By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
The past few days of liturgy have been pretty serious, solemn, and sorrowful. Normal Mondays are difficult enough to get through, but this past Monday was also burdened with the extra weight of contemplating the cross. “No rest for the weary” perfectly describes the choice of celebrating our Lady of Sorrows immediately after the Exaltation of the Cross. And to round it all off? How about some death? Two days ago we celebrated the martyrdoms of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian. That’s a lot of sad stuff to think about for three days straight, even for a serious person like myself!
The Church, however, does not exist to burden us; so if I’ve found the last few days burdens, rather than celebrations, then I’m probably doing something wrong. In such a situation, I turned to someone who had been there and done that before me – a growing personal favorite of mine: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka, Edith Stein). For those unfamiliar with her, Teresa was born in Germany, 1891, in a Jewish family, lost interest in religion and faith for most of her young adult life as she studied philosophy, then had a conversion, became Catholic, joined the Carmelites, and was killed (martyred) in 1942. She had plenty of experience of sorrow: not only did many of her close friends die in WWI, but she volunteered as a nurse during the war and watched many of her patients suffer and die; and though well qualified, she was not given a teaching position at a university in Germany, mainly because she was a woman; and in 1942 she was taken to Auschwitz due to her Jewish heritage where she was gassed a few days after arriving.
I know, I’m not helping to lighten the mood. But, in fact, the mood – our situation of living in the world – cannot be lightened in a way that makes it less serious, or solemn, or even sorrowful; life is full of pain and Christianity does not try to sugar coat and hide this fact. Our situation can, however, be illuminated by our faith and nevertheless be seen as cause for celebration. Our suffering can be celebrated. How is this possible? How can we celebrate the cross, our Lady of Sorrows, or the murder of our sisters and brothers? I would like to offer a few passages from Teresa, taken from Volume 4 of her Collected Works, where she focuses on the proper way a Christian should view suffering. The passages are from chapter 3, which I would suggest reading all of when you have the time. Teresa’s context should be kept in mind while reading her: she was very well educated, zealous about her new faith, witnessed a great amount of suffering and sorrow during her life (she watched the world destabilize into war twice), and had her fellow cloistered community members in mind as the intended audience of her writing, not the public at large. My own take away from the chapter is reflected in the passages I selected – Christian suffering happens in community, for community.
The Savior is not alone on the way of the cross. Not only are there adversaries around him who oppress him, but also people who succor him. The archetype of followers of the cross for all time is the Mother of God. Typical of those who submit to the suffering inflicted on them and experience his blessing by bearing it is Simon of Cyrene. Representative of those who love him and yearn to serve the Lord is Veronica. Everyone who, in the course of time, has borne an onerous destiny in remembrance of the suffering Savior or who has freely taken up works of expiation has by doing so canceled some of the mighty load of human sin and has helped the Lord carry his burden. Or rather, Christ the head effects expiation in these members of his Mystical Body who put themselves, body and soul, at his disposal for carrying out his work of salvation.
But because being one with Christ is our sanctity, and progressively becoming one with him our happiness on earth, the love of the cross in no way contradicts being a joyful child of God. Helping Christ carry his cross fills one with a strong and pure joy, and those who may and can do so, the builders of God’s kingdom, are the most authentic children of God. And so those who have a predilection for the way of the cross by no means deny that Good Friday is past and that the work of salvation has been accomplished. Only those who are saved, only children of grace, can in fact be bearers of Christ’s cross. Only in union with the divine Head does human suffering take on expiatory power. To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels – this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.