The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 19: Why the Cross?"


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Jesus insisted (Mt 18:38): "Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me." St. Paul expressed the same idea with his well known syn Christo framework, which, as we saw before, could be summarized: A person is saved and made holy, if and to the extent that he is a member of Christ, and is like Him. Now in the life of Jesus there are two stages: first, a hard life, suffering, and death; second, eternal glory. Of course we are still in stage one. So the more we are like Him in His suffering now, the more will we be like Him in glory in the next world. Hence St. Paul also said, as we saw earlier (2 Cor 4:17; Rom 8:18): "That which is light and momentary in our tribulations, is working for us an eternal weight of glory. . . . I judge that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us."

We can, then, take comfort in this, and even, with St. Paul, rejoice in our tribulations. But yet, also with St. Paul, we should be pleased to be more conformed to Jesus. To see this, we need to realize deeply who He is. If He just seems to be some man of centuries ago who had a horrid death, which we say redeemed us from sin, this may not impress us much at all, for our age has certainly lost the sense of sin.1 So, if we do not deeply realize who He is, we will not likely feel an attraction to imitate Him. St. Paul, and the first generations with him, could grasp this more easily. They had seen the cross in its horror, whereas so often our crucifixes depict Him as quite comfortable! But they, even pagans, felt the immense shock that God should deal with man at all. As we saw earlier, the great Plato wrote: "No god associates with men."2 The still greater Aristotle said that friendship of a god with a man is impossible, since the distance between them is too great.3

They had in mind poor things, hardly deserving the name of a god. What would they think if the omnipotent, infinite God became man-still more, if He allowed Himself to suffer so terrible and shameful a death! This is why St. Paul wrote (1 Cor 1:23): "We preach Christ crucified-a scandal to the Jews, and nonsense to the gentiles." Our problem is that we have grown up with these doctrines, and they have lost their edge for us-really, we never did even in earlier life feel that edge. We need to work to try to recover it. Then, if we know and realize who He is, what He did for us, we will readily want to be like Him even in His suffering-by way of mortification.

We have to try to realize deeply too that it is our sins that caused His suffering and death. Since each of us can say with St. Paul (Gal 2:20): "He loved me and gave Himself for me," we must also say: He died because of me, because of my sins.

There are other reasons for mortification. One very important one is the need of developing our spiritual eyesight. Imagine two men going to the Louvre in Paris, one of the world's greatest art galleries. It could easily be that one is thrilled by the art; the other is bored, and hopes his friend will not stay long. He just wants to see the Follies. The reason would be that one was conditioned to appreciate the beauty of that art; the other was not.

Similarly, we need to be conditioned to appreciate the divine truths. Several things contribute to that conditioning. We just saw one of them, humility. Now we try to see the facts about mortification.

We can approach it this way: Adam and Eve had more than the essentials of humanity (a body and soul, having mind and free will); they had a coordinating gift. Without it, we now need mortification. For there are many drives in both body and soul. These are legitimate in themselves. God made them good. But they each seek their own satisfaction, working blindly, without respect to the whole person. (As noted earlier, we can see the effect of the loss of this coordinating gift, this integrity, in the fact that Adam hid himself after the fall, because he was naked. Before the fall he also was naked, but the sex drive was not erupting spontaneously; it obeyed his reason.)

We think of a piece of springy metal. It is not enough to just push it straight once-it takes long repeated effort to finally get it into place. Similarly, long repeated efforts are required to push our disorderly drives into the right positions. For they keep on rebelling. Bending them back beyond the middle by depriving them of some things they otherwise could have reasonably had is the way to finally tame them, so far as can be done in this life.

Jesus once said (Mt 6:21): "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." In the narrow sense this would mean a box of coins a man might hide under the floor of his house. If he had such a stash, he would of course enjoy thinking of it. It would be like a magnet, pulling his thoughts and heart to itself.

But we can put our treasure not only in a box of coins; we can put it in anything: in huge meals, in gourmet meals, in sex, in travel, in power, even in studying theology. All these things are lower than God, some farther down than others. But even more importantly, a person may be attached, or addicted to them, in various degrees. Some are pulled by these things only to the extent of imperfection; others to the point of occasional venial sin, or habitual venial sin, or occasional mortal sin, or habitual mortal sin. The farther below God a thing is, and the more we let it grip us, the more difficult it is for thoughts and heart to rise to the divine level, to the thought and love of God.

A modern comparison makes a good supplement: we think of a galvanometer, which is just a magnetic needle on its pivot, so it can swing freely, like a compass. There is a coil of wire around it. If we pass a current through the coil, the needle will swing in the right direction and the right amount. It measures the current.

My mind is like such a meter. When God sends an actual grace to me (recall chapter 18 and the words on Phil 2:13) to lead and enable me to do a certain good thing here and now, the first thing grace needs to do is to put into my head the good idea of what God wishes me to do. Grace stands for the current in the coil, which is gentle in that it respects my freedom. But the outside pulls of creatures, even legitimate use of creatures, can also exert a pull, in the proportions we indicated. Whereas grace respects my freedom, these pulls may not do so, if I let myself become heavily addicted to them, on the scale we just drew.

By now it is obvious: if we want to be fully responsive to the movements of divine grace, we will need to cut down, so far as is possible, the pulls of creatures on us, so that grace can register on us.4 It is mortification that reduces those pulls. The Saints tried to keep as free as possible of those pulls: hence some even moved out into the desert. They wanted not only to avoid the pulls that would lead to small sins: they wanted to avoid even imperfections. Here is where we can see the value of celibacy/virginity. Sex is a most powerful pull. In marriage it is not only legitimate, but, given the right conditions (not too hard to provide), it can even be meritorious. But even when legitimate, it does provide a pull, making it so much less easy for the thoughts and heart to rise to the level of God. Hence St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7:5 suggests to married people to abstain from sex at times, by mutual consent, "So you may be free for prayer." This does not mean St. Paul looks down on marriage. No, he calls it a grace (1 Cor 7:7) and says the union of spouses is an image of the union of Christ with His Church (Eph. 5:32). But there can be two aspects to a thing; e.g., in the parable of the sower (Lk 8:14) some seed falls on ground on which thorns are growing. They choke off the growth. The Gospel explains that the thorns are riches and pleasures of this life. Now earthly goods are not evil; they are good in themselves, and can be used well. Yet they have another aspect: they are thorns. So they make it less easy for thoughts to rise to the divine level. Hence surely one must not let his heart be set on them, but rather, to some extent at least, he should give up some of them, to be the more free of pulls.

We can see then the spiritual value of virginity/celibacy, and of poverty at least in spirit. They help the soul to be the more free to rise to the thought of God, and to respond to the least breeze of His inspirations. Obedience, similarly, helps to control our self-will. These three-poverty, chastity, obedience-are called the evangelical counsels. This means that Jesus Himself recommended them. Hence Vatican II wrote that they "contribute not a little to purification of heart and spiritual freedom, they constantly stir up the fervor of love and can make the Christian more in harmony with the virginal and poor life that Christ the Lord, and His Virgin Mother, embraced."5

The Eastern Fathers of the Church note specially at this point that it is not enough for one to separate self from the pulls of even legitimate sex; one needs to try to be free from every kind of pull from creatures. So someonoe who gives up marriage needs to take care that in giving up one thing he/she does not think it is enough. Complete detachment is needed for full likeness to Jesus and His Mother, and for 20/20 spiritual eyesight.

We should even add this: Marriage, as we explained in chapter 16, contains powerful providential means to get a person out of the shell of self and deeply interested in another for the other's sake. Those who abstain from marriage do not have this help. So they will need to take definite care to supply for it in other ways. This does not of course deny what St. Paul insists on so clearly and strongly in chapter 7 of First Corinthians: abstention from marriage provides a spiritual aid that is not found within marriage, even though marriage is good, and has the advantages we just spoke of.

Over a period of time, our somatic resonance-we recall it from chapter 16-will become gradually adjusted so as to find it easier to resist the pulls of creatures, and to register the divine invitation that grace offers us. This is the same as saying that when things become habitual, they become easier to do.

Some today are saying: let us just be positive, be loving to people, and since love is greater, we do not need all those negatives of giving things up. But this does not really work out. For just as we need many different food elements for bodily health, even though some are worth less than others, so too we need negative mortification too, for it affects the bodily side, and hence does more to adjust our somatic resonance. Further, the harder mortificaton is on our bodily side, the more somatic resonance can be adjusted, and so the more are we capable of even large growth when advancing from one plateau to a higher one. When we say the harder the better, we presuppose prudence, great prudence. In practice most people will go to extremes in this matter of negative mortification-either they do nothing, or they do too much. It is obvious, then, that the help of a good spiritual director is priceless, needed more for this matter than for many other things. It is hard to be objective in one's own case.

There is still another reason for mortification: the rebalancing of the objective order, of which we spoke in chapter 4. The Holiness of our Father wills it. So if we love Him, we will want to do what we can towards rebalancing the weight of sin. We recall in this connection that love of God in practice is the same as doing His will. This is a very important part of His will, so dear to Him that it is one of the reasons why He sent His Son to so dreadful a death. (The other is His love of us.)

A desire for likeness to His Son also moves us to want mortification for rebalance. He was willing even to die for that. Love of Him should make us want to be like Him in this work most dear to His Heart. Again, St. Paul tells us we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are not only His members, but are like Him in all things-including this essential part of His work.

And something like personal feeling should also impel us in this direction, namely, the desire to make up to Him for what He suffered for us. St. Margaret Mary tells us that in one of the great revelations of the Sacred Heart to her He complained of people's ingratitude, and said: "I feel this more than all that I suffered during My Passion. If only they would make Me some return for My love, I should think but little of all I have done for them, and would wish, were it possible, to suffer still more."6

At this point we should try to understand something beyond our power to visualize, namely, that in view of the fact that His human mind was necessarily joined to the divinity from the first instant of its human existence, that mind saw, in the vision of the divinity, all sins of all centuries-but also saw all reparation that would be offered to Him in later times. It is evident that this would give Him some consolation. Hence Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical, Miserentissimus Redemptor, tells us: "Now if the soul of Christ [in Gethsemani] was made sorrowful even to death on account of our sins, which were yet to come, but which were foreseen, there is no doubt that He received some consolaition from our reparation."7 As we said, we cannot stricly visualize this, yet our theological deduction, confirmed by the Pope, shows us inescapably that it is true. By acting today, we can console Him then. Love and gratitude should impel us to do that, most abundantly.

This also follows: since He most earnstly desires the salvation of all men-so much so that St. Paul could write in Galatians 2:20 that He "loved me and gave Himself for me," that is, for each individual soul-then if we love Him, we will want to work to save souls for Him. For that, the Holiness of the Father calls for reparation, i.e., for rebalancing, in union with His Son.

Words of our Blessed Mother at Fatima underscore this. In the vision of August 13, 1917, she told the three children: "Pray, pray much, and make sacrifices for sinners for many go to hell because they have no one to sacrifice and intercede for them."8

How can it be that this soul is lost because someone else does not pray and sacrifice for it? It is because some souls make themselves blind; they so give themselves to the pulls of creatures that the gentle impulse of grace cannot register at all.9 Then, clearly, grace cannot even begin to move them, if it cannot do the first necessary thing, to put the good thought into their mind. Of course, no one can be saved without grace, so if a soul makes itself impervious to grace, it is surely lost. Yet the Blessed Mother holds out a possibility: sacrifice and much prayer. Her words imply that even blinded and hardened souls can be rescued from going to hell if they receive an extraordinary grace, one that is comparable to a miracle in the natural order.

Under what conditions is such an extraordinary or miraculous grace given? The Holiness of Our Father considers the balance in the objective order. If someone else puts an extraordinary weight, as it were, into the scales, it will call for and make suitable the grant of even a miraculous grace, to rescue hardened sinners. Love of our Father, and of souls, urges use to do what we can to rescue even hardened sinners from hell. The three Fatima children went to heroic lengths spurred by this motive.

In chapter 17 we saw that souls who are very faithful to our Father receive a lasting peace, that nothing can take away, on what is often called the "fine point of the soul." There may be storms and blackness on the lower levels of our being, but this peak is ever in the brightness of the sun. The factor that chiefly contributes to getting this condition is simply generosity in mortification. Faith tells us that the things of this world are not worth much at all compared to the goods to come. St. Paul even boldly says that for the sake of Christ, he has taken the loss of all things, and considers them as "dung" (Phil 3:8) to gain Christ. As we know, St. Paul knew that God's creatures are good-he did not deny that. But he wanted to say that on a relative scale, comparing this world with the next, things here are worse than worthless, since they can distract us from our true goal. The book of Wisdom said it well (4:12): "The witching spell of things that are little, makes it hard to see the good things." If we put this into the framework of the pulls on our mental meter that we saw earlier in this chapter, it obviously makes sense.10

To act on such faith is, of course, the way to strengthen it, to attain to the lasting contentment and peace on the fine point of the soul. So we should understand the eight Beatitudes given us by Jesus (Mt 5:3-10) to refer not only to eternal happiness, but even to happiness in this world. Those who follow His program-which involves much detachment and mortification-will find themselves well-off and happy even here.

In contrast, a person who always pursues fleeting happiness, will find it runs away from him. We used to hear of the bored, sated rich, who had used up every pleasure they could imagine, and found only boredom at the end of the search. Literally, they had nothing to look forward too-they had given themselves everything and found what St. Augustine proclaimed: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and restless are our hearts until they rest in you."11 Those who deny themselves have much, even in the worldy sense, much to look forward to even in this world. It is so true that as the popular saying tells us: "Anticipation is greater than realization."

Really, everything created can lose its edge. Suppose, for example, someone buys for himself a new tape or recording. It is a great pleasure the first few times it is played, but after many plays, it becomes boring. The person does not care to hear it even if someone else plays it on the air. Many today who try for constant pleasure find instead not only not much pleasure, but even nervous strain, a fatigue from asking the senses to respond so strongly and so constantly.

Even sex can lose much of its edge-hence manuals for the "Joy of Sex", and some even turn to perversions, in a vain attempt to recover a lost thrill. But those who practise a certain abstinence in Natural Family Planning, find that sex keeps much of its pleasure, and marriages are strengthened.

The pagan philosopher Epicurus, who said that pleasure was the goal of life, seems to have understood this at least to some extent. For it is certain that he lived very sparingly. The Roman philosopher Seneca reports that Epicurus said that "at times he would withdraw from pleasure," and "that he boasted that he could eat for less than a penny,"12 while Diogenes Laertius, in his life of Epicurus, quotes a letter of Epicurus saying, "Send me a little pot of cheese, so when I wish, I can have a feast." Hardly Epicurean, we would say today!13 It was his later followers who gave the bad name to Epicureanism.

Our Father is infinite Generosity. If we give up things for Him here, He gives us, even in this life the hundredfold that His Son promised (Mk 10:30; Lk 18:30).14


1 Pius XII, Radio Message to National Catechetical Congress of U.S., Oct 26, 1946. Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical on Holy Spirit, May 18, 1986, #47.
2 Plato, Symposium 203.
3 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 8.7.
4 This detachment from pulls does not rule out affection for parents, etc. Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, only a good friend, allowed Himself to weep. So St. Augustine was wrong in thinking himself probably sinning in weeping over his Mother's death (cf. Confessions 9.12-13). We distinguish love in the will, from feelings of love. Love in the will, if in the right direction (directed to the right persons), is positively good, unless of course it becomes excessive, so as to lead a soul into violating God's law or wishes. If this love were not good, then our supernatural love for these persons would not perfect, but destroy nature. But, grace does perfect nature. Love of feeling can more easily interfere with adherence to God's will. This is because of our weakness in the present life, but in the future life, there will be no such conflict. Here we recall that St. Paul (1 Cor 7:5) suggests that married partners at times refrain from the lawful use of marriage "so you may be free for prayer," as we explain in the body of this chapter. Jesus Himself, as Pius XII explains in Haurietis aquas, has even a love of feeling for all of us (not based on sensory attraction, but resonance to His love in His will for us).
5 Vatican II, On the Church #46.
6 St. Margaret Mary, Autobiography #55, p.70.
7 Pius XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor, May 8, 1928, AAS 20.174.
8 Cited from Lucy's Memoirs, in Documentos de Fatima, ed. A.M. Martins, Porto, 1976, p.345, reporting on apparition of August 13, 1917.
9 Hardness develops specially rapidly from presumption, i.e., if a person says, in effect, I will commit this mortal sin now, and continue to commit them, but before I die, I will go to Confession. There is not likely to be a real change of heart, when the pattern is planned in advance. This is the kind of case we see when people live in a hopelessly invalid marriage, and plan to go to confession at the end. We do not suggest despair, for grace can do wonders, and the fear of death can bring some sense. But the risk is immense.
10 Suffering can help bring wisdom. Cf. the great Greek tragedian Aeschylus, Agamemnon 177: "By suffering comes learning." Cf. also Herodotus, Histories 1.207
11 St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1. PL 32.661.
12 Seneca, On Leisure 1.7; Epistle 18.9.
13 Cited in Diogenes Laertius, Life of Epicurus 10.11. Cf. also chapter 16, references in note 15.
14 Cf. Cicero Tusculan Disputations 1.31.75: "For what else do we do when we recall the soul from pleasure, that is, from the body . . . except we call the soul to itself. . . . This, while we are on earth, will be like that heavenly life." Cf. also A. Solzhenitsyn, in Time Feb. 18, 1980, p.48: "There are two reasons for this string of capitulations [of the West to Russia]. First is the spiritual impotence that comes from living a life of ease; people are unwilling to risk their comforts."