God Sister Teresa
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…