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As I experience more and more how fundamental the cross is to human life, I can’t help but notice that in my own faith life, I was called at each step of the way by Christ on the cross.
The first crucifix that saved my soul was at a shrine where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared.
It was a very Flannery O’Connor moment when a friend and I got hissed at by an old Mexican woman in front of a bloody, realistic, life-sized crucifix on Tepeyac hill.
I had wandered far from the faith in high school, and after my first year at the University of Arizona, a friend and I took a trip to Mexico. A Mexico City tour we were on made an unplanned stop on the way to the pyramids, parking at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for an hour. We wandered around the place, half-interested, and headed up the hill to kill time.
The realistic crucifix in the shrine there looked absurd to me, so I made some snide joke about it and we both laughed. That’s when an old woman in front of me turned around, stared at me with deep revulsion in her eyes, and hissed at me like a cat.
She looked like my own devout Mexican grandmother, and her fierce reaction was the most personal and authentic religious witness I had ever received in my life. It haunted me for months afterwards. It haunts me now. It made me wonder: Why?
The second crucifix was the one at the university I attended in San Francisco.
Soon after returning from Mexico, I was going to nighty Mass in a small chapel beneath a giant crucifix, wondering what happened.
Through a remarkable series of events, I transferred to a Great Books program founded by Ignatius Press’s Father Joseph Fessio. When I signed up for it, I didn’t know it was Catholic. But soon, I was immersed in a community of students who went to Mass every night, so I went along with them.
A knock on my dorm room door convinced me to return to Confession, and I became a practicing Catholic who loved the ideals of the Catholic Church, but didn’t know Jesus, didn’t understand why he had to die, and didn’t know what his death had to do with me.
But there was the crucifix, taking up a wall of the chapel, like a giant question mark hovering in the dark.
The third crucifix was the one I kept kicking accidentally during my first professional writing job.
In my first writing job, I worked for Gjon Sinishta, the sacristan at a stately old San Francisco church. The larger-than-life corpus of a crucifix was kept under his work desk.
Gjon had escaped communist Albania and had made a solemn promise to tell the world about the persecution of Catholics there. He hired me to help. In broken English, he would read the remarkable stories of priests, bishops, and religious sisters killed and tortured for their faith, and of heroes like Father Simon Jubani, who kept his faith in years of solitary confinement. It was my job to smooth out the English for him.
A year abroad with the Dominicans in Oxford had helped me discover the meaning of the crucifixion. Working with Gjon moved that knowledge from my head to my heart.
In one story, soldiers ransacked an Albanian man’s home and took away all of his religious books and images. As the soldiers marched away, the man shouted after them, “Here is one cross you will never take from me,” and boldly made the Sign of the Cross.
It made a huge impression on me to sit for hours writing these things, with Christ’s giant wounded body at my feet.
Fourth is the Valentine’s Day crucifix I bought for my girlfriend, April.
It was in February 1990 that I took a bus downtown to the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore to look for a gift and found a wall crucifix I thought April would like — but it was $70. That was a lot of money for a college student with a parttime job. I justified the expense by saying, “This will be on the wall of my own house for the rest of my life.”
And it is on the wall of my bedroom to this day.
It has been there as nine kids came along and woke us up on their birthdays and Christmas. It was there when I got laid off from my first job. It was there through miscarriages and family turmoil, and it was lit up by the lights of the ambulance that came to get April after she suffered a massive stroke last December.
And now I know why the Mexican woman couldn’t stand seeing a crucifix mocked: It’s the most important thing in the world. It is the place where we meet God where he lives, in suffering and love — because it’s where he came to meet us.