I wrote this about four years ago, just before the start of Lent.
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All this spring I've been coming back again and again to this passage from The Imitation of Christ (Book 2, Chapter 12, "On the Royal Road of the Cross").
What I like about it is that it answers a question I have often had: But my life is actually pretty good; so many people are suffering so much more than I am; what does it mean to carry my cross when things are going so well for me?
There is no other way to life and to true inward peace than the way of the holy cross and daily mortification. Go where you will, seek what you will, you will not find a higher way, nor a less exalted but safer way, than the way of the holy cross.
Arrange and order everything to suit your will and judgment, and still you will find that some suffering must always be borne, willingly or unwillingly, and thus you will always find the cross.
- Either you will experience bodily pain
- or you will undergo tribulation of spirit in your soul.
- At times you will be forsaken by God,
- at times troubled by those about you
- and, what is worse, you will often grow weary of yourself.
You cannot escape, you cannot be relieved by any remedy or comfort but must bear with it as long as God wills.
I think this passage kind of functions very similarly to the famous passage from First Corinthians about love ("Love is patient, love is kind...") which we heard in the readings last Sunday. It's a description that can be thought of as a definition.
Just as "Love is patient, love is kind" can be thought of as implying a definition of love ("Love is that which is patient, love is that which is kind, etc.") or as setting the boundaries of love ("What isn't patient, can't be loving. What isn't kind, can't be loving, etc.") --- so this can be a sort of description of the cross.
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.
Because I was grumbling about some little inconvenience, I've snapped at some poor cashier and ruined her day. Because I'd failed to plan ahead, I've dragged cranky, tired, hungry preschoolers to the grocery store. Because I was feeling too tired to cheerfully do the dishes, I've sneaked upstairs and left them for my spouse.
Somebody had to bear a cross here, and in each case it wasn't me.
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?"
(This is, in my opinion, the single wisest point in the whole Imitation. Go read No Exit again: Sartre didn't get it completely right. It should have been "Hell is other people. And yourself too.")
If it must be borne by somebody, it's the Cross.
The cross, therefore,
if you would have peace within and merit an eternal crown.
- is always ready;
- it awaits you everywhere.
- No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself.
- Turn where you will–above, below, without, or within–you will find a cross in everything,
- and everywhere you must have patience
It's probably a good idea to look out for these things.
If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one.
It's also possible to choose voluntary crosses, which is part of the point of Lent: to practice, so that we may better carry the involuntary ones.
Something to think about as we plan for the next few weeks.