Anyone who has the care of souls, be it a priest, parent, spiritual director, or teacher, realizes that there are many things that can hinder spiritual growth and progress. A pastor can look out on his flock on any given Sunday and see a wide spectrum. At the one end of the spectrum are those who have little sense of sin or of the need to repent; they have trivialized God to some extent and reduced His holiness to a kind of saccharine kindness. At the other end are those who are scrupulous and anxious, who feel unworthy and fear God as a harsh judge they will meet.
While those with a diminished sense of sin and of God’s holiness are usually more numerous today, the number of scrupulous and fearful is not trivial. Finding a balance in the homily and the liturgy at Mass is difficult, but as always, the balance is found at the cross.
There at the cross are plainly displayed both the awful reality of sin and the abiding love of God. God’s holiness and justice is shown there, for He will not minimize sin and its effects, nor will He pretend that some lesser remedy is sufficient. The cross is a place of honesty and truth. If we let it have its effects, it should lead us to weep for our sins. To the prideful who think little of their sin, the Lord says, “Never make light of what I have to do to save you, of the price I have paid.”
Yet the cross is also place where we should weep for joy and relief, that our Lord meets us there and demonstrates His abiding love for us, sinners though we are. Seeing the cost of our redemption, the Lord Jesus paid the price in full. In every wound is our healing. In His chest, heaved open by the spear, we see the very heart of God.
Yes, the cross is ugly and horrible, and yet beautiful and moving. We must spend substantial time there and, as an old hymn says, “survey the wondrous cross.” It is a remedy. Here the Lord speaks to the scrupulous saying, “Never doubt my love.”
A recent selection in the Office of Readings featured the following meditation, in which St. Peter Chrysologus allowed the Lord to speak to us through him:
In me, says the Lord, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human? You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds (from a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop. [Sermo 108: PL 52, 499-500]).
A healing word from one of God’s saints to the scrupulous and fearful.
Of the English hymns that have been published, this one is widely considered among the best ever written:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all (Isaac Watts, 1707).