The problem with the Catholic Church is the crucifix.
That was the first sentence of an article published shortly after my conversion to Catholicism. That there could be meaning in suffering was a concept which both beckoned and baffled me. My career in academic medicine and doctoral studies had been aimed at preventing or at least mitigating suffering. Consequently the Catholic spotlight on the Cross, and St. Paul’s exhortations throughout Corinthians …
…But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
fascinated and repelled, yet felt eerily logical.
A lifelong writer, finding the search for the right word can be maddening. Mark Twain credits his mentor, William Dean Howells with an unerring ability to come up with that elusive and shifty grain of gold: the RIGHT WORD.
But are there some concepts, ideas, or events which are too huge, splendid, majestic or mysterious to fit in words? Even those of the finest craftsman?
My mid-life conversion to Catholicism was perplexing to friends. After listening to my explanation, my friend, a former Catholic declared, “The problem with the Catholic Church is the crucifix.”
Bob was expounding on his decision to leave his childhood Catholic faith and embrace evangelical Protestantism. The Catholics emphasized the crucified Christ rather then the Resurrected Savior like the Protestants, a far more positive faith rather than the negativity represented by the crucifix, he believed.
After twenty years as a Catholic, I have come to believe that there are some things for which the right word cannot be found. Like faith. St. Paul comes close.
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for,
the evidence of what is not yet seen.
And so this past Thursday, at the daily Mass celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, I was enthralled by the way Fr. Chris Kanowitz began his homily for this day.
Wordlessly, he strode to the back of the church and touched a button which resulted in a large screen rolling down from the ceiling; since the screen is normally used for financial appeals or reports, he had peaked our curiosity.
The priest explained that he had an opportunity to view El Greco’s, Christ Carrying the Cross, at the El Greco museum in Toledo while in Spain a number of years ago. Fr. Chris pointed out the three most salient features of this painting:
Rather than the weakened, emaciated, crippled figure which we expect, El Greco’s Christ stands tall, his head raised. His eyes are wide open, clear; His attention is riveted upward, directed at His Father with whom He is One, elegant hands and fingers embracing the cross.
For mysteries like suffering our attention is best directed to wordless images -ineffable-of what cannot fit within the bounded language of man.
Rather we could spend years contemplating this ineffable painting of El Greco’s Christ who strides forth, eagerly embracing what is to come. Like a warrior, doing battle for you and for me.