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Reflecting On The Cross: Loneliness, Vulnerability

Sixth in lenten series

A RELIGIOUS SISTER once told me that she had never experienced loneliness in her life. I found that incredible. Perhaps she meant something different by loneliness than what I mean. When I refer to feeling lonely, I refer to a feeling of ‘I don’t count, that I am not important, that I don’t matter, that no one cares about me.’ By loneliness, I mean a feeling and so it is neither good nor bad. What matters is what the person experiencing loneliness does with that feeling. I don’t think the feeling has much to do with whether you are alone or with others. A person can be in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and feel lonely; a hermit can be isolated from other people and not feel lonely at all.

Father Ronald Rolheiser in his “The Passion and the Cross” (Franciscan Media, 2015, pp. 112) suggests that the most profound response to the experience of loneliness is the cross. Pointing out that we don’t understand intellectually how vulnerability and powerlessness are the real powers that bring about intimacy, he writes:

“It is no wonder that so many people – millions, literally – wear a cross as a symbol of love, trust and hope. Unconsciously, they know, however dimly, what theology can never quite make clear to us: namely that what divides us from each other can only be bridged by the cross of Christ, and that our hope for intimacy and community is not in ourselves but in an embrace that is beyond us. In a cross, this is not understood, it’s seen – mystically, not rationally.

So, as a priest, I stand daily before an altar and pray the words: ‘Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.’ What I pray for is precisely that what we see in the cross of Christ actually might be given to us: namely an embrace from beyond ourselves.” (p. 74)

It is not clear to me what Rolheiser means by claiming that we see the cross “mystically.” Probably that is not clear to Rolheiser either or indeed to anyone. Christian mysteries can be reflected on correctly and experienced deeply but I don’t think they can ever be “clear.” That they are not clear is one reason why we refer to them as mysteries. This is not to say that they are not true. Rather they are so profoundly true that we cannot ever comprehend them completely.

Saying that we see the cross mystically I think means that we grasp its truth not through our ordinary vision or not even through our reason but through the unique encounter between our faith and God’s revelation of His love for us.

We are finite and fragile. We are vulnerable both physically and psychologically, even vulnerable spiritually. We can be easily hurt and sometimes wounded profoundly. When those who love us withdraw their love, or even seem to withdraw their love, the experience can seem to be devastating. We can be tempted to believe that our life has lost all meaning.

During his passion and crucifixion, Jesus must have experienced loneliness that is difficult for us to conceive. He must have felt abandoned by almost all who loved him. Where were the cheering crowds of the first Palm Sunday? Where were his closest friends? How did Jesus’ heavenly Father allow this to happen to him? Our faith tells us that what looked like complete defeat turned out to be total victory. Reflecting on the cross can help us to see not only Jesus’ vulnerability but to see also our own vulnerability, our radical neediness that we cannot confront alone. Rolheiser writes:

“We need an embrace from beyond, a vision from beyond, an intimacy we cannot give ourselves.

Jesus, dying on the cross, is that embrace, that vision, that intimacy. We look at the cross and we see the secret. This is what a real reconciling embrace looks like. We don’t understand it; we see it.” (p. 74).

Pointing out that we don’t see bitterness or defeat or anger, Rolheiser insists that this is what real trust and love look like. I believe that Father Rolheiser is correct in his description of the secret of the cross but I have a feeling that I should try to enter more and more deeply into that secret. That will probably take the rest of my life.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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