As the Lenten season comes in the Church calendar, one of its distinguishing symbols is the Cross. This is seen especially in the four “holy days” at the end of Lent: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. These are days when we follow the death of Jesus on a crucifix. For the Catholic community, the crucified body of Christ nailed to the wood cross is very familiar, and seen in most Churches.
The Cross has become familiar and yet it also is symbolic. The mystery of the Cross in our own lives is anything but simple. We all can say that we have Crosses in our lives. What does this mean to someone not as well acquainted with the cross beams that hang in our churches and sometimes in our homes?
People I know will remark that the Crosses in their lives are varied: the Cross of a loss from the death of someone they loved; the Cross of betrayal of love that results in divorce from a spouse; the Cross of unemployment, underachievement when you cannot use your gifts in work for others. There are other specific Crosses of great suffering for some people: a loving fiancée killed in war who will never return; the car driver who could not see the child who ran out into traffic, was killed and whom the driver will never forget; the violent gun shooting of a family member that is seared into a parent’s soul and changes a family’s life forever. Such Crosses have a complexity that continues into the future just as surely as the post traumatic distress afflicts a soldier’s life after returning home.
We ought to look carefully at what we mean when we say “This is the Cross in my own life.” There are many interpretations and one of them is to “carry a Cross” of our own making! Yes, it is possible to choose what we suffer. And we may not even be conscious of what we are doing because we have lived a long time with this kind of Cross. Here is an example: A priest-friend of mine told me, “I am giving up coffee this year for Lent! It is the thing I love best, so I am giving up coffee.” What really surprised me was that it didn’t refer to Christ nor had any bearing on his life. It was only about coffee, the single pleasure in his life. Poor guy!
Another woman I know told me she had heard so often from phone conversations with a complaining relative that she began to pay for the service of caller ID for her phone. She wanted to be prepared when the phone rang, to know it is her relative before she answered. I thought she would next say that she wouldn’t answer the call! But she said that with caller ID she had a few seconds to summon up the love it takes to listen patiently to the same conversation repeated in detail!
I often felt that the priest would learn a lot more from this woman than giving up his coffee for Lent. The self-made Crosses come in subtle variety and are often the result of years of uninterrupted practice. For me as a member in community life, there is always the Sister who helps herself from food in the refrigerator, but leaves a single peach slice so that she won’t have to wash the container. This was irritating to me for years but I was finally able to ask the question, “Sister, why do you leave just one peach slice for someone else?” My self-made Cross had been to “keep the peace” while I was seething inside! My question to her did not change her practice, but I felt freer after our conversation. An author once said, “More marriages suffer from the sticky oatmeal pot left in the sink for the other spouse to wash than you can guess!” You may have a Cross-of-your-own-making if you reflect on your behavior—or you may be giving a Cross to someone else!
There are times when I tell women that the Catholic Church does not need more women martyrs because they are carrying too many crosses. All of us must stop killing ourselves because we perceive fatigue and resentment that often signals a Cross that should be retired.
There are, however, true Crosses we carry in our lives. We can support these with Christ’s help. To some people the true Cross carried may not seem like a lot but the burden on the person is a heavy one. True Crosses can be these: We accept a new phase of our life and it requires a great deal of growth in the transition into what is new. We gradually see that it is not our work or employment that defines our identity and we must find out who we really are. We are stereotyped by another person and must break through the painful challenges this brings. We are betrayed in a relationship and now must build our lives in new ways. We suffer from debilitating depression or a cancer diagnosis and know our life will not be the same afterward. As we move through the Lenten season this year, let us pray for ourselves to let go of the Cross-of-our-own-making or to shoulder a true cross we may have wanted to avoid. We remember that the Spirit of God prays within us without words. This is the real work of Lent.
Sr. Karlyn Cauley, SDS