An intrinsic part of our Christian culture that is hardly taken seriously nor understood in a healthy way is that of cross carrying in life. Jesus himself makes this clear in his instruction to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily and to follow him (Luke 9:23).
To willingly take up a burden, an icon of shame and denigration is either counter-intuitive or counter-cultural or both. In an almost self-deprecating way, Catholics of old used to be proud of the way that they would carry a Catholic guilt in their lives, and wouldn’t even mind to be labelled as masochistic for it. Shades of this could be seen in feeling guilty when partaking excessively in forms of raucous revelry, perhaps nursing a vice like smoking gambling or unrestrained drinking, or even reading books which were on the Index. These days, however, the guilt pendulum has been swinging right to the other side where just about everything is deemed kosher and the narrative is “if it is scandalous, it has to be good”.
But how do we understand in some constructive way Jesus’ difficult instruction? I am quite certain that so many of us can readily identify the many crosses that we face in life. Some of us are even married to them for life! Naming these is not the problem. What can and should we do with them is the crux (pun definitely intended) of the problem.
James Martin, S.J., Jesuit priest and author and editor at large at America, The National Catholic Review, wrote a book entitled Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Here, he offered six bold and very practical and relatable ways in understanding how to face the challenges of daily cross bearing to help one to go deep in life.
Firstly, cross carrying means that one has to accept that suffering is a part of our lives. Many of us, I believe, are not even there yet. We are in huge denial about this truth, and when we see the crosses in our lives, we try to pray them away, or that they would take on other forms which we think will be much more manageable. Martin says that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune and ultimately, death are all a part of our lives and they need to be accepted without bitterness. If we have the false belief that pain in our lives is something that we need not accept, we will always be bitter for accepting and carrying crosses.
Secondly, bearing crosses means that we must fight the urge to pass bitterness on to those around us. I have come across many people struggling with caring for their aged parents who have siblings who are not willing to pitch in to share in this loving task. Their unhappiness in doing this, often with a grudge in their hearts, seems to be only eased if they see their siblings going through this ‘suffering’ with them. Some of them subtly try to make others unhappy because they themselves are unhappy. Healthy cross bearing doesn’t give us permission to thrust sadness and burdens on others, but is marked when there is no self-pity, no bitterness issuing forth from our hearts or lips. Jesus on the way to Calvary bore none of that in his heart.
Thirdly, when we follow Jesus in his cross carrying, we are also invited to let some parts of us die. When Jesus gave Simon and his friends a preview of his passion, he was showing them that he needed to die in order to truly live. But for us, the deaths are more metaphorical. As we live our lives, we need to name our deaths, learn to mourn our losses and to let go of what has died, and in so doing, receive a new energy to live the lives that we are now living. These are daily deaths that we have to go through. A death to what is seemingly enticing and attractive, but leads to brokenness and falseness if we give in too easily. A death perhaps to promote the false self that requires one to further build up upon another lie so as to prop up what was false to begin with. We need to let these die and to live anew.
Fourth, carrying of our crosses means, Martin says, to wait for the resurrection. It was his fellow Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner who once said that all symphonies in life remain unfinished. In our lives, the experiences of frustration, terrible injustice, any forms of pain that requires toleration or a building up of a resistance, sees us longing for someone to come along to change our situation. Apparently, we spend 98% of our time waiting for some form of fulfillment. When we hear Jesus telling us to carry a cross to follow him, he also means that we need to wait, or nurture the virtue of patience, to accept these unfinished symphonies of our lives.
Fifth, cross bearing means seeing as gift the things that we do not expect. Much as we expect bread when we ask for bread and not get stones, and fish when we ask for fish and not get snakes, our faith tells us that God doesn’t give us what we really need, rather than what we think we need. We may have our notions as to how resurrections should be experienced in our cross-carrying challenges, but the real test of whether we are carrying crosses well is to see whether in doing so, we are open to surprise.
Lastly, Sixth, Martin says that cross carrying means that we believe that nothing is impossible for God. No matter what kind of suffering we are facing, be they in form of others or burdens that we are facing within our personal struggles, faith in wanting to carry the cross with a Christ-like energy necessarily means that we accept that God is greater than our feeble human imagination. To be able to live in trust even in these dark moments is to believe in the resurrection.
If we do not reflect from time to time these aspects of cross-carrying that are a very real part of life, we will easily drop all efforts in truly following Jesus as instructed by him, and end up having a notion that the true Christian life is one where all crosses should be removed or taken away, and that if we have them in life, it erroneously means that God has abandoned us.
The Christian life is definitely not a panacea from pain, but a most effective way to grow in life through a healthy approach when faced with these realities of life.
Posted by Fr Luke Fong at 6:00 AM