"Because he drew daily great sweetness and compassion from the humility and footsteps of the Son of God, what was bitter to the body he took and held as sweet. Daily [St. Francis grieved for the sufferings and anguish which Christ bore for us, and afflicted himself internally and externally for them, and took no thought for his own.
Once, a few years after his conversion, when he was walking one day alone along the road not far from the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula, he wept and wailed with a loud voice. As he thus went on, a pious man, whom we know and from whom we learnt this, who had given him much sympathy and comfort before he had any friars and likewise after, met him, and moved with pity towards him asked him: 'What is the matter, brother?' For he thought he was in pain from some illness. But St. Francis replied: 'I ought to go thus weeping and wailing without shame through the whole world for the passion of my Lord.' Then both together they began to lament and weep bitterly."1
I used to have a problem with the at-times graphic imagery of the Catholic crucifix, of Catholic art and imagery. Though I was a Seventh-Day Adventist when I was young, raised in a church with an empty cross, I was still well-acquainted with the common sight of the crucifix. I used to think how morbid it was, how ghastly to have the poor Christ hanging in seemingly perpetual agony in such a way upon the cross; when I was almost sent to a Catholic elementary school, I was terrified that such gruesome imagery hung upon the walls in classrooms, and yet no one seemed to blink twice at it.
Now, it is much different. I do not look at the suffering Christ upon the crucifix as an image meant to frighten or repulse; in fact, I see it as much the opposite. If one has a true understanding of what Christ suffered for us, what He in fact suffered for our sake that we might be free from sin and death, then the crucifix and the depictions of the suffering Christ become edifying and beautiful, because in them we see the love of Christ for His creation. Through them, we can better meditate on what Christ endured, seeing before our eyes the Mystery of the Cross - "Suffering in the flesh, and rising from the dead, he revealed our nature as greater than death or corruption."2 (St. Cyril of Alexandria)
"Who will grant me that my request should come about and that God will give me what I long for, that having been totally transpierced in both mind and flesh, I may be fixed with my beloved to the yoke of the cross?"3 (St. Bonaventure) That eminent and learned Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, used to say that all he ever knew and learned was from meditating upon the crucifix, and above we see the fruit of such meditations. In contemplating Christ, as Christians we should wish to imitate Christ, and not only this, but to draw ever closer into a more intimate union with Him. The Passion of Christ was what many of the saints meditated deeply upon, and it bore fruit in their lives.
How can I not feel some kind of stirring within me, no matter how dry in prayer or cold in soul, when I gaze upon the cross whereupon Christ is nailed for my sake? To look upon Christ crucified is to enroll in the school of humility, compassion, and love.
I do not recall where I heard this, but I remember hearing that when one gazes upon Christ on the crucifix with love, He gazes back at you with infinite love. Let us look, then, upon the Lord Whom we preach (cf. 1 Cor 1:23), contemplating His Passion and His love for us, and allowing this to set fire to our hearts.
1 - Scripta Leonis, 37
2 - On the Unity of Christ
3 - The Tree of Life, 26