In writing “Beneath Thy Cross,” Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) describes her struggle to have a proper emotional response to the Crucifixion.
Rossetti was not a stoic by any definition. Her poetry is highly emotional, after the lyric style of the Romantics. She often suffered from emotional struggles: at 14, with her father dying of tuberculosis and her mother struggling to keep the Rossettis out of poverty, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown, followed by periods of depression that continued at intervals throughout her life. She certainly knew what it meant to feel deeply.
Rossetti’s struggle for a proper emotional response to the Crucifixion was not caused by a lack of religious devotion, either. During her family’s struggles when Rossetti was a teenager, she became increasingly interested in Christianity, particularly in its High Anglican form. She later became engaged to a painter named James Collinson. Collinson, originally a Catholic, had converted to Anglicanism in hopes of marrying Rossetti, who had happily agreed to the prospect. Collinson later struggled with guilt over his decision, however, and he returned to the Catholic Church. Despite Rossetti’s Italian background and High Church preferences, she could not conscience the match, and so she and Collinson went their separate ways. Two other offers of marriage followed, at least one of which Rossetti declined for religious reasons. Meanwhile, as Rossetti worried over the waywardness of her poet brother Dante, she involved herself at the St. Mary Magdelene “house of charity,” a safe house for women attempting to leave prostitution.
Perhaps she was thinking of Mary Magdelene in particular as she wrote, “Not so those women loved/
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee.” Surely Mary’s emotions must have been great as she watched her Teacher, the man who had saved her from a life of demon possession, suffer and die.
Emotions, however, fade with time. Certainly Mary’s initial thoughts at the scene of the crucifixion were not the same as her thoughts after realizing it was Jesus speaking to her in the garden. As she lived longer, watching the church struggle through periods of persectution, corruption, and disharmony, she would have felt many different emotions. But while her intense distress at the scene of the crucifixion eventually changed into a sorrowful memory, her devotion–from all we can tell–deepened.
Like Rossetti, Thomas à Kempis struggled with feeling a lack of emotion in his spiritual life. A man who intensely valued his relationship with Christ, he found his “dry” periods to be discouraging. But he came to understand that emotions change–that, as we trust God for our daily bread, we must also trust him to fill our needs where the spiritual and emotional worlds meet. Using the persona of Christ, he wrote in his Imitation:
“My child, do not trust in your present feeling, for it will soon give way to another. As long as you live you will be subject to changeableness in spite of yourself…. But the man who is wise and whose spirit is well instructed stands superior to these changes. He pays no attention to what he feels in himself or from what quarter the wind of fickleness blows, so long as the whole intention of his mind is conducive to his proper and desired end. For thus he can stand undivided, unchanged, and unshaken, with the singleness of his intention directed unwaveringly toward Me, even in the midst of so many changing events. And the purer this singleness of intention is, with so much the more constancy does he pass through many storms.”
This Lent has been a long one, and during Lent I usually find that, however good my intentions on Ash Wednesday, by the time Holy Week comes my mind seems to be everywhere but on Christ. My good intentions to relive His life and death seem unable to last more than a week. And so I renew the “singleness of my intention,” and thank Christ for His unfathomable sacrifice.