by Tom Agness
Rochester, New York, USA
I have never liked crucifixes. For years, the emphasis on the bloody death of Jesus Christ, his anguished face, without the corresponding reality of the Resurrection, seemed too grotesque and limiting for me.
I remember making irreverent, almost smart-ass jokes about it, even as a seminarian. I recall making a comment to an altar server who led a procession at Mass, holding the crucifix high so the congregation would see it, while the song, “Lift High the Cross” was playing – I remarked to him, ‘Lift High the Boss’, more a reference to Bruce Springsteen, just to see if he’d laugh and to make myself look cool.
So when my wife wanted me to decide whether to keep on old crucifix of my Uncle Raymond, who had been a Redemptorist priest and missionary in Puerto Rico in the 1920’s (this artifact was found among my deceased Aunt Lucille’s things), my first reaction was, ‘throw it out’.
It was a makeshift crucifix, made of some type of plastic-looking wood that had worn away over the years. The nails in Jesus’s hands and feet were still there along with the blood stain on his right side where he had been stabbed by the Roman guard. The crown of thorns and bloody hair remained, too. Someone had wound fishing line around his hands and feet, I guess, to keep them attached to the cross.
As I looked at it and read a little piece of paper attached to it, probably written by my great Aunt Ethel, our family historian and Raymond’s sister, I remembered the story.
Uncle Raymond was the oldest of eight children born to my great-grandfather and grandmother, Englebert and Emma Sercu. He originally worked on Wall Street but became disillusioned and discovered a new direction, answering God’s call to be a missionary priest.
While stationed in Puerto Rico, one afternoon as he was walking alongside a busy stream, he saw two young girls struggling in the rough waters. He jumped in – heavy cassock and all, and brought one of the girls to shore, but when he went back for the other the girl was so scared and clung tightly to him, and Uncle Raymond was so exhausted from bringing the first girl to safety, they both drowned.
Years later, Aunt Ethel visited Aguas Buenas and saw a shrine dedicated to her older brother.
I thought about this as I handled the memento, the memory of a man I never met, but who still lives on in the story and in the crucifix.
So I kept it. At first, I put it off to the side, not storing it away but not sure where it would go in my room.
And then one day, while going through some difficult times, I started reading (as I am wont to do) an article called “The Science of Love”, by Thomas Keating, my favorite spiritual writer and kind of an ‘abba’ to me.
I started practicing Centering Prayer in 1994, also during a difficult time in my life. 28 years later, I could not begin to tell you how that prayer has transformed my life, and me. And is still doing it! As I reflect on my spiritual journey with the love and the support and solidarity of so many in Contemplative Outreach, I am moved to gratitude and silence, in awe of the many wondrous gifts of God, from God.
Along with those gifts, those brilliances of light, I find I am now moving deeper into some darkness. Perhaps a dark night, or the Night of Sense. It was this that led me to Thomas Keating’s article, and subsequently, the cross of my dear, dead uncle.
“If we are bored in meditation, unequal to a task, weak in facing temptation, distracted in prayer or tormented by afflicting emotions; if we feel powerless to practice any virtue, abandoned by God, experience inward groundlessness and suffer endless guilt – it is Jesus in us and as us who is suffering everything. He is living our lives all the time if we consent to be who we really are.”
I quickly found the crucifix and looked at it again, only this time much more closely. I noticed that from a certain angle, the look on Jesus’s face was one of peace. I began to feel that peace too, and I began to realize and believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and God too, took on all suffering and sin so that I could be free of it, eventually. And even more, that God is with me in my suffering now. I will never be alone, which brings me not only consolation and reassurance, but a deeper sense of God’s everlasting mercy and compassion.
Uncle Raymond’s crucifix now stands next to my picture of Thomas Keating. They are both – all, in fact—reminders of the Scripture passage; ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’
I’m grateful to be able to do that.