For years now I’ve carried a little laminated prayer card in my purse. The front features a tiny, hokey, color picture of each of the Stations of the Cross.
On the back are instructions:
“The following is said before each station: ‘We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.’ ”
That’s hardly the only “formula.” A quick Google search turns up a plethora of pamphlets — “Mary’s Way of the Cross,” “Praying the Stations with Pope Francis,” Clarence Enzler’s “Everyone’s Way of the Cross.”
The form of the Stations themselves can vary, too: from statues to plaques to small figures carved from wood. They can be inside or outside. I once prayed the Stations at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on a shaded allée leading down to the ocean, got bitten by a tick, and contracted Lyme Disease.
Of course, we can pray the Stations throughout the year. But to my mind the best way is with the random group of people who gather in any given sanctuary on a Friday afternoon during Lent.
There’s always an old guy who can barely walk and who reverently, laboriously, genuflects all 14 times. There’s often a giggly teenage girl or two, and a person who lives on the street. There might be a man with a gigantic crucifix around his neck and an American flag pin, a couple who drove in from the suburbs, a fierce-looking middle-aged woman in running gear.
People gather in some rough form of a group. A few sit in a pew. A few straggle behind.
“Jesus is condemned to death.” Here we go.
“Jesus bears his cross.” I once read that the road to Calvary was a third of a mile. That’s a long, long way when you’ve been up all night — hungry, thirsty, exhausted — and have just been scourged.
“Jesus falls the first time.” I’m having a little trouble kneeling myself these days. Grateful for this rail to grasp.
“Jesus meets his mother.” “Do what he tells you.”
“Jesus is helped by Simon.” “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends.”
“Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.” I wonder if she knew to save the sacred hankie. Must look up “Veronica’s veil.” But I will probably forget.
“Jesus falls a second time.” Seven down, seven to go.
The Eighth Station: “Jesus speaks to the women.” “Don’t weep for me,” he tells them, “weep for your children.” We are weeping now. Imagine inviting a 6-year-old to question whether he or she has been born into the “right” body.
“Jesus falls a third time.” Barbarians! Did they really have to make him carry the instrument of his own execution?
The Tenth Station: “Jesus is stripped of his garments.” Only four more to go. No problem. I’m really going to start paying attention now.
The Eleventh Station: “Jesus is nailed to the cross.” Oh I hate this, do we have to? Impossible to imagine the pain, the shock, the descent into an abyss … no, I can’t even go there. Plus my right foot’s falling asleep.
The Twelfth Station: “Jesus dies on the cross.” We pause. But obviously, no pause could be long enough, reverent enough, sorrowful enough. We feel awful about all this, Jesus. We really do.
The Thirteenth Station: “Jesus is taken from the cross.” Now Mary receives the body of Christ, delivering him to the altar upon which all humankind is called to worship.
The Fourteenth Station: “Jesus is laid in the tomb.” Phew. We did it. Thank you.
For a half-hour, we have formed a miniature Mystical Body; instinctively, we converge in a rough semicircle for the final prayer: Heavenly Father, you delivered your Son to the death of the cross to save us from evil. Grant us the grace of the resurrection. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then we make the sign of the cross, helpfully hand in our booklets to the lady who’s been leading, avert our eyes, and shuffle off to go our separate ways.
If the others are anything like me, they feel they haven’t put quite enough heart into it. They’re asking themselves, “Why did I keep thinking about dinner and where the restrooms might be?”
Then again, where else in the world, what other venue, what alternate activity, could attain the weird, serendipitous glory of praying together with a group of people with whom you have nothing in common except a shared love for Christ?
Outside, in the blinding sunlight, I check my phone. The war in Ukraine rages on. Someone slapped someone else in the face at the Oscars. A reader has emailed saying she’s lonely, exhausted, tired, and afraid: Do I have any suggestions?
Let me to your love be taken, let my soul in death awaken to the joys of paradise.