape suffering and violent death.

But there is some deeper wisdom here - a strange wisdom that tells us to embrace our suffering rather than flee from it. This is just as puzzling to us as it was to the bewildered crowd that followed him, but countless Christians through the ages have somehow not only understood it but lived it. When we read that Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic, prayed for suffering and sickness we look around for psychological terms with which to dismiss it. But Julian's intention was clear. "My intention was that I should be wholly cleansed thereby through the mercy of God, and that thereafter, because of that illness, I might live more worthily of him." She wanted some part in the Passion of Christ. But much more than physical illness, she wanted what she called "Three wounds: the wound of genuine contrition, the wound of true compassion, and the wound of sincere longing for God." This is very challenging. We tend to assume that all wounds should be healed. She would reject our popular axiom, 'holiness = wholeness'.

Julian wants her heart to be opened by "the wound of genuine contrition"; she wants "the wound of true compassion" to bleed and never stop bleeding for the world; and she wants to feel "the wound of sincere longing for God." If you ever became absorbed in the book I'm OK, you're OK, how hard it is to pray for the wound of contrition, or compassion, or longing for God!

The Christian faith is all too seldom allowed to challenge the ego; instead it is often used to extend it to infinity. But saints are people who have received the challenge and lived by it. They assure us that there is no such thing as a painless life, and so running from pain cannot be the answer: we only run into the arms of greater pain. Yes, they tell us, exclude all foolish self-imposed pain. Work with what is left: the inevitable pain of life. Rest at peace with this pain, as far as you are able: it is your best teacher and friend; it opens a gate to life. It questions your understanding of who and what you are. It takes away your cushions so that you touch reality. This is not horrible, it is a promise of life - because only reality can save us. If things go against you don't take it as a personal insult; it is God trusting you. The dream of endless comfort is an insult, not this. God loves you enough to take you out of yourself. This is the demanding lesson of the saints.

Jesus predicted his suffering, to prepare his disciples for the shock. But otherwise he never talked or complained about it. When you talk about your suffering you are creating a distance between it and you; you are not 'suffering' your suffering ('to suffer' originally meant 'to allow'). It cannot work its chemistry in you if you don't let it come near - in fact, nearer than near: you have to become one with it. When you are one with it, there is no distance and therefore no talk.

When you talk about your suffering, people are usually too polite to change the subject. How boring a subject it is! People have too much suffering of their own, they don't know what to do with yours. If you said you had a leaking roof they could off to fix it for you, but what can they do about your suffering if all you can do about it yourself is talk? And behind the talk they can often sense a plea for pity and sympathy; they sense that you are trying to make capital out of it. Instead we have to make a life out of it. Jesus didn’t say, “Take up my cross,” but “Take up your cross.”

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.