Friday, August 22, 2008

"Embracing" Suffering?

I watch the movie The Passion of the Christ about six times a year; five times with the five sections of freshmen I teach at Malvern Prep, and usually once at home with Rebecca during Holy Week. Needless to say, the powerful images, encounters, music, and ancient languages in this film are deeply ingrained in me the way few things are. One of those images occurs as Jesus is pushed by the people outside of the walls of Jerusalem (and this image alone speaks volumes) and encounters his cross for the first time. One of other condemned criminals watches the Christ kneel and take hold of this tool of torture and press his face against it, almost lovingly. "Fool! Look how he embraces his cross!" I've been thinking about that line these days, now two weeks into our own way of the cross. When I was a kid, fresh from my own "awakening" to the reality of God and the call to a relationship with Him, I used to be perplexed by the whole "embrace your cross" mentality. I was reading about it in the lives of the saints, and over and over again I could hear in their voices such a passion for the Passion, a real love for suffering. I struggled with my own attitude towards the cross. I thought... "Well, these guys are saints, I should feel this way too, but this sounds nuts." It was very unsettling, almost morbid, I thought. "Is this what God wants of me? Doesn't He want me to be happy? Am I missing something here?" Suffering is a funny thing. It surrounds us all like air, it trembles beneath nearly every step we take, and sorrow echoes in so many of our conversations every day, but we rarely look it in the eye. Our right to the "pursuit of happiness" as Americans has become an all out mad dash, an arms flailing race towards almost any door that will get us out. Anything but that narrow, cross-shaped Door that seems to lead only to pain. But here's the truth we're coming to see, and strangely it was quoted to me in a movie back in 1986 that seems totally random right now, but perfect. The Man in Black says to the Princess Bride... "Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something." Well, there it is. Ever since the Fall there has been conflict, pain, death, and war; inside and outside our hearts. So what do we do with it? Most people want to run from it (hedonists), some people pretend it doesn't exist (Buddhists), a few take a morbid pleasure in it (masochists), and a few, a select few, have come to peace with it by allowing themselves to be nailed to it, trusting in a greater plan. So the saints weren't nuts, though some may have been slightly off balance in the penance department. Really they were just.... realists. Just like the One Who came in a body to take on Death like a hero. And He destroyed it. He really did. So all of this is to say that I think I'm going to pray harder every day facing not fleeing from this cross that Rebecca and I have been allowed to carry. Maybe some will say "Fools! Look how they embrace their cross!" (We've already gotten that from the eyes of one of our doctors). Good Friday has come early again. But we hope it leads to a miraculous Easter Sunday, and we're imploring the prayers of a man who bore his cross heroically, Pope John Paul II. We don't know how long this via dolorosa will twist and bend, but I want to feel the wood, let the weight of it sink in. I was encouraged by a good friend to swim into this dark abyss, and keep swimming into Rebecca's pain as a mother, to swim and not to give up. He said that at a certain moment, if I hold fast like an Olympian, then I'll make a quick turn, like Michael Phelps, and we can rise again into golden light. I'm banking on that!
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