God Sis­ter Teresa

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

John Donne (1572–1631) wrote in his poem ‘The Cross’:

Since Christ em­braced the Cross it­self, dare I His im­age, th’im­age of his Cross

deny… Who can deny me power, and lib­erty To stretch mine arms, and mine own

cross to be?

Fa­mil­iar­ity with the cross, with or with­out a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Je­sus’s body on it, can make us blind and in­sen­si­tive to it: its sheer ghast­li­ness eludes us most of the time and it is prob­a­bly right that it should do so.

How­ever, know­ing that even now cru­ci­fix­ion is still used by some regimes as a method of ex­e­cu­tion should at least cause us to ask our­selves whether the Govern­ment of this coun­try ought not to be protest­ing a great deal more than it does, if it does. We can­not take com­fort in the fact that such cru­elty ex­isted only in former ages. It was a shock to me to find pho­to­graphs (and I mean pho­to­graphs, not paint­ings) of two men cru­ci­fied in a book il­lus­trat­ing the 20th cen­tury.

Chris­tian­ity is said to have come of age, and part of its ma­tu­rity of thought should mean that Chris­tians have come to un­der­stand that in Je­sus, God be­came man with­out ceas­ing to be God: Christ cru­ci­fied is not a man aban­doned by God, but God him­self cru­ci­fied. It is this God of love and not of wrath who takes on the mys­ti­fy­ing cru­elty of the world and cracks it – he does not del­e­gate this ter­ri­fy­ing task.

Ev­ery now and again it is not a bad idea for us to ask our­selves what we want the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a cru­ci­fix­ion to do for us. There are many great pain­ters of the sub­ject whose works I can’t bear to look at for more than a few mo­ments, start­ing with Grünewald, and I can’t take even the stills from a film such as Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion, let alone watch it.

At the con­clu­sion of one film of Je­sus’s life, Cal­vary is shown from a dis­tance, with just the out­lines of the three crosses, and it was a huge re­lief to think that there was not go­ing to be a full act­ing-out of the ex­e­cu­tion. This re­lief was short-lived: the cru­ci­fix­ion scene was dealt with in full, shock­ing, dis­gust­ing and closeup de­tail.

In Ro­man times part of the pun­ish­ment was the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing stripped naked be­fore be­ing fixed to the cross; very few artists show this. Donatello did: his carv­ing gives us Je­sus’s to­tal vul­ner­a­bil­ity with no trace of pruri­ence. For me the body on a cross should be dead, and there­fore at peace: the peace of God which pas­seth all un­der­stand­ing.

We have in the monastery gar­den a wooden, not quite life-size, cru­ci­fix. It is not a great work of art but with­out doubt it helps to con­cen­trate the mind. Ev­ery two years the body has to be taken down so as to be cleaned and re-coated with wood-pre­server. It al­ways makes me shud­der when it is put back and one hears the car­pen­ters ham­mer­ing in the nails. Get­ting it up again in­volves or­ange plas­tic ropes, a cou­ple of alu­minium lad­ders and two work­men in jeans.

With­out any ques­tion of ar­ti­fice there is on the front lawn much the same scene as took place at Gol­go­tha.

Donne echoes St Paul in re­mind­ing us that we too are with Je­sus on the cross:

Cross no man else, but cross thy­self in all. Then doth the Cross of Christ work fruit­fully Within our hearts…

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