Gazing upon the crucifix helps us grow in virtue

Almost 11 years ago during a semester abroad in Rome, some classmates and I opted for a day trip to Orvieto, Italy. We visited the Orvieto cathedral, praying in front of the famous Eucharistic miracle, and had a scrumptious lunch before splitting ways to explore the city. Though there was much to see, a friend and I set out with one quest in mind: finding the Church of San Domenico, known for housing the crucifix that spoke to St. Thomas Aquinas.

As pranzo descended upon us — Europe’s midday break during which churches close — we enjoyed the sights along the way. We sauntered through the quaint, medieval town, relishing in its narrow and cobblestoned streets, marveled over the life-sized wooden horses stationed on the path, chuckled over a wooden Pinocchio resting on an iron bench, and admired the breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.

With the hours of pranzo finally ending, we relinquished our leisurely pace and determinately maneuvered our way through the next few streets, finally finding the object of our desire: the Church of San Domenico.

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We discovered the church to be a modest one. Upon entering, we carefully scanned the tufa stone and whitewash walls, adorned by a few frescoes and paintings. Passing about a dozen wooden pews, we found ourselves by the altar. We genuflected. Sitting in the first pew, we looked upon the crucifix hanging above the tabernacle.

“Is this it”? we asked each other.

As no other crucifix was visible, we concluded — rather skeptically — that it must be the long-sought for crucifix. We knelt, saying some prayers. After some time passed, and upon further reflection, we concluded that the crucifix facing us seemed too modern to be from the 13th century.

Our mission commenced again. We rose, scouring the church’s walls. No other crucifix was in sight. But upon reaching the entrance, we stumbled upon something curious: a side altar tucked away to the right. A massive white cloth hung from the top of the altar’s arch, veiling something. Stopping directly in front of the side altar, we wondered: What was behind the veil?

Glancing around the church, and finding not another soul in sight, I stepped to the right of the veil, finding its bottom corner within reach. Trembling, I lifted the corner to see what treasure, if any, lay behind. As I looked up, an image of the suffering Christ, outstretched on the cross, met my glance.

At that moment, my friend and I found ourselves standing beneath and praying before the same crucifix as did Aquinas. Centuries ago, it spoke to this great saint: “You have written well of me, Thomas.” And centuries later, it was still speaking — to us, and to all who look upon it.

Standing at the foot of the crucifix

Depictions of St. Thomas often portray him standing at the foot of the crucifix, with book and quill in hand. Though a renowned scholar who undoubtedly studied from and consulted various books, Thomas credited the crucifix to be his school of wisdom; he noted he learned more from the crucifix than any book he read.

For Aquinas, Christ’s suffering was necessary not only to redeem fallen man, but also to be our exemplar. In his conference on the Creed, the saint reflects on this latter reason. He explains the cross exemplifies every virtue: Christ crucified contains all the lessons we need in conducting ourselves, ordering our lives well, and growing in virtue. The secret for Thomas lies in desiring what Christ desired and disdaining what Christ disdained on the cross.

The cross exemplifies every virtue

In his writing, the Dominican theologian lists a series of virtues, demonstrating how Christ embodies the perfection of each virtue, thus serving as our model of holiness.

Christ, outstretched on the cross, exudes charity as he offered his life for mankind’s salvation. This is the highest form of love, as St. John relays: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). In return for such great love, St. Thomas meditates that this truth should challenge us and incite within us a desire to offer our own anguishes, troubles and evils to Christ.

In speaking of patience, St. Thomas explains how one demonstrates heroic patience: either by suffering “intensely” in patience, or by subjecting oneself to avoidable suffering. Aquinas attributes both types of patience to the Suffering Servant. With one thought or word, the Messiah easily could have prevented his passion and death. Yet, he willingly embraced and endured all in silence out of love for man.

The crucified Christ provides pride’s remedy — humility. Though he was the Son of God, Christ submitted himself to Pilate’s temporal authority, accepting the procurator’s judgment and willingly suffering an unjust execution — crucifixion. Meanwhile, those desiring an example of obedience only need to reflect how Christ perfectly obeyed his Father — even unto death on a cross.

The Angelic Doctor concludes his reflection, exhorting those who seek an example of “contempt for earthly things” to “imitate Him who is the King of kings, the Lord of rulers, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom; but on the Cross He was stripped naked, ridiculed, spat upon, bruised, crowned with thorns, given to drink of vinegar and gall, and finally put to death.” We should not be attached to money or clothes for “they divided My garments among them,” to honors since “Christ was covered with lashes and insults,” to power since they placed the crown of thorns on Christ’s head, or to certain foods as “in My thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Learning from the school of the cross

Keeping the crucified Christ within our gaze will completely reform our lives, as St. Thomas imparts, for it softens our hearts in the pursuit of virtue and compels us to conversion. There on the cross, Christ teaches that he sustains us in our difficulties and inspires us to follow his footsteps by imitating his example.

And so, the image of the suffering Christ contains all the lessons we will ever need. It contains more than we will ever comprehend. It is a school of virtue and of an enduring, faithful love. No matter the circumstance, no matter the struggle, no matter the example of which we are most in need — whether it be patience waiting in the grocery store line, detachment from a misplaced item, charity and compassion in an irritating situation, or conformity to God’s will — we can glance upon the crucifix and recall Christ’s example on the cross. When we do so, Christ will silently teach us the way of virtue.

Over eight centuries ago, the crucifix spoke to Aquinas. And it still does for each one of us, if we but take the time to look upon the crucified Christ and recall his example on the cross.

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