The cross is meant to be co-opted

When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.

Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience and capable mind, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, often resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views. And some of the things he believes are appalling.

Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head. 

One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering. Dreher was, in fact, in Jerusalem as he wrote that column, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandizement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.

But that is the point of the cross. 

That is why the execution of our savior was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us.  Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for. 

I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. It is, perhaps, fairly common to think of christianity mainly as a sort of overarching philosophy that describes social services that should be available to other people, and it doesn’t even occur to many that it’s ever meant to be personal to each of us.

In any case, it’s quite common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.

Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. She had spent the last few months increasingly at his bedside in between her own jobs, wondering how she would care for their many children if he didn’t pull through. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on screen, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus. A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be, looked dolefully up at the TV, and asked the family plaintively, “Aww, why’s Tammy crying?” 

So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true. There is such a thing as taking an impartial look at another human’s life and saying, “No, it’s not that bad.” Not as bad as what happened to Jesus. 

And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told the NYT that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”

The artist goes on to say:

“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’. It is one thing to say that he is like us, and another to say that we are like him. 

What I do know is that Jesus is like is in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognize him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.

And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him. 

Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior. 

There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. No, not as it were: Literally. Catholics, at very least, should be used to this idea. 

Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for. As long as it is sincere, it is fair game. 

The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement or for clout on Twitter. Be careful, friends. As much as the cross is there for us to use, other people’s suffering is very much not for us to use. Very much not. 

 

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A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 10, 2022.

The Church you’re building

When St. Francis had a vision of Jesus, he made an honest mistake. The Lord told him to rebuild his church, so St. Francis, with a willing heart, set to work rebuilding the literal, physical church right in front of him. Block by block, he put the chapel of San Damiano back together. 

But of course Christ had bigger plans. He meant for St. Francis to do the much vaster work of renewing and restoring the Church in general, which was in a much sorrier state. 

I have been thinking of this lately when I hear people — myself, included, say something a lot of people have been saying lately: “I’m so tired of the Church.” 

There are a lot of reasons to be tired. There are a lot of reasons to be weary, discouraged, disgusted, fed up, furious, maybe even done with the Church.

First, let me be clear. There are people who feel this way, who have truly done their best to seek out the good, true, and beautiful in the institution founded by Christ, but it seems that every Catholic they encounter is on a mission to show them the bad, false, and ugly. I know people who are trying tremendously hard to refocus their hearts and minds on what is essential and eternal about the faith, but they are met, again and again, with Catholics who wound them profoundly. And I will not tell them that they should just work harder to get past it.

I know people who have tried to get away from what is hurting them in the church, and they have found that they can’t, because they’ve already been wounded so deeply. They carry their wounds with them, and when they walk, they bleed. I’m not going to tell people in this state what they ought to do, or where they ought to go. 

But that’s only some people. There are others, who, when they say, “I’m so tired of the Church,” are in a different place entirely. I know, because sometimes this is me.

Sometimes, when I’m in this mode and I say “the Church,” what I really mean is a specific, self-selected group of celebrity Catholics I chose to perseverate on. When I say “the Church,”  I really mean a narrow collection of reliable sources of gross news that I can return to again and again whenever I want to reassure themselves that wicked people are still wicked, and they’re definitely not like me. I mean that I’ve fallen into a perverse habit of seeking out the things that make me feel bad about the faith and about my fellow Catholics, and it works: I do feel bad, all the time. 

Very often, when I say I’m tired of the Church, what I really mean is that I’m tired of the weird, ugly little quasi-church I’ve half-consciously built around myself out of sheer cynicism and snark and self righteousness. It’s a very flimsy, ugly, broke-down church indeed. No wonder I don’t like it there.

But I go there because it scratches some kind of unhealthy psychological itch. It makes me feel like I’m canny and hardened enough to see through façades, and world-weary enough to reject them with disgust — and there’s more relish in this disgust than I like to admit. There’s even an element of belonging to an in-group of people who feel this way. Some part of my psyche gets rewarded for hanging around in the crummy old ruins that I profess to despise, and going back there again and again. 

This is a real phenomenon, too,  just as real, and just as threatening to souls, as the phenomenon of people who’ve been gravely wounded and cannot seem to find a safe home in the church no matter how hard they look.

If you, like me, find yourself complaining often about how tired you are of the Church, it’s worthwhile to look at your habits, and see what state of mind they support. What do they build

But here’s the thing. In either case, we’re talking about people who have been wounded, whether those wounds are shallow or deep, or whether they’ve been self-inflicted or not.

In either case, let us think about St. Francis.

He wasn’t actually wrong to start with working on rebuilding the physical chapel of San Damiano. Jesus did mean that he wanted Francis to restore the Church as a whole through the institution of the order of Franciscans. That is what he eventually did, and that is what the Franciscans continue, through their works and prayers, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to carry out in their continual work of perpetual restoration of the Body of Christ to this day. It wasn’t just about that one little chapel; it was about the whole Church, and still is.

But God was also asking Francis to look around and see where he was, physically, spiritually, personally. He was asking him to start with what he, himself could actually control.

And this is what Jesus asks of everybody, always. 

Sometimes the problem with the Church is something that is very much out of my control — something like how some archbishop is handling the sex abuse crisis, or something like a specific doctrine that I can’t get my head around.

But there are still rebuilding projects I can handle, that have more to do with how I dwell inside the church than I may realize. Habits of prayer; habits of how I allow myself to think about other people. What I prioritize each day. How tightly I hold onto sins. How ardently I seek goodness. How much I really mean to change when I say I’m sorry. How much I’m willing to acknowledge change in others, when it happens. What I do first thing every day; what I do last. 

I always do well when I remember that Francis got his commission at the foot of the cross. 

The chapel of San Damiano wasn’t empty. There was a crucifix on the wall, and it was Jesus crucified who spoke to him, who told him to rebuild. I always do well when I remember this, when I picture this. 

There is a huge difference between “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will spend all my time hanging around with ex-Catholics who tweet snarky hot takes making fun of it” and “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will commit to bringing it to prayer at the foot of the cross over and over again, trying not to have any expectations for what will happen next.” There is a huge difference. You can tell me your experience has been different, and I will believe you, but this has been my experience. 

If youre one of the many, many Catholics who looks around at the Church today and sees what a poor state it’s in, youre not wrong. But when youre done looking around, look up. Are you at the foot of the cross? I will not tell you where you need to end up. But I know this is where you need to start. 

 

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A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on January 7, 2021

Image: Detail of photo by Renaud Camus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We talked about the cross

When I used to teach catechism, with a loud and hopping little class of eight- and nine-year-olds, most of them were more or less willing to learn how to repent of their little sins.

So we talked about the cross. Of course we talked about the cross.

“Let me see your best sign of the cross,” I would call out in my best teacher voice, with one eye fixed on those two boys who would make the most trouble. “Let’s start the class off right,” I would say. And we would cross ourselves: up, down, left, right, amen, begin.

One of the things I told them about was Miguel Pro. Here was a guy who was so joyful, full of tricks and jokes and trouble, but he was really ready to serve, and things got serious very quickly. He had to sneak around to be a priest, and he soon got arrested for it, and you know the rest.

You know the famous photo, which I decided to show my class: There he stands before the firing squad with his arms out, making a cross with his body. That’s what he decided to do with his life: Make a cross.

I told the kids that, when they were baptized, they were marked with a cross, sealed, signed. “You know how pirates do,” I said. (Things pop out of your mouth when you’re in front of a group of kids). “You know how, when they bury their treasure, they mark the spot so they can come back for it? How do they mark it?”

They all knew it was with an X. “Well, God marks his treasure with a cross,” I said. “That’s where his treasure is: That’s the spot that he wants to come back to. That’s the thing that he cares about: Right in the middle of the cross.”

And they believed me. They knew that Jesus was on the cross, and they saw that, when they made the cross on themselves, they were right there, with Jesus.

Plain as day. I thought about having them stand and make a cross with their bodies like Miguel Pro about to be shot full of holes, but we settled for making a sign on ourselves, marking the spot where God’s treasure is.

It’s right there: Up, down, left, right, amen. And I had them shout: VIVA CHRISTO REY. It was close to the end of class, and any time we had a little free time, we got a little shouting in. VIVA CHRISTO REY.

I know this is too much for little children.

Who is this not too much for? …Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

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Image: Execution of Miguel Pro by Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You’re having a hard time right now because life is hard right now

I didn’t even bother coming up with a little introduction for this essay to work my way up to that idea, because you’re ready to hear it, right? Everyone is having a hard time. Everyone on the globe is feeling the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic in one way or another, and it seems like everyone I know is also struggling with some unusual problem on top of that.

The only other thing we all seem to have in common is that an unusual number of people seem to be thinking poorly of themselves because they are struggling. So many of my friends seem to feel that there is something wrong with them because they are so sad and exhausted. They feel like there are so many other people with worse problems than theirs, or they ought to have adapted to a new normal, or they ought to be glad things are not as bad as they were in the past, or something.

Not only are they having a hard time, they’re angry at themselves, embarrassed and ashamed because they’re even struggling. Everyone I know seems to be fighting terrible battles, and their worst enemy is their own self, who constantly sneers, “Oh, stop your whining. It’s not so bad.”

If you are hearing this voice, you should know that it’s not really your self saying it to you. Or that’s not where the thought has its roots, anyway. It’s an idea that comes from the evil one: This idea that your suffering is imaginary, not worthy of tears or attention.

Isn’t that strange, to think that the devil would want to deny suffering? If you look at medieval paintings, it looks like suffering is, as they say, extremely his jam: You’ll see bony, many-clawed demons gleefully cramming bushels of suffering souls into bubbling cauldrons, stretching them on racks, slicing them into ribbons, searing their flesh.

But I’ve found that some of my most hellish mental states come when I’m unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to clearly and calmly identify my own suffering as real suffering. It’s counterintuitive, but there is something demonic about being unwilling to look suffering in the face. And there is something holy about calling suffering what it is. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Photo by Ron Porter via Pixabay (licensed)

 

How do we help each other bear the cross?

We have no right to mutely point to the cross and let other people hang there alone. All humans must suffer, but all humans must also help each other bear that suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly?

Image: Detail of Fifth Station of the Cross by Sieger Koder, “Folly of God” series

Venting is healthy, but the cross purifies

Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.

This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine here.

Image by faungg’s photos via Flickr . (Creative Commons)