STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Fifth Station — The Cross Is Laid On Simon Of Cyrene, by Evelyn Underhill

underhill stations of the cross

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

Humanity’s First Opportunity – Active Cooperation

If we – as one of the penalties inseparable from human devotion to great causes – feel as we rise higher a growing desire to disallow our kinship with the ordinary and unspiritual: what, then, must it have been for Perfect Strength and Perfect Liberty, self-limited to the point at which he became tempted in all things as we are, to find that his very mission of redemption could not be performed with the help of other men? The Incarnate God alone could not carry the cross.  He must have man – mere normal male energy – to help him on his way.  The solidarity of mankind – more, of all life – the interdependence of matter and spirit, Heaven and Earth, God and the soul, never received a more striking manifestation.  “God needs me as much as I need him!” cried the daring Meister Eckhart.  Here, in this amazing episode of Wisdom’s pilgrimage, his claim is justified.

The great work, it seems, cannot come to its term without the free and willing cooperation of each one of us.  The Cross-Bearer of the Universe as he passes in our midst does not act for us but in us: by an enhancement of our energies, a call to us to use our vitality in greater, and less self-regarding efforts: to take up every opportunity of service which meets us in the way, however trivial and ephemeral it may seem.  Simon of Cyrene stood to gain nothing by his act.  It was not even inspired by a sentimental interest.  It was just work: plain work that needed to be done.  Something – not for him a specially important something – was in progress.  It could not be completed without help.  He gave the help, simply and efficiently: and thus contributed the share of honest labor to the final redemption of a workers’ world.

Here, then, in God’s necessity is suddenly revealed man’s great opportunity: the consecration of physical strength, of simple unselfconscious effort, in so far as that strength be honestly and mercifully used.   It is not always by a clear understanding of the situation, an educated sympathy with the “idea of progress,” that we best fulfill our office in relation to the Divine Plan.  The women of Jerusalem understood very well what went forward.  The disciples of Jesus were grieved by his pain.  Simon of Cyrene understood nothing, beyond the plain fact that his help was needed in the bearing of a very heavy load.  Giving it, he bequeathed to us the sublime image of All-Knowing God and ignorant man sharing as brothers the burden of the cross.

Every soul, then, is called sooner or later to the office of Simon of Cyrene: to a sharing of the travail of its striving creator.  In its ecstasy of giving, the Divine Generosity did not shrink even from a sharing of his most sublime activity, his eternal and redemptive sacrifice, with the simplest and rudest of those creatures for whose imperfection he marred his own loveliness.  All men, all types, all temperaments, all the faculties of our being, have their place upon the Way of the Cross.  Here, in his willing, hard laborious service, the plain man – unconscious of all spiritual subtleties – comes nearest to the secret of the spiritual world.  In virtue of his own steadfast helpfulness, of strenuous labor honestly performed, he becomes a follower of the Eternal Wisdom in the closest and most literal sense.

In cinque mode appareme
Lo signor in questa vita.

[In five ways the Lord hath appeared to me in this life.]

sang Jacopone da Todi.  One of those ways – one of the five great encounters of God with the human soul – he called the encounter of Wayfaring Love.  Wayfaring Love, hard of recognition in its travel-stained garments, may overtake us at any time.  It may be any one of the million shrouded burdened figures which companion us upon the way.  We never know when the poor, feeble, and stumbling fellow-traveler who asks of us, suddenly, a friendly hand in the bearing of his load – a load whose very nature may seem to us the proper punishment of his folly or his crime – lifting a tired face towards his helper, will suddenly reveal to us the features of the First and Only Fair.

The price of that vivifying glance into the eyes of love is the cheerful risking of our labor in the service of ordinary humanity – perhaps, as we think, of mere “undeserving” wretchedness.  Sharing the burden of our fellow-wayfarer, learning the nature of his griefs, we penetrate his secret: to find that it is the “open secret” of all life, the piteous and royal secret of the bearing of the cross.  Christ comes to us thus through other men, easily and inevitably, if we will but make him a way: set the bridge of the cross between their shoulders and our own.  “And this,” says Ruysbroeck, “is the first coming of the Bridegroom to the soul”: that Bridegroom who is indeed “the Son of the Eternal One, in whom all blessedness is seen and known.”

Now since Perfection in the fullness of his divine generosity does not shrink from the humiliation of man’s help, but makes us, gladly, fellow-workers with him – assistant priests in the ineffable sacrifice of love – we, treading in his steps, conforming to his pattern, must not refuse the help of other men.  No created spirit – no, nor yet the very uncreated Spirit of God – can bring the great adventure to a satisfactory conclusion by dint of keeping itself to itself.  We must learn, then, to take help as charitably as we give help: and sometimes this is the more difficult task.  We must learn to take it where it is offered, however unsympathetic to our interests the helper may appear.  It was not one of the friends of Jesus who was detailed to help bear the weight of the cross: but an outsider, a wayfarer, a dull and ordinary peasant, who knew nothing of the significance of the event.  So, often enough, those whom we regard as “unspiritual” have been the best helpers of the spiritual quest.  They have brought their reserve of vitality to the soul in her moment of weakness; and she has utilized it in the bearing of her load.  In such hours the strength of Simon of Cyrene is more essential to the business of redemption than the loving comprehension of Saint John.

We then for our weakness must submit to be helped by those who know nothing of the great issues of the journey.  We must not be surprised if we find ourselves unable to do without the assistance of those persons whom we call “materialists” and “unbelievers” “destitute of the religious sense.”  They may be blind: but then we are very feeble.  In the end we shall find that the Way can only be trodden – the cross carried – if we will consent to an alliance between our vision and their strength.

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