Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Question of Empathizing with Christ

In last class’ readings, there is a marked demand for the reader to empathize with Christ and his suffering. By encouraging people to feel what Mary and Jesus felt, the authors are trying to further the participatory nature of devotion. If the reader experiences what Mary and her son experienced, then he can understand them better, and thus he can truly devote himself to God. But a problem arises. We are merely human, so how can we hope to experience what Christ felt?

John of Caulibus in his Meditations on the Life of Christ approaches this problem by reminding us of Christ’s humanity. He describes the crucifixion of Christ in gory detail in order to inspire strong emotions to reach devotional glory. Part of this attempt to make his readers empathize with the suffering of Christ is to consider Jesus as just a man: “so that you may be deeply compassionate and spiritually nourished at the same time, avert your eyes briefly from his divinity and think of him as just a man” (249). He evokes an image of a humble, noble, blushing, young man, ridiculed and splattered with his own blood. Caulibus asks us to “be moved by both devotion as well as compassion” (249). For now we see him as one of us, simply a human being, humiliated and suffering.

Then Caulibus asks us to again look at him as the divine being that he is, his “imperial Majesty incarnate, … with reverence and blushing, dressing himself the same as if he were the lowliest of men…. Admire him and conform yourself to him” (249). Now we see the god. He is admirable and great, “immense and eternal” (249). To see this god humbly bending down, naked as a criminal, is striking.

We as humans can relate to him as a man, but it is his humility as God that makes him praiseworthy. It is thus vital that Caulibus reminds us of Christ’s duality as man and god. Because he is divine he should be admired, but because he is human, we can aspire be like him. This may be the only way to truly be devotional, for Christ is both god and man. To deny his humanity is to deny what makes him miraculous and to deny his essential divine paradox. While he is God and must be praised and admired, he is also human and thus can be emulated. But some may question whether it is appropriate to reduce Christ to a man. If it is irreverent to relate to Christ in this way, then this leaves us with the same problem as before: how can we possibly understand the sufferings of God?

Perhaps the advocating of devotion to Mary as a sort of proxy to empathizing with Christ is in response to this problem of relating to Christ’s suffering. Since Mary is human, there should be no possible impropriety in examining her as such. In fact, to me, the touching aspect of Mary’s role in the crucifixion is her basic humanity. A mother watching the death of her child is always devastatingly grievous, even if he is not the son of God. Looking at Mary as simply the weeping mother of her dead child is a powerful image. I think Michelangelo’s Pieta (included below) captures this special kind of sorrow. It is so basic that it needs no words. It is quiet, somber. The image of the mother holding her fallen son is just wrong, unacceptable.

But in this devotion of Mary, there is still a problem. It is impossible to truly understand her and relate to her as she is not a normal human being, but is in fact the mother of God. In fact, her relation to Christ is such that she is inextricably connected to Christ, even to the extent that she shares his pain. “The wounds of the dying Christ were the wounds of the mother” (175).  She is the mother of God, and as such, she has the strongest connection to him and thus experiences a higher suffering. Pseudo-Bernard says in his Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin that “the tongue cannot speak, nor the mind conceive the extent of the sorrow which affected the pious innards of Mary” (177) and that even the angels wept for her when “they saw the mother of Christ bound with such sorrow” (181). Her sorrow is so deep that she is described as dead (177). So how can we, as common humans, possibly relate to Christ through her?

These authors seem obsessed with trying to empathize with Christ and his suffering. Whether they do this by concentrating on his pain or by praying to Mary and suffering through her, they are fixed on being able to feel the sorrow that the crucifixion deserves. But Christ tells us not to cry for him. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep over yourselves and over your sons” (Pseudo-Bernard, 167) and he tells his mother to “put away grief” (175). This brings into question the meaning of devotion and what God intends for us in attempting to reach the glory of God. While John of Caulibus, St. Anselm, and Pseudo-Bernard constantly ask us to “meditate” and “reflect” and “concentrate” on the suffering of Jesus and his poor mother and as they pray to Mary to give them the ability to weep and suffer as she did, Jesus tells us not to weep for him. I do not think that what these authors are attempting to do is wrong or inappropriate, because it seems to me that they are simply trying to praise God to the best of their ability. But perhaps Christ is telling them that they are missing the point. They should in fact rejoice, for he “ascends to the glory of the father’s majesty” (Pseudo-Bernard, 175). They should, and we should, rejoice, for it is with the crucifixion that we are saved.


  1. I think you've gotten to a core paradox that drives the whole structure of Christianity: the idea that not only can God suffer, but God-as-man MUST suffer in order to free us from death and sin. It's a tough concept, at least in face of logic, to wrap one's head around, and, as you note, raises the question of how to react in devotion: with sadness? with joy? If we rejoice in our salvation through His pain, do we do his humanity and suffering a disservice? On the other hand, if we plunge ourselves into sorrow, do we lose sight of the gift of salvation He wins for us on the cross?

    You may notice that I'm asking more questions than giving answers...probably because I, too, am not sure how to react. At least for the medievals, though, I believe that reactions to Christ's death can reveal attitudes about dying in the abstract: one must both mourn the loss of the dead one and rejoice that their soul is (hopefully) now in heaven with God.

  2. I strongly agree with your reading of the Meditations on the Life of Christ. I think this passage near the beginning of the Meditations helps get to the heart of a lot of the observations you're making about the juxtaposition of emphases on Christ's humanity and divinity--"How can we even think about the fact that this Lord of ours, the blessed God of all (Rom 9:5), from the time he was arrested that night...was caught up in ongoing warfare, replete with piercing pains, insults, mocking and torments?" This sentence is easy to gloss over upon first reading because it just sounds like a basic description of what Christians believe. But as you point out, these texts elaborate on the implications of the dual nature of Christ (divinity and praiseworthiness, humanity and suffering) in a way that emphasizes the mystery of it all. They point out how completely bizarre and wondrous it is that God himself suffered and died for humans--a mystery that it might be easy for Christians, medieval or modern, to take for granted. It seems to me that part of understanding the wonder of the triumph of the crucifixion is understanding the suffering that went into it.


  3. I liked the point in the conclusion of your argument discussing whether the focus on the death of Christ and wanting to feel the pain it caused is the type of worship that God was striving for. To a certain degree I wonder how much the type of emotion matters as compared to the actual degree of the emotion itself. The authors use the discussions of Mary’s sorrow as a rhetorical tool to elicit a strong emotional response as a form of devotion. I believe there is some merit to examining the texts with this creation of emotion as their prime objective. The pain they discuss in their works is palpable and moving. This is how the authors manage to connect with their audiences and make them connect with the narrative. As you stated, Jesus is a paradox of human and divine that is beyond the comprehension of the reader and whose sacredness prevents actual association by the reader. However, they tell much of the story through Mary’s eyes because it is her humanity that they want their readers to empathize with. Through Christ they inspire awe and praise but it is through Mary with her vivid and extreme grief that they create empathy and an emotional bond. Regardless if mourning or rejoicing is the preferred method of devotion, grief is the motivational method that allows the authors to join their readers to the narrative and incite devotion through emotional response. The initial attachment to Mary through her pain and her sorrow as crafted by the authors is used to pull in their readers and make them empathize with her, deepening or changing the bond created by other types of devotion. Isn’t the emotional devotion what matters regardless if it is sorrow or joy?


  4. Echoing Blair and MAM, I also thought your concluding paragraph cut into the core issue of how to appropriately approach the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. While the authors we read definitely emphasize empathizing with Christ’s suffering as human, there’s definitely a tension between emphasizing the sorrow of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection.

    I hadn’t really thought about it until reading your thoughts on the subject, but it occurs to me now that this same tension in Monday’s readings are also very evident in the liturgy of the Easter Triduum. The few days leading up to Easter are a roller coaster of emotions: the mass for Holy Thursday, the celebration of the Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist, has a tone of thanksgiving for the gift of the Eucharist and for the mission to serve He gave us; the service on Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of the Lord, is penitent, sorrowful, and dejected; the Easter vigil/Sunday mass celebrates the Christ’s resurrection and our redemption, and is the most joyful mass of the entire year.

    I don’t know how much of modern liturgical tone is the same as it was in the Middle Ages when these authors were writing, but I would be surprised if they are significantly different. I suspect that the liturgical tension during the Triduum influenced these authors’ views on how to approach the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Or, maybe it’s better to say that the tension evident in both Triduum liturgy and the texts we read both stem from our/the Church’s uncertainty in how to approach an event of such great paradox as well as such great importance.


  5. FHG, you write: “Because he is divine he should be admired, but because he is human, we can aspire be like him.” But isn't it even more than this? It is only because he is human that he could have suffered at all, yet if he were *just* human and not God, there would be nothing remarkable about his suffering. Thus, I think your question: “[H]ow can we possibly understand the sufferings of God?” is perfectly worded, for it is suffering (because of His humanity) but He is God (which should ideally preclude His suffering).

    You then move on to something that has been a running theme in many of the recent posts concerning Mary’s “quotidian” humanity and how this makes her more relatable than Jesus. But again (if these observations reflect developing views of Mary), this raises a series of questions for me, like: What does the development of this phenomenon have to do with developments in views of/practices towards Jesus Christ?, and, as you touch upon in your post, Is Mary “typical” in a way that is more amenable to being emulated by devotees? Do the miraculous tales attributed to her make it less easy to relate to her?

    P.S. Thank you for the picture. I was once privileged to be in St. Peter’s for midnight mass on Christmas Eve (1998), and sat in the second to last row of folding chairs (Pope John Paul II passed within 15 feet of me as he made his way up to the altar!). Right behind me and to my right was the Pietà, but when I earlier tried to see it by parting the curtains, I was shooed away by a guard. Of course, this was because the Pope was to come into the nave from out of the same chapel. So, I didn’t get to see the Pietà. Too bad. It is a beautiful sculpture. (But I guess I’ll take the trade off!)

  6. I agree with the above comments: you do an excellent job exploring exactly the paradox that our medieval authors were trying to capture through their meditations on Christ's suffering and Mary's compassion. On the one hand, there is the terrible suffering that Christ endured on the Cross and that his mother shared with him through her compassion, but on the other, there is Christ saying, "Do not weep for me." What is the proper response? How can one not grieve? And yet, how can one grieve?

    As a side note, it is of course this tradition of meditation, particularly John of Caulibus, that is responsible for the moment captured so memorably in Michelangelo's sculpture. Compare the pietà with the images that we looked at earlier showing Mary seated with her baby: now she holds him as a man, and yet it is the same mystery, intensified by the fulfillment of Christ's sacrifice.


  7. I will I had seen this conversation earlier as I had the same question that Professor Fulton Brown brought up. Caulibus walks us step by step through the crucifixation of Christ. But you are also tracking Mary’s events throughout the event, first in learning of the events and praying to God to save her son for he is not sinful, echoing Jesus’ prayer of “Take this cup from me” in the Garden of Gethsemane; to trying desperately to see Christ as he carried to cross; to finally arriving at Calvary where “She rushes up and gets close to him” and creates a makeshift loincloth for him; to prayers at the foot of the cross to lessen the pain of her son just as Jesus asks the Father to lessen her pain; to his death, her reaction, trying to protect Christ from further blows, passing out, awakening, taking him from the cross and burying him; finally removing herself from the tomb.

    Yet even after such detailed suffering, as FHG points out, in the same tradition Pseudo-Bernard tells us to “put away grief.” I wonder if there is a point of reconciliation between the two ideas. Caulibus at points sees through the eyes of Christ but really only when he is thinking in relation to other people (i.e. his prayers for his mother.) Otherwise, he generally uses the Scriptural text to put words in Christ’s mouth. The piece then is constructed so that the reader is not concentrated at all on the Resurrection but instead on the immediate human reactions to the specific moments of Christ’s suffering as they unfolded. We meditate in this way in order to imagine as man what it would be like to witness Christ suffer without a full understanding of the promise of the Resurrection. Put away grief and weep no more become directives then to remind man of the glory of salvation deliver to us at the moment of the Resurrection. We access Christ’s suffering through our understanding of human relationships (like those between Mother and Son) but we ultimately cannot access his return to the Father, again emphasizing to us the mystery and brilliance of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ.

  8. I think an interesting question is subtly raised in your post and that is the question of devotion: what constitutes it and properly speaking, what does it mean to be devoted. What aspects of Mary or for what reason does one find herself devoted to the Virgin? As you mention, she is perhaps not entirely relateable as the mother of Christ and to a certain extent as the mother suffering for and with her suffering son.

    Devotion, in these readings and in the suggestions you make seem to culminate in the act of joining oneself to the suffering, understanding the pain. What is the achievement of suffering, then? The achievement of suffering is not only participating in the suffering of Christ but moreover, as you seem to emphasize the process, the reflecting, meditating, etc., that ultimately leads us to this union with the passion of Christ and his Mother. Interestingly enough, Christ does ultimately say "do not weep." What do we make of this? Maybe that the completion of suffering is knowing and trusting in the final end, eternal life--thus Mary, becomes a vehicle of this end in our devotion to her.