SLAMMING CHRIST TO THE CROSS: THE SEMIOTICS OF THE CRUCIFIX: PART IV

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I don’t remember my First Communion, except that I wore a long-sleeve white shirt buttoned at the collar but with no tie. I always thought that very strange. But when, as an adult, I looked at photographs of it (now all lost), all I saw was that buttoned-collar-no-tie look. It gave the boy in the photographs a priestly, almost saintly appearance. Fortunately, I later discovered sex (and without an institutional scandals), so lost interest in the priesthood.

As it happens, my mother did want me to become a priest, exactly because she did not want me to discover sex. (She herself was a Baptist.) I think that remark can stand with no further comment.

it’s not that I didn’t learn a lot from my Catholic upbringing. If I hadn’t been raised a Catholic, I would not have read Aquinas, and if I hadn’t read Aquinas i would not have been prepared to read Nagarjuna, and if I hadn’t read Nagarjuna, the tradition of philosophy in Buddhism would not have opened up to me, through which I accomplished some measure of liberty of conscience and consciousness that I enjoy to this day.

Still, there was a lot to unlearn from my catholic upbringing: primarily the awful sense of guilt, of being born wrong, of having to search for some sort of salvation from my own existence; and the dense mysterian cloud of impossible supernatural entities, e.g., the Trinity, and their never fulfilled promises of grace and threats of hell.

“How many fingers, please?”
“Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!”
Abruptly he was sitting up with O’Brien’s arm round his shoulders. (…) He had the feeling that O’Brien was his protector (…).”

– Orwell, 1984

But no amount of threat or promise of grace will ever make the three of the mysterious Trinity equal a single god.

I write this with a Crucifix before me, embedded in the inside front cover of a small book of prayers I received for my First Communion. The body of Jesus is painted in gold-leaf, now much worn, embossed from a white cross that is itself embossed from a gold-leaf background. Two white angels kneels at the crucifix, touching it, looking upward reverently. The book is titled My Little Heart Prays, authored by Sister Mary Theola. Although published by Notre Dame of New York, it was printed and bound in Italy. (I suppose the New Yorkers didn’t think anyone not Italian could manufacture a Roman Catholic book properly?) The only date given is that of its Imprimatur, 1953 (12 years before it found its way to me). The picture across from the title page itself is that of a child of indeterminate gender; when I was young, I was sure it was sister Mary Theoloa herself.

But the first writing in the book comes before the title page; it is on the very first page, across from the embossed Crucifix:

Prayer Before A Crucifix*

Look down on me sweet Jesus.
I love you.
Fill my heart with faith, hope, and charity.
Make me sorry for my sins.
It makes me sad to see You on the Cross.
I think of the words David said of You, good Jesus;
They made holes in My Hands and Feet.
They have hurt My Bones.

I am going to sharing a reading of this pretty much just as I first wrote it, despite certain issues I should have addressed; because I admit I found myself surprised by one of my discoveries:

My first response to this is that it contains a lot of rubbish. The first nonsense to leap out is the claim concerning David. Of course David had nothing to say of Jesus, he didn’t know Jesus would exist, he couldn’t be sure that anything his own religion told him had anything other to do with his own life and the Israel in which he lived. In this one claim, the Church appropriates the whole of what it claims is the “Old Testament,” and denies any possible claim by the Jews over the possible validity of their own religion, even that it is distinguishable from that of the Church.

The second thing that strikes me as an appalling but subtle bullying, insinuating to the child presumed as audience that he/she need be made sorry for his/her sins, at an age when the child has virtually no understanding of what a sin might be, beyond ‘whatever I did that I get spanked for.’ This is subtle linguistic conditioning of psychological guilt. ‘Feel bad, little boy, little girl, you always do something wrong, you always need spanking. But feel sorry, and there may be something we can do about it” For prior to this a promise has been made – as wrong as the child is, if he/she only admits emotions they don’t feel, and virtues they don’t understand, by surrendering themselves to a dead man on a cross they have never met – all might still be well.

Or, maybe not. There’s one line here that gets under my craw: “It makes me sad to see You on the Cross.” Why would a child feel this sadness for someone they only meet in iconic representation? Let’s unpack this one line as completely as we can:

It
(A generic ‘it,’ e.g., ‘this situation;’ but also interpretable as the icon itself, since the presence of the Cross is the situation.)
It makes
(The icon takes action, it does something, it has agency.)
It makes me
(The action by the icon directs toward the receiver of its significance, it does something to its audience.)
It makes me sad
(The icon draws forth a response, a psychological/emotional response, it demands such a response, “it makes” it so; the audience should feel this way, should feel a sorrow, internal impulses to weeping, heaviness of heart.)
It makes me sad to
(The icon induces the receiver to an infinitive, the form of the verb open to opportunity and potential, it is now available that one can do this.)
It makes me sad to see
(The icon commands a response; it opens the door to its own perception, in the directive infinitive “to see,” to grasp the object visually and thus with the mind.)
It makes me sad to see You
(The icon has a personality; now we know by what authority it demands attention and response; it has the authority of the person, or persona, or personality it is presumed to represent, to stand in place of, before the audience.)
It makes me sad to see You on
(The icon is fixed, it has a place, a site where this relationship is to unfold.)
It makes me sad to see You on the
(The definite as emphasis – ‘the,’ not the indefinite ‘a,’ not just any such thing anywhere but this and this only.)
It makes me sad to see You on the Cross.
(This and only this, this moment, this place. It happens here. But what is happening? It is the “You” being there, suffering, on that Cross. All this is seen, and seen as commanded, and commanded, it must be seen with sadness, with sorrow, with pity -)

But what religion could possibly ask of its faithful that they should pity god?

Well, it was all going so marvelously predictable, taking down the word-for-word structure of the line, revealing its grammatical presumptions and implications, revealing all that we already knew about it.

But “pity god”? I confess I wasn’t expecting that. But as the notions of sadness linked to those of sorrow, within the situation of observing someone suffering, the link to pity is inevitable. Otherwise the prior call to charity would mean nothing.

A religion where god despairs of himself (“Why has Thou forsaken me?”), only to rise from the dead to demand from his followers – pity – pity for himself.

The child is expected to feel sorry for his or her sins, and also sorry, as pity, for the god they presumably sin against, and yet must also ask of this god that he make them so, that he command them to do so.

This is psychological conditioning into a pathology of depression and submission. It is not at all surprising that children raised in this tradition end up sick with guilt, its just amazing that some of them can can find some way to free themselves from it.

“Christianity is called the religion of pity. -Pity stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness: it is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities. through pity that drain upon strength which suffering works is multiplied a thousandfold. Suffering is made contagious by pity; under certain circumstances it may lead to a total sacrifice of life and living energy – a loss out of all proportion to the magnitude of the cause (- the case of the death of the Nazarene).”
Nietzsche, The Antichrist, section 7; translated by H. L. Menken.

*This is evidently, as intended for children, an abridged version of a common adult Catholic prayer, which has various versions. One that is pertinent to our discussion here:
Prayer Before a Crucifix
Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before Your face I humbly kneel, and with burning soul pray and beseech You to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity, true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment; while I contemplate with great love and tender pity Your five wounds, pondering over them within me, and calling to mind the words which, long ago, David the prophet spoke in Your own person concerning You, my Jesus: “They have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones.” http://catholicism.about.com/od/prayers/qt/En_Ego.htm

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