by Janine Schenone
I know it sounds crazy to approach “The Cross” with joy, and to be honest, it has taken me a long, long time as a Christian to make any sense of crucifixion, Good Friday, or the cross as a central event and symbol of Christianity. Why dwell on suffering? Why relive the ugliest moments of humanity?
Many New Member class members have heard me tell the story of my attempt to leave Christianity for Buddhism in my mid-twenties and my failure to do so. (Jesus would not let me. Not even kidding.) One of the reasons I wanted to leave Christianity is that, up to that point, my religious practice had not helped me to make sense of suffering. I wanted to know why there was so much suffering, and in particular why my mother had suffered so much and died young, and why I had suffered so much grief. I wanted answers, and I wanted happiness, and I wanted them now.
In my brief foray into Buddhist study and practice, I discovered simplicity and peace in the First Noble Truth, which is poorly summarized in the notion that all life is suffering. And the Second Noble Truth is very related: this suffering is caused by selfish attachment to desires.
My grief, for example, was my craving and attachment for the way things were. My hoping for some explanation from God was my attachment to a wrongheaded notion that bad things should not happen in a universe with a loving God in it.
Strangely enough, I discovered in Buddhism an understanding of the Cross that helped me to return to Christianity with a greater understanding of suffering—including Christ’s emotional and physical suffering in his final days on Earth. I saw God’s solidarity with the suffering in creation.
The way to get to the joy is to look at the suffering head-on, to go into it, to examine it. I learned this well a few years after that. I was a newly divorced woman, with sole custody of a one-year-old daughter, and I returned to my pre-maternity employer, Novell Inc., in a new job. This job required me to fly from San Jose to Salt Lake City twice a month for meetings with other managers and directors.
I had flown quite a bit to and from college and on a few international trips, and I was reasonably comfortable, if not happy, on airplanes. But then suddenly, I was seized by a crippling fear of flying. On the first flight back from Utah, which goes through some wild crosswinds over the mountain ranges, I was sitting in first class with my new boss and several Novell executives. We were in rough turbulence, and one of the men joked very loudly, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Novell’s entire executive team died on this flight?”
I felt terror—absolute terror—and I gripped my armrests and winced and held back tears. My boss looked at me and asked, “Are you afraid of flying?” I nodded my head, even though it was the first time I had experienced this fear.
I went to see the psychotherapist who had counseled my husband and me through our divorce, and we worked on relaxation techniques and visualizations to help me get through the flights. This would work to an extent: I would close my eyes and listen to soothing voices and guided meditations, and when we hit a bump, I would pretend I was skiing down a mountain over bumps or riding my mountain bike on a rough trail—happy activities for me. However, if we hit some real turbulence, I was a quivering mass of “Get me out of here!” Pretending that I was not strapped into a tin can at 34,000 feet was not working.
Finally, the therapist said, “Janine, you need to face this fear head on. What are you actually afraid of?”
I thought the answer was obvious. “That the plane will crash and I will die.”
“And then what?”
“I will either be some kind of heavenly being or a pile of ashes.”
“How do those endings sound to you?”
“Pretty good, actually.”
“And then what?”
“My daughter will have no mother.”
“And then what?”
I was incensed. “And then she will have no mother! What is worse than that?”
“Who will take care of her if you die?”
“One of my sisters.”
“And do they love her?”
“Yes, they do.”
“So, if you die, someone loving will take care of your daughter, and you will move on.”
And that was that. Facing the fact that what I actually feared was death and its effect upon my daughter flipped the switch in my head. A week later, I was being tossed about the heavens somewhere over a Utah mountain range, and I kept my eyes open and looked down at the most amazing cloud formations. I felt joy. I couldn’t believe it. I felt joy because I had looked at the worst that could happen (for me), and I had let go of my attachment to the desired outcome. I will die. My daughter might be an orphan. In the meantime, the mountains and clouds were beautiful.
This is how we find joy in the Cross. We walk with Jesus as he says to his disciples, “This is going to happen. And there will be glory and joy in it.”
The glory and joy come from looking straight at the Cross and seeing the glory and the joy through it, not in spite of it.