Spiritual Stretching and The Way of the Cross

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Spiritual Stretching and the Way of the Cross

I’m arriving at the realization that the spiritual life is NO JOKE.  I mean, seriously . . . if you’re  ‘comfortable’ in your walk with God, then you’re probably not being stretched spiritually, which probably means there is something God is asking of you that you’re not hearing, or a place he’s trying to take you where you don’t want to go.

A bold claim, I know.  But here is how I came to this realization: I am a new Catholic. When you come from being Protestant to being Catholic, you have in front of you a mystical can of worms—if you dare to open it. Or a can of mystical worms? I’m not sure which, but whatever it is, there is something new to open up to when you say “I do” to the Catholic Church, which was simply not present in anything I read from any Protestant theologian or heard in any Protestant church.

Catholic theology books and other Catholic teaching, in a way unlike Protestant theology, is very heavy on “the way of the cross” and all the mysticism that entails. Not just an empty cross, not just Jesus on a cross, but YOU with a cross on your back walking the arduos road called Christianity on your way to sacrifice your own life out of love for others.  Jesus did it first, and we’re expected to follow. God then does tremendous things in us through our suffering, for the benefit of our own soul and for the benefit of others.  Suffering can almost be considered as the way God gets His will done. And there is a lot of mystical thinking wrapped up in this—suffering as a sacrifice of love—the depths of which cannot be found in reductionist Protestant theology. (Now, I’m sure some Protestants will insist that there is a very rich understanding of suffering and the cross in their theology, thank you very much. But what I’m referring to are penances, indulgences, the treasury of merits, the mystical life of the saints, etc. There are doctors of the Catholic Church that were made so solely because of their contributions to mystical theology. So there is really no contest here).

In Protestant theology (of course I’m making sweeping generalizations) particularly of the evangelical variety, the Christian life is basically accepting Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross on our behalf (which is essential), and then trying to live for him (which is not essential, but an indicator of whether or not we are truly saved).  So, in this view, suffering and sacrifice is something Jesus did for us, but not necessarily something we must do for him.  It’s strongly recommended, but optional nonetheless.

Now, in contrast with this, there is a LOT more to the Catholic view of suffering and sacrifice as essential components of what being a Christian is.  A whole lot of really deep and serious stuff goes into this thinking.  It is wrapped up in all the mysticism that is so prominent in Catholic theology that many Protestants dismiss as superstition at best, and heretical at worst.

The Way of the Cross

This realization of the seriousness of ‘the way of the cross’ as a way of life first hit me during an especially poignant homily given by my former pastor, a Capuchin friar. On Christ the King Sunday he took a replica of the crown of thorns and held it up for all of us to see.  He admonished us that as Christians, in this life the crown of thorns is what we wear.  Christ is King, but he humbled himself, suffered, and wore the crown of thorns first. The point was that we don’t get the glory of the resurrection yet.  Christ’s resurrection gives us hope and joy of the heavenly life to come, but this life here and now is one of suffering on our way there. Yes there are glimpses of heavenly life that we can experience and enjoy here, but these are glimpses, not permanent states of being.

The way of the cross and the suffering and sacrifice it necessarily produces in my life—if I’m serious about it—is sinking in the more acquainted I become with the lives of the saints.  I recently read The Diary of Faustina Kowalska and I was pretty much blown away.  It made me realize what a huge spiritual wimp I am.  I also read The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  It made me realize how oblivious I am to the movements in my own spiritual life. I also listened to a lecture on St. Therese of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul.  It made me realize how little I love. God has lifted up these saints as examples of people who walked the way of the cross well; their sacrifices and sufferings offered up in love for others were a way of life, and in this they were just like Jesus. All of the saints are called saints because they did the same thing—they walked the way of the cross. They also grew to love suffering (a bewildering notion) instead of shunning it, because suffering brought them closer to the heart of Christ.

So, I have officially been knocked off my rocker.  The spiritual life indeed is NO JOKE, and I have to decide for myself how serious I want to be in pursuit of greater depths (or heights) in it.  If you want to see what I mean, go read those books I just mentioned for starters. Then I have some others for you.   You will feel the stretch too and will understand exactly what I’m talking about.  I realize that now I have to pay attention to my spiritual life, practice the art of love, be open to God’s will for me (which WILL include sacrifices and sufferings) and, most importantly, meditate on the life of Christ by praying the rosary every day.  The rest is up to Him.

Copyright 2012 Gretchen Filz

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2 Comments

  1. Well said. I’m an adult convert to Catholicism, too: and agree that it’s quite different in the Bark of Peter.

    I like the ‘mystical can of worms/can of mystical worms’ word play, too.

    • Thank you! Actually some of the things that I wrote about here were my biggest obstacles I had to overcome before converting. The mystical lives of the saints seemed down-right scary and completely foreign to my theological studies up to that point (I mean seriously, St. Theresa of Avila being pierced by a mystical sword? And she’s a doctor of the Church?). It was hard to drop the pride and the skepticism at first, but once I did, I was blown away by the depth of love for Christ wrapped up in the writings of these mystical saints. I realized that I didn’t understand it because my theology was too shallow!

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