“[R]eading the Word of God, the Bible, brings us even closer to the Word of God, Jesus,” New York-based editor Gary Jansen writes in his new book Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross. Jansen takes a Scriptural approach to the Passion and death of Christ, following the lead of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, took in his Spiritual Exercises and other writings. If that sounds like a journey for you this Lent, Jansen talks about the approach.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why not stick with the traditional Stations of the Cross on the walls of churches?
Gary Jansen: Station to Station looks at the Scriptural Stations of the Cross that Pope Saint John Paul II gave us many years ago. While I love the traditional stations, I have a special devotion to the scriptural version because it's Bible-based and hence more universal. While Veronica and the Holy Face is a powerful image, one that has helped me a great deal in my prayer life, still, it is not in the Bible. While writing this book, I was not so interested in the topic of why we suffer as I was in looking at how Jesus responded to suffering. I wanted those responses to be Bible-based, so I made the decision to focus on events that are found in scripture.
Lopez: What’s the Ignatian difference? How can St. Ignatius of Loyola help people more than we tend to realize?
Jansen: Ignatian spirituality has been very important to me. It’s a complex spirituality, but its major tenet is to seek God everywhere, in all experiences, in all places, in all people. If you’re seeking God everywhere, including at your job or while commuting in a crowded subway car and God is that still point in a turning world as T.S. Eliot wrote many years ago, then you can find stillness in everything around us. Like most things it takes conditioning, and you have to make finding God in all things a habit, but it’s what Paul wants us to do when he says pray unceasingly. Ignatian spirituality helps me to do that.
Lopez: Pope Francis certainly seems to dig him. If we take a break from debating about the latest the pope's said or done, what’s to see there that could make a difference in the world and our lives?
Jansen: It’s a shifting of focus I suppose. This is a general statement and one that will irritate someone somewhere but I think our two popes before Francis focused on building up and solidifying the institution of the Church (in addition to many other things that they did). Francis inherited a rather theologically powerful institution and his focus is now on the people who comprise that Church. How do we find God in the people in the pews, on the streets, in poor countries, in the sick, in the elderly, in children? I think Pope Francis is asking us to answer that question.
Lopez: What’s so important/useful about Ignatius’s focus on the imagination?
Jansen: I think and I’m pretty sure Ignatius would agree with me when I say that the imagination is the jumping off point for becoming true co-creators with God. Anything that’s man-made, for better or for worse, begins in the mind, begins as an image. I often look at the Manhattan skyline and I’m always amazed at how society tried to recreate the mountains by developing New York City. If you look at the skyline it looks like a mountain chain, something you might see in the Rocky Mountains, with its peaks and valleys. All of those buildings, all of that construction, started when someone had an idea, an image in mind. The city is a collection of these imagined ideas, just as our universe is a collection of God’s imagined work. The imagination is a powerful force, one that is often underutilized in prayer, but when you imagine that you’re in God’s presence or sitting next to Jesus in prayer something transformative happens. It takes an idea and makes it concrete. It gives flesh to words. Our imagination is a tool for connecting heaven and earth. Unfortunately, it can also be a tool for connecting hell and earth, which just goes to show you how powerful a force it can be.
Lopez: What does it mean practically to “hide your life with Christ in God,” as Pope Francis has urged?
Jansen: I think it’s a call to action to do what we can to align our desires with God’s will, to lose ourselves in Jesus. Stop worrying about who you are and try to be Christ-like. Those words—the quote you cited—are very mystical; that mystical aspect of faith is part of why I write the books I do. To help people move closer to God through prayer, to try and help someone have a mystical experience of union with God while you’re taking care of their family or meeting a deadline at work or fixing a leaking pipe under a sink. So much of the attention in our current world is on ourselves: “Look at how witty I am on Facebook or Twitter”, “Look how quickly I can get out the most recent celebrity death notice on social media”, “Look at how badly my feelings are hurt or how angry I am; I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel.” Social media can be helpful and fun, but it does seem that the focus of many of our lives is on “me, me, me.” The Pope wants us to shift our attention, make our lives less about ourselves and more about God and service to others. When we do that we start to dissolve and draw closer and closer to Jesus, and we shed all that extraneous stuff that's pure baggage. We get closer to our essence, which is, a child of God.
Lopez: “Abandoned by almost everyone he held dear, Jesus spent most of his final hours without a friend or companion. By entering the Stations, we get the opportunity to journey back there, to be present with Jesus when no one else is, to be his compatriot as he makes his way to Calvary, to stand as a witness by his side, and to be a kind face that he looks upon when the loneliness of his ordeal is too much to bear.”
Jansen: This is why using your imagination is so important in prayer. I really do believe prayers are timeless. That I can focus on Jesus’s passion, pray for him during his suffering and somehow it helps him in some supernatural way that God controls. Imagine what it would feel like if you could sit next to Jesus and hold his hand in these moments of grief and pain and offer him your love and support.
Lopez: Later you write, “He thinks he’s alone. He’s not alone. He’s never alone and neither are you.” People don’t believe that. Spending time with the Stations of the Cross can really help that?
Jansen: I know most people don’t believe that. They feel alone all the time. But that doesn’t mean that they are correct in their belief. Lots of people believe in Bigfoot. I want to believe in Bigfoot, but just because I want to believe doesn’t make it real. And the flip side is true too. Just because someone does not believe something doesn’t mean they are right. This idea of aloneness, that’s the devil speaking. It makes a lot of my New York friends very uncomfortable when I talk this way, but the devil wants you to think that you’re alone. But our faith tells us that God is ever-present with us in many different ways, i.e. the Eucharist, the Sacraments, in creation. The Stations of the Cross help us to find God in suffering by giving us examples on how to respond to suffering. Live by those examples and you grow your spiritual Heart. The larger your spiritual Heart the more connected you’ll feel to God and in turn the more connected you’ll feel to the people and things around you.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.