STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Third Station — Jesus Christ Falls For The First Time, by Evelyn Underhill

underhill stations of the cross

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

The Eternal Wisdom Shares the Humiliation of His Creature

Christ’s soul, say the mystics, came into the world in order to show man’s soul the one and only way out of the world. It needed such an exhibition if man were ever to believe that this strange path – as it seems, one long, dull sequence of squalid ineffectual miseries – is the veritable road which leads from Illusion to Reality.  It needs, too, a faithful watching on man’s part, a sincere acceptance of the thing seen, however amazing, however disconcerting it may be, if he is to tread honestly in the steps of his pattern and come at last to the summit of the hill.

The neophyte, coming full of ardor to the Way of the Cross, tends to ignore certain incidents of that way.  Cross-bearing and crucifixion, the poignant encounter with human grief, the world’s injustice and indifference, even the martyr’s death – these are heroic matters, fitting incidents of the life of the spirit; and these he gladly, even eagerly, accepts.  But he forgets that there is one act – one only – which is three times repeated in this drama of the mystic way: as if the Spirit of Life would cry in our ears, our deliberate deafness notwithstanding, that This is the essential thing.

That supreme expression of the Divine Idea who trod this way before us stumbled and fell three times under the necessary burden of the cross.  He was borne down by the very instrument of his victory, failed as it seemed publicly, completely, and ignominiously in his task: and this, not once, but again and again.  At each of these falls the church makes a solemn station; three times she calls upon her children to acknowledge this mystery, as an integral part of the drama of faith.

The young and fiery Christian does not care to think of all that this may mean to him: of the biting humiliation of such a repeated inability to bear the burden of love.  He does not perceive that the Cross of Life must of necessity be too strong for our bodies, if it is to be strong enough to raise our souls to God.  Christ’s way was the complete and fearless sacrifice of the body for the giving of greater life to the soul: the sacrifice, if needs must, of that body’s very dignity and beauty, God-given though they be, and an image according to their measure of the First and Only Fair.  In our journey with him and to him, there must be no clinging tight to these or any other specific manifestations of his splendor; freely given, freely they must be given back again.

“The love of Jesus,” says Ruysbroeck, “is at once avid and generous.  All that he has, all that he is, he gives: all that we are, all that we have, he takes.”  Yet even so, the most commercial of contemplatives dare not say that he has bought the beatific vision very dear.

The eager acceptance, then, of a task manifestly beyond our strength is to be a condition of our attainment.  All the world’s prudent maxims as to moderation and efficiency, the wastefulness of over-exertion, the folly of those who would attempt too much, are silenced by this paradox: by the spectacle of the Eternal Wisdom falling under the burden of his mighty task, rising and struggling again.  We are offered as our supreme example a quixotic chivalry, a heedless generosity, which does not shrink from the most ignominious of all aspects of the folly of the cross.

It is a shock to the convert – new-fledged, heroic – full of the glamor of his stupendous creed and inclined to think its symbol less a burden than a crutch upon the way, when his first effort ends in utter failure; when he falls, weak and helpless, beneath that crushing weight.  It is a greater shock when he discovers this abject humiliation to be an implicit condition of the spiritual life: that joy in failure is to be the test of the heroic and selfless quality of his love.  Such a joy, such an immortal gladness, is the touchstone of the mystic state.  When “all that we have” our Divine Companion really takes, it cannot matter whether we go upright at his side or lie crushed beneath the mighty process of his unresting, self-evolving world.  For true lovers of the absolute the Way of the Cross is no melancholy pilgrimage, even in its darkest hours: but an exhibition of high-hearted and exultant passion triumphing under the most squalid circumstances of outward loss.

Impressiveness is not always with the victor: life, in her most crucial moments, often chooses odd champions from the aesthetic point of view.  The centurion and his soldiers were magnificent; yet they were the inheritors of a dying world.  The cross-bearer was the object of a contemptuous pity: he had no beauty that we should desire him.  He represented little else to the onlookers than the pathetic fate of a mission that had failed.  Yet he – not any obviously successful and imperial spirit – was humanity’s “lovely forerunner” on the most vital and eternal of all quests.

There is a discipline in failure which makes of it a more constructive process than the most complete, most hardly-won success.  It is the only useful test of that humility which is the necessary armor of those who ride with Wisdom in the lists: of that detachment which is the measure of our loyalty to his interests: that generosity whereby we participate in his all-forgiving love of other men.

That we should arm ourselves with humility for his service is less a counsel of perfection than a maxim of prudence: an invitation to us to accept the only efficient protection against the hard and skillful buffets of the world.   “He that is down need fear no fall.”  The lowly of heart cannot be bruised in the course of his encounter with life’s disasters: humble already, humiliation hurts him not.  He is safe.  “Now shall I say you what they be that sit in the mountain above the wind and the rain.  These be they that on Earth have neither shame nor honor nor dread for anything that befalls.”

That we should have detachment is but another way of saying that our Master’s interests are our own, and that joy is the steady progress of his cosmos overpowers the sorrows of our falls.  “Gloria in Excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!” [Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to people of good will.] said, and still say, the harbingers of the Living Christ.  That detached good will, that cheerful and self-forgetting concentration on the interests of the all, the great life in which, perhaps we play a painful or a dreary part – the only test of this, is its survival in individual failure.  It is the price of inward peace: the incomprehensible, persistent peace of weak and struggling spirits, which survives in spite of their falls, in spite of every circumstance of squalor that threatens to destroy the dignity of their great mission in the eyes of a contemptuous world.

Lastly, the sweetness and generosity of our spirits – our love of other men – is tested as we stumble and fall helplessly beneath the mystic cross.  To forgive those who made us martyrs is not difficult.  They are the unwitting instruments of our glory: the occasions of heroism.  To forgive those who robbed heroism of its dignity, who made it contemptible, caused its sufferings to be less splendid than ridiculous, less terrible than abject – this is a very different task.  Hence many whose ardent souls are nerved up, they think, to Calvary – to the injustice of the world, the weight of the spiritual sacrifice, the solitary tortures of the cross – fail here.  They reset the commonplace mortification of the fall beneath the load; mere ordinary, piteous, human failure, the weak body refusing duty in the first great demand made on it by the soul.  Yet the Divine Humanity itself was not strong enough to carry without falling the weight of its own great destiny and ours.  “Sic patiente Deo, tu quoque disce pati.” [Since God so suffers learn thou too to suffer.]

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