I want to introduce one of my Lenten reads for this year. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I hope you got your ashes across your forehead today. You don’t have to be Catholic to receive ashes from a Catholic church. Ashes are not a sacrament but a sacramental, and so anyone can receive them. What’s a sacramental? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “sacramentals are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments” but “do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1667-1670). That’s rather theological, so let’s just summarize it as an action or outward sign that helps you get closer to God. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that one is dust (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return") and a calling to repent (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel").
So this starts Lent where one is called to self-denial, penance, increased prayer, and alms giving. This Lent I’m giving up the usual deserts and snacks and alcoholic beverages. Someone also suggested one give up buying all “wants” and make purchases only of necessities. I thought that was a brilliant self-denial, and so this year I will limit purchasing things only to things that are basic needs. That’s going to be hard to do with limiting myself from buying books, but it will be a good test.
During Lent I increase devotional and spiritual reads, and a few weeks ago I mentioned I was going to read Compassionate Blood by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P. on meditations of Christ’s passion through the words of St. Catherine of Siena. Now that’s a relatively short read. A lengthier read is going to be What Jesus Saw from the Cross, published in 1930 by the French Dominican Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P.
The book is basically just what the title implies, a meditation on what Jesus saw looking out while hanging on the cross. It’s objective is stated in the Prologue:
St. Paul exhorts us to “to on Jesus Christ, and in his words, understood in the spiritual sense in which he intended them, are of immeasurable importance. However, there is perhaps another sense in which it is not impossible, nor without importance, to put on Jesus Christ.
We may put on Christ in imagination, placing ourselves not at the foot of the cross, nor before it, but upon it, with head bowed beneath the inscription, wearing the crown of thorns, pierced by the nails, feeling the cold, rough wood between our shoulders. In short, we can make our own the sphere of vision and the emotions that were His, seeing with His eyes and feeling with His heart, remembering, judging, and foreseeing with Him so that, still in this same sense of imaging that we have changed places with Him, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.
It was in Jerusalem that this thought came to me, while I stood (as I frequently did) on a spot which is uniquely suggestive of such reflections.
Now that’s enticing. Then I read the first chapter, “The View from the Cross,” and it blew me away. Here’s a sample:
Having established the site of Calvary and described the Cross, the question still remains, in what direction was the Sufferer facing? There are mystical authors who orient the Cross to the west—that is to say, they “disorient” it. Their idea is that the look which regenerates is turned toward us, Israel and the Old Law being forsaken. This theory, besides being a priori and not free from partiality, finds no confirmation in the situation of Calvary.
As you pass out of the Gate of Ephraim you are facing Mount Gareb, of which Calvary is a small foothill: to turn the gibbet to the west would be to make it face the hills and to hide it from the people. The idlers of the gate and the loiterers of the esplanade, the passerby who met in great numbers at the crossroads, the folk that clustered everywhere about, the dwellers in the tents set up in the open air for the feast, all these would have been foiled. The public example made of the victim would have been thwarted; furthermore, the erection of the gibbet and the management of the execution would have been made difficult. In every way, it would have been a bad arrangement.
No, Jesus faced the gate by which He had come forth, through which came His insulters and those who were greedy for a spectacle. He offered Himself to those who hated and mocked Him. He lent Himself to the convenience of His executioners.
And, if reasons of appropriateness must be added, the new Man looked toward the beginnings, toward the end of the earth from which came civilization together with the light. He faced as the apse of a church faces, having before His eyes the rampart of a world beyond which He had passed, although He had not forsaken it. His final glance saluted the Temple, His Father’s house, and the rising sun.
That is excellent prose. I assume the original French was just as finely written. For some reason the book doesn’t list the translator, but it does say it was translated in 1948. A great subject, outstanding writing, intense spirituality, profound meditation, all through the thoughts of a Dominican friar—this is going to be a great read. I’ll try to post again as I get deeper into the book.