It was Good Friday, and I was doing, for the first time really, the stations of the cross. This was my first time, not because as a Protestant I had had any major problems with it, and not even because I was not attracted to it, but simply because, as a Protestant, doing the stations of the cross would have involved making a fuss of the emergent or high-Anglican variety. Anglo-Catholicism was the closest I could get to Rome outside of Rome, but it always seemed to involve a certain kind of hyper-ostentation, distinguished as Anglo-Catholicism is by such loudness. It is thank God possible to be quietly and anonymously Catholic (in humility rather than shame), but, as an Anglo-Catholic, one needs to be very loud about how Catholic one is, perhaps with a shrillness designed to convince oneself of something about which one has doubts.
In any case, it was Good Friday, the day before my reception into the Church, and I was doing the stations of the cross with my RCIA group. I was kind of hoping to slide into the Church – quietly, and without much fuss – and I knew my relationship with God well enough to know that I needn’t expect anything of the mystical or experiential variety – my relationship with Him was and remains enough, and it was sufficient for me to take this step He called me to without much ballyhoo or other diversion of the experiential, spiritual, or social variety. As is typical of my experience of God, he disappointed my expectations.
To contextualize this, I will need to backtrack a bit regarding the ongoing saga of my struggles to understand matters of faith, suffering, and death. As someone with a longtime history of depression and OCD (in the official fancy language my condition would cheerfully be termed “comorbid”), and further with various family members and friends suffering from such things, the question of the place of suffering in faith has always been much less easy for me to ignore than it seems to be for some Christians. Add to this the death of a close friend three years ago, deep alienation from Christian community (too Catholic for Protestants, too Protestant for Catholics, and deeply wounded by the effects of some nasty church and parachurch politics), and a tendency to always put my worst foot forward when it comes to interviews or applications in the area of my vocation, and it is fair to say that frustration is not likely to be something I can forget anytime soon. A fever pitch of suffering would be a bad way to describe it – that happened in the much more volatile period of our younger romance – and now Suffering and I had settled into the familiar routine of destroying each other even while relying on each other for stability like an addictive drug when the exotics and passion are gone, and all that is left is bathetic routine. Not only did I know Suffering, but I made myself an expert in all her ways – I would be the prophet proclaiming her existence to a stubborn and obstinate church. I could, quite literally, say what most could only say figuratively – I really did do a Doctorate on suffering.
But I return to the stations of the cross and Good Friday, with a caveat, which is this. When I describe what follows, I do not necessarily mean that all this hit me on the head at once, or that I immediately came to this realization. I’m pretty sure that every moment we mark of deep significance in our lives is preceded by so many other important moments we don’t notice, and, furthermore, may not even be initially understood – the post-experience reflection on the experience is as much a part of the experience as the temporal moment when one first marks it. What follows is the totality of my impression – thus far – of what happened on Good Friday.
What happened was that, at some point while we were doing the stations, I realized that I had met my match when it came to the understanding of suffering – in this church, in this place, I was becoming part of a people that knew suffering in her bones. Not in the sense that the Church has necessarily suffered more than other groups – indeed, in her imperfection here on earth, she has on a number of occasions been the cause of suffering – but rather in the sense that here, in Christ’s body, a body I could taste, touch, and smell in the sacraments and in my fellow Christians – here, in this body, suffering was understood, in the deepest and most mysterious sense of the word. Yes, other churches I had been part of had the crucifixion narrative as well – but the crosses were bare. In contrast, here was a devotional practice that was not trying to be radical or prophetic or sexy or relevant or any of those other things – it was not screaming for attention, as was my own “prophetic” bent concerning suffering – rather, it simply was. It was not some radical thing (except in the most literal etymological sense) that would strike like lightning and change my life fifty different ways to Sunday. No, it was a basic and humble grammar of suffering. And I, the expert, the self-proclaimed seer, with the Doctorate on Job, stopped my mouth, and was silent. No longer could I say, “But you don’t know what it’s like” – because She did. The Church did.
I don’t recall too precisely the exact moment this all came upon me, but I do feel it had something to do with the third time Christ stumbles in the stations. I knew enough of them prior to know that this is the part I most valued, the part where Christ looks at us, after having stumbled twice before already, and we have no clue what to do. Is it about us? Are we selfish enough to be glad for Christ’s suffering because we suffer too? On the other hand, when he looks into our eyes like that, the cross breaking his back, is there anywhere we can flee to evade that look that says it has everything to do with us? Is it an example? An act of empathy? The suffering servant? The broken beast of burden? Christ is physically naked, but it is we who are ashamed – he has looked into our souls. To stumble once might be a token example – even the best stumble. To stumble twice is a little more, but perhaps just another token – we can draw on his forgiveness if we happen to fall a few times, so long as we are generally consistent. But a third time. That is the clincher. He means it. He will really be there. Every time. Seventy times seven times, and more, if necessary. Every time. The face full of sorrow that is also mercy and grace. Eye to eye, and heart to heart.
That is a broken description of the glimpse I had into the Church – the place where suffering is uniquely understood – and the place where I covered my mouth. At that same moment, I felt a kind of release. It is a heavy burden to think of oneself as a prophet on behalf of all suffering everywhere, and suddenly I saw – Christ’s body, the Church, was carrying this burden. It was not mine to carry. I could help or participate or pray or not – I could understand or not – but whatever I did, God had suffering and death taken care of. And it was then I realized the most terrifying thing, that I was free, free to explore that thing far more frightening and unpredictable to me than any kind of pain or suffering: joy. I still have very little idea what this means – particularly as I am accustomed to associate the word “joy” with the facile glossing and painting of pain. And I don’t like joy, because it comes at all the wrong times, and doesn’t come to everybody equally. But it is a treasure, of Christ and His Church, and having retired from the position of self-proclaimed prophet of suffering and pain (though I make no promises concerning relapses), I am at liberty to explore it – joy – the greatest problem that we face as humans. I am terrified.