In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
During my retreat, or, perhaps more fittingly, my walk with Christ in the desert, I thought.
Many ages ago, in a wilderness, a people lived in a foreign land, unknown to man and known only to them. They looked to the sky, the one thing that seemed to be above and free from all else, and they fashioned their idea of “god”: A glorious image of a power unspeakable, and a might unknown to any mere creature.
But they lived by desire. They feasted upon want, and they killed whatever their lust and anger lashed out upon.
And then one day, a Man from a world unknown to them stepped foot upon their land. He brought nothing valuable with Him; no weapons, no tools. He did not seem powerful to them. He did not seem great.
But one thing drove their interest and puzzled them: He carried a piece of wood, and on it, a dead Man nailed and covered in blood.
And from that moment, nothing would be the same.
The history of mankind is a history of escape: A history of progress built upon great ideas and moments in order to free man from one level to go to the next. Advancements in technology shape the way man moves and works within the Earth that contains him, and man continues to seek to not be contained.
The first man discovered that words symbolized deeper realities, and with them he gave names to all creatures, and because of it, power over them. The first son discovered that a rock could be used as a weapon and with it he killed his innocent brother, and from that moment, man knew how to war over others.
Throughout time, man discovers things that can help him understand his place and help him escape from the current bonds and limitations that he believes bind him. But, no matter what he did or discovered, man could never fully escape.
Until one Man was killed upon a Cross.
I find myself awake at times in a bunker, built by my own fears and fashioned by my own self-satisfaction. We humans struggle, and we fight ourselves in the dark. We fight monsters that are made by our own doing. Monsters that are created by our own corrupt wills and our own ferocious passions. Monsters that, throughout history, have overcome us, and in killing us dragged us down into an inferno and eternal fire.
But the creation of monsters by our hands is not an act of pure malice. Yes, there is evil in the heart of all of us when we fashion these shadows, these vices, these great sins and attachments that we wrestle with and struggle for survival, but it’s not that we are evil, but rather, we are lost.
One day in time, we come alive from a darkness and suddenly, we are in the world. We can act, we can know, but we know so little because we are strangers in a foreign land. Strangers because we walk among things that should be our allies, but now are only our enemies. Strangers because we walk in a land that is no longer a valley of preparation for glory, but now a merciless gauntlet to prove our eternal fate. Strangers because we were created by a God that was meant to walk with us under the sun, but now we see only his shadow in the pale darkness of night.
Adam, our father, fell, but each one of us wakes into this world not knowing at first that we have fallen; only knowing somewhere deep within us that we were meant to be with a God. I often think that perhaps a child cries so often because it slowly begins to realize, in his own way, that he is a creature that is not at home. A creature that is not with his God. He has been placed into a battlefield, when what he was created for was a garden.
We are not anchored. Like children, we flail our arms hoping to grasp what’s in our vision, but almost always come up with nothing but a closed fist. We find ourselves falling, when all we did was try and tell our legs to bring us closer to what we desire. And so, in our wandering, in our falling in this world of shadows, we try and fashion our happiness. Try and design our escape, but really we create monsters instead.
We all have sins that haunt us, faults that prowl around us. They are the hunters, and we the hunted. We’re lost, and so we rip and we tug, and we dig deep into the earth, part of us still wanting the evil, yet, part of us wanting to escape it. We don’t know where to turn, or what way to walk, and so we dig. We dig into ourselves, hoping to find escape, but not yet decided from what we wish to escape from: from evil, or from good.
We just want to escape pain, but which way to go. One path leads to long and earthly pain. The other, delayed but eternal pain. We freeze, we do nothing. We just try and bury ourselves in ourselves, and so we find ourselves in darkness.
Until the Cross.
What is the piece of wood with a dead Man nailed to it?
Here I am, hiding in bunker once again, the cries of the world and every possible pleasure and power calling to me. Their voices are legion, jealousy, pride, impurity, vanity, cowardice, worldliness… All of them with different ways of trying to tear away from me the light of Christ in my soul.
Deep within, I want to be rid of my sin Lord, but can I?
I think to myself, what am I willing to give up now? What doors am I willing to close forever and never look back?
I can name them, Lord, there are many.
I go down the list, but then I get to those last sins and attachments on the list. The voices get stronger, the pull more powerful, the flames brighter, and all the commotion and chaos reveals the Cross lying there in the dust not far from me, and I recoil.
Not those. I can’t get rid of those, Lord. I’m not strong enough, I don’t have what it takes. You cannot ask from me the impossible.
I’ve gone years living and breathing off of those things, those few attachments. They’re not just actions of mine, not just “desires” or “possessions”, by now they are part of me. They are me.
And from the shadows, the Cross grows larger. The blood spills from its wood and makes it way to my trembling body, one trickle at a time.
Am I not strong enough, or do I just choose to not be rid of it?
Can I shut the door on my evil desires?
No I can’t. I want that thing too badly.
I can say no to so many things Lord, but if that one thing shows up to tempt me, if I have to choose, I still want it too much to say no.
Is this what man has been reduced to? A creature who wants to do good, who wants to escape, but is still capable of such evil, and still so imprisoned?
It’s so frustrating my Lord.
To be human is becoming more and more clear to me: it’s simply to exhaust oneself with the struggle between the aspiration to be good, but the intense pull to one’s own fallen desires at the same time.
Explosions all around me. My bunker besieged from every side and all I see is a menacing Cross lying before an endless path into a dark and terrible landscape.
I’m giving up, my Lord. I have no answer to the great boulders and enemies and sins that lie between me and salvation.
And all I see is the Cross. Or, rather, all I see is self-denial on a level too deep and too difficult that I know I could never achieve.
Then I see a Figure, a bloody Figure beat close to death crawling along in the mud and across the hard rocks It pierces flesh anew.
The hellish landscape of war all around, the voices, the taunts, the screams, the pleasure, the attractions, the false glories… The world and all that it offers calls, and He crawls. Closer and closer to the Cross, I watch as He finally reaches it, He stumbles all over it and feels every inch of its rough wood, and in a moment of anguish He picks it up, my cross, and looks towards me and asks:
“Are you still with Me? Don’t you dare bail on Me now.”
He says while He shoulders the Cross.
“That’s it!”, I think, this is the great secret: There is no “my cross”, it’s His. It was always His, and will always be His. I’m simply there to lock arms and carry it with him.
Every temptation, now I see You there Lord.
Every call from the world, now I see You there Lord.
Every temptation to anger, or lust, or pride or despair, I see You now here Lord,
You and Your Cross, your blood-drenched hand reaching out to the thing that I want so badly,
and in a moment of heroism, You pick that attachment of mine up, and add it to Your burden.
I walk with you Christ. This is the answer to my discouragement. The answer to bring me courage. That every moment I see Your bloody figure crawling to the Cross, and asking me one question:
“Are you still with Me?”
And every time I will answer truthfully:
I am Lord,
but I’m really weak right now.
I am Lord,
but I’m really feeling like a coward right now.
I am Lord, but I really don’t want to deny myself right now.
This is it. The Cross is not a symbol, the Crucifix is not a symbol. It is as It as is: don’t look for meaning in It, see It for what It is. See It for what those lost men saw It for when the black robe first showed them the piece of wood, a dead and bloody God nailed to the Cross. A dead Christ on the Cross; sear It into your minds, make it part of the fabric of your every day. Do not go anywhere without seeing Him crawling to His Cross. Let every temptation be a moment to travel to the very heart of all things and see Him crawling to His Cross.
We still see His death as a symbol; We see it as a symbol of His love, or a symbol of the tragedy of sin, but no. It’s much more than that. We want so badly to keep am arm’s distance from the reality of the cross. We believe He died, but we want to speak of it and relate to it more like an old bedtime story or a clean fable told in parish halls, but no: it’s not a symbol, nor is it clean, nor is it neat.
He actually died.
It’s actual love.
It’s actual sin.
It’s actual violence and blood.
See that. See Him crawling. See the blood, the violence. Know it and understand it. Everywhere you walk, look to your right and see Him.
I see you Christ.
I walk with you Christ.
You and I.
And every time temptation comes and surrounds you, every time the darkness comes with its voices and cries and monsters, hear the burning question from Christ who walks beside you:
“Are you still with Me?”
And in that moment, you have to answer him. Not a prayer, just a simple reply.
It’s not easy to look to the God man struggling beside you and bloody and say
No Christ, I’m not with You.
Go Your way, and leave me be.
My brothers, my sisters we need the Cross. Because we are strangers in this world, placed here by a God in a strange and unknown land, and we need the Cross to reaffirm who we are and what everything around us means to us. And as the vision of man is taken by his God and sees the whole landscape of reality, of war, of peace, of monuments of man and nature, only one thing remains: the Cross.
What is joy? What is victory? What is strength? What is a king? What is a God?
All of our answers to these questions fade except the Cross. Driven deep within the earth and stretched out encompassing all inhabitants, it calls to us, it challenges us, it answers to us, it holds all the mysteries of the world.
What is the Cross? What is the dead Man nailed to the piece of wood?
It’s hope incarnate.
Kubrick struggled to find the answer to man’s captivity in his Space Odyssey. He knew the answer was not for man to escape, but for man to find transcendence. To not get out of, but rather to go beyond. And so he constructed his black monolith, but the true answer to his question is the Cross. It’s the great monolith that we cannot fully understand, but then when we make contact with it, changes us forever.
Advancement in tools and technology help us to escape, but the Cross, it does more than help us escape: it makes us so strong that the world cannot contain us any longer.
Is that fear I feel, my Lord,
as I see my cross lying in the dust?
The blood of martyrs pools around the wood, and slowly makes its way towards my crumpled body. I hear the clamor of battle and struggle all around me, hiding within the bunker of my own comfort and satisfaction.
Then Christ appears and crouches low, so I cannot mistake His warrior eyes and his face smeared with blood.
“Are you still with Me?”
I’m with you Lord,
just cowardly right now.
“We’ve got this.”
There’s a slight smile, and a nod, and he takes a hold of me and we leap out into the large expanse of desert and strife.
With Him I’m not afraid; my body feels the earth cold and relentless, but, my soul is on fire. With Him it all makes sense. We fall into the dust together, we climb rough passageways, and deep within the earth we walk silently together, past dangers both evil and ancient.
But as we get closer and closer to our goal, we begin to crawl as the weight of sin presses us closer and closer into the earth. I crawl along with him, and embrace the Cross.
It feels old. Traveled. Weathered as if thousands before me have already carried its burden. It’s marked with the blood of other heroes before me, great men and women of the past who found a way to something greater.
And so I will carry His Cross. Every day It changes, and the wood warps and splinters in different ways, and it hurts, but I know that pain is the precursor to change, and the pain of the Cross means one thing alone. Christ is close.
I can feel His blood pour down and run over my eyes, giving me a new vision of the wasteland around me.
Drive nails into my flesh, Lord.
May the pain drive me from my worldly desire, and love of pleasure.
I’m close, Lord.
I feel the ironclad gates of my attachments closing, but
I need you, Christ.
Help me shut them, set my world on fire Lord.
Let the fire burn the world of dark fantasy that I have contrived and exiled from You,
and in the image of my own likeness,
burn it all, so that all that remains in the wasteland of ash and blood
is the Cross.
And only by climbing its rough beam
can I escape the flames that surround me.
I discovered something on my retreat, or rather my walk into the desert with Christ, and it is this: I will walk and pray the Stations of the Cross every day for the rest of my life.
I promise you that, Lord.
The Stations will be for me a doorway into a day not long ago, a time-travel. For after all, the Cross is a time machine, a monolith that stands and connects us with the past and the future, the sole language of the universe, the avenue of Christ’s heroes. And the Stations of the Cross is the contemplation and preparation for that daily passion, and I challenge you, my brothers and sisters, to do the same: walk and pray them each day, whether it be in the Church or at home or during lunch break, walk them, the Stations of the Cross. Do it for a week, or a month, or a year, or with me for a lifetime.
Do not let them be some fourteen plaques that you visit four times a year during Lent while reading long paragraphs of words put on your lips by other men, but I challenge you to do them yourself each day. Get close to them, touch them, immerse yourself into the high-stake struggle that they represent, and see what happens.
Every station I hear the cries, I smell the blood and the sweat, the hot sun beats down upon me and I see Christ looking at me and asking the same question:
“Are you still with Me?”
The Stations of the Cross put us into his world. It becomes more real, placing ourselves next to him intensely, not worrying about what words are said, but just being there and allowing Christ and His Cross to work in your soul. To pierce your heart as he wishes, to show you what you need to see in order to have the courage to deny yourself. To be able to see Him and His Cross, to be taken to a level of vision that you never knew possible. A world where everything is marked with his blood and your only companion is Christ, on a long and dark pathway inching closer to the great escape. Transcendence, our soul has always searched for.
“Are you still with Me?”
Christ waits for each of us to answer, but not a message of words alone, but a solemn proclamation of nails, wood, ash, and blood.
See the pathway. Our life is a dark passageway flanked by walls that have the history of heroes written in blood. Thousands of stories of lives of men, women and children who finally understood that piece of wood with a dead Man nailed and covered in blood.
There are not many Crosses. There is but one, and there it lies. Go now, and embrace it and him.
Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Written by Alex [→ Reply-To]