The Third Conference
1 Corinthians 1:18
ὁ λόγος γὰρ ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῖς μὲν ἀπολλυμένοις μωρία ἐστίν, τοῖς δὲ σῳζομένοις ἡμῖν δύναμις θεοῦ ἐστιν.
Verbum enim crucis pereuntibus quidem stultitia est: iis autem qui salvi fiunt, id est nobis, Dei virtus est.
For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God.
I have alluded several times, dear Fathers and Brothers, to that mysterious word (or message) of the Cross, the verbum crucis of which Saint Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 1:18. It seems to me that the entire reality and impact of Holy Week and, in particular, of the Sacred Triduum, lies in the verbum crucis. This ‘word of the Cross’ is synonymous with what the ancient liturgical books call the Pascha Domini in referring not only to Easter, but also to the feast of the Birth of the Chalice on Maundy Thursday, and to Good Friday, and to the pregnant silence of Holy Saturday. Your sister Saint Catherine, and with her a host of mystics and saints, experience the verbum crucis as an inbreaking, an outpouring of redeeming love, an impetuous torrent of fire and of blood.
Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy as hard as hell, the lamps thereof are fire and flames. Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it: if a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing. (Canticle 8:6–7).
For the neophyte still wet with the bath of regeneration, fragrant with holy Chrismation, and inebriated with the Holy Chalice, the verbum crucis is a seal upon the heart, a seal upon the arm, strong as death, hard as hell, fire and flames, inextinguishable, and precious beyond price. The Friar Preacher is, I think, a Christian in whom this sacramental grace, this indelible impression of the word of the cross, finds expression in choral and solitary prayer, in study and in thought, in fraternal life, in every breath and every heartbeat and, then, in holy preaching. Holy preaching, if it be not the articulation of the verbum crucis, is nothing at all.
For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent I will reject. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:19–25)
This verbum crucis, this word of the Cross, ὁ λόγος ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ, captivates me. The word λόγος has a huge richness: it can mean word, but it also signifies meaning, message, poem and even hymn. When we speak of this λόγος of the Cross we mean not one thing but at least three: firstly, the verbum crucis is the word descending from God on high, the word sent out, and addressed to us. Already in the Christmas liturgy we sang of this:
While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty Word, O Lord, came down from heaven from Thy royal Throne. (Introit, Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord, Wisdom 18:14–15)
The context of this sublime Introit reveals even more, because it says, ‘Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction’ (Wisdom 18:15). As a fierce conqueror? Yes, the fierce conqueror, the divine warrior is Jesus, crucified in weakness in order to reveal the power of God in the astounding triumph of the Cross. And so we go from this Christmas Introit to the Sequence of the Mass of Easter Day:
Mors et vita duello
dux vitae mortuus,
Death and life have contended
In that combat stupendous;
The prince of life, who died,
This is the grand playing out of the verbum crucis. God Himself enters the bloody fray to the death, pro nobis, on our behalf — exitus a Deo — and emerges from it as the Prince of Life, pro nobis, on our behalf — reditus ad Deum.
How I love Saint Thomas’ hymn for the Lauds of Corpus Christi:
Verbum supernum prodiens,
nec Patris linquens dexteram,
ad opus suum exiens,
venit ad vitae vesperam.
The heavenly Word proceeding forth,
yet not leaving the Father’s side,
went forth upon his work on earth
and reached at length life’s eventide.
This is the whole mystery of God stripping Himself naked on the wood of the Cross, stretching out his Body like a great scroll of the Torah for all to read. The pierced Heart of the Crucified is the incisive inscription of the verbum crucis not on the tablets of stones, such as were given to Moses on Sinai, but in the very Body of God. It is a word carved out in the flesh of Jesus’ side by the soldier’s lance. It is the love of God laid bare for all to see or, as the man once known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, put it, ‘God stepping out of his hiddenness’ (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 48). ‘In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because he hath first loved us, and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
Word, let it be said clearly, is not text. Text has the potential of becoming word when it is resurrected from the page to pass from mouth to ear to mind to heart. This is the function of the choral Office: the word resurrected, verse by verse, and transmitted as something ‘alive and active’ (Hebrews 4:12) in an outburst of breath, in a lavish expenditure of vital energy, first by one side of the choir and then by the other. This too is the function of holy preaching: the word resurrected and, then, communicated in what Olivier Clément somewhere calls, ‘the eucharist of the intelligence’.
The verbum crucis is not a text to be read, it is, rather, a kind of wounding. Thus were the Jews wounded, cut to the quick, after hearing Peter preach the verbum crucis on the morning of Pentecost: ‘Now when they had heard these things, they had compunction in their heart, and said to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles: What shall we do, men and brethren?’ (Acts 2:37).
The task of the preacher is to take aim and, like a practiced bowman, wound the souls he targets with the arrows of the word. If a preacher is not wounding souls, he is preaching something other than the verbum crucis. It is, of course, a given that the preacher himself is a man deeply wounded by the verbum crucis. A preacher’s credibility lies precisely in the evidence he gives of having been pierced through. ‘For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’(Hebrews 4:12).
I am reminded of a passage in the journal of priest whom I know. This priest seems to have heard something like the voice of the Word speaking to him in his heart:
I who am here before you, I am the Word. No book, however beautifully written can speak to your heart as do I, for I am Eternal Wisdom, and Infinite Love, and Uncreated Beauty in dialogue with your soul. My words are not like the words of men, My words surpass even the words of My saints, though I often speak through them and continue to touch souls through their writings. My words are like arrows of fire shot into the heart and wounding it so as to inflame it, and heal it with Divine Love.
Make yourself vulnerable to My words. Allow Me to speak to you in such a way as to wound you with the piercing of Divine Love. When you come before Me and wait upon Me in silence, you are, in effect, waiting upon Me and allowing Me, when I choose and in the way I choose, to wound you with an interior word and to set you on fire with a communication of Divine Love. Expect Me, then, to speak to you, to console you, and to enlighten you, but also to wound you. Unless I wound you in this way, you will be incapable of withstanding the attacks of the enemy and of bearing witness to Me in the midst of darkness and tribulation.
I desire to wound you not once, but again and again, until your whole being is wounded, and so purified and set ablaze with the fire of My Love. Were that your soul were wounded as many times as I was wounded in My body for love of you in the combat of My most bitter Passion. Allow Me, then, to pierce you through and through until, wounded by Divine Love, you are wholly sanctified and made fit for My purposes and designs.
The verbum crucis, the Verbum supernum prodiens penetrates into a man’s life and wounds him not only by means of the word heard, repeated, prayed, preached, and held in the heart (lectio, meditatio, oratio, predicatio, contemplatio), but also whenever a man is given a share in the sufferings of Christ. ‘I now rejoice in my sufferings for you’, says the Apostle, ‘and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Lectio divina is done not only in Holy Writ; there is a kind of lectio divina that consists in reading the unexpurgated version of one’s own life as it unfolds. The man who, in the light of faith, reads his own story, discovers in its twists and bends, in its hours of darkness and stormy seasons, in the sad tale of inveterate infirmities, and even in the mystery of evil, the means by which Christ leaves in him the imprint of the Cross. Anything — and even more, anyone — marked by the imprint of the Cross is, by that very fact, marked by the promise of the Resurrection.
In my gallery of heavenly friends there is one Dominican — not the only Dominican in my gallery — who has taught me much about all of this. He was, at the age of twenty–four, shortly after beginning his life in the Order of Preachers, so struck down by illness that he became in the eyes of all a brother good–for–nothing, an embarrassment, a poor, sickly fellow incapable of study, incapable of preaching, incapable of writing, incapable of going to choir. Out of pity, more than anything else, he was admitted to solemn profession, and then ordained a simplex priest, ad missam. He was sent for six years to a convent where he thought he would die of boredom. Instead, he began, over time, to embrace his weakness and consent to the imprint of the Cross.
You know, I think, that I am speaking of your holy brother, Father Marie–Étienne Vayssière. In 1900, at thirty–seven years of age, he was sent to live in the solitude of La Sainte Baume, with one laybrother as his companion. The obedience to La Sainte Baume was, basically, a sentence of retirement. He would have been tempted to read his story as the cruel trick of a capricious God. What kind of God calls a man to the Order of Preachers and then renders him incapable of preaching? Père Vayssière did, in the circumstances, what most of us, I think, would be tempted to do. He began looking for the occasional comfortable compromise, the creaturely compensation that can somehow coexist with a profound desire for holiness and, even, with a certain acceptance of the imprint of the Cross.
Père Vayssière did nothing really shocking. He just went down every day to the place where pilgrims lodged to read the newspapers and chat a bit. One day, as he was making his way down from the hermitage where he lived with Frère Henri, he stopped at a turn in the path and found himself incapable of going on. He was given a light by which it was made to clear to him that he was wasting his time and pursuing pleasures that, while innocent enough, kept him from corresponding fully to God’s plan for him. He corresponded to this actual grace, turned around, climbed back up to the hermitage and thereafter testified that never again suffered from loneliness, or boredom, or curiosity. ‘From now on’, he said to himself, ‘you will live in the spirit of the [Magdalen’s] cave, you will become a contemplative’. No longer was he dejected by his inability to live a proper Dominican life; quite the contrary, he found himself filled with joy, and he used to repeat to himself, ‘You wanted to be a preacher, but the Good God wanted you to be a saint’. Père Vayssière referred to this as his second conversion. He remained in his hermitage for more than thirty years.
You all probably know the rest of the story. Père Vayssière became a great incandescent contemplative by means of the rosary. He could not study, he could not preach, he could not write, he could not go to choir, but he could tell his beads. And tell his beads his did, until with Mary, and through Mary, the verbum crucis contemplated in the mysteries, so impressed itself in him that his whole being became a holy preaching. God did not leave Père Vayssière’s light under a bushel; he placed it on a lampstand. In 1932, and again in 1936, he was elected Prior Provincial of the Province of Toulouse. Père Vayssière, the brother good–for–nothing, died on September 14, 1940, the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The verbum crucis in the life and death of one Friar Preacher. Father Vayssière wrote:
Let us, then, be content to be nothing, to be capable of nothing, to feel our misery. I should count it a very great grace of the Divine Spirit were I to be given that knowledge of infirmity which, with the Apostle, would permit us to place our confidence and our support only therein, all the while repeating with him: When I am weak, then am I powerful.
The verbum crucis descends into one’s soul by the sacramental graces of the sacred liturgy, or by the choral Office, or by the hearing, study, and meditation of the Word, or by suffering and infirmity, or by humiliation, and failure, and loss, and even, paradoxically, by the assaults of the powers of darkness. No sooner does the verbum crucis impress itself in the depths of the soul than it rebounds heavenward in prayer. This second expression of the verbum crucis is no feeble subjective prayer, circumscribed by human limitations; it is the very prayer of Christ Himself, his filial and priestly prayer to the Father uttered beyond the veil and, at the same time, communicated to the soul in the form of a very pure vertical flame enkindled by the Holy Spirit, an inextinguishable flame that stretches upward and burns ad Patrem. This is the fiery prayer of which Saint John Cassian speaks. It is apostolic prayer. By this, I mean that it is a participation in the prayer of Christ Himself communicated to the Apostles in order to hasten the advent of the Kingdom of God.
One of your contemporary Dominican mystics, Marie de la Trinité (1903–1980), had the particular mission of shedding light on this participation of the soul in the prayer of Christ to the Father. The verbum crucis entered her life first by sacramental grace and by the ordinary rhythm of conventual life — choral prayer, study, and service — and then by means of prolonged sieges of depression. When Marie de la Trinité emerged from her illness, she found herself, by grace and not by any effort on her part, inhabited by the filial and priestly prayer of Christ, the verbum crucis addressed to God. There is nothing felt in this prayer nor is it a laborious prayer of thoughts. Every attempt to articulate it falls short of what it is, except for the words and gestures of the liturgy and, more often than not, a humble, persevering telling of the beads.
There remains the third and last expression of the verbum crucis; after descending from on high as God’s word addressed to us, and after ascending into the heavenly sanctuary as our word addressed to God, the verbum crucis becomes, in the mouth of the preacher, a word addressed to the world.
For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:21–23)
What has the preacher to say except what the liturgy of this Great Week says by means of a wonderful deployment of sacred signs? The preacher, a man wounded again and again by the verbum crucis, has only to transmit what has penetrated into him. He has only to give voice to the prayer that rises ceaselessly, by day and by night from his own heart. This is the contemplata aliis tradere that confers upon your preaching an authority and an unction that cannot be counterfeited or feigned.
All of this, of course, converges in the sacrament of the Christus Passus. The altar is where is the verbum crucis resounds with a resonance that is altogether divine: God in Christ speaking to man (the descending word); man in Christ speaking to God (the ascending word); and Christ, through the mouth of the preacher, ceaselessly widening the circle of those to whom he addresses the ever–expanding word: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34).