Cynthia Helton —
As I begin this, I want to state outright that I am not a member of clergy. I have no theological training – no experience in ministry – no expertise whatsoever in leadership in the institutional church. I say this not to diminish the validity of what I’m about to write; but to express most sincerely that my words as an ordinary person struggling to stay in the light might possibly speak more directly to any reader who is in the same boat as me.
In addition, at first what I write here might seem a bit scandalous; but hopefully – if you stay with me to the end – you may find your own bit of clarity that can help you make sense of questions you may have never voiced.
First though, in way of setting the stage for where I want to go with this, it may be helpful to explain where I’m coming from. I was raised Roman Catholic, but because of “bumps in the road” that ostracized me from the church, I found a ledge to stand on for a number of years in the Episcopal Church.
As life will do, especially as the autumn years turn to winter, circumstances and limitations often make room for introspection – sometimes opening up cracks in the validity of everything you’ve believed. At least, that’s what happened to me – especially when it comes to organized religion.
Because I’m blessed with a wise Anam Cara, a soul friend who is also my Spiritual Director, I listened when God used him to make this simple suggestion: “When you lose your way, go back to your roots.” This, coupled with Pope Francis’ compassionate invitation to those of us who have been estranged from the Roman church to return, I’m giving it a try – albeit from a guarded position.
The Roman Catholic Church, like many denominations, is an extremely symbolic church. All the “bells and smells,” the visual aids of contemplation found in statues and crucifixes, the liturgy and music are tools meant to accentuate our experience of God in the time we’re sitting in the pews. For most of my life it worked too; but the time came when I just needed more.
As oftentimes is the case, an inner quest for something more meaningful starts out with judging and criticizing. Case in point: I started to shrink from things that would draw attention; that could be used to “advertise” Christianity; that could showboat the “outside of a person’s cup” while the dregs of ego settled to the bottom. Even the simple act of wearing a cross around my neck felt arrogant, showy, even “vulgar.” A sign or bumper sticker on a car … forget about it!
But then, as God does, something came over me – right in the throws of my hysterical judgmental “hissy fit” …which I was almost enjoying. Trying to have some semblance of a Lenten observance, I came across an explanation of the crucifixion that knocked the wind out of my sails. To quote Richard Rohr:
The compassionate holding of essential meaninglessness and tragedy, as Jesus does on the cross, is the final and triumphant resolution of all the dichotomies that we ourselves must face in our own lives.
In other words, all the suffering we encounter, whether by our own choices or as the result of the brutality of the free will of others; all the tragedy that comes from the realistic and inevitable result of forces outside our control (illness, birth defects, natural disasters), are all held in an embrace – depicted in the outstretched arms of Jesus hanging on the cross. Jesus, in my opinion, was not a sacrifice of an innocent lamb to a vengeful god! He did not “pay the price” for our sins! His life was not a “ransom” for our own!
[Stay with me here just for a few more lines.]
Jesus suffered all the horrendous treatment by both the religious leaders as well as the Romans who actually put him to death to exemplify the truth that we never “read to the end of the story!” We get so caught up with the details, we miss the “connector” …the bridge that actually leads to resurrection: His then … ours now. Jesus’ arms are embracing his accusers and torturers with compassion that was “chosen.” In that choice, all bitterness and anger dissolve.
His purpose for dying on the cross was to show us that by accepting the paradoxes and sufferings of life with compassion, we will be free – we will be “saved” to live a new life of resurrection. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” notion that we will welcome trouble or tragedy into our lives with open arms! We will still be sad or devastated or angry or afraid (surely in his humanness, Jesus was all that and more!) …. but with the intention of accepting what’s on our plate with compassion, we will make it through – we will know resurrection – we will experience the love of God – and we will be “resurrected” many times before our lives on this earthly plane are over. To me, this is the purpose of why Jesus lived – and died.
Truly it is God’s grace that gives us the urge to have that intention in the first place; but how often we brush aside the “Butterfly” from our sleeve … run from the “Hound of Heaven” … crouch low to avoid the “Wind of the Wild Goose.” It’s so very easy to miss God’s promptings. In my own case, how very shallow and egotistical my view has been.
Perhaps, though, I needed to be that way so that in finally recognizing my ignorance – by looking at it with compassion now that a better way has been revealed to me – I can truly begin to cherish the “cross” in whatever form I find it. Whether it is on the back of a truck – the median of a highway – the wall of a church – hanging around someone’s neck …. wherever! … it will cause me to pause; to take a breath and remember to embrace my own life’s paradox with compassion as I walk along the way toward my own resurrection.