Embracing Travail: Retreiving the Cross Today

Embracing Travail: Retreiving the Cross Today

Wiseman, James A

Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today. By Cynthia S.W. Crysdale. Continuum Publishing Co.: 370 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 100 17, 1999. Pp. xv+208. Hardcover. $24.95.

Several years ago, I innocently handed a Buddhist nun a holy card depicting Christ crucified. She immediately shrank back, startled and horrified. This incident came to mind as I read the opening words of Cynthia Crysdale’s new book: “The cross has always been a stumbling block” (p. xi). Theologians down the centuries have grappled with the question, “Why the cross?” Doing so in her turn, Crysdale is careful not to reject traditional answers outright and yet does not shrink from pointing out many of their inadequacies as she develops a fresh model for understanding the Christian doctrine of redemption.

As a feminist, Crysdale is particularly alert to the ways in which traditional understandings of redemption have not taken adequate account of the experience of women and others who have found themselves on the “underside” of history. Too often, she notes, preachers and religious writers have linked their hearers or readers with the crucifiers of Jesus, above all because of sins of pride and willfulness. This approach does not readily accord with the experience of persons who, in Jesus, discover themselves as ones who are crucified rather than crucifiers. To her credit, Crysdale carefully avoids onesidedness in her argument, noting that in fact each of us is both crucified and crucifier, both victim and persecutor. Those who are primarily in the first group of each pair are challenged both to name their pain themselves and to begin to take responsibility for their healing, while those in the second group are called on not only to seek forgiveness for their harmful actions but also to recognize ways in which they themselves are wounded.

What keeps Embracing Travail from remaining on the level of generalizations are the case studies and accounts of incidents from her own life that Crysdale inserts at appropriate places in her argument. Another admirable quality of the book is the author’s willingness to admit that she does not have any easy or all-sufficient answers to questions raised by the presence of moral evil in our world. Sometimes those who are aggrieved must simply abide in their grief and be present to their pain, while at other times they “need to dry the tears and work on what needs changing” (pp. 26-27). There are no clear-cut rules that specify in advance the best course of action in particular circumstances. Prudent discernment, wise counsel, and openness to God’s grace are always necessary.

In her concise survey of past understandings of soteriology (how we are saved), Crysdale is rightly critical of theories that present suffering– whether Christ’s or our own-as a means to union with God. She insists that what Jesus chose was love, what he accepted was suffering. So, too, “God did not choose Jesus’ death as his solution to an evil world” (p. 155) but did accept the risk that, in a world imbued with human freedom, the incarnate communication of divine love in Jesus could be rejected. This means that “transaction models” of redemption, according to which the death of Jesus may be seen as appeasing a God thirsting for justice, are really not viable: “God wanted and wants love and communion”; justice, -so far from being the solution, [is] the root of the problem” (p. 156).

Whether it was done intentionally or not, the book is memorably framed at beginning and end by Crysdale’s references to her daughter Carolyn. Chapter one opens with the author’s account of the intense physical pain she endured when giving birth to her first child and of the simultaneous joy she then felt, a simultaneity that led to the liberating insight that “resurrection joy does not come after crucifixion pain, it is the same thing” (p. 2).

Many pages later she begins her epilogue by recounting a conversation with Carolyn, more than eleven years later. The young girl’s innocent question after a week at an evangelical summer camp”I just don’t get the part about Jesus dying for our sins. What does this mean?”-caught her theologian mother completely off guard. Whatever her stammered responses may have meant to Carolyn at the time, the elder Crysdale came to the sobering conclusion that whatever she said “will only make sense to her when and as pain becomes a companion: suffering will be the better teacher” (p. 152). It takes humility for a theologian to admit the inadequacy of her words and theories, but the best theologians have always had this virtue. As mentioned above, Crysdale offers the reader no easy answers, no easier than the ones Jesus held out to his first followers: love, forgiveness, courage, responsibility, and letting go of revenge. Those who heed this call are not guaranteed complete healing of the suffering they must endure, but they may at least be confident that what Crysdale does recommend heightens the probability that healing and forgiveness will occur and that “the possibility of authentic living” (p. 150) will increase. This is itself no mean achievement and a good reason to purchase and ponder this thoughtful book.

James A. Wiseman, OSB, is an associate professor in the theology department at The Catholic University of America and is also the claustral prior of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C.

Copyright Spiritual Life Spring 2001

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