The approach to Calvary may be made by way of the Old Testament, by way of meditation on the Passion, by way of the Mass. But in the last analysis it is by way of experience. Until we have suffered something, however little, of Christ’s last hours, we do not know what pain, in the Christian scheme, is really for; nor do we know, until we have suffered with Christ, how bad we are at suffering. The Crucifixion not only opens our eyes to the gospel teaching on life as a whole and to the significance of the particular climax to which that teaching led, but in its application to our own lives, it throws into relief the standard of our religious conviction together with the generosity of our response.
The Crucifixion, participated in, produces in us a twofold effect: Christ-knowledge and self-knowledge. It is by the knowledge of Christ that we come to the knowledge of self: the sufferings that stop short at our own experience of them teach us far less than do the sufferings of Christ that find their reflection in our experience.
It is important to see it in this order; otherwise we shall think of the Passion as no more than the projection of our own sufferings. The Passion exists in its own right, in its own infinite right, and whatever pain is ours must find its true place there. The pains of a Christian are true and meritorious to the degree that they conform to the pattern set by Christ.
In the ordinary affairs of life, we are bystanders, but on Calvary we are bystanders no longer. For good or ill we participate: we either let ourselves be caught up into Christ’s act or else refuse to be identified with it. Calvary represents the peak in the Christian landscape: we are always either coming up toward the summit or drawing away from it. We cannot treat it as though it were not there. If we refuse the invitation to join Christ in the final climax of His life, it means that we have never faced ourselves, never grasped the importance of sin, never understood about responsibility and guilt. If we accept the invitation, we come to see how inadequate we are, how corrupting sin is to us and what an outrage it is to God, how deeply we are involved in our own and other people’s salvation or damnation.
Having once been granted to see, even to a small extent, into the closeness of the soul’s relation to the Crucifixion, we find that the sense of guilt is in danger of filling the whole horizon. Indeed the anguish that it causes is now the main constituent of the Cross: it is the Cross.
But a worse cross is the one that is carried by those who deny a personal guilt, who are so afraid of self-criticism that they wrap themselves up in their pride. The agony of self-reproach is not so bitter as the false security of self-esteem. Better the memory of past infidelities which makes for a crown of thorns than the forgetfulness of past infidelity which makes for the crown of Lethe.
Now is the time, while oppressed with the weight of unworthiness, to turn from the thought of self to the thought of God. If Christ on the Cross has suffered so much for me, why should I despair? This act of His, to which my own sufferings have been united, was performed precisely to save me from what I fear. His Passion is my hope. The deeper the awareness of my sinfulness, the greater should be my confidence in His love. The thought of His mercy should eclipse even the thought of my guilt.
But this is not the end of it. The deepest human emotions are, as a rule, related not to our own troubles, but to other people’s. Certainly the nearer we get to the heart of Christ, the more we feel ourselves to be drawn into line with His own activity, which was that of loving and suffering for souls. When self-love frustrates and makes sad, the sadness is no deeper than the self that is loved. The sadness that is caused by hurt done to the love we bear to others and to God is infinitely deeper. It is as deep as charity. Can there be any greater sorrow than that of having to stand by and watch the seduction of the innocent and their subsequent deterioration? To know that those whom we love in Christ have rejected grace, have refused our help, and have set out on a course that can only bring them unhappiness is to know suffering at its truest.
Now, again, is the time — and still more importantly, for the danger of despair is even greater than before — when the gaze of the soul must be directed beyond the immediate occasion of the suffering to the consummation of all suffering as seen in Christ. It is now more than ever that we must count upon the force of love crucified. The Crucifixion must be allowed not only to do for us a work that we cannot do for ourselves, but also to do for those others whom we love a work that they cannot do for themselves, nor one that we can do for them.
The Twelfth Station should show us the power that is possessed by love. It is stronger than sin. It expresses itself in suffering, but it is stronger than suffering. It is stronger than death and hate; nothing can stand up against it. This is the essential lesson of the Crucifixion: the revelation of absolute love.
So much for the positive side of it — for the part that Christ does and that we can help Him to do — but the tragedy is that on the negative side we can become either so familiar with the symbols of Christ’s suffering or so unfamiliar with the implications of our own that the Crucifixion is to us a matter of indifference. Like the soldiers at the foot of the Cross, we sit and watch — and see nothing.
Unwillingness to look at ourselves and admit our guilt extends to an unwillingness to look at Christ crucified and admit the price that is paid for our guilt. All that we see is a figure on a Cross, and we have seen this so often before that we turn away and go on with our game of dice. It is not that we deny Christ, but that we are no longer interested. We have other things to worry about — our crosses, for instance — and cannot give the time to studying Christ crucified.
“It would be different,” we tell ourselves, “if we did not happen to be overworked and bothered about money, if we had no family to think about, if we enjoyed better health and did not suffer from nerves, if there were not this ceaseless competition in the race of life. But as it is, we cannot be expected to know Christ crucified or apply His life to ours.”
Against this we must believe that it is not a question of time or leisure in which to devote ourselves to the occupation of love; it is a question of orientation. Nor, as has been suggested, is the secret of the thing to apply Christ’s life to ours so much as to apply our lives to His; our application is rewarded by the gift of Himself so that we can say with St. Paul, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” and go on to say, “I suffer now, not I, but Christ suffers in me.” Just as, in prayer, we are not trying to bring down God’s will to the level of our own, but are trying to raise our own to His, so, in suffering, our effort should be rather to place our pains in His than to think of the process as bringing His into ours.
By a kind of spiritual agnosia [the inability to process sensory information], induced by the routine sameness of religious practice, we can come to miss the essential point of the mysteries presented for our belief. Taking all for granted in the sweep of faith, we allow our religious assent to stop short at the stage when true interior living should begin. The inwardness of the Passion remains to us unexplored. But the Passion, like the Church, must be something more in our lives than an outward symbol. While we may learn about the Passion through our outward senses — we can learn about it by no other way — we do not confine our understanding of it to the knowledge that comes out of books and sermons. The influence of the Passion upon our souls, as is that of the sacramental system and the Liturgy, is psychosomatic: it is received physically and mentally; it is expressed physically and mentally.
To the good Catholic — with his Holy Week book, his Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, his crucifix, and his Stations — there is the tendency to let the Passion become a mere pageant, to let Calvary be a mere place of devotion, to let the Cross be a mere sign. What is lacking in such a man’s understanding of Catholicism is the one thing that all these symbols of Catholicism denote and the one thing that Christ came on earth to give — namely, experience.
Our Lord told His disciples to learn of Him, not merely to look at Him or stand in admiration of Him. He was to draw men to Himself, so that they might share by experience in His “lifting up.”
Editor’s note: This article is a chapter from Dom Van Zeller’s Suffering: The Cross of Christ and its Meaning for You, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.