Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
∼  T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made while traveling around Europe is that Cervantes was surely right: The road is better than the inn. The way along which the Mystery would have us go—i.e., the circumstances that color and condition the journey—is not an appendage to the life of grace, to be quickly jettisoned the moment we arrive at our destination. But because the whole of our life is a pilgrimage to the Father, no step along the way is ever wasted. Some stones are meant to be stumbled upon.

When the buses left Gaming very early that morning, so early that many of the students were still bleary-eyed from sleep, we were bound for Vienna, a city full of bright promise for those who love to shop. And there would, of course be countless sights to see once we got there. But before any of that could begin, there was one short stop that we simply had to make: an ancient Cistercian monastery called Heiligenkreuz, which meant nothing to us at the time, situated on the outskirts of the great city of Vienna, where we were to go for Mass before reaching journey’s end.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Why—I wondered—had that particular stone been chosen for us to stumble upon? After all, Franciscan University students had never gone there before. What possible attraction could it have to justify delaying our arrival in Vienna? The name, we were told, means “Our Lady of the Holy Cross,” and it’s the oldest Cistercian community in the world, with a life of work and worship that has gone on without interruption for nearly nine-hundred years since its founding in 1133—scarcely a generation or so since the first stirrings of Cistercian life itself began with the founding of Citeaux back in the year 1098. But was that sufficient reason to warrant a visit? Or the fact that a handful of Austrian rulers are buried there? How relevant could that be to our plans? And if the whole point of stopping there in the first place had simply been to carve out time for liturgy, we could easily have done that before setting out, thus leaving more time for the museums and coffee shops of Vienna.

And yet we needed to put off reaching Vienna, because, for all the cosmopolitan charms of the one, there was something so compelling about the other that, well, we simply could not postpone our going there. This particular place was more necessary to get to, you see, than any old inn at the end of the road.

Necessary for whom? For us. And for anyone else whose life is wedded to the Catholic Thing. Because it is upon the truth of that Thing—which is to say, the whole nine yards of Catholic belief—that all salvation depends. Chesterton warned us about it when, in that wonderful and whimsical way of his, he exclaimed: “Take away the Nicene Creed and you will do irreparable harm to the Seller of Sausages!”

What did he mean by that? Only that when you divest the faith of all that makes it distinctive, you visit such violence upon the ordinary believer as to leave him permanently bereft. That there are certain hard-fought truths of our faith that, every so often, we do well to re-visit. And not simply in order to state them anew, but to actually see them with our very own eyes, touch them with our very own lips, lest they become like gossamer and float haplessly away.

So that was why we were going to Heiligenkreuz—to see and to touch a truth without which belief becomes no more than a hot air balloon untethered to the world Christ came to redeem. And how did Christ redeem the world? How exactly did he pull off that miracle of deliverance? By going up to Golgotha, where, bound between two planks of wood, arms and feet fasted by nails, the world’s salvation willed to hang for three bloody, unspeakable hours. And when it was all over, and the pierced and crucified body came down, and was placed in its tomb to await resurrection, what happened to the cross? Did it simply disappear? Where did it go?

Obviously it didn’t go anywhere. But over time it got buried beneath much of the rubble and ruin that Jerusalem had become. Until, that is, an old and resolute woman by the name of Helena decided to travel to the Holy Places, and there unearth the instrument upon which the Lord of life had been slowly tortured to death. As the mother of Constantine, first Christian Emperor of Rome, she was well suited for the job. And, as Evelyn Waugh tells us (who, incidentally, wrote a profound and beautiful novel about her), because of all the trouble she took to find the True Cross, and to determine the authenticity of it, she really deserves to be a Doctor of the Church:

[F]or she was not merely adding one more stupendous trophy to the hoard of relics which were everywhere being unearthed and enshrined. She was asserting in sensational form a dogma that was in danger of neglect. Power was shifting. In the academies of the Eastern and South-Eastern Mediterranean sharp, sly minds were everywhere looking for phrases and analogies to reconcile the new, blunt creed for which men had died, with the ancient speculations which had beguiled their minds, and with the occult rites which had for generations spiced their logic.

In short, a great cottage industry was underway, staffed by seducers eager to strip the believer of the truth that not only had God become one like us, but that he had most certainly died like us. And while much may be manipulated by the enemies of Christianity—etherealized, as it were, out of existence—it is no easy thing to deny or suppress the plain historical fact that God, truly incarnate, went up to Golgotha to die. The wording of the Creed provides no warrant for such sleight-of-hand. Such surgeries as may be required to remove that particular Article of the Creed—“was crucified, died and was buried”—have yet to overcome that massive historical bulwark. “This was the stumbling block,” reports Waugh, “in Carthage, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Athens, and at this all the talents of the time went to work, to reduce, hide, and eliminate.”

And so, refusing to reckon with reality, with the plain fact of a faith founded upon history, they sought refuge in the comforting constructs of men and myth. Why not turn the truth of Christianity completely on its head? Why should a crucifixion be the centerpiece of belief? We really must clean up the mess. God, as pure Spirit, is simply too fastidious for flesh. But, of course, Christianity cannot be reduced to an abstraction; there is no way to airbrush away all that blood. Faith is not, as Pope Francis reminds us,

a philosophical doctrine … Christianity is a person, a person lifted up on the cross … who emptied himself to save us. He took on sin. And so just as in the desert sin was lifted up, here God made man was lifted up for us. And all of our sins were there… One cannot understand Christianity without understanding this profound humiliation of the Son of God, who humbled himself and made himself a servant unto death on the cross.

Where is your sin? It is there at the heart of all we believe. Go and find it there. It will be fixed to a cross on which God himself consented to hang. “Go and look for it there,” Francis tells us, “in the wounds of the Lord, lifted up on the cross.”

And if, as grace and luck would have it, twenty-one centuries later, you board the bus for Heiligenkreuz, which is but a brief stop on the road to Vienna, the monks will show you a piece of it—the actual wood of which you are able not only see, but to touch with your lips as you bend in veneration before it. It is the real deal—a large and quite genuine fragment taken from the True Cross that a saintly old woman in the fourth century first uncovered in the place where Christ died. And when, in the year 1188, it was carried off to Austria, a certain Duke by the name of Leopold V (whose bones, along with the other rulers of Austria, lie beneath the Chapel Hall) gave it to the monks of Heiligenkreuz, who bring it out every so often to edify and astonish the faithful.

There can be nothing in Vienna as marvelous as that.

Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Austria
Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Austria


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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