The Holy Cross - A Sign-Post for the Soul

"Whosever will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.' (Mark 8:34)

These words of the Lord Jesus Christ echo through our Churches on the Third Sunday of the Great Fast - the Sunday of the Cross - and they stir our souls as we prepare during Holy Week to re-experience His saving Passion, Death and Resurrection . They provide the key to discipleship: cross-bearing. They provide the signpost for the ascetic struggle to which we are called: self-negation - crucifixion. They are words that speak less of an object and more of a course of action for those who would walk the path of the Crucified Lord of Glory. In the Gospel passage, He offers the Cross, the bitter means of healing of the soul to everyone who desires to be saved from death.

Saint Nicetas Stethatos reminds us that our souls, the living Divine image within us, were created by God to be one with God in love. He writes: "Man's soul desires and seeks to be united with God from whom it had its beginning and by its natural qualities it traces back to Him and longs to imitate Him in simplicity and love for man." (Philokalia 3 P. 325, 1)

The oneness of the human soul with its Creator-God was shattered by sin in a moment in Paradise and is further destroyed each time we sin in our lives. This sin, which separates us from God and darkens His image within us, causes profound sickness in our souls. Of this sickness Saint Gregory Palamas writes: " The soul which has rebelled against God become either bestial or demonic and, having rebelled against the laws of nature, lusts after what belongs to others..." (Homily 51, 10 EPE 11, p. 114) The Fathers of the Church were abundantly clear when they taught that this spiritual sickness, this sickness of the soul, manifests itself in immoral behavior, physical illness, emotional instability, psychological torment, and an achingly depressive state.

These are the result of our effort to live with ourselves at the center of our hearts, to crave self-indulgence and ego satisfaction, to bracket the need for the curing of our soul in favor of living a life catering to the passions-which have supplanted the Light dwelling in our hearts.

It is at this point that the Cross stands before us as the difficult road to spiritual healing. We shy away form its brutality and from the stern message that we too need crucifixion-because the cure seems more painful than the illness. Saint Nicholas of Ochrid writes of the human response to the Cross' stark presence: "if the Cross is the medicine, we cannot take it; and if the Cross is the Way, we can't take that road, say those whom sin has made ill. And so the Lord who loves mankind, took the heaviest Cross on Himself, to show that it IS possible." (Homilies, Vol I, p. 152)

The key to Christ's invitation, and He does not force us, is denial. He who would follow Christ, the Divine Physician, and receive genuine healing of the soul, must deny himself. The Cross OF Christ becomes and instruction book for the cure of the soul: negate, self, remove ego from the heart's center, deny the constant images and thoughts which, once they enter our intelligent self, prompt us to sinful desires and eventually to sinning itself. The destruction of Christ's own flesh on the Cross becomes for us the first and foremost ascetic way, the heart of the ascetic struggle. Saint John Chrysostom confirms this when he writes:" The Lord ascended His Cross first, leaving us an example, a pattern for all who would follows." (Orthodox Sermons, Vol I, p. 36)

We seek peace of mind and a sense of wholeness in our daily lives, yet we persist in asserting our ego, self-centeredness, and pride. We long for a strong marriage, for a close family, and for material prosperity from God, but we pray to Him from sickened souls in love with sin. We crave for deliverance from physical pain, emotional of Psychological illness, from depression and a sense of meaninglessness in life-yet we never make the connection that these things are directly related, if not caused in large measure by, our darkened soul's love affair with win and self-indulgence.

The Neptic Fathers cannot make it any more evident: without beginning on the path of spiritual healing through self-denial and the discipline of purification of our souls, we will never know complete healing or happiness. Without self-crucifixion, we will never know spiritual resurrection. Without bearing the painful splinters of the Cross in our personal lives, enduring the wounding of our egos in order to effect their healing, we are condemned to live in estrangement from God in this life, and eternal isolation from Him in the next. Saint Theoloptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia puts it plainly: "Put an end to mixing with the outer world and to giving in to self, and fight with the inner thoughts until you finds the place of pure prayer and the home where Christ dwells." (Philokalia, 4 p. 6 Writings p. 385) What does this mean but: Take up your cross?

How does this self-negation or denial of the craving ego take place? How can we begin the healing of our souls? Through ascetic practice. While we are most willing to give ourr time to Church functions, fund-raising and other such external things, we are less inclined as individuals and parishes to embrace the ancient practices of asceticism. Why? Because they demand time, effort, pain and spiritual discipline. Adopting such an attitude, as individuals and as parishes puts us on a perilous road to spiritual self-destruction and death. The fact is this: when we stand before the :dread judgment seat of the Lord of Glory", He will not be concerned about fund-raisers, social activities, pleasure trips and other such things with which we and our parishes fill time. He will be concerned only with whether or not we accepted His invitation to take up our cross and follow Him.

What are these ascetic practices available to us for the healing of our souls? St. Symeon the New Theologian in his Practical Chapters Chapter 91, numbers five of them: vigils, study, prayer, self-control, hesychia (stillness/withdrawal) Vigils is lessening our sleep and relaxation and keeping watch over our souls night and day. Study is the daily reading of Scripture and the writings of The spiritual fathers. Prayer is not just a few moments on the run, but extended time in pray to God every morning and every evening, and in listening to Him to determine His will. Self control is saying "No!" to our cravings for food, drink physical pleasure, power self-importance and status. Hesychia is withdrawing form the world's schedule and agenda to , in the words of the Psalmist"....Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46)

These are the time-tested ways of asceticism which, if done regularly and with discipline, as St Symeon notes, "quickly purify the nous of the soul and by this refining make it dispassionate and clear-sighted."

At this critical point in our Journey to Holy Pascha, let us decide whether we, as individuals and parishes, will take up our cross, deny our baser selves, and follow the Way of ascetic discipline for the healing of our souls, or, whether we will simply live in denial of our spiritual illness, thus making Christ's Cross a mockery and robbing it of its meaning and power in our live. The choice is that simple.


(Lent, 2004)