Last week I arrived early for a funeral at a Catholic church which gave me some time to sit, meditate and pray before the actual service began. This particular church had a huge, imposing crucifix (as opposed to just a Cross) mounted high on the wall behind the altar. I began to count all the crucifixes and Crosses that I could see without moving and got up to seventeen before being interrupted by a friend coming in.
I was born into the Catholic faith and raised
for the first part of my life steeped within the rhythm of a local parish in South Boston, so the presence and place of Crosses among us then was nothing new. Now, as a Quaker for over thirty years and a graduate of seminary ten years ago, what Crosses are and are not continues to intrigue and mystify me.
I attended parochial school for two years as a young child. And one of the most vivid memories of Crosses I had was the black, heavy-looking one that swung to and fro from the waist of my wide-bodied nun and teacher. To be sure, I was fairly mischievous back then. On several occasions I remember my teacher coming down the aisle between the rows of wooden desks to either take something away or scold me with her finger wagging in the air. But it was that Cross, swinging wildly from side to side as she came towards me that I remember in detail to this day. And who wouldn’t?
While growing up, most of my then immediate family that claimed to be Catholic, did so more out of habit and guilt, then practice. The one exception was my grandmother who made sure I attended Mass every week. Like many Catholics back then she prayed the Rosary during Mass. Her lips moved, but quietly, as she fingered her way up one bead and down the next. I remember being transfixed just watching her, biding my time, and watching her beads swing gracefully out and away from the center of her hands. Occasionally they “clinked” against the pew in front of us, a constant reminder that I should be taking it all in with serious attention.
After drifting away from Catholicism in my early teen years (about ten minutes after being Confirmed) I moved away from any religious appreciation of Crosses and iconology in general. Today, as a Friend in the unprogrammed tradition of worship, there is very little exposure to Crosses and especially crucifixes within our worship and among our members. Quaker faith clearly encourages its members to seek and know the presence of God and Christ within, without the need for outward signs and symbols. That basic Quaker tenet has served me just fine. Still, for me at least, there remains something about the Cross that mystifies, attracts, holds and knows me at some deeper place within.
Several years ago, Gretchen Baker-Smith, my dear friend and colleague in youth ministry, rounded up a large number of children at one of our retreats to make me a beautiful assortment of Crosses out of molding and hardening clay called Sculpey. The Crosses they created were as varied as the children who made them. Some were large, bold and colored brightly, and others were tiny, delicate and muted in color by comparison. At the end of the retreat they presented them all to me as a wonderful, grand gift of love. They sat, some twenty of them, next to my computer for almost a year before i mounted them permanently in a shadow box for display.
Other people too have decided that I needed a Cross as a gift to wear around my neck, or, as something that hangs on my home office wall. The Cross on a chain I wear on and off throughout the year. That I wear it at all is less important than when I don’t wear it, actually. When it’s off, it sits in my top desk drawer, and I find that I pick it up and move it this way and that whenever I’m looking for some other thing. Maybe what I really needed to find was that Cross. Last year when we finished renovating our house and it was time to move back in to the wonderful new space in my home office, the first thing that I put on the wall was a colorful folk-art Cross that came from Guatemala. Sure, it’s size and color seemed to shout, “me first, me first!” and so up it went. But I knew exactly where I wanted it to go even if I didn’t conscientiously know why.
Sometimes I wonder if the Cross, as a symbol of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us all, is just one of the biggest and most influential marketing strategies of them all, period. If that theory is true, then it’s brilliant. No doubt about it. Yet still, something beyond and deeper than childhood memories feels at work here, at least for me.
An aging Catholic priest and friend of mine, who died some years ago, handed me a palm-sized wooden cross that came from Africa, saying, “Keep the dust off this, will you?” Thus far, I’ve been trying to do that ever since.
Note about images | First image: A child’s drawing sent to me following a retreat about symbols. Second image: Wood carving by author. Third image: Father Phil Kelly’s gift to me.
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