One of the most insidious contaminations of the Gospel message happened very early on in the history of Christianity through the pervasive influence of a popular philosophical trend, Stoicism. More than simply a philosophy, Stoicism was a wisdom, that is a way of living in harmony with the cosmos, of neutralizing bitterness, frustration and anger, and seeking inner peace. The core principle of Stoicism is enshrined in a sentence attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca, Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt, “Destiny lead the willi
ng and drag the unwilling”. Even though we have no control over most of what happens in our lives, we can calmly decide to embrace both positive events and misfortunes with equanimity. This is not an invitation to resignation but to believe that even if we do not always understand how, everything eventually contributes to cosmic harmony. According to Stoicism, whenever illness, accidents, financial setbacks, natural disasters affect our lives, instead of vainly trying to swim against the stream we should just accept that it is our destiny, or, as we sometimes say, ‘our cross’. It was tempting for early Christians to interpret Jesus’ invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross and lose our lives in this light – and it is still tempting to do so today. Is this not the frame of mind expressed by the famous sentence Keep calm and carry on? The proper way of dealing with adversities isself-discipline, fortitude, calmness and emotional self-restraint.
In reality, it is possible to interpret Jesus’ exhortation to take up our cross not as an injunction but as a way of comforting us. The crucial element in this page of the gospel is hinted at in Jesus’ reaction to Peter, often translated as “Get away from me”. The literal translation is “Get behind me” and it resonates with the sentence that follows in which Jesus does not simply say that we should take up our cross but significantly adds “and follow me”. This is what makes this invitation completely different from Stoic fortitude. Jesus is assuring us that when we deal with the inevitable sufferings and trials of our life he is with us. We are powerless against adversities and left to ourselves we would “lose our life”. Because we are with him and we follow him, our lives are saved, in the sense that he comes to our rescue.
Stoics believe they can rely only on their own strength and are proud of their fortitude. Christians could do the same and yet are not happy with simply enduring suffering. They do not believe that suffering has any meaning by itself or that it has any part in cosmic harmony. Like any other form of evil, suffering is meaningless, it should not happen, it was not supposed to be part of the creation intended by God the Father. In this sense, Peter is right when he says to Jesus: “This must never happen to you”. This must never happen to anybody – this is what we desire for ourselves and for every human person. So why does Jesus say that by wanting to prevent suffering Peter, and ourselves with him, are “not setting our mind on divine things”? What is divine for Jesus is not suffering, but the cross – and not any kind of cross, but the cross we take up with him. In the same way, what is divine is not ‘losing our life’ but finding it in the full and meaningful way in which it can be given only by Jesus: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it” – yes, in this sentence Jesus is asking us not to lose our life but to find it!
We should not ashamed to acknowledge that we are afraid of pain, illness and of misfortune. Jesus was afraid too. This is why he reacts so violently to Peter’s suggestion. He knows that there are people who have decided to humiliate and murder him. He suspects that he might be betrayed by some of his closest friends. He is aware of the brutality of death sentences, whether by stoning of by crucifixion.
What drives him towards Jerusalem, where he knows that all this will happen to him, is not a Stoic resignation to his destiny but the conviction that the violence and hatred about to be unleashed against him are powerless against his trust in the Father and his undying love for us. Ultimately, he does not go to Jerusalem to die, but to be raised, just as we are not asked to lose our life but to find it.
When a mother is about to give birth she does not look forward to the pain this will cause to her, but to the life that will emerge from it. This is the cross for Jesus and with Jesus, this is “taking up our cross”: fixing our eyes to the life that awaits for us despite any suffering and pain because we stick to our trust in God and to our love for others. The Fathers of the Church see the cross as a symbol: the vertical axis is the trust that looks up to God and the horizontal axis is the love that embraces every human person.
Trust and love do not reduce the pain but prevent it from crushing us. When we suffer we are tempted to despair and understandably are so absorbed by our pain that we might become unable to remain connected to others. Suffering without trust and love can numb and isolate people, empty them of all their energies and lead them to despair. This is why Jesus’ sentence in not an injunction but is meant to comfort and strengthen us. Any kind of suffering, discomfort, setback, pain, whether physical or psychic or emotional, can become ‘cross’ if we keep trusting and loving, not counting on our fortitude, but becoming aware that the Lord is with us and that he is faithful. Taking up our cross in this way with him we do not lose our life but we find it.