When people tell me they are anxious or despairing, or that they are feeling too alone, my advice is very simple. I tell them, “Get a crucifix.”
Not a cross, a crucifix. Get a small one that can be kept discreetly at your desk. Get an even smaller one for your pocket, to carry with you. Get one for your home.
Keep the crucifix before your eyes, and it will teach you everything. It will train you to take a “long view” of things.
The earthly goings-on that make us anxious and full of despair are a manifestation of the wholly spiritual war that proceeds apace—continually, though unseen—all around us. When we buy into it and lose hope, we are opening ourselves up to a spiritual oppression meant to cast us into the darkness and away from the light. Because the main battle is supernatural, we recognize it in our spirit; we feel it in our spirit, and then, when the oppression is too great, we either try to numb ourselves to it or we allow our spirits, and our faith, to collapse completely.
Better to arm the spirit. Feed it through Eucharistic adoration and Holy Communion; strengthen it with the sacramental grace of confession, so that regardless of what happens, despair never enters into the equation, never enters into you—because you understand that God’s hand is still part of things, that we are never abandoned; so much of what is spinning past, over headlines and through the ether is illusion or purposeful distraction, and if the rest is real, it is nothing to be afraid of, because we have been told that he is with us, to the end of all things.
So if you do not have a crucifix, get one; get a couple of them, and have them blessed. Then study them. Take a long, hard look at what is before your eyes. Ask God to show you what you need to know. Ask for what Solomon asked for: an understanding heart.
While looking, realize that everything you are feeling, all the things that are weighing on you—old wounds or new ones, vulnerabilities, disappointments, injustices, betrayals, mockeries, even hunger and thirst—have been experienced by Christ Jesus; he has known it all, borne it all, suffers with you and for you and permits you to join in his sacrifice—and thus his victory.
Ask Mary to teach you what she knows too, what she learned while she stood beneath the reality of it. Ask the Blessed Mother to explain about taking the “long view” of things, about keeping the faith even when one does not understand why things happen as they do; about how sometimes what is horrifying and unjust must happen, if something else—something remarkable and unimaginable and precisely what is required—is to be able to happen.
While you are meditating, it’s very possible that you will be tempted to distraction—that what the monks call “bad thoughts” may happen: sinful thoughts, anxious thoughts. When they arrive, follow Saint Benedict of Nursia’s instruction in his Holy Rule: “When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, dash them at once against Christ, the Rock”—imagine yourself crashing them against the crucifix, and they shatter.
Try it and you will see it’s true; you’ll be amazed at how calmly you’ll be able to observe the world and its goings-on, the illusions and the realities and the distractions in between, with a new and authentic sense of peace, if you keep the sacraments in your life and your eyes on the crucifix.
On a retreat one year, after meditating on the crucifix over the course of a day, I scrawled this in my notebook:
“Everything” is about nothing.
Everything ended with the sacrifice of the Lamb.
All is consummated.
We are forever and always at the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, at the Resurrection.
Time ended with the tearing of the veil and the rolling back of the stone.
The rest is illusion and catching up.
There is nothing to be afraid of.
The upright crucifix teaches us balance because it helps us to become centered on Christ. We are not alone—even if we have run away, like the apostles, or denied him, like Peter (to whom he gave the keys to the kingdom); even if we have believed the great lie that we are unlovable because of our sins. Christ is with us, and he is the God Who Knows. He knows exactly what it is to be anxious and afraid, to wish circumstances were different and cups could be passed by; to feel unloved by those who should have known him best. He knows.
I sometimes think guilt and self-loathing is the “default mode” for too many of us, and I certainly carry my share, and yet when I concentrate on the crucifix, I feel only known—fully, wholly known—by the One whom I have come to understand is All Love. And so guilt and self-loathing have no hold there. There is only a deep wellspring of consolation.
Look closely, and consider the letters above him: I.N.R.I.
Intimate. Near. Reassuring. Instructive.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia