In the late eleventh century, at about the same time as the Cistercian Order made its first appearance, St Bruno founded the Carthusian Order. Though our respective charisms are different, there exist many overlaps between Carthusian and Cistercian spirituality because both are rooted in a deeply experiential knowledge of God, a burning desire to find Him through a voluntary, prescribed hiddenness: contemplation, silence and poverty inside the enclosure of a monastery.
The Carthusians have a very beautiful motto that is especially meaningful on today’s feast of the Triumph of the Cross, not only for us contemplatives, but for all who have Christ as their model. It is this: ‘Stat crux dum volvitur orbis’ – ‘The Cross is steady while the world is turning’. The image that accompanies their motto (below) incorporates a cross with the globe underneath which, historically, represents the Cross of Triumph: Christ having broken the prison bars of death and setting the world free.
Today is also called the Exaltation of the Cross, Holy Rood Day, Holy Cross Day, the Elevation of the Cross and Roodmas. We have celebrated this feast since the late seventh century. It commemorates the recovery of the Holy cross which was recovered back to Jerusalem in 629 after having fallen into the hands of the Persians. It is said that the Emperor Heraclius, finely decked with garments and jewels, personally carried the cross into the city but, at the entrance to Mount Calvary, he was unable to move any further. The Bishop of Jerusalem then said: “Consider, O Emperor, that with these triumphal ornaments you are far from resembling Jesus carrying His Cross.” At that moment the Emperor exchanged his costly garments for a penitential garb and he was able to continue on his way.
Consider these two elements: 1) the motto ‘The Cross is steady while the world is turning’ and 2) the account of Emperor Heraclius as he bore Christ’s Cross whilst dressed in material opulence.
It is right that we should pay such respect to Christ that we use all the resources we have developed in the world. So it is natural, in one sense, that Heraclius would have decked himself with grandeur for the triumphal return of the Holy Cross. There is, though, a perpetual state of mistranslation in our receptivity of Christ’s message. Left on our own, we are nothing, because each and every footstep towards God is part of His gift to us. Somehow, we get off the beaten track and begin going down the wrong road. A journey of faith means following the kind of greatness that cannot be contained in the human mind, and if we forget our axis – Who is Christ – then we lose sight of our own salvation. We forget to be like Him.
This is what happened to the Emperor in his jewels. Even deep inside his interior faith and outward worship of God, he forgot to be like Jesus. He began to mistranslate the message of Christ, the very personality of his own faith.
The Carthusians’ motto sets the Cross as the true foundation of our life. Placing it as the axis of the world, it has become the very spokes of the wheel of creation, the mechanism that drives us, unifying us and giving direction to our worldly life. In this sense, it is vehicular: it is making the movement of the earth purposeful.
‘The Cross is steady while the world is turning’. Another way of saying this is that Christ’s Cross is moving us; it is a revolving process, a continuous revolving movement that becomes the journey of faith. But, whilst this sounds inspiring enough, we all know the painful reality of the Cross. There is nothing glamorous in the heavy weight, the splinters, the shame, the separation from those we love, the exhaustion, when we take up that journey. As the psalmist says: ‘Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong, and most of these are emptiness and pain; we pass by swiftly and we are gone.’ Everyone encounters suffering in this world.
The worldwide cry that suffering negates the existence of God is not a new one, and betrays the depth of humanity’s selfishness. We think we are so special that only good things should ever happen to us. When we are faced with suffering and abandon God’s message, we turn away from a profound opportunity to encounter Him. Everything is for something – perhaps especially the difficult times – or so it often seems, as they can be the moments of greatest learning.
We cannot know why, but suffering is part of our way to the Father. It was part of Christ’s way, and it is part of ours. After all, Jesus is God made man – He came as one of us, to suffer like us. Our suffering is orbiting around the Cross of Christ; it is part of the great mechanism of sanctification. We can offer up our suffering in His name, just as He offered His crucifixion on the Cross for us.
The Cross is the ultimate way of humility and poverty, and it calls us to embrace these Gospel values in our own life. We needn’t seek out ways to suffer – they will always come to us in time. It is enough to experience the presence of the Cross by way of living in poverty of heart, staying humble, listening to others when we would rather talk over them, sacrificing a little of our comfort for others who are in need, feeling the pinch of reaching out to those we would rather not reach out to – those who remind us that we are probably rather better off than we like to think – even those who we simply do not like. All of these deeply Christian values – difficult as they are to sustain – are part of a universal and transforming language of unity and love: the language of poverty – the language of the Cross.
Yes, even in the little things, the effort to transcend life’s difficulties reaps lasting rewards, both on a personal and universal level.
The steady axis of the Cross is actually the sacrificial action of Christ Himself. As Christians, we are driven by wanting to be like Him. The Emperor Heraclius might well be the first to admit that fidelity to Christ’s message can be very difficult, even when we think we are doing the right thing. But we are all susceptible to mistranslating Christ, to not being like Him. The fragmentary accounts we have of Christ’s earthly ministry read like a repeated exhortation back to poverty. Christ was truly humble, even to accepting death. We forget, too, that Christ is the human face of God and, in this wondrous mystery and gift, we catch a glimpse of the poverty of God Himself. As a Carthusian monk writes in a set of novice conferences: ‘Jesus as man is what He is as God: poverty which receives everything, humility which appropriates nothing, love which gives entirely, which yields everything to the Father in adoration and thanksgiving. In the rending of this human death, Jesus gives the cry of His eternity: ”Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit”.’ (Poor, therefore rich, by A Carthusian.)
And at the heart of Christ is love. He came with this one new commandment, to love. All poverty is a means into love. The Cross is the driving force of love, the worldly agency of the beginning of the end times, the self-repeating invitation to encounter Christ and know Him, to be made into children of God, to find our homeland in the eternity of love. The cross is our sign of His love for us.