I bought the cross I wear on a retreat to Holy Cross Monastery in April, 2014. It was a spontaneous decision made while browsing through their bookstore. A heavy rainfall eroded the glue holding the beams together about two months later, so I patched it up using superglue and a bit of red thread a housemate of mine had to hand. I’ve worn it almost every day since.
Spiritual practices like the wearing of this cross each day fascinate me, in part because they are unintentional in so many ways. I didn’t plan to buy a cross, and there wasn’t much principle in the decision. Having bought it, I didn’t have any expectation regarding how much or how little I would wear it. I put it on every morning, but this is and always has been a reflex motion, much the same as putting on my glasses. During the day my hand will reach for it every now and again, without any discernible pattern of thought. On the vanishingly rare days I forget to put it on, however, I feel a peculiar anxiety when I find myself grasping empty space. Even though there’s no pattern to my reaching for it—and even though I’m usually no more conscious of wearing it than I am of wearing my aforementioned glasses—it provokes a feeling of comfort or challenge when it’s grasped. Despite the lack of intention, then, this absent-minded practice is integral to the way I navigate the minutes and hours of any given day. All of which sparks the question, what is the ‘why’ behind the ‘how’ of this haphazard integration? Why do I keep wearing a small, patched-together icon, and why has it begun to feel like an extension of my torso?
There are several reasons which might spring to mind, but are ultimately irrelevant. This cross has not come to play this part in my life because it is a kind of statement, for example. For all the stories that pop up every now and again of Christianity (or religion in general) under attack, with office workers being asked to remove religious symbols and so on, I have no sense that wearing a cross is a counter-cultural move, nor that it is an act of defiance against secular culture (whatever that is supposed to mean). Indeed, I have a feeling there is something slightly self-deceptive about the idea of the cross as a symbol of the counter-culture, whether from the perspective of the left or the right. For all that it can be meant as such, and for all that Christ crucified is indeed a stumbling block, it remains the case that Anglo-American society has been structured under the hegemony of a cross. There is nothing clear cut in all of this, of course—the cross can be a means of undermining those institutions which have sought to assimilate and neutralize it. But the fact of my wearing a cross is so easily integrated into the norm that it cannot serve as a statement on this kind on its own.
Nor has it come to play this role because there to be a particular theology of the cross which I must constantly remind myself of. The fact that Jesus Christ died and suffered (and all that this entails) must, I believe, determine the form and thought of Christian existence. But to say this is to have said very little. Precisely because it plays such an essential role in so many theologies, a cross itself is theologically ambivalent. Even (especially?) in theologies explicitly geared towards liberation, for example, the cross can be wielded as an instrument of the executioner over and above God’s liberation—Jürgen Moltmann can be opposed by Dolores Williams, as well as theologians of the early Church. Theologies change and fluctuate moreover, no matter how rigorously expressed, and though one may associate a particular mode of theological expression to the cross, there is no guarantee that this mode itself retains the same content over time. Precisely because the cross cannot but be infused with theological significances, then, the fact of wearing one does need not bind the wearer to any particular one.
These are not reasons, then. But the ways they are not contain hints of what is. The patterns of life and faith are rarely clear, in my experience at least. And no symbol can collapse each of the various symbolisms that render life navigable into a scheme that maps the wild diversity of life and the living (not least because any symbol is itself interlaced with the various symbolism within which it plays a part). But in particular moments, it is handy to clasp something which, precisely because of its indeterminacy and richness, disperses false certainty and calls thought back to the ground. It can be handy to have something to reach for which is not integrated into the practice of reaching, which is not part of a strict intention but rather there for when intention loses its way. Such an object can become a point of contact round which diversities converge—a social prism, in a sense.
I think the cross I wear has played this role in my life over the last few years. Quite apart from what it is as a symbol, the wood and the thread of this cross as an object have grounded the fancy of my thoughts in their concrete solidity. Quite apart from this solidity, the what it is of this wood and thread—the symbol which is patterned into and by the physical configuration—gestures to all that the cross has been, can be, and will be, in all its harmful and healing iterations. In this gesturing, it calls thoughts and feelings both out of and back into particular situatedness. The symbol of the cross thus calms and disrupts me in given moments, precisely as it complicates its own significance. In both its solidity and its symbolism, then, this cross provides an anchor and a prompt, without either role being contingent upon a fully specified articulation of its significance. The symbol shifts within the object, and the object differs according as it is symbolized, and both serve to communicate unpredictable meanings. There is something of life about this, and not simply because it has become so implicated in the pattern of my life.
If all this is true—and if it is meaningful, as opposed to mere rambling—then the reasons why I wear this cross don’t quite have the character of reasons, and the ‘why’ is fully tied into the ‘how’ of its place in my daily practice. At the very least, it confuses me. But I think this confusion points to something at the heart of a certain kind of spiritual practice, the unintentional kind which is nonetheless crucial to patterns of intentional practice. And insofar as the cross, the spirit, and the concrete happenings of life mutually inform each other in illuminating, settling, and unsettling these patterns, I think the ‘why’ within the ‘how’ of unintentional spiritual practice points to something deeper than than reaching for a piece of wood at random moments, without demanding that the act be something more than it is. I cannot at present name this something (maybe it doesn’t have a name). But it strikes me as worth reflecting upon, as an aspect of the space and time within which the anomalous spirit of the triune God can encounter us.