Many years ago, I worked as editor for a Canadian Catholic family magazine published by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The office was located on one of the Oblates’ lovely farm properties. Most mornings, before entering the building where my office was located, I would take my walk with God through the wooded area on this beautiful slice of creation, stopping at the Marian shrine at the end of a long lane. Some of the rocks at this grotto were formed in the shape of a big cross. I would touch these rocks and pray, offering to Jesus whatever was in my heart at the time.
Every time that cross confronted me. It invited me into love, and in that invitation revealed my own inadequacy to live in this love. Some days this cross seemed to mock me, because of my unwillingness to love generously. Other days I was drawn into a depth of mystery too big for words. Every time I learnt a bit more about that liberating and healing power released when pain, suffering and death are infused with radical and uncompromising love. I would try to take that lesson with me into the day, in particular when encountering pain, conflict and death.
Back in 2002, when the World Youth Day Cross was making its way through Canada in preparation for the great event in Toronto the following year, my own little ritual at the grotto increased in meaning and power. The testimonies of those who received the Cross in their communities revealed profound lessons and experiences in love and reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. On Manitoulin Island, Ontario, the Cross was taken to the native reserve’s cemetery, to the home of a young man murdered a month before and then to all places on the reserve where tragic accidents had occurred. How I wish that the same cross could have been taken through the schools and community of LaLoche recently. The Cross stopped at the site of a former residential school, and “all prayed for forgiveness and healing for former students and staff.” In Whitehorse, Yukon, the Cross was carried to a local food bank, “where it stood inviting all to come and pray, and was a sign of Christ’s love for the poor in our community.” From Amos, Quebec, came the account that the visit of the Cross was “as if Jesus came to visit us in our little village.”The people from Chibougamau exclaimed, “For once, we have not been forgotten!”
Many who encountered the World Youth Day Cross that year reported feeling invited by Jesus to reflect on its meaning and on their own call to Christian love in places of poverty, pain, and suffering. That, in essence, is what the cross is meant to do. There is a big difference between reverence for reasons of idolatry and reverence for reasons of healing, service and love. The first kind regards venerating the cross as an end in itself, with the risk of bordering on superstition; the second kind of reverence lets the meaning of the cross penetrate us in order to change us. The perennial temptation can take us on the path of the former without necessarily touching on the challenge of the latter. Venerating the cross without making connections to our own local realities of suffering, and without committing ourselves to be Christ’s healing love in those realities, necessitates an examination of motives.
One day, a woman poured her heart out to me. Pain, suppressed from a lifetime of abuse, came gushing out so forcefully that she feared for her sanity. I witnessed that pain piercing her body like the nails pierced Christ on the cross. There before me was a contemporary crucifixion complete with the challenge of Jesus to infuse God’s love into this woman through my words and looks, gestures and touch, and ardent prayers. Offering God’s soothing presence in the swirling wind of this emotional hurricane was almost more than I could bear. Yet I knew it was the only power that could redeem her into new life.
Even casualties from war, destruction and terrorism cannot heal through violent retaliations. Even the most evil acts need the power of a forgiving love that will not flinch. An Episcopalian/Anglican writer, Gale D. Webb, caught this aspect of forgiveness when he wrote in his book The Night and Nothing: The only way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.
M. Scott Peck, a Christian psychiatrist, echoes a similar sentiment in his conclusion to People of the Lie. For the healing of evil, … A willing sacrifice is required…He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil…There is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor…I do not know how this occurs. But I know that it does…Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.
And so in this Lenten season I gaze upon the cross with renewed intensity and yearning. At we are nearing the mid-point of our slow and hopefully prayerful trek towards Holy Week, once again, in my imagination, I touch the rocks at the grotto from those morning walks many years ago and, for a moment, I feel once again the power of love in my bones, a love exploding the destruction of all pain, suffering and death.
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