“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus gets us to the heart of the matter. But how can we grow in this first of all commandments? On this Friday, it’s worth reflecting on one little aspect of it. It’s a way the Saints have often grown in love.
It’s the contemplation of Christ on the Cross. It’s beholding the Pierced One. The Lord Jesus not only holds out before us the first of all commandments in our Gospel today. He holds it out before us on the Cross, in his own example of loving us to the end, usque ad mortem, usque ad crucem.
St Thomas Aquinas ponders the fittingness of God saving us through the Passion of Christ. The first reason he gives for the Cross is helping us to grow in love. He says of Christ’s Passion, “In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation” (ST III q 46, a 3). St Thomas says the Passion of Christ excites our charity (q 49, a 1). The Cross of Christ provokes our charity, it helps bring it about. So that’s an answer to our question about growing in the first of all commandments.
We see the deep foundation for praying before the Cross of Jesus, for pondering and beholding our Lord Jesus stretched out on the wood of the Cross. For thereby man knows much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return. Contemplating the Cross incites and rouses our charity, perhaps in ways we know not how, but somehow it does.
St Catherine de Ricci once wrote to her Dominican sisters, “My little sisters, go into choir before the Crucifix there. For you know, it is there for no other reason than that you visit it often, and, through that figure on the cross, form a better picture in your mind of the true Bridegroom who has shown you so much love” (ltr 18).
And of course, the other Catherine, of Siena, has much to say on the matter. She often uses the metaphor of getting drunk on the blood of Christ so we can love like him. What we want to do with the fiery passion of all this, I don’t know. But we certainly want to keep the aspect of going out of ourselves in the exercise of charity. In a letter, St Catherine says, “Let all true faithful Christians run to this blood, attracted by its fragrance. Then we will get really drunk on this blood, afire and consumed in gentle divine charity, made one with him….Get drunk on the blood of Christ crucified! Don’t let yourself die of thirst, when you have it right there before you! And don’t take just a little, but enough to make you so drunk that you will lose yourself…[Think of] the perfect charity which you see God has shown and given you…How your [soul] will be stretched when you drink this charity!” (T29, I p 209) That’s our dear sister Catherine.
And we have the beautiful images of St. Dominic, meditating at the foot of the Cross. This seems to capture how most Dominicans go about it. There may be moments of passion and ardor, but usually it’s the more quiet, peaceful, relaxed, pondering of the Cross and the God who is Love. Dominic, at the foot of the Cross, sometimes even has a book open on his lap, and a very gentle and subdued demeanor. This seems to be the way of most Dominicans. And perhaps it leads to a more permanent and stable stirring up of our charity—loving the Lord our God with all our strength, day after day after day.
Finally, I’ll share a modern day example. Not too long ago I was at a Dominican monastery of nuns. One evening of the week, sitting quietly in the chapel, there was a nun facing in an unusual direction. It took a moment for me to realize that she was facing a large crucifix. She was silently and peacefully praying before the Cross, for a good half-hour or more. I don’t know who it was. But I then remembered being in the same monastery, one evening, about 10 years earlier when the exact same thing happened. It was like déjà vu. And then it struck me. Then I realized something.
What we see in the paintings of Fra Angelico, with St Dominic at the foot of the Cross, is still going on today. Dominic’s grace of quietly contemplating at the foot of the Cross is still unfolding in our own day. What this will look like in each one’s life, I don’t know. But here we are with St Dominic, beholding the Pierced One.