From: The Way of the Cross
There is something about the thought of being stripped naked in public that is particularly chilling. Clothing, after all, makes us what we are: the professional, the academic, the official, the hard-working, the accomplished, the stylish, the straight-forward, the credible. Without clothing, the very notion of personage disappears. Once stripped, there is no dignity left. There is no status, no solemnity, no real person left to see.
It is a devastating thought: George Washington, naked. Teresa of Avila, naked. Thomas Merton, naked. Dorothy day, naked. Nelson Mandela, naked. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, naked. We wince and turn away. It is simply too much to imagine: the great, the powerful, the admirable, the spiritual, the mighty – all naked. If anything reduces a person to nothingness, it is nakedness. No doubt about it: The stripping of Jesus is a terrible thought.
Once naked, the image of the rabbi is gone; the wonder-worker is destroyed; the Son of God has become a memory.
But there are other kinds of strippings as well. We can be stripped of our offices, or stripped of our secrets, or stripped of our masks. We can, in other words, be reduced to social dust after years of social dignity.
The pain of that is almost unimaginable. It is a pain far worse than physical suffering. It is the pain of the total loss of self.
Onlookers deride and demean. Friends distance themselves. Family members feel the shame as surely as if they themselves had gone through the stripping.
Who doesn’t know the feeling of public exposure, of the loss of respect, of the end of a public face?
The meaning of the tenth station of the cross is clear: It is psychological obliteration, the deep down fear of every thinking human being from the point of grade school humiliations to disgrace at the pinnacles of life. Far worse than time in prison is the publicity that precedes it.
And for what use?
The spiritual summons of the tenth station is to the development of genuine humility. The call is not an enticing one to most Westerners whose social goals consist primarily of superiority, primacy, advantage, and transcendency. To even think of wanting less, socity leads us to believe, is a kind of betrayal of the self. Be all that you can be, is more an expectation than encouragement.
As a result, somewhere along the way, humility, one of the ancient virtues, has come to be seen as the suppression of the self. Humility has become confused with humiliation.
But never doubt that humility and humiliation are not synonyms. Humiliation defaces the soul. It leaves us stripped and vulnerable in a world of mockery. But humility, true humility, makes humiliation impossible. Humility is self-knowledge. It is the state of mind achieved by total openness before the God of unconditional love. The humble person is the one who knows who he or she really is and puts on no airs in an attempt to pretend otherwise. Humble people know, too, that God knows exactly who they are and loves them totally nevertheless.
The humble person cannot be humiliated because the humble person does not wear a mask to begin with. What you see in them is what they are, and what they are is what you see. They have no fear of exposure because they have never pretended to be anything more, anything other, than the most stripped down presentation of themselves implies. They put on no airs, they do no artful pretending, they tell no social-climbing lies; they refuse to make their costume themselves. They are more than policeman, more than bishop, more than financially secure, more than superwoman. They are simply one more person among the persons of the world. We know them when we see them and we love them at first sight.
The tenth station of the cross confronts us with the inevitable in every life. Somewhere along the way, we each get stripped of what we have spent our lives acquiring, of things closest to our hearts, of possessions or positions that made us who we thought we were. Then, thrown back upon ourselves, we are left to discover who we have really become. It is a frightening moment, often an embarrassing one, always a difficult one. So much of life is spent attending to the show and glitter, the masks and trappings, the externals of our personal identities that we fail to notice what is lacking inside of us. The problem is, of course, that we don’t miss what we don’t have within us until we need it most. Then the lack of dignity, of self-containment, of simple joy, of deep sincerity, of spiritual serenity, of holy trust, of genuine humility become glaringly apparent. It’s only at the point when we realize who we are not that we are ready to become someone worthwhile.
The question with which the tenth station faces us is, What is underneath the garments of pomp, authority, dignity, and wealth that we have so carefully cultivated around us? Anything at all?
The Jesus who stands before us naked and unashamed, dignified and full of conviction is calling us to pay more attention to who we are than what we have so cunningly conspired to pretend to be.
When we have finally stopped the posturings and personal exaggerations of life, the freedom that comes with being honest with the self and open with others leaves us perfectly free. Now, nothing can possibly shame us again. No one can say anything about us that we have not already admitted, if not to others, certainly to the self. Now we cannot be slighted because we know who we are. We cannot be embarrassed by the past because we have already embraced and confronted it. We cannot be left to the vultures of life because there is no way left to pick us to the bone that we have not already reckoned with ourselves. It is a moment of great liberation. It is a moment of new life.
Being willing to be the self and nothing more is the beginning of truth, the essence of humility, the coming of peace.