True Devotion

As I knelt in my parish church after Mass on the second Sunday of Lent, I thought of Mary in one of the final scenes of The Passion of the Christ. Standing, Mary looks longingly at her crucified son. She speaks words of love to him, kissing his feet and allowing her face to be smeared with his blood.

By kneeling before the tabernacle, I was filled with the peaceful realization that I was just as close to Jesus as was Mary at the time of his physical death, and I tried to speak to him as she would.

I was consoled because I shared something with the Blessed Mother: her devotion to Jesus. This is vastly different from admiring Jesus, from the vague and uncertain allegiance that even many practicing Christians have to the Christ.

Devotion is more than love. It's loving madly, to the point of real pain and suffering. Wasn't Jesus denigrated as a madman by the mob? Learned from Jesus himself, devotion gives commitment to faith. It evokes fortitude and makes joyful any hardship.

God chose to suffer and die as the way to redeem man for a number of reasons, St. Thomas Aquinas says, with the primary motive being to show “how much God loved man” and to inspire a similar love in man.

Mel Gibson's Passion has been criticized for the extent of its violence and bloodshed. I am bored by cinematic mayhem, but this was probably the only truly good and worthwhile violence ever to be depicted on film because the events of that first Holy Week were — and continue to be — salvific.

I was touched by the violence Jesus endured and I took spiritual consolation from it even as I was moved to tears. My salvation comes through the shedding of the God-man's blood. All of it. Every drop is like a love poem from God to me.

Catholic people have always understood this. It's why we have a corpus on our crucifixes. And we kiss those crucifixes because we are moved to do so by a suffering savior.

In recent decades, we have seen a rise in intellectualism among believers and an emphasis on the risen Christ — a “Christ without the cross.” It has also been a time in which devotion has waned.

I once made a visit to a church in Santiago, Chile, in which people pressed close to a statue of Jesus shackled to the pillar of scourging, his body covered with blood and scars. The people knelt, lit candles and, like Mary, gazed on the figure of Christ with an intense and familiar love that was at once sorrowful and profoundly happy.

Jesus wants us to share his madness, inviting followers to “pick up your cross and follow me.” The hardships and pains of life — everything from ordinary inconvenience to major disappointments and rejections — can be joined to Christ's cross to aid the salvation of souls. We can do this because Christ did it first. The faithful in Chile, most of whom were poor, showed me that devotion is forged in suffering and is refined in prayer.

Devotion, in fact, is the point of prayer. Masters of the spiritual life say that in private prayer we should remain as long as we can on those points that inspire affection and love because this is prayer of the heart, not the mind.

This Holy Week, perhaps more eloquently than any other in recent memory, Mary shows us how to balance the joy and sorrow that come with knowing and loving her Son right up to the cross.

At Calvary, Mary was not offended by Christ's blood — even as it covered her face, knotted her hair and soiled her cloths as she folded his dead body into her own. His precious blood saves humanity and its sight, though gruesome, could only fill her with love, with devotion.

Joseph Cullen writes from Floral Park, New York.