“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

 ◊  Saint John Joseph of the Cross, pray for us

From Compassionate Blood: Catherine of Siena on the Passion, by Fr. Romanus Cessario:

So we turn to our sister Catherine, who was not a professional theologian, and discover what the wisdom of the saints tells us about Christ’s cry from the cross. In fact, Catherine provides a commentary that captures the general thinking of the Church about Christ’s cry of abandonment. It runs like this: Christ, writes Catherine, “was both happy and sad on the cross. He was sad as he carried the cross of his suffering body and the cross of his longing to make satisfaction for the sin of humankind. And he was happy because his divine nature joined with his human nature could not suffer and made his soul always happy by showing itself to him unveiled. This is why he was at once happy and sad, because his flesh bore the pain the Godhead could not suffer—nor even his [human] soul, so far as the superior part of his intellect was concerned.” It sounds like a complicated explanation, but Catherine intends it for simple, not sophisticated, souls—for people like us. Catherine appeals to the psychology of Christ; that is, she explains how his human soul works. Each of us has known an experience in which the superior part of our mind has brought comfort to the sadness that we experience in the lower soul. For example, when a loved one dies, we experience sorrow. When at the same time we ponder in faith the everlasting life that Christ promises to those who die attached to him, we experience a surcease of unrelenting sorrow. What Christ knows in his human soul comes from his being the Incarnate Son of God. What we know and it trumps even the most heartfelt sorrows comes from our faith in those things that Christ has revealed, such as life everlasting. Faith knowledge can affect what we experience as suffering. Like Christ, the Christian can experience joy and sorrow at the same time.

What Saint Catherine calls “the superior part” of the intellect, we know simply as our reasonable self. Each time we recognize that human reason can smooth emotional upset, we find ourselves operating from what Catherine calls the “superior part” of our souls. Classical psychotherapy proceeds on the assumption that arranging the categories of an individual’s personal understanding will relieve the various distresses and anxieties that afflict him or her. With sufficient time, skilled therapists can achieve some measure of success. On the cross, of course, Christ does not require counseling. Rather, the Incarnate Son continues to enjoy the full possession of the divine reason, even nay, especially after having mounted the wood of the cross. As Catherine reports God the Father speaking to her, “My beloved Son, your head, was the only one who could not grow in any sort of perfection, because he was one with me and I with him. His soul was beatified in his union with my divine nature.” How does this truth throw a light on Christ’s cry of forsakenness? And, what is more important, how does it help us?

In his Palm Sunday homily at the beginning of Holy Week in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI reminded the Christian people of the situation in which those who inhabit the world find themselves. “The Fathers of the Church,” he began, “maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields. First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down—towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God’s love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards.” The challenge of course arrives at the moment when we find ourselves pulled down, abandoned, when everything within our human psychology seems to scream out Non serviam—I will not serve.

At this juncture in our Christian lives one—moreover that can recur multiple times during a single lifetime—who among us would find great comfort in a savior who, in effect, had announced himself abandoned to “the force of gravity that pulls us down”? Would we not rather prefer to embrace a Savior who, though tested in every way, yet remained without sin? Would we not find better comfort in the Savior described in the Letter to the Hebrews? Catherine surely thought this verse from Hebrews—“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15)—explains best what happened to her gentle Christ when he felt abandoned on the cross.

And Catherine acts on this word. She tells Raymond of Capua and the Dominican priests he governs: “Go to the school of the Word, the Lamb slain and abandoned on the cross, because it is there that the true teaching is found.”