Monday, January 30, 2017

January 30: Gruesome Crucifix, Suffering Without Hope, Unending Happiness

"Joe College,: said Weary scathingly.

Billy shrugged.

"There's more to life than what you read in books," said Weary.  "You'll find that out."

Billy made no reply to this, either, there in the ditch, since he didn't want the conversation to go on any longer than necessary.  He was dimly tempted to say, though, that he knew a thing or two about gore.  Billy, after all, had contemplated torture and hideous wounds at the beginning and the end of nearly every day of his childhood.  Billy had an extremely gruesome crucifix hanging on the wall of his little bedroom in Ilium.  A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist's rendition of all Christ's wounds--the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes.  Billy's Christ died horribly.  He was pitiful.

So it goes.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I grew up with similar images of crucifixion.  It's sort of hard to avoid them in a Catholic household.  There was a crucifix hanging in my bedroom.  It was my baptismal crucifix, made of blue wood with a gold-plated cruciform.  Then there was the crucifix hanging in the family room, which was more traditional.  A dark wood and bronze cruciform.  I remember the details on the family room crucifix more clearly.  The spear wound with gaping bronze muscle, dripping bronze blood.  So it goes.

I don't think I was necessarily scarred by these images.  Quite the opposite.  I sort of sought out images of the crucifixion.  When I read narratives of saints' lives, I wanted pictures of horrific martyrdom.  Stoning.  Decapitation.  Burning at the stake.  It's what boys dig.  But the thing that always struck me about the images--and a lot of the images of Christ on the cross--was the face.  Jesus and the saints all looked so peaceful, almost happy, even as their skins were flayed and hands spiked.  There wasn't a whole lot of agony on display.

I know this is artistic license.  When you set somebody on fire, there's bound to be a little pain involved.  But, as a kid, I reasoned that the saints and Christ, despite immense suffering, also maintained a degree of solace and serenity because of their faiths in a loving God.

That may sound a bit naive to cynical readers.  Suffering is suffering, no matter what.  But suffering without hope, I believe, is even worse.  A friend of mine who worked as a hospice nurse has told me that the worst deaths she's seen have been the deaths of people who have no kind of belief or hope.  People who stare into the void of death and simply see the void. 

My sister had a good death.  She was a strong Catholic, believed in the idea of salvation and redemption.  Yes, she struggled with pain and despair during the last months of her life.  But, on the morning she died, she didn't look fearful or tortured.  When she breathed her last breath, my sister really looked at peace.  Like she'd found something better.

That gives me a great deal of comfort, just like the crucifixes and portraits of the saints when I was a kid.  It gives me hope that all the crap of this life really sloughs away in the end, and what we're left with is real joy, unending happiness.

Tonight, Saint Marty is grateful for crucifixes.

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