Christ on the Cross with Carthusian Saints — Anton Woensam von Worms, 1535
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
Canon Petrus Blomevenna, prior of the Cologne Carthusians, is kneeling at the foot of the Cross with members of the Order at his side. The panel comes from the Carthusian monastery of St Barbara in Cologne.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: ‘The cross stands while the world turns’ - The motto of the Carthusian Order, … a phrase which has many levels of meaning, many levels which, as we reflect on the meanings of martyrdom, we may begin to penetrate more deeply.
The cross stands while the world turns. So long as the world turns the cross is there.
In the words of Pascal, ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world, we must not sleep during that time.’ As long as the world is there, there is suffering, there is injustice, there is butchery.
But the cross that stands while the world turns is the cross of God: and so we are taken to a second level, where we realise what it is that is being transacted in the cross of Christ, and what it is that is transacted in every moment of reckless, generous, terrible suffering for the sake of God’s truth. Aske turns to what is still ‘the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man’.
In darkness and in torture, men and women throughout the centuries have turned to the crucified Christ; they have addressed the crucified Christ with the last calling of their lips and the last movement of their hearts, as did John Houghton. They know that whatever else may disappear, there is something on which they may call — and it is Christ crucified.
The God who has, it seems, been vanquished, is yet a God who cannot be abolished. In many ages and many places, authorities even more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy.
That which is the last hope, the last longing of the condemned and tortured, remains. The cross stands while the world turns. And whatever human power and human injustice can achieve and effect, the hanged God, the failed God, remains a sign forever.
The cross stands while the world turns: the sign of our terrible human failure, the sign that God is not to be abolished, that justice cannot be extinguished forever; that the voice of the poor and the lost and the tormented cannot finally be silenced — not by any power that the universe can show, because it is rooted in what does not change.
The cross stands and the world turns. The world changes, the world comes and goes — powers rise and fall, fashions come and go — sometimes the Christian faith looks attractive and fashionable in the world, and sometimes it looks stupid and marginal. And always it is what it is because the cross stands.
The Christian who knows his or her business is the Christian who has the freedom to return again and again into that silent unchanging presence — the hanged God, whose love, whose generosity, springs out of depths we can never imagine. It is the sounding of those depths that is the heart of the contemplative life — that life lived in such an exemplary way by the Carthusians then and now, lived by so many others in our world over the centuries, lived, we hope and pray, for many centuries and millennia to come.
We treasure with perhaps a particular intensity the martyrdom of the contemplative, because the contemplative who knows how to enter into the silence and stillness of things is, above all, the one who knows how to resist to resist fashion and power, to stand in God while the world turns.”
—extracts from the sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams
at the ecumenical service held at Charterhouse, London, to commemorate the 475th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St John Houghton and his companions, 4 May 2010.