And so, while the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1: 23-5
Many years ago now, I went to our region in England to offer a retreat to our Brothers there. One afternoon one of the Brothers, several years my elder, came to speak with me. He raised with me what is perhaps the most perennial and troubling of human questions: How does a loving God allow so much suffering and evil in the world? How is it that innocents die so young and evil in all of its forms seems to prevail? Now, as then, any answer eludes me. In truth, we, believers and non-believers, live with the “problem of evil” largely by avoiding it.
The avoidance of the question or problem of evil is also an avoidance of the cross of Jesus, and both of these is an avoidance of the depth of our own lives. “Miracles” and “wisdom” can both be ways of looking for an alternative to human life as it truly is. The temptations of Jesus, in the desert before the start of his public life and in Gethsemane on the night before he died, were inducements to abandon his way, to deny his cross. Jesus makes the choice, at every turn, to accept the cross, to drink the cup that is his to drink.
In many ways, however, we often live in the hope of an alternative to our reality and call. As Adam and Eve had a better idea than God’s, so too do we. We constantly imagine, hope for, and try to create through our own power a way to make life different from what it is. The choice we have in life is to keep pursuing our own fantasies, be they at the bodily, functional, or spiritual levels of our lives, or to accept and embrace the cross of Jesus. Our tradition tells us that this is the way, that the cross is at once our destiny and our salvation.
Good and loving parents will often express their aspirations for their children with the words: “Whatever they do is fine with me, as long as they are happy.” Yet, the happiness which we most often desire does not appear as a value in the gospels. The values there are “blessedness,” love, peace, and forgiveness. The way to these values is not self-fulfillment but rather self-denial and abandonment of our will to God’s.
After decades of life as a Christian believer and even as a vowed religious, I find myself in later life struck by my inability to comprehend the meaning of the cross, of the love of the Crucified One. That incomprehension and refusal to accept and embrace the cross is, perhaps, a measure of my own distance and dissociation from God’s life and vision in me. In large part, I am still engaged in the search for miracles and wisdom, for a “view” of life and world that conforms to what I think it should be. I want a world that makes sense, that is fair, on my own terms. I look for a life that offers happiness as I see it, rather than love as God sees it. Glory and redemption come only “through” the cross. There’s no “going around” the way that is laid out for each of us.
Yet, the question can remain. Why is that way a way of suffering and deprivation? Why is death always involved? Jesus’ answer to that question is that to know God’s truth and God’s love we must first die to the arrogance of our own truths. It is our illusions and falsehoods that are nailed to the cross with Jesus. In our own lives, we must suffer through our individual dying to our own mistaken and illusory sense of self. We must, in the words of the Upanishads be led “from the unreal to the real.” We must come, and this seems to only happen through suffering, to stop chasing our illusions and to begin to live and love the reality of life — and death.
So, the cross of Jesus becomes the Way of life: not by our masochistically pursuing suffering, but by receiving and responding to life as it comes to us. “To allow ourselves to be formed by the common unspectacular flow of everyday life” is no easy task. Our own desire for miracles and our reliance on our own wisdom are constantly exerting their goal of contorting reality into the form we want it to take. Before we can respond with our whole heart and soul and strength to life, we must first receive it and suffer it as it is. When we do this, we experience purification of what is selfish and false in us.
Recently The New Yorker Radio Hour featured a segment with the poet Max Ritvo who is dying from a very virulent and fast spreading cancer. At one point in the interview he said that one of his most painful experiences is that so much of our conversations with each other is future oriented. We speak far more about the future than about the present, and, of course, “the future” in the sense it is most spoken about is something he doesn’t have. He longs to be in and to speak about the present. The fact that others are so rarely disposed to this is a source of great pathos and suffering for him.
Isn’t it true that our speaking so much about the future is a refusal to be in the present as it is. As Max points out, we speak about what we’ll begin doing tomorrow, and how we’ll change our lives in some way in the future — all of which is an attempt to conform reality to our own designs. Isn’t our propensity to daydream but an averting of our eyes from the reality of the cross? It is in the present moment that we are being loved, being saved, and being called. It is in suffering the truth of this moment that we are also being purified and our vision cleansed — as we are drawn along the Way that is leading us to God’s desire and end for us.
A genuine spirit seeks rather the distasteful in God than the delectable, leans more toward suffering than toward consolation, more toward going without everything for God than toward possession, and toward dryness and affliction than toward sweet consolation. It knows that this is the significance of following Christ and denying self, that the other method is perhaps a seeking of self in God—something entirely contrary to love. Seeking oneself in God is the same as looking for the caresses and consolations of God. Seeking God in oneself entails not only the desire to do without these consolations for God’s sake, but also the inclination to choose for love of Christ all that is most distasteful whether in God or in the world; and this is what loving God means.
St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 7, 5