Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross that we celebrate every year on September 14 reveals an important lesson: there is a difference between the Cross as a theological construct and the Cross as a lived experience.
Suffering with Gratefulness and Grace
Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae (1903–1993) was a priest of the Orthodox Church of Romania and was a world-renowned Orthodox theologian, academic, and professor. In addition to a commentary on the works of the Church Fathers and a Romanian translation of the Philokalia, his 1978 masterpiece, The Dogmatic Orthodox Theology, established him as one of the foremost Christian theologians and thinkers of the later half of the 20th century. He married his wife, Maria, in 1930 and she bore them twins. His son Dumitru died shortly after birth, and his daughter, Maria, reposed when she was only 16.
On January 1, 1934, Fr. Dumitru became the director of the newspaper Romanian Telegraph, a position he held until 1945. In June 1936 he was named Rector of the Theological Academy in Sibiu. With the end of World War II, the government of Romania was taken over by communists and began to oppress the Orthodox Church. He was forced to step down from the Theological Academy and transferred to the University of Bucharest, where, again, the government removed the Chair of Theology position, which he occupied.
Fr. Dumitru began to meet with a group of academics and hieromonks discussing the renewal of the Orthodox Church in Romania. The group’s name was Rugel Aprins (Burning Altars). In 1959 he and the other members of the group were arrested by the Communist government and sent to prison. Fr. Dumitru was moved among a number of prisons, endured torture and extreme physical abuse, and was kept in solitary confinement for a number of years. Released in 1964, he began to work for the Synod of the Romanian Patriarchate and retired in 1973 from full-time theological teaching. He began to receive prestigious honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Thessaloniki, Athens, Belgrade, Paris, and Bucharest. He fell asleep in the Lord in 1993 at 90 years of age.
In the Golgotha moments of his life—his two children’s untimely deaths, the loss of his longed-for theological teaching positions, his arrest and imprisonment, his torture and hauntingly painful solitary isolation—in all of this, Fr. Dumitru lived the Cross and with it, its unspeakable suffering. Neither cynical nor doubting, he persisted through the struggles and saw them as a crucible in which the searing coals of pain, disappointment, and loss helped fashion his soul with an indefatigable strength that this frail and aimless world could never muster.
He would write some years later, “This is why, in the Orthodox Church, all persons and all things are sacrificed and offered through the Cross. In the Cross, Christians wish to be elevated themselves through their efforts; to glorify God through all their actions and sufferings in the world, even through their death; to live and to die for God; to demonstrate in every way that they are sacrificing themselves for Him.” (Sermon on the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord)
Fr. Dumitru never ran from the sufferings of the Cross in his life. He knew it to be, among all the chatter of history and time, the only real moment of dialogue with God, the moment where he faced himself without props, the moment when the term “redemption” had existential meaning, the moment when he realized that the “wordless question” he heard in the deep recesses of his soul was none other than the Crucified God. This awareness would move him to write, “Only the Cross, by taming our selfish passions and loosening our excessive attachments to the world, can bring lasting peace to the human heart.”
This insight gave profound depth to his theology and a clear “sacramental” quality to his person and his priesthood. It is a powerful lesson for us in a post-modern world that sees little positive value in suffering, sickness, and pain. While suffering can never be said to originate from God, it does, however, call us to a new awareness, an awareness described by the esteemed Orthodox theologian Fr. John Romanides in this way, “Every believer must be voluntarily crucified, as Christ was crucified. Only through this voluntary crucifixion can participation in the mystery of the Cross be achieved, which transforms a selfish human being into a friend of God and god by grace.” (Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church)
While human suffering is not desirable, it can change us and reveal things about our spiritual selves that we never knew were possible. Chief among these, it makes us vulnerable.
Pain and suffering open us up in ways few things can. They expose our need over our will to live independently. They call out for help from others when our natural instinct is to go it alone. They face us with our own finiteness and may bring to mind the haunting thought that we won’t live here forever. The Cross of Jesus was the emblem of vulnerability, of being laid open quite literally before the world.
Vulnerability as the Essence of Love
C.S. Lewis, the British philosopher and poet, writes of the vulnerable heart, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully with hobbies and luxuries, avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. In that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and absolutely irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” (The Four Loves)
On the Cross, Christ was vulnerable In His suffering and therein revealed the vulnerability of God Himself—open, exposed, revealed to all as “Love Divine all other loves excelling.”
This is why we lift high the Cross of Christ, not because it is an historical artifact or because it dramatizes the Christian narrative. We raise it because in it is the human experience of holy people like Fr. Dumitru Staniloe, of blessed memory, and all those so-called “ordinary” men and women who didn’t shrink from suffering but were changed by it, who didn’t wonder where it came from but only marveled at what it was making of them.
Through it they gathered depth and meaning for their lives, they opened themselves to being vulnerable and therefore were linked intimately with the Eternal Love that issues from the heart of the Crucified God and linked, too, to fellow sufferers. When the Cross is planted in your life, when suffering of any kind comes upon you, when sickness becomes too much to bear, when worry and anxiety attack your inner peace, when life seems to lose meaning, do not lose hope. Look to the Cross of Christ. Go to the Cross of Christ!
The Cross is the way God chose to express His healing love and even, in a brief moment, He will touch you. Let us keep in memory the powerful words of St. Theodore, Abbot of the Great Studium, “Mortal men, let us leave this world of deceit! Christ calls. Let us go. For life is good sailing above the troubled sea of care. One thought alone employs the solitary man: How he may reach the port of peace, may find rest from pain. Delivered of these things, how blessed is life! And who is he who truly seeks for gain and, leaving all, asks but to bear the Cross?”
Behold the wood of the Cross on which has hung the salvation of the world—Come let us adore!
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