Words on the Word

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12: Many were astonished at him.
Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9: Though he was Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.
John 18:1-19:42: You would have no power over me, had it not been given you from above.

For centuries, the Carthusian Order has had as its motto the phrase, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis. We might translate it: ‘While the world goes round, the Cross remains unmoved.’ There is a reference here to the mortified life of the Order: to monastic vigils, penances, and fasts. We glimpse the devotional centrality of Christ crucified. But the chief message is more immediate and more universal. It proclaims that there are things that simply are what they are, that do not change, however much the universe around them does. It is no coincidence that when, in the 1530s, Henry VIII enforced his pretensions on the land, many Carthusians resisted. England’s Reformation protomartyr, St John Houghton, was prior of the London Charterhouse. He was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on 4 May 1535, closely followed by his confrère, the prior of Beauvale, in our diocese, St Robert Lawrence. Both these monks were scholars. They held carefully pondered convictions.

Most of the Carthusian resisters, however, were simple men unburdened by book-learning. This point is made again and again in the unctuous correspondence of Cromwell’s henchmen, who, during the year after Houghton and Lawrence’s death, toured the charterhouses to sniff out opposition to the king’s supremacy. Indeed, they were indignant to find that ‘the lay bredern be more obstynate and more frowerd and more vnresonable than the monkes’, unwilling to budge from what they held to be true even when warned that failure to utter the loyalist formula would cause them to ‘dye withoute mercy.’

From the vantage point of today, such clarity of conviction seems almost unreal. We are so used to thinking, now, that nothing is stable and fixed, that nothing endures, that nothing can be known for certain. So ingrained has this attitude of scepticism become that anyone found to consider a thing to be unchangeably true, anyone daring to speak of right and wrong as intrinsic categories, is considered, not just suspect but dangerous, meriting punishment. To speak in such circumstances of a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ is no exaggeration. Inch by inch, discourse that supposes the existence, the mere possibility, of truth is pushed out of the public arena. ‘What is truth?’ Give us instead Barabbas, a fine fellow made of the same stuff as ourselves!

A few days ago, the coiner of the phrase, ‘dictatorship of relativism’, Benedict XVI, published a statement on issues that cripple the contemporary Church and compromise her credibility to the extent that, alas, the Gospel is often unproclaimed. Without for a moment diminishing the tragedy of abuse, without detracting from the outrage of victims and the need for an effective response, the pope emeritus, true to form, enlarges the perspective and reads the present crisis in terms that aren’t content just to hunt down and punish offenders, but that touch on a break-down of respect for truth that affects all of us. The fact that great evils have become so catastrophically common points, he says, to an attrition of conscience in society at large. We are all to some extent complicit in a mindset which sees it as everyone’s right to take liberties. There is a trend by which lusts for satisfaction and power are given free rein, often at a terrible, terrible cost. The Christian’s response to this reality, says Benedict XVI, must be categorical. He speaks words worthy to be etched on our minds:

There are values which must never be abandoned, that surpass the preservation of physical life. There is such a thing as martyrdom. God is about more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life. Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence.

What is the Cross, the symbol of our faith, if not an affirmation of this statement? Were we to re-read the Passion with a journalist’s eyes, we would see that Jesus could have found a way out. Pilate practically enabled it. Had he denied the truth about himself for an instant, he might have walked away. The same held for the Carthusians. King Henry did not x-ray their souls; his concern was to stifle dissent, to provoke univocal confessions and effective propaganda. The monks, though, knew that more was at stake; that a man who denies what he knows to be true is no longer a man; that, were he to gain the highest worldly honour, he would forfeit his soul.

The Cross that marks the climax of Jesus’s earthly career represents no less the criterion of our existence. Which side are we one, that of truth or that of untruth? Which way have we chosen, that of life or that of death? The freedom to make such choices is what constitutes our human dignity. If we choose rightly, he who is Truth and Life bears us up and gathers us in, even if we must walk, first, through the valley of darkness. To speak of the ‘triumph’ of the Cross is to indicate a victory waiting to be won in each of us. Let’s be steadfast. Let’s help each other. And let’s remember that where Christ has gone before we can fearlessly follow. ‘By your Cross’, sings an antiphon set for today, ‘you brought joy into the world’. May we come to know that joy and witness to it worthily.