On Carrying our Cross
[Jer.20:7-9; Rom.12:1-2; Mt.16:21-27]
What does it mean to ‘carry our Cross’?
The Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives us the example of Ivan, a political prisoner in Stalin’s Russia, incarcerated near Moscow. Ivan was an expert in physics and optics. One day, the prison governor summoned him. ‘Would you like a remission?’ he asked.
‘What would I have to do?’ Ivan replied.
‘We’d like you to transfer to another prison to manage an important project. If you agree, you’ll be free in six months.’
‘What is the project?’
‘We want you to perfect a miniature camera that can be fitted to a door jamb, and that works when the door is opened. We know you can do this.’
Ivan was perhaps the only person in Russia who could design this device. After seventeen years in prison, the idea of going home was appealing. It was the answer to his wife Natasha’s prayer. All he had to do was invent a device that would put a few unsuspecting fools behind bars in his place, and he’d be free.
‘Can’t I continue working on television sets?’ he asked.
‘You mean you refuse?’ said the governor.
Ivan thought: who would ever thank him? Were those people out there worth saving? Natasha had waited for him for seventeen years. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said.
‘But you’re just the man for the job,’ said the governor. ‘We’ll give you time to think about it.’
‘I won’t do it. Putting people in prison because of the way they think is not my line. That’s my final answer.’
They sent him to work in a Siberian copper mine, where starvation rations, and likely death, awaited him. No fate could be worse, yet he was at peace with himself. [i]
Ivan had already suffered so much that he was not prepared to cause someone else pain. He understood his own heart, and chose to carry his Cross, just as Jesus asks us to do in today’s Gospel.
Whenever we suffer for someone else, we carry our Cross. Whenever we rearrange our priorities for the sake of others, we carry our Cross.
Whenever we bear with good grace the struggles of our own existence, we carry our Cross. And where does this good grace come from? It comes from following Jesus.
So, what is that Cross? Ron Rolheiser says that theologians over the years have tried to explain it by dividing the meaning of the Cross (and Jesus’ death) into two parts. Firstly, the Cross gives us our deepest understanding of God’s loving nature. And secondly, the Cross is redemptive. [ii]
By redemptive, he means that the Way of the Cross gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and it leads us to life eternal.
In the nineteenth century, the Korean mystic Ch’oe Che-u (known as Su-un or ‘Water-cloud’), taught that it is the duty of all people to ‘serve heaven’. If everyone believed, he said, we’d all live in harmony with the ‘one heaven’, and we’d all be equal before it.
One day, Su-un heard the revelation from the Lord of Heaven: ‘My heart is your heart’. Like other mystics, he learnt that God’s heart is in all of God’s creation, and that God’s heart unites all creation. We live together in the heart of God, and indeed, we are invited to be the heart of God here on earth. [iii]
Today, so much poverty, injustice, strife and ignorance surround us. Jesus is calling us to search our hearts and make our own compassionate response. We really can’t live without love, and we know that there’s no genuine love without sacrifice.
So, the Cross we carry is our own loving response to the world’s pain, guided and informed by the divine heart of Jesus.
What ultimately unites us to God and everyone else is this personal movement into our hearts. As we delve ever more deeply into our own hearts, we discover the paradox that we are unique, and yet we’re all one and the same. God’s heart embraces us all, and it certainly embraced Valerie Place.
Valerie was a 23-year-old nurse from Dublin who worked in Somalia. She wanted to help people who had nothing; to offer them a better life. Her safety concerned her, but nothing would keep her from this work. She ran a feeding centre in Mogadishu, nourishing starving children and saving many lives. She even established a school to give the children some hope for the future.
She was fortunate in seeing some of the fruits of her labours. But, sadly, she was killed by armed bandits outside her school. She had willingly risked her life to help others.
Today, outside a building in Mogadishu, there’s a mural of Valerie nursing little Somali babies. She had devoted her life to caring for others. [iv] This was the Cross she carried.
And yet, as Jesus tells us, it’s in losing our life that we find it (Mt.16:25)
What Cross are you carrying?
[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies Year A, Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2019:300-301.
[iii] Brian Gallagher, Taking God to Heart. St Paul’s, Strathfield. 2008:21.