A time ago, I was invited to be part of a one-time small faith-sharing group. They group was made of remarkable people from a remarkable diversity of backgrounds, but all were forged in a sense of common trust by their common Catholic Christian faith.
One story that was shared in particular remains with me to this day, and from it I wish to draw one theological point to which all my thinking returns again and again, in saecula saeculorum.
The group was thinking that day about the practice of imaginative prayer, or the ‘application of the senses,’ as St Ignatius would call it. This form of prayer essentially invites you to enter a biblical text with your imagination and allow the Spirit to ‘fuse’ you with one of the characters in a particular scene (e.g. Mary at the foot of the Cross); or simply allow you to enter the biblical story in a way that yields fruitful spiritual or moral insight into your own life.
This young man of ~30 years old told a remarkable tale of his venture into the inscape of his soul where God led him to a place and time ‘where he would not rather go.’ He said his spiritual director asked him to pray the text of St. Matthew’s Passion (beginning in 26:36), and as he did so he wondered with some hesitancy which character he might be led to identify with.
As he prayerfully mused, closing his eyes to think into the sensual world of the story, he ‘of sudden’ found himself back in a very expected and frightening place – in 6th grade in the back lot of his middle school watching a real-life scene he had long worked hard to forget. He said he found himself watching his best friend get beat up bad, while he just stood outside the circle and watched. And after the beating was over, and the young thugs cleared away, he found himself in that moment of ‘turning’ when he was about relive the awful shame of walking away without offering any aid or comfort to his bloodied friend.
At that moment, he said, his friend transformed in appearance into the Christ-of-the-Passion, sullied and marred. Jesus said, looking straight into his eyes, “I forgive you for leaving me, for abandoning me. For it is I who suffer in the innocent victim, and I who pardon.”
The young man sobbed, wailed aloud as he finished sharing these words of Jesus to him.
After he regained his composure, he said, “Now, I’m free from the shame I have carried for all these years. I died the day I walked away from my friend, but Christ raised me from the dead when he exposed my shame and forgave me.”
In addition to his own rich explanation of the meaning and healing power of his prayerful encounter with Christ, I would like to add that his story is the key that unlocks the secret of all divine revelation: in the final analysis God-in-Christ responds to the problem of evil not by pronouncing just judgment, but by being unjustly judged; not by passing a righteous sentence of death, but by being unrighteously sentenced to death; not by declaring the guilty innocent, but by being Innocence declared guilty; not by doing violence to fallen man, but by being felled under the force of man’s violence; not by wielding divine omnipotence, but by embracing human impotence; not by destroying the life that had been lost, but by losing His own life to destruction; not by binding death’s prisoners, but by being bound by death that He might untie the knot of death’s terrible illogic.
When we turn to God in times of darkness, our “Why,” before it finds answer finds a strange harmony with the voice of the One from whom we demanded an answer.
Even in the Night
Ellie Wiesel, in his stunning book Night, tells a story from Dachau – a child is hung for suspected sabotage. As the hanging boy turns blue, a voice rails out from behind Wiesel, “Where is God now?” Wiesel said an inner voice in his heart softly answered, “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on the gallows.”
Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi pependit, ‘Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the world’