On smiling at the cross
Q: What should we do when suffering comes to us?
A: Accept it with a smile.
Q: Accept it with a smile?
A: Yes, with a smile, because it is the greatest gift that God gives to us.
Q: What? To smile?
A: To smile at God. To have the courage to accept everything that he send us, and to give him what he asks of us with a big smile.
Saint (!) Teresa of Calcutta
I arrived in Krakow a week before the World Youth Day festivities began, along with 65 other guides ready to be trained. We toured and talked and ate great food, relishing the stillness and quiet before the chaos. One of my favorite visits was to St. Mary’s Basilica, a magnificent church right in the square. It was the first stop in my first stretch of free time, and rightly so. Jesus was inviting me there.
As I stepped in and took in the grandeur, I wandered to a quiet side chapel where adoration was taking place. I settled into the hard wooden pew, delighted to be amidst other worshippers from halfway around the world. My eyes wandered around the narrow chapel with a ceiling to the sky, noticing ornate details in every corner. But what truly arrested me was the painting above the monstrance. It was Jesus, well before His Passion, holding the cross and smiling at it. SMILING at it. What? No, Lord! I prayed. Why are You smiling at it? I never smile at my cross! I can’t stand it! His cross was slender and light and smooth. Mine, the one I had carried for months on end, the one He’d finally lifted with no explanation, was anything but. It was heavy and unwieldy and burdensome. As I entered my Polish pilgrimage, I planned to box up the pain of the year that had just passed, to box up my bitterness at God, and move on. But God wonderfully opened those boxes and invited me to smile. My prayer then and there became, Jesus, teach me how to smile at my cross.
The cross confounds me. Especially the cross I’d been carrying, the cross of loneliness and discontent and desolation. It was a feeling abandoned by God, a temptation to abandon Him in return. It was steady and quiet and hidden, horribly isolating. Did I bring this on? Is this God’s perfect will for me? Will I ever return to the joy I once knew? Even now, I’m perplexed. He hasn’t given me many answers, but the few He’s begun to show me have indeed caused me to smile.
The cross is salvific. Yes, it confounds and frustrates and bewilders me. But it also saved and is saving me. If I were in that season of suffering for the rest of my life, I’d still have reason to rejoice in the victory of Jesus over death. It was a victory over death, yes, and over the acute pain of all human suffering. Of my particular suffering. Of woundedness, loneliness, distance from God. God taught me the goodness in choosing—choosing to believe that He is my loving Father, choosing to have hope that He sees me and knows me and holds me in existence, however little I feel those truths. And if that is the only lesson I learned, what an ample reason to smile. But He wasn’t finished.
I’ve heard that any suffering, whether we handle it with grace or not, can always help us be more compassionate toward others. God can and will use us, if we let Him, to ease the burden of another’s pain if we can truly walk by their side and suffer along with them. The cross I carried—whether it came from my sinful tendencies or the devil’s taunts or God’s desire to strip me of everything but my desire for Him—is not unique. Of course, I experienced that suffering in a particular way, but more and more God is revealing a great loneliness of people around me. And that cold loneliness is one that has melted away, thanks to a wonderfully new season of life, but its memory is fresh. And I feel compelled, driven, to do whatever I can to assuage that same burden of my brothers and sisters around me.
There was a World Youth Day Mass during which God brought up this theme once again, and once again brought me a glimmer of understanding, of comfort. I was kneeling on concrete in the nosebleeds of a convention center, an unlikely place for spiritual revelations. But God’s ways, too, are unlikely. I pictured myself as a field, dry and barren. A hard packed earth cracked by a relentless sun, untouched for who knows how long by the relief of rain. After months of dryness, I became that same field, untouched by the relief of God’s felt presence. And, very naturally, my desperate disposition was one of receptivity. All I wanted, every ounce of me, cried out from inside to be filled. To be watered, nurtured, loved. Just a single drop on that cracked earth is the sweetest drop imaginable. And God has sent me a deluge.
I am at a loss as to how to account for the season God has brought me to. But it is one of unimaginable joy. It is one of feeling God’s tender and fatherly love for me, the passion of Jesus as the Lover of my soul, the precious embrace of the Holy Spirit. It is one that steals my sleep at night, as I excitedly turn over in my mind the countless blessings I continue to receive. It is truly a season of abundant, abundant life. I cannot thank God as I ought, but I also realize that I was very far from thanking God for the preceding season. There is no way that I’d be experiencing this joy and consolation and delight with such intensity and thankfulness if God hadn’t made me that barren field. “You are God’s field, God’s building,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians, and me. I am indeed God’s field, soaking up the grace that He waters down without limit. And when I think back to that cross, that drought, that season of agony? I smile. For He has taught me how.