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A Good Word

30 Aug

A Good Word by Monk Nicolae Steinhardt

Christ is on the cross, naked; on His head, a crown of thorns; spikes, piercing his ankles and wrists, pin Him to the wood; His body is full of blood and bruises, it secretes only sweat and the silent groan of suffering flesh. He has been slapped, spit upon, pushed around, hit, mocked, He climbed Calvary and more than once fell beneath the burden of the tool of torment. Now He is waiting for agony and shameful death, slow, atrocious, beneath the double sign of mocking and of cursing. He is surrounded, on the foul wasteland of the hill at the edge of the city, only by hostile people and a certain number of the indifferent curious, the usual fans of capital executions and of public cruelties.

At His right and at His left two other crosses, each with its prey, two thieves, two murderers – two common infractors, so that the humiliation might be even more stinging. It is the noon hour, the sun is scorching, the thirst – the essence of this mode of destruction – has begun to manifest itself and all is only worthlessness, defeat, hopelessness, pain, exhaustion. As though it weren’t enough, here come the scribes, the scholars, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, elders, the whole coterie of the winners passes by; and they all wisely shake their gray heads; pityingly and ironically they taunt Him, they laugh at Him, they invite Him to come down off the cross and convince them; they, to all appearances, only ask this much: to see and to believe. Oh no, the thief on the left casts his remarks, too, he provokes Him, he ridicules Him, he insults Him. The one on the right, however, does not: the one on the right, although he too is crucified and in torment and in the horrible waiting, finds the respite and the power to reprimand the hateful one and he finds, as well, the altruism and the magnanimity and the nobility to say soothing and respectful words to his neighbor. He can’t help Him at all, He can’t unbind Him and take Him off the cross, he can’t change his terrible situation in the least, can’t ease His punishment, can’t shorten His agony, can’t intervene in the implacable unfolding of the crucifixion scene.

Nothing, he can do nothing except to endure as well, himself, the agony, until the end of the night. And yet, as he unworthily and helplessly hangs on, what is he given to hear? “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”. Why this extraordinary and completely wonderful promise? Why should he – the guilty one, the justly-condemned one, the one without the power or means of healing – why should it be given to him to enter into Paradise together with the Master, when the righteous Noah, the Patriarch Abraham (the one who received the Promise), Moses (the one who gave the Law), the Prophet Isaiah (the one who proclaimed the coming in the flesh of the Deliverer), King David, all the prophets, and all the wise men of antiquity, and all the philosophers in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled partially, and the Forerunner and Baptizer John, are still stagnating in Hell? Why this incomparable honor, this grace upon grace, why this immediateness? Today! How to explain the totally astonishing character of the reward? Where does it come from? Today, with Me, in Paradise! There is an urgency in these words, an elan, a fullness, an excitement which cannot but arouse amazement. Some have sought to understand by referring to the Good Thief’s quality of being a colleague in suffering with the Lord.

Yes, he was made worthy of the matchless honor of being subjected to the same sentence as Christ and to be found just a few feet away from the Holy Cross in the last moments of his life. Yes, it is natural that the Lord would have felt a sense of mercy, sympathy, and goodwill toward a comrade in suffering. Others invoke the dignity of the man, his resigned demeanor and his decency toward Christ, as opposed to the ragings and blasphemy of the other one. Yes, there is a dose of truth and logic here too. But these don’t seem to me to be the real explanations. Something else appears to me to be essential, a deed (or better, an attitude) seemingly destined to be easily overlooked and yet decisive: the thief could not do anything, but he could soften and sweeten that suffocating atmosphere reeking of ammonia, of evil, of hypocrisy, and venom. That is, he comforted the blameless Crucified One with a good word! Yes, that simple old syntagm, that short little phrase, specific to our ancestral peasant way of talking, constitutes the most plausible explanation for the promise made by the Lord, for its fullness, its immediacy, and its urgency. A good word – and it was enough! Like a healing balm, like a total remedy, a miracle.

Those few words of respect, of affection, of defense, of confidence, of sympathy, suddenly changed everything and transformed the sinister wasteland, the foul Golgotha, the space poisoned by injustice, cruelty, and revenge, into a corner of humanness, into an antechamber of Paradise. Today, with Me, in Paradise: because you too now, into this wilderness (this wasteland, My servant, T.S. Eliot, will someday call it) of wrath and cunning, have introduced a drop of dew. Because, overlooking your own calamity, you saw Me, you intuitively understood Me, you recognized Me and you didn’t hesitate to take My part, to worship Me, to speak to Me words that reached my soul and poured honey into My heart, making you truly a partaker in My sufferings. You didn’t remain closed up in yourself, locked up in your own pain, isolated in the all too natural egocentrism of a man without hope.

You didn’t complain for yourself, You wept for Me. You eked out the respite and the goodness and the gentleness of soul to try to console and soothe another. With a pitiful good word you transformed this Golgotha and all this head wagging and all their “hoots”, all this odious nightmarish charade and this defiled place, into a garden. Like the sinful woman, you anointed me with the precious oil of mercy and of attention to your neighbor’s grief. You gave me to drink – figuratively, and yet no less intensely – that cup of cold water about which I said that it will not remain unrewarded. And so us, too, it behooves us, too, to follow the example of Disymas and to perceive what price a good word can have in some circumstances. Silver and gold we don’t always have to give, neither objects, neither goods, practically nothing special. Does that mean that we are destined to do nothing, to stand by numbly then, uncaring, our spirit absent, people of ice and of stone? Deaf, blind, with our thoughts elsewhere? Far off, wandering along in the regions of fortified, introverted loneliness? Anytime and anywhere, in spite of the most unfavorable and adverse circumstances, there remains something for us to do: to the unfortunate one near us we can say a good word. This free and inefficacious (from a practical point of view) act, this “surplus”, this uselessness is not an empty word, but a good one. The good word of the thief on the right perfumes the poisoned air of Golgotha and, like the gentle breeze which, on Horeb, proclaimed to Elijah the approach of the Almighty, fills the human soul of the Savior with peace and sweetness.

Constantin Noica has pointed out the philosophical treasures of Romanian speech. The expression a good word can be a guide to help us understand the spiritual nature of our speech. This recourse is always at our disposition: with a good word we can bring dew to the most devastated soul a fellow human being. Let us not lose, whenever it is offered to us, the occasion to wipe the sweat off the face of the persecuted, like the merciful Veronica, or to relieve the soul of a crucified one through a word of comfort and fellowship, like the good thief.”

From the book Daruind Vei Dobandi (Giving You Will Receive), Editura Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 1997, translated by David Hudson.

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Scris de pe 30 August 2008 în In English

 

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