The crosses of West Virginia
From time to time, as we drove through Maryland to West Virginia, I would catch sight of three crosses atop a mountain. At first I thought that the drowsiness induced by the six-hour drive had tricked my eyes and made me see things. Nevertheless, no matter what it was, I felt reminded of the need for prayer, which I had overlooked during our heady, whirlwind trip across America. Still I asked our hosts about it, and they assured me that I did see real crosses in sets of three (a gold one flanked by two smaller, light-blue ones), and that a former marine had set them up.
A further check revealed that the ex-marine’s name was Bernard Coffindaffer, that he came from West Virginia and that, upon leaving the military, he made a fortune from a coal-washing business. This he wound up, however, after undergoing two heart bypass operations. Two years later, a vision urged him to spend the rest of his life building the crosses, which now rise in 29 states in the US, and even in Zambia and the Philippines. West Virginia alone has 352 sets of crosses, which stand sentinel along the interstate and highways, and which anyone who drives across the state cannot miss. During our journey the wife and I saw quite a number of them ranged against the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians. In 1993, Coffindaffer suffered a massive heart attack and died in his home. By then he had spent more than three million dollars on the project.
What was in that vision that launched a thousand crosses? “A genuine, marvelous, glorious vision,” Coffindaffer said. “The Holy Spirit instructed, blessed, dealt with me and told me how to go about installing these Crosses.”
Quite obviously, they remind of Calvary, on which Jesus was crucified together with two others. And, of course, this was why Coffindaffer installed them. “They’re up for only one sole reason, and that’s this: to remind people that Jesus was crucified on a Cross at Calvary for our sins and that He is soon coming again,” Coffindaffer said.
A tourist can drive through the country roads of West Virginia and look at the crosses as they periodically come into sight, and think of God and His great love in giving His Son to die for us. But the danger is that the crosses might just remain outside of us, a part of the outer and not of the inner landscape. It was of this last that, as Matthew writes in his Gospel, Jesus spoke of.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’ He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.’”
Clearly, looking at and contemplating the cross and all that it entails differs from, and constitutes just the initial step to accepting to carry it, joyfully, because to suffer joyfully is not to suffer at all. Carrying the cross for the love of God, thereby saving one’s soul, is a greater profit than gaining the world and its happiness, which, according to St. Thomas, consists of wealth, power, pleasure and honor.
No doubt, in following Christ, one should live with equanimity, and, with trust in God, open oneself up to His providence. And then one is not afraid of what comes next. In effect, one takes Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
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