A couple of days ago I quoted some material from The Imitation of Christ, Bk. 2, Ch. 12, "On the Royal Road of the Cross," and used it to consider what "taking up one's cross" might mean when one is healthy, happy, relatively wealthy, and secure.
Whatever suffering must be borne is the cross.
Even if it's very small.
The small crosses can be the hardest to bear correctly, because we can brush them off so easily without thinking... and when we do, they -- since they must be borne -- land on someone else....
If we imagine that we don't have any "real" crosses, and wonder why we've been so lucky as to do without them -- disabilities, bereavements, chronic pains -- we can fail to take up the cross we've been sent.
- Does your body feel bad or painful in any way, or are you sick or injured? If you can't make the suffering go away entirely, that can be the cross -- whether you know why you're sick, or whether you don't.
- Is there any kind of "tribulation of spirit in your soul" -- any sort of interior turbulence, depression, grouchiness, fear, or any other discomfort, whether from an identifiable cause or whether it seems to come from nowhere? If you can't quite shake it even after reasonable effort -- trying to gain perspective, count your blessings, cheer yourself up, take your meds -- that can be the cross.
- Do you lack spiritual consolation? Does your prayer seem to do nothing? Does your meditation yield no fruits? That, too, can be the cross.
- Do your kids drive you crazy? Do your parents bug you? Does your spouse annoy you? Is your co-worker chewing his gum too loudly in the next cubicle? Is anybody anywhere getting on your nerves? That, too, can be the cross.
- Finally, don't you get on your own nerves sometimes? Don't you ever say to yourself, "Self, you're an idiot?"
...If it must be borne by somebody, it's the Cross.
Because I was interrupted, I ended that meditation abruptly, and I am kind of unsatisfied with it -- especially with the bit about shrugging off your cross and making someone else bear it. I am worried that I implied that you cannot simultaneously bear your cross and allow someone else to help you bear it.
Also, I want to highlight a couple of other crosses that commonly afflict the comfortable.
To do this, I want to turn away from the Imitation's chapter and look at, instead, another via crucis: the fourteen Stations. As a refresher, here is the traditional set, likely to be the one depicted in your parish church:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus carries His cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets His mother
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls the second time
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped of his garments
- Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
- Jesus is laid in the tomb.
Only a handful of these refer to Jesus actually bearing the cross alone -- number 2, when He's "made to carry" it, and then the three falls at stations 3, 7, and 9. Let's take a look at some of the other stations.
In the first station, "Jesus is condemned to death." This station could be taken as the anticipation of a coming cross -- and fearful anticipation itself is a significant cross. I remember a bit from The Screwtape Letters about this, about failing to recognize that fear of the possibilities, and not the possibilities themselves, are the cross:
We want [your patient] to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory images of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human's mind against the Enemy...
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy's will.... It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses; let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him...
The fourth station is a mysterious encounter: "Jesus meets his mother." Our theology teaches us that Mary is permitted, through the merits of her Son, to participate somehow in the Redemption; at the very least, by her initial fiat, but also that the fiat is bigger than just that moment. So this moment is her cross too, and it is a kind of cross that we can also share: accompanying a loved one on their way of the cross. It is surely a cross to watch someone we love struggle with a burden that we cannot take away, or may even have helped to bring about.
The fifth station is strange, too: it is a bearing-of-the-cross that is not fully bearing it, because Simon the Cyrenian is helping. Jesus said, "Take up your cross" -- but here he allows another man to take up Jesus's own cross. I love this station because through it, Jesus gives us permission, so to speak, to allow others to help us bear our crosses, and in fact this allowing is a way to bear a cross -- the cross of relinquishing a cross to someone else -- and that can be hard, a different kind of suffering, because so many of us hate to admit that we cannot bear it alone, or are unwilling to "be a burden" to someone else. But if we are not to regard the people around us only as potential burdens, we also must not regard ourselves as only potential burdens -- even when we are at our most burdensome.
(You know the notion that we should unite our burdens to the cross of Christ? Simon went about his days doing his duties and suffering whatever troubles came to him, all the days before and all the days after -- but on Good Friday Simon's duty and burden became, for a time, literally united to the cross of Christ -- they were one and the same. Something to meditate on.)
The traditional sixth station may be apocryphal, and is certainly not explicit in the Gospels, but I am comfortable with the notion that the Church has given it to us for a reason. Veronica snatches her veil from her hair, and wipes Jesus's face. She would have been left bareheaded, and indeed a true icon of Christ would have been left on her veil, written in sweat, tears, vomit, drool, snot, blood. This is a human connection, and a humiliating one -- the cross of accepting intimate bodily care. In Veronica I see the sickbed nurse, the midwife or doula, the elder-care provider -- the mother, the spouse, the grown daughter or son -- I think of people who held my hair while I vomited, who've cleaned up the bathroom after I was violently ill. It is hard not to be able to take care of yourself and have to entrust your personal care to others. You may wish they will forget that they have seen that side of you -- but you will leave your mark on them.
I am going to stop here and leave the remainder of the stations as an exercise for the reader. Leave your ideas in the combox.