The Cross-Shaped Life

In memoriam Patrick Ignatius Dickson BSG

Saint John’s Getty Square Yonkers • Tobias S Haller BSG

From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.+
Towards the end of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, the old man comes stumbling onstage, bearing his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms. One of the horrified onlookers asks, “Is this the promised end?” Then a few moments later, as Lear struggles towards his own death, and finally breathes his last, that same onlooker says, “O, let him pass! He hates him much That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.”

Certainly Patrick Ignatius was stretched out on a rack of tough suffering these last few years. Given that frail physique, already stretched so thin he almost disappeared when he turned sideways, I was amazed at how much of a licking he could take and still keep ticking — and with such Timex-like regularity and patience. For us to wish him still here would be to wish more suffering for him. Instead, in God’s mercy, his pain has finally found its promised end.

That day came as we knew it would. More importantly, as Patrick knew it would, so that we who miss him can take some comfort in knowing what Patrick knew: he knew his promised end; he knew the answer to that age-old heart-felt plea, Lord let me know my end and the number of my days. And as that end drew near, he was prepared and fortified and ready.

To know one’s end does not come easily. The knowledge of what manner of death one is to diedepends upon living a life so dedicated and so consecrated that the end comes not as a shock or an interruption, but as a natural and fitting conclusion to a life as surely aimed towards that end as Robin Hood’s arrow is to the bull’s-eye.

For this end, this promised end, is not simply a termination but an accomplishment, not a stop but an arrival at the point towards which the whole of life has been guided. This end comes because the Christian has put on Christ, has embraced Christ, and him crucified, and has thus been transformed into his likeness and into his shape. It is by living the cross-shaped life that you come to know the manner of death you are to die, and to take comfort in that knowledge, so that from then on no one can make any trouble for you. In the knowledge of your end in Christ, your arrival at this promised end, in the accomplishment of this ultimate sign of the cross, all else falls away to insignificance. In the light of the cross of Christ, in the life shaped to its discipline and its beauty, all things find their meaning, and in its shadow, nothing else matters.

So what does it mean to live a cross-shaped life, like Paul to bear in your own body the marks of Jesus branded, to be crucified to the world even as your world has been crucified? What does it mean to be made to fit the shape of the cross, and of the one who hung upon it, lifted up so that he might draw that whole world to himself and transform it into his likeness?

It means a life of dedication, a life of service, a life of humility, a life of deference, a life of patience. It means a life of kindness and concern, of firm resolve combinedwith gentle disposition. It means walking in the light, with both eyes open, keeping both eyes on the promised end, upon the cross, free from distraction by the petty dissensions of the old world and its obsessional concerns with advantage and power and control — what old King Lear called the “court news”: “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out... packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by the moon.” It means knowing what is truly vital and vitally true, and holding fast to it, if need be nailed to it, come what may.

For ultimately it means sacrifice, my friends — which is not suffering, but sanctification — not the mere dedication of the old but its transformation into the new life, the new creation; not the laying down but the lifting up of life. It means death to self before the self dies, and the embrace of the living hope of resurrection present and active even in the midst of that death, even the death of the cross, with voices raised and singing alleluia even at the grave.

Those who knew Patrick Ignatius could see all of this at work in him long before his final illness. We were blessed that the trajectory of this man’s life intersected ours and arced through it with such clarity, sure of his end as he was of the promise. For Patrick Ignatius, the cross was not merely a symbol, it was a sacrament — a real presence of his Lord, an effective instrument of that promised end. He embraced it and shaped his life in accord with it — stretching out his arms in love. Our brother in Christ — now in Christ even more perfectly and completely — our brother in Christ hasgiven us all an example — which is what saints do.

Do you think me hasty so to canonize him? Do we need to wait for a few miracles and some certificates from the hierarchy? Need we frame a resolution for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to submit to the tender mercies of the General Convention’? Give me, I pray, a break.

For, rather, dare we not, we who saw the arc of his life pass through ours, extrapolate the end of his trajectory? His life was shaped to the cross and the man who hung upon it: pierced through the side by the wound of charity that strikes the heart and breaks it too — and opens the fountain of love. Pierced by the wounds of dedicated hands that do the work God gives them to do, and feet that walk in the way of the Lord’s walk, the way of that self-same cross. We have seen a life marked and branded with the signs of the cross as clear as the stigmata; we have seen a life lived in the way of the cross, lifted up, not for the whole world, but for those who have been blessed to share a portion of this pilgrimage, stopping station by station with the bended knee and confessing tongue of prayer and dedication.

Patrick Ignatius set us an example, and we are called to follow: To form our daily intentions, to direct our daily actions, to take the cross of Christ as our template and our goal.

This is the cross of Christ in which we glory, towering over the wrecks of time. This is the cross of Christ, standing as high above the valley of death’s shadow, as Christ stands high above all creatures, worthy to be lifted up precisely because he was willingto descend to those depths and die for those he loved.

This is the cross that stands above all controversy and dissent, all pride of place and privilege, all earthly wealth and power, the need to possess, the need to control. This is the cross that transforms the world by confounding its values and turning it upside down, undermining the easy ploys of manipulation and deceit by which the children of earth think to barter their lives and better their lives.

This is the cross to which Patrick Ignatius shaped his life, and which we are called to share. Now and every day. May we find strength to take up that cross each day and so embrace it, that we too, with trusting hearts will know our promised end and find our goal, the arc of our cross-shaped lives fitted neatly into the places prepared for them from before the foundation of the world, in the everlasting comfort of the peace and mercy, the knowledge and the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+