The Making of a San Damiano Cross

The Buddhist craftsmen handled the crucifix as if it were a holy item in their own religion

(photo: All photos by Angelo Stagnaro)

Knowing I would soon return to Burma to volunteer once again as a lay missionary, I wanted to donate something substantial to the parish at which I would be assigned.

The parish had recently undergone an upheaval after a priest absconded with some of the collected tithes and offerings. A new priest, Fr. Firmin, was to be assigned there. I was directed to shadow him and be “as helpful as possible without getting in the way.”

Like many Catholics, I had always been inspired by the Cross of San Damiano. This cross is familiar to Franciscans, as it’s the one that spoke to St. Francis in a vision in a dilapidated chapel outside of Assisi. I decided to donate a copy of this cross to the Burmese parish.

The San Damiano Cross is painted in the Byzantine style. It’s a “rood cross” in that it’s large enough to be hung over the rood screen that separates the sanctuary from the church’s apse.

The original now hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi, Italy, while a replica takes its place in the nearby San Damiano church.

It would be prohibitively expensive to transport an actual wooden cross from New York City to Burma, so I found a company that sold images of the San Damiano Cross online and purchased several prints on high quality, non-gloss photographic paper.

The original is about 6 feet tall but I instead opted for a 4-foot image. I packed it in a mailing tube which and checked it in as luggage. 

Once in Burma, I had to select the wood before engaging a carpenter. I chose a rough teak―a common soft wood in Burma. Teak is desirable for several reasons. First, it’s a precious wood that’s indigenous to Burma. Second, it produces a magnificent incense-like fragrance. Third, termites hate and avoid it.

The planks were nearly 3 inches thick, which made the cross hefty and substantial―sure to impress. 

With purchase of the beautiful teak wood, I asked about a trusted, skilled carpenter. Providentially, there was one just across the street from the wood supply store.

That’s what I like about Burma — convenient shopping for the discerning Christian cross connoisseur.

Translating my exact needs to the carpenter and his team of assistants was a bit difficult, as I don’t speak Burmese, but I’m an expert in body language and I’m not afraid to embarrass myself with crudely drawn images on paper napkins. I showed them the image that needed to be affixed to the wood.

The men, though Buddhists, treated the cross with the greatest of solicitude. They handled the image as if it were a holy item in their own religion, which I found touching. Catholics have a good reputation in Burma because of the quality of education and health care. Our charitable outreach there isn’t restricted to only poor Catholics―that is, we don’t make a distinction between “our” poor and “theirs.” This hasn’t gone unnoticed there — especially among Buddhists monks, who actively seek out the friendship of Catholic priests.

The manager of the carpenter shop spoke some English and he desperately wanted to be friends, so we sat speaking as his men worked on my project. 

“Is this Jesus?” he asked, pointing respectfully toward the poster. I answered the man and he smiled. “Are you Catholic?” he asked again. I responded in the affirmative.

“I am Buddhist,” he admitted. “But I respect Jesus,” he told me as he bowed toward the image of Savior of the Universe before him.

The Buddhists have no problem with Jesus. No more so than they have a problem with the rest of us. They respect Christianity as a religion of peace and goodwill in the world.

However, as they see Christ and Christianity as merely one moregood, holy and important thing in the universe, they don’t always feel the impetus to convert―it’s an inherent problem with universalism. I had studied Buddhism extensively when I did my graduate research so I was prepared to discuss it. I hope the gentleman came away with a better understanding of Christ and His Holy Church.

We spoke about our respective faiths during the two hours it took the carpenter team to assemble my cross. The three workers nodded as their manager translated for us.

As the three carpenters made their initial measurements, I went out to buy some water for myself and the men. The Burmese friend who accompanied me warned me that they wouldn’t accept bottled water from me but they would be grateful for some energy drinks. Taking his advice, I returned to the workers, who greeted me with great smiles. Perhaps the excessive amounts of sugar, taurine and caffeine in the drinks made them work faster. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit motivating them. Who knows?

Burma has only recently opened up the outside world. They understood the value of work and of materials―they measured six times and cut once.

To all appearances, the San Damiano Cross is a set of perfect rectangles and straight lines. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a bit of sagging here and there in the original cross so the image, true-to-life, couldn’t be faulted for being any different. But, with the care and keen eyes of professional craftsmen, the trio cut out the crucifix and gently laid the image upon. Next, the carpenters gently tapped in 100 fasteners to secure it to the wood.

I quietly prayed during the making of the cross both for the craftsmen and for the families of Assumption parish who would be the recipients of my present. I thought it appropriate. As I continue in my supervisory position, I looked up “Blessings of Crosses” in the Roman Missal and found an actual, authorized blessing specifically for crucifixes. I bookmarked the prayer knowing it would be needed later.

And, then, before I realized it was over, it was, indeed, over. The finished crucifix stood before me―before us all.

It was awesome in both its dimensions and in its detail. Perfectly mesmerizing.

I thanked the men and gave them all St. Benedict medals, explaining that they would help keep away evil.

Now it’s up the Holy Spirit to call them to Christ.