My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Friday, September 21, 2012

The World's Response to the Cross

I think I've exhausted ideas for my "God is Not the Author of Your Heartbreak" series.  But now that I've started thinking and writing about redemptive suffering again, it will probably be the theme of many future blog posts.  So if you don't want to read about suffering or the Cross, please leave the Theological-Librarian.  Also leave if you don't want to read about Venerable Sheen, as I have identified six topics in which I would like to further my knowledge of Sheen.  All of them require much research, and some might never happen unless Sheen's archives are made public; but a writer can only hope.

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Now that I've looked at the Catholic response to suffering—transforming and elevating it through love and the Cross of Christit's time to turn to the world's response to suffering.  (This is the reverse of the order in which I covered the topic in Chapter III of my Thesis, but what can you do?)

The main Sheen quote for this post, taken from a set of cassette tapes recorded by Sheen in the 1970's, can be found in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen:
Avoiding the cross is the essence of the demonic.  When finally our Lord was on the cross, Satan had one last chance to be anti-crucial.  Through his agents, he challenged the Lord, "Believe, and we will come down."  Believe?  Sure.  In what?  The Trinity?  Yeah, sure.  In the Hypostatic union?  Yes.  That He's the Son of God?  Yes.  That He made Peter the rock of His Church?  Certainly.  That He will send the Spirit?  Sure.   That He will rise from the dead? Sure.  Anythingjust come down and we will believe.  Jesus did not come down.  Had He come down, He never would have saved us.  It's human to come down.  It's divine to hang there.  Consider the softness of the Church today: the desire to accomodate herself in the world, shrinking away from sacrifice, self-denial.  We have today in the Christian world a new dirty word, but it doesn't have four letters.  The new dirty word has five: c-r-o-s-s.  Christ without the cross?  Sure, anyone will accept that.
Why is avoidance or hatred of the Cross "demonic" in Sheen's mind?  [Nota bene: calling avoidance of the Cross "demonic" is not a judgment on the state of the souls of those who avoid or hate the Cross.]

Avoidance or hatred of the Cross is "demonic" because that is Satan's attitude toward the Cross.  Satan hates the Cross because through it Our Blessed Lord won salvation for us.  In Life of Christ, Sheen explains the essence of the devil's temptations of Our Lord:
It is part of the discipline of God to make His loved ones perfect through trial and suffering.  Only by carrying the Cross can one reach the Resurrection.  It was precisely this part of Our Lord's Mission that the devil attacked.  The temptations were meant to divert Our Lord from His task of salvation through sacrifice.  Instead of the Cross . . . Satan suggested three short cuts.[1]
Sheen further explains the "demonic" aspect of hatred of the Cross by means of the Gospel scene in which Our Blessed Lord called Peter "Satan" (cf. Mt. 16:13-23):
In an unguarded moment Peter had let Satan in his heart, thus becoming a stumbling stone on the road to Calvary.  Peter thought it was unworthy of Christ to suffer; but to Our Lord such thoughts were human, carnal, and even Satanic.  Only by Divine illumination did Peter or anyone else know Him to be the Son of God; but it took another Divine illumination for Peter or anyone else to know Him for the Redeemer.  Peter would have kept Him a Teacher of humanitarian ethicsbut so would Satan.[2]
Why, in our modern world, is there a refusal to accept the Cross?  Why do so many Christians accept the Trinity or the Resurrection of Christ, and yet balk at His Cross?  They know that His Death and His Blood are what saved us from sin; yet they accuse Catholics of placing too much emphasis on the Cross because we display crucifixes in our churches, homes, and schools, and because we say that the Mass is the same Sacrifice as the Sacrifice of the Cross.  Why does Western Civilization embrace "Christ without the Cross"[3]?  Why does our modern world try to turn Christ "into a 'Communist Commissar' who promises nothing but bread"[4]?  Why does our modern world want "the Christ without the Cross . . . a weak, effeminate Christ unable to save us from sin"?[5]  Why, even as Catholics, do we shrink from viewing the Mass as a Sacrifice and want instead to speak of it as a sacred "meal"?  Why do we turn away from the Crucifix, why do we replace the Crucifix with the strange figure of the Risen Christ bursting forth, not from the tomb, but from the cross?

What does it mean that our modern world only wants Christ as long as they don't have to have His Cross, too?  What kind of Christ is this that the world wants?  In The Priest Is Not His Own, Sheen explains what Christ is reduced to when the world accepts Him but refuses to accept His Cross:
And what would Christ be without the Cross?  Another teacher like Buddha or Lao-tzu; a sociologist spreading whipped cream on socially disapproved behavior; a psycho-analyst reducing guilt to a complex and banishing sin as a "hangover" from savagery; a preacher too polite to mention hell or divorce; a reformer for whom all discipline is masochistic and who proclaims self-restraint and moderation as unnatural and in conflict with the biological urge to self-expression.[6]
None of those are the true identity of Christ; He is our Savior, our Redeemer from sin, Who came to earth to suffer--on the Cross--in atonement for our sins.  The Cross is the instrument on which Christ won salvation for us through an excruciatingly painful death, and showed the height of His Love in His Sacrifice for us.  This is why we refuse to accept the Cross: we're uncomfortable with that for which it stands.  Just as a heart is a symbol of love, so too, the Cross, at its most basic level, is a symbol of pain and suffering, as Sheen explains in The Eternal Galilean:

This problem of pain has a symbol, and the symbol is the cross.  But why is the cross typical of the problem of suffering?  Because it is made up of two bars, one horizontal and the other vertical.  The horizontal bar is the bar of death, for death is prone, prostrate, flat.  The vertical bar is the bar of life, for all life is erect, upright.  The crossing of one bar with the other signifies the contradiction of life and death, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, pleasure and pain, our will and God’s will.  The only way a cross can ever be made is by laying the bar of joy against the bar of sorrow; or, to put it another way, our will is the horizontal bar, God’s will is the vertical bar; as soon as we place our desires and our wills against God’s desires and God’s will, we form a cross.  Thus the cross is the symbol of pain and suffering.[7]

If the world does not accept the Cross as a solution to the problem of painif it denies the one thing that can give meaning to painthen what is the world's response to suffering?  On the surface, the problem of pain and suffering seems inescapable; it seems that no one could deny that there is suffering in the world; and yet, as Sheen points out in The Eternal Galilean, that is exactly what the world does:
The world meets the problem of pain either by denying it, or by attempting to make it insoluble. It is denied by a peculiar process of self-hypnotism which would say that pain is imaginary and due to want of faith; it is made insoluble by an attempt to escape or flee it, for the modern man feels it is better to sin than to suffer.[8]
The world tries to escape the problem of pain by saying pain has no purpose.  Sheen explains this in Justice and Charity: “The world today is full of those who, like the thief on the left, see no meaning in pain.  Knowing nothing of Redemption they are unable to fit pain into a pattern; it becomes just an odd patch on the crazy quilt of life.”  He continues: “The thief at the left is no better for his crucifixion: it sears him, burns him, and tarnishes his soul.  Refusing to think of pain as related to anything else, he ends by thinking only of himself and who would take him down from the cross.”[9]

This attitude toward pain primarily characterizes those who do not believe in God or in the Incarnation, for the suffering of the God-Man is what gives meaning to all human suffering.  On the contrary, they see no meaning in pain.  To them, the suffering of Our Lord does not elevate pain: His suffering is only an historical event:
So it is with those who have lost their faith in God.  To them Our Lord on a cross is only an event in the history of the Roman empire; He is not a message of hope or a proof of love.  They would not have a tool in their hands five minutes without discovering its purpose, but they live their lives without ever having inquired their meaning.  Having no reason for living, suffering embitters them, poisons them, and finally, the great door of life’s opportunity is closed in their faces, and like the thief on the left they go out into the night unblessed.[10]

That's very true; if we have no faith in God, we're going to view Our Lord's Crucifixion as only an historical event, an event in the past with no relevance to our lives.  Without Christ--not the "Communist Commissar" Christ without His Cross, but the Redeemer Christ with hands and feet still bearing the marks of nails--life is meaningless.  If we see no meaning to our life, then of course we're going to see no meaning to our suffering.

Sheen's words sound harsh, I'll admit; but there's a degree of truth in them.  Suffering without love will embitter us; it does not make us better, as I wrote in God is Not the Author of Your Heartbreak, Part III

Ultimately, the reason the world finds pain unbearable is because it refuses to accept the only thing that give suffering meaning--the Cross of Christ.  As Sheen wrote in Justice and Charity: "Pain in itself is not unbearable; it is the failure to understand its meaning that is unbearable."[11]

God Love y'all!

Yours in all things Theological, and in love of Venerable Fulton Sheen,

                [1]Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, (New York: Image Books, 1990), 62-63.

            [2]Ibid., 165-6. 
            [3]Fulton J. Sheen, The Choice: the Sacred or Profane Life, (Dell Publishing Co., New York: 1954), 49.
                [4]Sheen, Life of Christ, 66.
[5]Fulton J. Sheen, The Priest Is Not His Own, (Mc-Graw Hill Book Company, New York: 1963), 66.

[7]Fulton J. Sheen, The Eternal Galilean, in The Fulton J. Sheen Treasury, (New York: Popular Library, n.d.), 254.
[8]Ibid., 255.
[9]Fulton J. Sheen, Justice and Charity, Part II: The Individual Problem and the Cross, (Washington, D.C.: National Council of Catholic Men, n.d.), 15.
[10]Ibid., 15-16.
[11]Ibid., 17.

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