Always Embrace The Cross
Miriam Hogan, O.C.D.
Recently, I was reading an article by Sr. Margaret Dorgan, DCM, that described some of the words of wisdom that Mother Aloysius of Concord Carmel gave to Sister when she was in formation. This article caused me to think back on my own days in formation and to reflect especially upon what one of the older Sisters said to me that has stayed during good days and hard days. It was the simple phrase “always embrace the cross.” These words, first given to me by someone who lived them, continue to guide me and to direct me back to the meaning of Carmel as first experienced and as experienced in the present.
These Were Joyful Women
What does it mean however to “embrace the cross?” The older Sisters used to kiss or reverence with a touch or bow the six-foot crosses that were located in the refectory and halls. Yet, as inspiring as these little acts of love were it was obvious that a tremendous depth of meaning inspired their outward devotions. For these were joyful women, and what was being proclaimed by their daily lives, was the “exaltation of the cross.” Their invitation to us newcomers was to also live and walk joyfully in the presence of Christ. Yet, one cannot know for sure what these seasoned mystics of few words meant in their hearts. They taught by gentle example. On the surface, one could see that they accepted the usual sufferings of life and the infirmities of old age with patience and grace.1 Also, in their prayers, they prayed for the sufferings of others. Yet, it was apparent that their experience of the cross did not merely stop with human suffering and death, but went further into the peace and love2 preached by Our Risen Lord. One surmised that it was the Resurrected Jesus (as proclaimed by the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) that was the real unspoken motivation behind their devotion and actions. In their peaceful presence and in their own ways, they gave witness to words of St. Paul: "But may I never boast except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6,14)
The Unfinished Book
To give a well known example from recent history, we also have in the life of St. Edith Stein a model of this kind of recollection and sanctity lived in the presence of the cross. St. Edith Stein (Sr. Teresa Benedicta, O.C.D.) was keenly aware of the great injustice against and sufferings of the Jewish people. Considering herself, both “a child of the Jewish people” and “a child of the Catholic Church,” she understood both what it is to suffer and what it is to honor “the holiest humanity of our Savior”3 as expressed in the sufferings of others. She clearly did not remain silent about the politics of her society and even wrote to Pope Pius XI expressing her concerns. Yet, when she was no longer allowed to teach, she followed her heartfelt desires and entered the Carmel of Cologne embracing a life of contemplative prayer. Rather than avoiding what was happening politically, she discovered that by embracing the cross and uniting with Christ in prayer she was entering into the life of the Spirit that acts for good in the hearts of all people. However, even such a hidden force for good was deemed a threat to an evil power. So in 1942 Edith was taken with her sister Rosa from a Carmel in Holland to Auswitz where they died in the gas chamber. In her room on her desk she left the unfinished book that she was working on entitled The Science of the Cross.
In reflecting upon this kind of lived experience, we can ask the question, “how does embracing the cross seem to apply to our own daily life situations?” What does it mean for us both as individuals and as a society?
First as individuals, we know that human life holds suffering as well as joy. The crosses or sufferings that we encounter can bring us in touch with what is both passing and eternal in our own natures. We can choose to use them to unite us with God or we can try to avoid them and choose not to allow God to transform us into all that we are called to be. The choice is ours because where there is freedom, love never forces. However, in uniting our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ we are also at the same time entering into the victory of Christ. Perhaps the mystery of this kind of experience is that the deeper we go into our own humanity the closer we get to the Divine. Meister Eckhart stated it thus: “There is no joy or sorrow that comes to us that has not first passed through the heart of God.” 4
Secondly, as a society we are everyday becoming more aware of the sufferings of other people. Knowing at the same time, that the politics of our own groups or country or church can be the underlying cause of these sufferings. One of the challenges of our times is to acknowledge our political shortcomings. This means accepting our responsibility for sins (in the form of abuse, starvation, sickness and war), changing what we can, while at the same time embracing the Christ who can guide us in the ways of truth and justice.
The Still Small Voice
Finally, in a rapidly changing world, we pray to hear once again the still small voice that inspired our saints and novice directors. We pray also not to be afraid to hold the cross of Christ close to our own hearts, and to accept the prophetic words that are spoken to us at this time in our own lives.
1 Here I would like to point out that suffering that leads to union with God is not self imposed or chosen for its own sake. In fact, some people do enjoy suffering and this is a psychological illness rather than any kind of good spirituality.
2 When we pray for someone who has been diagnosed with mental or physical disease or terminal illness or who has suffered the loss of a loved one; we ask that as this person shares in the sufferings of Christ they may also share in the glory of His going to the Father. We know and trust that the Resurrected Christ enters into our lives and transforms our human sufferings into new life in eternity. Christ died and rose once for all. Yet, as scripture also reminds us, we are called sometimes in very small ways to share in the redemptive work of Christ in our own lives. St. Therese’s Little Way of confidence and love that enabled her to suffer greatly, is also the way of peace and joy. This confidence that does not come from ourselves was powerfully stated to me once in the morning offering prayer of a young mother of three children. It went, “Dear Lord, there is nothing that is going to happen today that You and I together, cannot handle.” Now it strikes me that her children are teenagers and while her words may be the same now as before, her prayer has deepened over the years. Yet, as we hear about the sufferings of many and about “wars or the rumors of wars.” I like to recall this simple prayer and to remind God myself that “there is nothing going to happen in this day that You and I together cannot handle.”
3 From a letter written by Edith Stein in 1933 which was stored in the Vatican’s archives that was recently released for publication. (February 23, 2003) http://www.carmelite.com/saints/edith4.shtml
4The symbol of the cross has remained with us even during the time of ongoing renewal that replaced or changed many other familiar symbols. Today, as in the past, each Sister has in her bedroom a plain wooden cross about two feet by three feet usually hanging on the wall above her bed. The cross is without a corpus (or body). This symbolizes that it is with our own bodies that we enter into the redemptive work of Christ at this time in history.
There is no joy or sorrow that comes to us
which has not first passed through
the Heart of God.