Over the guesthouse door of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY, you see these words carved in marble: Crux est Mundi Medicina. The Cross is the medicine of the world. When I worked at the monastery the window by my desk looked out over this threshold and sign. The monastery is "home" in so many ways, but not least of all for this message which has become a part of my soul's landscape.
In this Sunday's lessons, John’s Gospel presents us with a type (typos – pattern or model) - a "pre-figuring" of Christ in Hebrew Scriptures. In the reading from Numbers, Yahweh punishes the Israelites with a plague of poisonous snakes, but healing takes place if the afflicted one looks upon the bronze serpent Moses affixed to a pole. For John, the brazen serpent foreshadows the “lifting up” of Jesus upon the life-saving cross. In the following quote Augustine draws us into personal contemplation of this scene, in awareness of the venomous harm our sins cause us:
Meanwhile brethren, that we may be healed from sin, let us now gaze on Christ crucified; for “as Moses,” saith He, “lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth on Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites, so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sins. - Augustine (Tractate XII ch.3 Homilies on the Gospel of John)
The prompts for personal meditation this week include some thoughts on the nature of sin (one), the image of the cross as the medicine of the world (two), and the cross itself as a flowering tree of life. (three)
Meditation One Dead in our sins
Even though this is only the first dwelling of the interior castle, it is so rich and precious that the soul who can slip away from the serpents that slither in there cannot help but advance.The spirit of evil uses many nasty tricks to keep souls from knowing themselves and understanding their own paths!-Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle (trans. Mirabai Starr p.48)
Sin for a man is a disorder and perversion: that is, a turning away (aversio) from the most worthy Creator and turning toward (conversio) the inferior things that He has created.-Augustine
Man has a natural impulse to love that which pleases him.This impulse, which is the root of all virtue, can be perverted, weakened, or mis-directed to become the root of all sin.Thus, all the Capital Sins are shown to derive from love for some good, either falsely perceived, or inadequately or excessively pursued.-Dorothy Sayers, Introduction to her translation and commentary on The Divine comedy - Purgatory
The Devil’s primary enterprise and proudest triumph consists in the bringing of a man to abuse that thing which is best in his own nature. -Thomas More
Even if you are committing mortal sins, keep on praying, and I guarantee that you will reach the harbor of salvation.-Teresa of Avila
The Brazen Serpent, Michaelangelo, 1511, Detail
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Triumph of the Cross, Tree of Life, Mosaic, San Clemente, Rome, 12th Century
The Cross is the Medicine of the World
Crux est porta paradisi,
In qua sancti sunt confisi,
Qui vicerunt omnia.
Crux ext mundi medicina,
Per quam bonitas divina
Lo, the cross is heaven’s portal, In which trust the saints immortal, Who have conquered in the fight. This world find the cross its healing, God’s own goodness till revealing By its wonder-working might.
Bonaventure, Monastic hymn (first verse)
Even in the new Jerusalem, in heaven itself, it hath pleased thee to discover a tree, which is a tree of life there, but the leaves thereof are for the healing of the nations. (Rev.22:2)Life itself is with thee there, for thou art life; and all kinds of health, wrought upon us here by thine instruments, descend from thence.
-John Donne Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, ch 4 Mediscusque vocatur "The physician is sent for"
Tree of Life
Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Luke 15:10
The Devil speaks:
Now then, Hades, mourn
And I join in unison with you in wailing.
Let us lament as we see
The tree which we planted
Changed into a holy trunk.
Robbers, murderers, tax gatherers, harlots,
Rest beneath it, and make nests
In its branches
In order that they might gather
The fruit of sweetness
From the supposedly sterile wood.
For they cling to the cross as the tree of life.
Koztakia of Romanos, sixth century, translated and annotated by Marjorie Carpenter.Published by University of Missouri Press, 1970 quoted in Triduum (Liturgy Training Publications)
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.Jeremiah 17:7-8
San Clemente, Cross Tree of Life, detail
The Last Word
Christ was tempted in the desert; and if you are to put on his nature, you must go through his Journey, from the Incarnation to the Ascension.And though you are neither able nor expected to be able to do what he did, still you must enter wholly into his Process, and die continually to sin.For Sophia (Wisdom) is wed to the soul only through that quality which springs up in the soul through the death of Christ.Then it flowers as a new plant in Eternity. - Jacob Boehme