From Convent to Pentecost

Chapter 23

The Cross

And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).

In the convent, the above statement was taken literally. Lenten season was a dreaded season. In that particular time of year, Nuns flagellated their bodies until the blood flowed freely. The reason? To imitate Christ. We also had a crown of thorns, that was supposed to resemble Christ’s crown, placed on our heads. The thorns pierced our brow until the skin broke and our blood flowed. Sometimes a slow drizzle continued until our face was quite bloody and our eyes were dim with the sticky substance.

Constantine, the heathen Babylonian Pontiff, who for political reasons embraced Christianity, claimed to have seen in the sky a shiny cross bearing the motto, “Hoc Signo Vinces,” which meant, “By This Sign thou shalt Conquer.” This bloody man of war killed people right and left, taking full liberty for murdering with the sign of the cross as his credentials. Later he was canonized.

In Arizona, New Mexico, and Old Mexico, “Church” Indians still carry on with their barbaric rites and heathen ceremonies. Self-mortification by various ways of torturing their own bodies is exhibited especially with whippings, fastings and dragging the cross. Some have allowed their bodies to be nailed to the cross in Christ-like fashion. Others prove their devotion to Christ by beating themselves unmercifully while their blood flowed to the ground. Some crawl the fourteen stations of the cross. Others wear the crown of thorns and drag the cross the length of the fourteen stations.

In an article entitled, “The Brothers of Blood, “ in Time Magazine of September I, 1958, a very descriptive picture is portrayed of the Brotherhood of Penitents. I quote:

…Archbishop of New Mexico presented a book of religious music to a weather-beaten old man. The man on whom the Archbishop smiled was Don Miguel Archibeque, long time head of the self-torturing sect called Penitentes, which was officially banned by the Church for almost one hundred years. When Archbishop John B. Lamy set out from Cincinnati for New Mexico in 1850 after the United States arrested the territory from Mexico he was shocked at the gory appearance that the penitents, also known as the Brothers of the Blood of Christ, exacted upon themselves. Finally he banned the group. But the Penitentes went underground. Their practices gradually softened and in 1947, the Church once again recognized the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus. “

Today in the mountain villages of New Mexico and Southern Colorado the Hermanos, or brothers, have 135 chapter houses called Moradas with a total membership of more than twelve hundred. Membership is open to all male adults and most of the year the Penitentes seem no different than any other religious society of ardent [Church members — ed.]. But the Penitentes still suffer for their sins. Near each Morada is a hill called Calvary, usually surmounted by a cross which stands there all year long.”

During Easter Week on Wednesday, Thursday and Good Friday, the Penitentes stage processions between Morada and Calvary. Some are stripped to their waists with thorny cactus bound around their chests. Some scourging themselves every few steps with sharp bladed yucca leaves until the blood saturates their trousers, and you would see some staggering under fifteen foot crosses. Some of them crawl upon the sharp stones on lacerated knees and hands, and each, beneath the black hood that conceals his identity, recites the prayers of penance.”

These processions are tame compared to those of bygone days when it was not uncommon for a member of a Morada to have himself crucified, bound to a cross with horse-hair cords, or sometimes, it is even said, nailed. Today the more serious flagellations are limited to the privacy of the Morada. Still, there are tales that penitentes have died as the result of their self-punishment. And a legend persists that in this event the dead man’s shoes are left on his doorstep as evidence to his family of what happened.”

Some Churches defend the Brotherhood as an outlet for passionate Spanish piety. Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne presented the Book of Traditional Albados, devotional songs to Don Miguel Archibeque in appreciation of the important role his brotherhood had in the development and preservation of this beautiful expression of the true vocation of New Mexico Spanish people. “

We heathen Nuns did all the forms of penance of suffering the cross in the same manner as the heathen Indians. The Fourteen Stations of the Cross became quite a bloody route after a while. Our knees cracked and bled, and blood oozed from our thorn-pierced heads and dribbled to the ground as we wore the Christ-like crown of thorns.

Sometimes during the Lenten season we were given one blanket and sent to the trunk room to sleep. It was bitter cold. Therefore we may have walked or tried to run to keep the blood circulating in our veins. We may have felt numbness creeping over us, but we refused to let our tired bodies succumb to death by freezing, so we started moving again. Even at that, however, we acquired frost-bitten hands and feet from that penance. Sometimes we were required to walk on sharp rocks and sleep on the jagged stones — that is, we attempted to sleep.

I’ve heard of animals tasting or smelling blood until no one could corral them. They demanded more blood, even if they were being bitten, cut or fired upon with a gun.

Close by Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, little Betty and her sister were out a few feet from their backyard picking berries. Without notice, a big, Brown Bear appeared. Instead of running from them, he headed right toward them. They ran to the house screaming. One girl managed to get into the door, but the bear made a lunge and caught the sister. She stumbled on the doorstep. Mother came in time to grab the child’s feet to try to pull the child from the bear who had the girl’s head in its mouth.

The bear won out, and carried its victim in the woods amidst its crying and screaming.

The Mounties were called and a posse of men with loaded guns went on a search. They found only a portion of the body, and arm, or something of the sort, the head and some entrails strewed upon the ground. The bear left that much for his second meal. The men stood there and waited for the bear’s return. Before long, a rustling of leaves was heard and then a broken twig, all of which sounded like a mighty noise of an oak falling to their tensed nerves. Their eyes darted a searching glance in every direction. And then, at the same moment, came a vicious carnivorous beast headed straight toward them.

Most animals, even bear, will run when they see a man, and more so when they see a group of men. But not this bear. When he moved in their direction, they opened fire and killed him. They were ordered by authorities to open the bear’s stomach. When they did, they found it empty with the exception of the portions of the child’s body.

Explanation: Starvation and a quest for blood caused him to go contrary to the very laws of nature and go on a rampage to devour human flesh.

Evidently Mother Superior was affected the same way. Blood called for more blood. Suffering only led to more suffering. Often we stood in the form of the cross of hours. We dared not let our arms drop from exhaustion without having paid the penalty. Some of us, however, did faint. But a cold pail of water dashed upon us brought us back to consciousness where we could finish our penance.

In the Middle Ages between 1095 and 1270 A.D., the theory was advanced that Palestine, with its holy and revered spots, such as where Jesus was crucified, His sepulcher, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc., should belong to the Christian world and not the Mohammedans and Turks. So the political and ecclesiastical forces combined their efforts to launch the Crusades.

They turned out to be a ruthless, quarreling, murderous group of pilgrims who plundered and ravished the cities as they migrated to the holy land. They fought, killed and finally won. Having reached Palestine, they compelled the inhabitants to build their castles, palaces and fortresses. Degraded to slavery, they cried for Moslem rule as it was lighter than this “Christian” rule.

The first Crusade was proclaimed in 1095 at the Council of Claremont, where a multitude of knights assumed the cross as a badge and enlisted for the war against the Saracens.

Of all Crusades, the most pitiful and disgusting was the Children’s Crusade. Imagine children embarking on a thousand mile trip, meeting with hostile Turks, Mohammedans and wild beasts that devoured many of them. Yet, with the sanction of the “Holy one” and the holy cross as their badge of distinction, they started to conquer the Holy Land. Yes, they failed miserably and conquered nothing. However, death conquered many of them. It turned out to be a bloody route. Children were diseased and ravaged and the Black Plague came in for the final count.

A beautiful woman in her early thirties came with her family to our services. She inquired as to our mode of Baptism after kneeling at the altar one night. One night, without warning, her brain snapped. She became mentally unbalanced. When I visited her in the Hospital I asked her doctor the reason for her sudden breakdown. The doctor replied, “This didn’t happen overnight. This has been building up for months, probably years.”

I asked her husband what had been bothering her. He told how Elma and her sister had come to this city earning such low wages that they could hardly get enough food to keep body and soul together. The sister contracted tuberculosis and died. Elma grieved for her dead sister for days, weeks and months. Then to add to her troubles, her mother sent Elma the crucifix that laid on her sister’s casket. Later when Elma had gone home to visit her families, something happened that she could not quite get the gist of. She simply turned to him and said, “I’ll never go back to the ‘Church’ again.” This made a breach between Elma and her French speaking family.

Between grief, worry and fear, Elma broke. She turned gray seemingly overnight. Her pretty face and bright eyes changed to a blank expression. And she took up to searching each passing individual. Here, again, the cross enslaved instead of liberated. Elma was enclosed behind mental bars.

For God’s sake and for Elma’s sake, why didn’t her mother send a Bible instead of the dead sister’s crucifix? Why wasn’t she told to read God’s word about Heaven with its streets of pure gold and shiny gates of pearl, which awaits every true Christian? She could have looked forward to that great reunion day when we’ll no longer be separated by the cold, chilly river of death, but sit down together in God’s great dining hall at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. If she had read God’s Word, she would have learned that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7).

In the early part of 1945, with a friend I entered an Evangelical Church. I heard a young lady, named Sister Nilah, preaching about the cross. At first I thought about rising, walking out the door and going home. I mused in my heart that the cross was just a hoax. Furthermore if this church believed in the cross as the others did, then I wasn’t interested. I could only think of the cross as suffering in different ways. I stood for hours in the form of the cross, or laid prostrate on the floor in the shape of the cross while the other Nuns stepped over me and on me. While washing clothes in the laundry room I had to lick a cross with my tongue until it was swollen and bleeding. I carried a huge, wooden cross draped over my shoulder past the Stations of the Cross with Mother Superior reading the sufferings of Jesus to me:

In the Garden of Olives I shed 62,200 tears, 97,300 drops of blood, and by the crown of thorns a hundred wounds, and I carried the cross to Calvary 320 steps. Reward them as martyrs.”

Then she told us we must suffer as Jesus did, and she meant every word of it.

However, respect for my friend and the church caused me to remain seated. The preacher went on to say, “Jesus suffered and bore the pain for you. He died that you might be set free. He suffered once and for all.”

She depicted a loving, merciful Savior: Christ, with spiked nails driven in His hands and feet, blood dripping on the ground below while Roman soldiers gambled for His seamless robe. Then, with broken voice and in tones of pathos, she described Him looking down to His followers and the contemptible crowd milling about. He asked John to look after His mother, and then cried to His Father above, “Forgive them,” referring to the soldiers and those who had sentenced Him, “For they know not what they do.”

My embittered heart turned to love and compassion. Here I learned that the cross and Calvary were to liberate instead of enslave me. This young lady evangelist, Sister Nilah, told me Jesus had paid the debt for my sins and Calvary was never meant to be enacted again. Cruel hands had nailed him to the wooden tree. Religious priests leading the mob had witnessed how he was supposedly a fraud and a devil, and caused Pilate, the Governor, to relinquish his jurisdiction over Him, so they could scourge, mock and finally crucify Him. But now I was visualizing a Christ with scarred hands and riven side with so much love and understanding, beckoning me to leave all and take my spiritual cross and follow Him.

When the altar call was given, I did not hesitate to arise with the little crowd of seekers and fall on my knees at the altar. There I wept my way through to God. He filled me with the gift of the Holy Ghost. When Jesus arose from the dead and cried, “All power is given unto me both in Heaven and in earth,” never again would He be crucified on the old Roman cross.

That night in March, 1945, was when God sealed my future and destiny. Never again would I bow down to the old Roman cross. Never again would my fingers caress the rosary and pray a prayer on each bead holding to the crucifix. I had learned to know and to love the One who hung on that cross; Jesus, my Lord and my God.