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Sign of the cross.

As a boy in school I remember that each class used to start with a prayer. In one class the teacher began the class prayer by waiting for us all to be quiet; then he would close his eyes and say some beautiful heart-felt words intended to inspire us with a greater love for mankind or some such thing. I used to be distracted by the fact that he never made the sign of the cross; the spontaneous prayer just began, gained momentum, and tailed off. We knew that we were finished when his eyes opened.

Now I have no intention of ridiculing this man; he was one of the most sensitive, thoughtful individuals that I have ever met. As kids we were merciless towards him, taking full advantage of his belief in the innate goodness of our natures. However, even to my adolescent mind it made no sense not to bless oneself. When I questioned him on this point, he answered that the sign of the cross had become a worn-out formula that had lost its meaning; it was done absent-mindedly, unthinkingly, irreverently. He saw no need to continue with an empty symbol that he believed detracted from his prayer. I pointed out that if the action had lost its meaning, shouldn't one put the meaning back into it? After all, this action of tracing the cross on one's person originated in apostolic times, and has been the practice of Christians, saints and sinners alike, for the better part of two thousand years. To his credit, he said he would consider my argument.

G.K. Chesterton was making this same point in his book Orthodoxy, when he said that all revolutions are reactions, reaching back to a previously held ideal. Conservatism is not enough; to simply conserve something is to doom it to decay. To keep anything one needs to constantly refurbish it:

". . . all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again; that is, you must be always be having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old." (Orthodoxy, ch. VII)

For my teacher and others, the sign of the cross had and has ceased to inspire. This lassitude is partly to be blamed on familiarity, partly on laziness, and partly on ignorance. We need to rediscover the incredible symbolism of tracing on one's body the shape of a gallows, so that in this gallows is one's strength and hope. But the capital punishment of a criminal is only our hope when that criminal is God.

We are now brought to the Incarnation; we are now at the cross with Mary; we are now at the Mass. This is revolutionary stuff, the antitheses of our cynical age addicted to ease and comfort. This folly of the cross is as capable of causing revolutions today as it was in pagan Rome. The old Roman emperors saw it as a threat to themselves, as do the new pagans; and so they should. The sign of the cross is as revolutionary today as it has always been; and it will conquer today as it has always done in the past.

The Sign of the Cross

Whene'er across this sinful flesh of mine I draw the Holy Sign,

All good thoughts stir within me, and renew Their slumbering strength divine;

Till there springs up a courage high and true To suffer and to do.

And who shall say, but hateful spirits around,

For their brief hour unbound,

Shudder to see, and wail their overthrow?

While on far heathen ground

Some lonely saint hails the fresh odour, though

Its source he cannot know?
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Author:David Beresford
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Words:708
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