STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Second Station — Jesus Christ Receives The Cross, by Evelyn Underhill

underhill stations of the cross

From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier

The Eternal Wisdom Takes Up the Burden of the World

That outpouring of the Divine Wisdom, that life-giving link made between human and divine, which we call the Incarnation of the Word, is from first to last a free gift; a sacrifice of the fullness of divine perfection, that thereby humanity’s true measure may be fulfilled – “man’s nothing perfect” amended by the influx of “God’s all-complete.”  It is the penalty of this descent of the Desirous God towards us – of this sharp exhibition of the dim-eyed soul of Eternal Wisdom at work within his world – that the full burden of man’s mistakes, confusions, ignorances, and sins should be taken up by the Unerring, the Lucid, the All-Knowing, the Good.

God’s union with man means union between the Sinless and the Sinner: a troubling of the crystal deeps of Pure Being that it may become available for the healing of human life.  It means on the one hand the free gift of an incredible generosity: on the other, an amazingly reluctant acceptance of that gift.  It means Perfect Harmony, wounded by its love for a discordant world, taking up and bearing the cross which that world has fashioned by its perversion of divine reality.  “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”  The Crown of Creation, if he is to crown his work indeed, must descend to the depths; and climb up our hard and difficult ladder of perfection to the Pure Being whence he came.  The Word must become flesh, and dwell amongst us.  It is this maiming of God’s beauty in the interests of his self-giving love, this humiliation of Infinite Goodness that it may meet our finite spirits half-way, which constitutes the true sacrifice of the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world.”  Implicit in the very framing of those conditions which ensure the attainment of our spiritual quest, that sacrifice is shown anew to us, day by day, upon the altars of the Christian church.  It is, says that church, our own fault, our willful separation from him, which conditions this descent in quest of us; and our own bitter, cross-laden, but God-accompanied return.

As we stand at the foot of the hill of Calvary and look up the path which we ought to tread, it has an austere beauty, a splendor of ascending outline, fitly crowned by the life-giving tree of the cross which grows upon the summit of the mount.  Valley-dwelling Christians always speak with enthusiasm of their faith: from this point of view, it is so easy and natural to talk of the incomparable loveliness of the Christian idea, to feel the fine ecstasy, the poetic fervors, of one who contemplates from the comfortable lowlands the jagged and noble outline of the Everlasting Hills.

But for that other and more Christ-like type, the silent, dogged climber of the mountain, the pilgrim upon the Way of the Cross, there is little opportunity for the aesthetic admiration of an inspiring landscape.  He seldom speaks of it, hardly perhaps notices it, because he needs his strength for other things.   He is become a part of the picture, has accepted his share in its life; and therefore cannot see it any more.  Save in some fortunate moments, he can barely see his goal.  What he does see and know, is the next bit of loose and stony path which must be trodden, the difficult rocks which cannot be avoided, the unending slope that gets steeper; the growing weakness, the solitude, the burden, the cumulative hardships and miseries of the way.

Alpine climbing, said some cynic, is a deliberately disagreeable journey, ending in the attainment of a discomfort greater than all that has gone before.  It is a hard and dangerous progress towards cold, solitude, and general wretchedness.  He might have added that this absurd performance is, curiously enough, the expression of some instinct buried deep in man’s spirit: that there is an undying family for whom it represents reality, the only perfect object on which their energies can be spent.  In the gratuitous hardships and dangers of the mountain such persons find the deep satisfaction of deep needs: and no wonder, since their bodies here dramatize the necessary adventures of the soul.  “Show us the path which leads to the purging mountain!” they cry with the spirits of the newly dead.  To tread faithfully the hilly path of knowledge or of love, is to know something of this satisfaction, the supreme exaltation of the mountaineer: the mingling of hard going and high passion, of patience and romance.

But the passion and romance find little encouragement in the journey’s outward circumstance.  They must be fed from within, nourished by faith, if they are to survive.  Here, at this point, the heavy burden and the dusty path fill up the conscious field.  The companion of the Eternal Wisdom, whose journey to the bosom of the Father is set in a world of conflict and disease, of corruption, deformity, and vice, must give up Beauty with the rest.  Perhaps he will find it again on the mountaintop, when he is raised up to the only true view of that great world; and there, discovering the Inviolate Rose in the cross, at last understands the difficult cross in the Rose.  But when he attains those summits, it is likely enough that long pain and utter weariness will have blurred his vision, and taken his desire of loveliness away.

This, too, then, we see as a part of the sacrifice which, since Perfection has made it for us: the giving up of Beauty’s perspective – the view from the heights.  We needed the Creator’s acceptance of the limits of his own creation, his pilgrimage by our side, within our heart, to teach us that the world of becoming – the vital, striving world of opposites in which we are immersed – does not attain its end by the far-off and rapturous contemplation of reality: by any act of knowing, by any perception of truth, however sharp, joyous, and accurate it may be.  The mystic life we seek is a life of active love and not of static knowledge: “Love cannot be lazy,” the mystics say.  To be, to live, to move eagerly deathwards, to plod up the stony, slippery, and exhausting slopes of that austere mountain whose aspect has filled us with dreamy delight – this is to share the God-driven life of the universe, and this is the choice of all who seek the Eternal Christ.

As we go, the life-giving cross upon the summits of existence, the mystical dream crucifix which crowns our altars and forms a focus for our prayers, seems to be lost in the mists.  But its place is taken by another, nearer sign of divine and self-giving life: the rough and clumsy cross, a homemade copy, which the pilgrim of the infinite must carry all the way.  “I will not leave you desolate: I will come unto you.”  To each it comes, this first-hand participation in Wisdom’s eternal passion: oddly disguised, but always recognized by the eyes of love.

It has been said of the martyred saints, as they stand before the altar of the Lamb, “Ils tiennent dans leurs mains les instruments de leurs supplices, qui sont aussi les instruments de leur gloire.”  [They hold in their hands the instruments of their punishment, which are also the instruments of their glory.]  There is no other true instrument of glory but the cross, and it is at our own peril that we leave it behind.  No common ladder up to Heaven awaits us.  Each man must bear his own uphill with him, “not without dust and heat,” if he would have it when his hour of need arrives.  “Pone te ergo, sicut bonus et fidelis servus Christi, ad portandam viriliter crucem Domini Tui.” [Set thyself therefore, like a good and faithful servant of Christ, to bear manfully the cross of thy Lord.]

We, then, must go up, cross on back, goaded and exhausted, into the mountain to meet God.  This strange harsh road, so insulting to our soft civilization, our “joy-philosophy” and all the rest, remains the only path of wisdom and of love: this secret journey the only thing worth doing in a world which is more concerned to do than to be.  “Moses plus profecit in monte adorando quam multitudine bellantium.”  [More greatly did Moses prevail by worshipping in the mountain, than by fighting in the midst of the host.]  We think as we read these words of the prophet’s silent hill-top ecstasy, of the state of holy inactivity, of “mystic peace” in which he gazed on God; and compare it with the vulgar rough-and-tumble of the battlefields of Earth.  But we forget that this moment of supreme communion had been paid for by the stern and lonely struggle up the mountain – by dust and heat and breathlessness – by a long-drawn effort, a growing weariness, possessing few elements of dignity or romance.  We forget, too, that the great initiate of reality who came down with shining face, went up, a tired climber, in the spirit of obedience, not the spirit of hope: that a cloud covered the summit of the mountain, and he had no positive assurance of a vision at the end.  So it is with all who climb the long and dreary hill of contemplation to the point at which they can look with Bunyan through “the glass that is called Clear.”  They go with a “blind intent stretching,” a stern determination to endure.  Sinai is but the other slope of Calvary.  The old dispensation, as well as the new, was acquainted with glad suffering, hard work in the interests of pure love: and Christ’s life here gave the divine sign-manual to the deepest intuitions of the ancient world.

“Many,” says Rutherford, “would follow Christ, but with a reservation, that by open proclamation Christ would cry down crosses, and cry up fair weather, and a summer sky and sun, till we were all fairly landed in Heaven.  I know you have not so learned Christ, but that you intend to fetch Heaven, to take it with the wind on your face; for so both storm and wind was on the fair face of your lovely forerunner Christ all his way.”

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