The Thicket of the Cross

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. . . and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 7-8

For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
John 3: 17

 

The cross of Jesus reminds us that there is no way around life but only the way through it. “. . . he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” The great sign of our fallen and dis-integrated state is our penchant for avoidance of reality. From Adam and Eve to the present, and no doubt into the future, human beings are forever replacing our deepest spiritual potency, for wonder and awe of the Creator, with an “inverted awe” of our own limited and finite capacities for self-creation. To put it simply, we always have a better idea than God’s wisdom. We think we know the way things should be, and so we consistently fail to obey the nature of things and the reality of God’s creation.

Many years ago, the brother of a close friend died in his 40’s. As we were leaving the cemetery my friend’s young daughter asked her father: “Why did Uncle Danny have to die?” We have no answer for that question. Just as we have no answer to the question of why hundreds and thousands of people suffer and die from natural and human-made disasters, we also will always fall silent before the reality of our own death. Even in the spiritual and religious spheres, we are always wrestling with the apparent conflict between what we think we know of God’s love and goodness and the all too painful reality of our actual human existence.

The Genesis story of the Fall of Adam and Eve suggests to us that this conflict and tension is not only the result of suffering, for, as presented in the myth, at first there was no human suffering. Yet, even then, what God had given was not enough for our first parents. There is something in us that champs at the bit of humility and obedience. Whatever the truth or the reality is, we know better.

In the spiritual sense the opposite of wisdom is arrogance. Because of our “built in” tendency to value our own perspective and wisdom over all else, it is only when we suffer the truth of things that our arrogance is checked — where we can become hospitable to the truth. As Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon:

He who learns must suffer,
and even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. 

For some strange and inexplicable reason, we all have a penchant for making ourselves the center of the universe. We measure, evaluate, and react to the world and all that is in it in terms of our own gratification and satisfaction. Since this perspective is essentially flawed, we become anxious and restless in our unyielding attempts to maintain it. Any real sense of joy, peace, or rest eludes us. It is such unconscious anxiety and restlessness that is the source of all the human-made evil and conflict in the world — on the micro and macro levels.

In Jesus, as we believe, God assumes human nature in order to restore the proper order of things. We are “saved” from ourselves when we learn from and in Jesus “obedience through suffering” (Hebrews 5:8). The wisdom of the cross is first of all, as John of the Cross puts it, a thicket. We would like to become wise and enter into “the riches of God” on our own terms. We would like to accumulate wisdom, as well as the love and joy and peace of God, as attributes of our own false form of life. But that would not be wisdom but greater illusion.

We must receive our lives, not as we would have them, but as they are. We must “go through” what is ours to live out. It is by humbling ourselves and submitting to life as God has given it to us that we grow in wisdom ever so slowly. With each step of what seems to us to be growth in insight and wisdom, we can be sure that life will continue to disillusion us. Perhaps it is not until we have completed the race that we recognize the love that has suffused the suffering all along.

Oh! If we could but now fully understand how a soul cannot reach the thicket and wisdom of the riches of God, which are of many kinds, without entering the thicket of many kinds of suffering, finding in this her delight and consolation; and how a soul with an authentic desire for divine wisdom wants suffering first in order to enter this wisdom by the  thicket of the cross! Accordingly, St. Paul admonished the Ephesians not to grow weak in their tribulations and to be strong and rooted in charity in order to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and height and depth, and to know also the supereminent charity of the knowledge of Christ, in order to be filled with all the fullness of God [Eph. 3?13, 17-19]. The gate entering into these riches of his wisdom is the cross, which is narrow, and few desire to enter by it, but many desire the delights obtained from entering there.

St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 36, 13

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