Before tackling a freelance job this weekend, I placed myself before a standing crucifix which is at the center of my oratory. I needed a focal point—something to help me block out the incessant noise of the emails, the blog comments, the blaring headlines. The soft click of a keyboard is the writer’s soundtrack, but it can only be heard once the writer has managed to filter out the world of 10,000 things, in order to find a word in season.
My looming deadline, and my blank page, made me feel like a pregnant woman trying to deliver a sixteen pound infant, without an epidural. As anyone experienced in LaMaze techniques can tell you, a focal point is key, and I tried to direct all of my attention toward the vertical post and the horizontal beam, with the corpus of the suffering servant, in the center.
Wondering at its familiar, terrible beauty, I gazed, and exhaled and felt my tensed-up shoulders release. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath.
Non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, have asked how me how I can call a crucifix “beautiful.” It is a depiction of an agonizing, brutal death, and a rank injustice, and yet no other image, not even pictures of beloved family members, can so consistently relieve, reassure, and instruct me as the crucifix. At prayer before it, I am consoled; resting there, I am refreshed.
The relief comes from the intimacy of his nearness. My oratory is in my office, and so the crucifix is always visible from my desk, but when drawing near, I am able to put work behind me. The closer I get to Christ on the Cross, the more my distractions are pushed to the periphery of my vision, and then of my thoughts. Soon I see only the cross—those contradicting planks—then I see only Jesus, his arms opened wide to me.
Then I apprehend his face, and everything else has faded in contemplation of his constancy, his immediacy. He is not merely before my eyes; he is all around—in the molecules of the candle-scented air, and the moving atoms of my physical surroundings—Christ before me; Christ behind me. Above me. Below me. Where I sit; where I stand. Yes, it is a relief to know He is there, on the oratory, on the Cross, on the air; within me and without me, even in all of my brokenness, he is there.
And that is where the reassurance comes in. This particular crucifix is very old. When I bought it from an antique dealer for an extremely reasonable price, the gold-plating was marred and the bronze tarnished; this crucifix had seen rough times, and to my way of thinking that made it all the more beautiful, and made Christ all the more accessible. If this crucifix had been mis-used or left unpolished, or ignored, well, I know the secret value of those mortifications, so I can love it all the more, for its humility.
Meanwhile Jesus’ broken image on the cross communicates with startling clarity that there is nothing in my human experience—neither abandonment, nor shame, not injustice, betrayal or humiliation—that he had not felt himself, and therefore wholly understands. At my oratory, the God Who Knows consoles the creature who sympathizes, and perhaps vice-versa.
And in that back-and-forth, between Creator and creature, between the All-knowing and the mostly-puzzled, the tiniest bit of instruction does seem get through. The image on thick wood manages to penetrate my thick head, and I am left with much to ponder.
I had been driven to the crucifix because I had become overwhelmed with the media/internet cacophony that had followed L’Osservatore Romano’s weekend revelation of Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on the use of condoms in certain situations, and by the uproar over newly put-in-place TSA regulations on pre-flight searches and pat-downs.
In both cases, reactions were swift, and they varied according to agendas but fell along predictable lines: so-called “liberals”—who had screamed about a “shredded constitution” and fretted about fourth amendment rights when the Bush administration looked to wiretap suggested terrorists—suddenly began to coo that they hadn’t been touched in a long time, and didn’t mind the “love pats” resulting from the greatly increased scrutiny of airline passengers in the U.S. Meanwhile, those who had defended the Bush wiretaps wondered if the new screening measures were an Obama-devised plot meant to make obedient subjects of raw, fiercely independent Americans.
On the condom front, the extremes of the “left” and “right” brought us contrasts in hysteria that ultimately came to a similarly flawed conclusion: that Benedict had “reversed” a church teaching. He had not.
Its funny how often extreme factions end up arriving at the same place, even as they start off from divergent perspectives.
In contemplating the crucifix, my attention was drawn to the horizontal plank to which Jesus’ arms were attached. That beam extends to the left and to the right. Christ is between them, in the center. He is the balance. If one moves too far in either direction, one moves away from the central Christ, and into imbalance. Move too far and you can no longer see him; you will be too far out, on the periphery—pulled there by the 10,000 things you have chose to focus on, and to fret about, and which ultimately pull you so insistently that, without a counterbalance, you slip away from
Drawing near to the crucifix, all of those edging distractions fade away, until there is only Jesus, who—like a remedy to the Big Bang—draws all things into Himself; governments and peoples, popes and prostitutes, atoms and molecules, and even insipid regulations. Until there is only Him. On the cross, knowing everything you know, and a whole lot more.
I gaze upon Christ; he gazes upon me. My eye wanders over his broken corpus and I see nothing but love, nothing but wholeness. And above his head, the plaque.
Intimate. Near. Reassuring. Instructive.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer of First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.