One Suffering

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

They will gaze on the one they have pierced. –Zachariah 12:10a, quoted in John 19:37

Let me use our classic Christian logo, the cross, to illustrate what Jung is trying to say about the transformative power of images. The cross is a deeply disturbing image of a naked bleeding man, with arms nailed open, dying on a crossbeam–a most unlikely logo for anything. It has probably been cheapened, and the shock taken away, by reason of too much familiarity. But perhaps this is because we do not gaze long enough or deep enough. Jung says the cross might be the most significant image in Western civilization. The very fact that we keep repainting and sculpting this now ubiquitous image tells us that the soul must need to see it. Those who never gaze upon the cross, allowing it to work its metamorphosis, miss out on a huge healing secret, a divine disclosure that most humans would never dare to imagine on their own.

One of my favorite lines from Jung is revealing here. He says, “The whole world is God’s suffering.” [1] This is not poetry but precisely the fruit of mystical seeing, or gazing until a deeper message comes through. Mystics see things in wholes. They connect smaller anecdotes and images to see bigger patterns. Jung saw every act of human suffering as a participation in what Christians would call the eternal crucifixion of the One Christ. There is only one suffering, as it were, and we are all participants in it. [2]

When the single image morphs into a universal image, you get its archetypal significance, and as the prophet Zechariah says, “You will weep for him as you would weep for your only child, you will mourn for him as if he is every child” (Zechariah 12:10b). That is how images can transform us, but only if we can move beyond the mere literal, specific image to the universal and always true image. Fundamentalists find this very hard to do; mystics and great poets seem to be able to do nothing else. Mystics wait for experiential knowledge of the Divine and are not satisfied with mere memorized answers.

In the heart of the mystic there arises an actual empathy with the suffering of God, which is sort of unthinkable to most of us. Read the memoirs of Etty Hillesum and Anne Frank to catch a glimpse of this shared suffering. Does God suffer? With us and in us? Did you ever think of it that way? I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering.

Christian saints are often pictured gazing empathetically at the cross. Why? Because it is a soul-shattering image of the willing suffering of God in solidarity with every single “shedding of blood since the foundation of the world” (Luke 11:50). It is the only half-satisfying answer to the whole human tragedy. [3] But it does not satisfy the rational mind, only the empty and seeking soul.

After true gazing, the cross becomes a two-way mirror. We see our own suffering, the suffering of the world, and God’s suffering as all one and the same. The 14th century unknown author of the classic Cloud of Unknowing uses a most striking metaphor. He or she says that in God’s eyes all evil, suffering, and death are “one lump” and that Jesus on the cross deals with it all “in one lump.” The entire human journey, including resurrection, is revealed in Jesus’ course of life, which Jung says is “an almost perfect map” of human transformation. Jesus is “The One Single New Human” (Ephesians 2:15, 4:13), as the school of Paul puts it. At least for Christians, the Christ image is the Archetype of Everything. Both Paul and Carl Jung, along with every true mystic, see things in wholes and not just in parts.

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