“The stations give us a model of how to live life when our own struggles are unavoidable and life seems most oppressive, most unfair, most impossible to bear. They remind us again that there is new life at the end of every daily death.”
(pg. 13, Chittister, Joan. The Way of The Cross: The Path to New Life. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, NY. 2013)
In the fall of 2013, I participated in an on-line course called “The Blessings of Ageing,” the centerpiece of which were daily short video messages from Sister Joan Chittister. These videos led the way through the many facets of ageing and inspired participants to reflect on ageing in a more comprehensive way. The course was helpful, engaging, and appropriate for a time when so many of us Boomers are entering our “wisdom years” and looking for signposts. The content was meaningful but the real star of the course was Chittister, a Benedictine Sister, international lecturer and award-winning author of more than 50 books who is devoted to the issues of justice, peace and equality, especially for women in the Church and in Society. Few people live up to their hype, but Sr. Joan does that and more. She has a way of touching some deep part of you that was hiding and waiting for the right moment to be released and come into the light. By the end of the course I felt I knew her – as a friend, an advisor, and a fellow traveler, so when I heard that Sacred Threads was sponsoring a morning with her, I couldn’t wait to see her in person. I knew it would be a memorable experience but it was far more than that; it was literally transformative.
As a Catholic, I was raised with The Stations of the Cross and I admit, I wasn’t all that excited by the topic of this seminar, “The Way of the Cross: In and Out of Our Lives,” but I knew if anyone could change my thinking about it, it would be Sister Joan. And of course she did, and in the most glorious ways. My memories of the Stations were somber and depressing. Jesus’s message of love and forgiveness was met not with praise, but a crown of thorns, mockery, being forced to drag a cross, and being nailed to the cross and crucified in a horrific way, so to me, going through the stations was anything but an uplifting experience. But this is exactly the kind of topic Sr. Joan addresses and works her magic to help us see how the Stations are actually a perfect metaphor for each of our journeys through life; rather than being disheartening, she shows us how they give us hope and help us to make meaning out of all of life’s experiences and challenges.
Sr. Joan has a way of speaking to an audience of five hundred but making you feel as if you are the only one in the room and she is conversing directly with you. When she explains that the Way of the Cross is an invitation to human growth that teaches us what it is to be alive, you not only believe her, you know in your deepest heart she is right and she is speaking YOUR truth to you. She reminded me, and all of the attendees, that pain and human struggle are necessary elements to growth and building a life of meaning, and she explains that all in a simple yet powerful model as she takes us through each of the Stations. She explains “The Experience” of each Station and puts that experience in context, then “The Call” of each Station, which is the message Jesus sends us about that experience. Next is “The Model” that this Station presents for us to learn from, The Rising” which helps us to find the resurrection at each stage of the Way and leaves us with “the Question” which we must ask ourselves as a result of experiencing this Station.
For example, in Station 3, Jesus Falls The First Time, Sr. Joan explains that the “Experience” here relates to our own lives when “all pretense ends. Reality sets in.”(32) for we all fall many times whether it is the loss of a job, a mate, a poor investment, and we are forced to face the reality of our lives. In “The Call,” she explains that this Station tells us when we “fall” we can “finally begin to determine what is really important in life.”(32) While not an easy time, it is essential for us to ask ourselves the questions whose answers will guide us to our personal true meaning of success and what others/the world/society see as success may actually be failure for us. Next she explores “The Model” and reminds us that the third Station shows us “success often looks like failure” (34) and that floundering and faltering are an essential part of our process of becoming. Jesus fell down, but he didn’t stay down; rather he showed us that “the important things in life are worth struggling for to the end.” (35) “The Rising” or Resurrection of this Station advises us to find a moment, issue, reason, purpose important enough to give our lives over to achieve because there is work yet to be done. It is a time of recommitment, legacy, and ensuring what we are doing now will not be forgotten. She states, “To accept reality as it is . . .is the only thing that can enlarge our stature and will not diminish us as we go.” (35) Lastly, she leaves us with “The Question,” “Why am I doing what I am doing? Is the struggle of my life worth enough to struggle for it to the end?” (35)
I am a visual learner and have always been deeply influenced by the power that images add to any story or experience. The power of Sister Joan’s words would have been enough to transform my view of the Stations of the Cross but added to them, the artwork of Janet McKenzie for each Station reached deep into our hearts and made us understand that we could not ignore the eternal wisdom that is present in each of the Stations. McKenzie’s paintings are breathtaking and the combination of her images and Sr. Joan’s words forever changed my perspective on the Stations. Of her work, McKenzie says that “sacred imagery was always in my heart,” and after asking God to give her work better service, she found it in painting these profound, sacred images, which now reside in our hearts as well.
McKenzie asked us to “dig deep and bring hope to a fragile world” and with each Station, Sr. Joan gives us powerful life questions to ask ourselves and “by which to measure our own lives, the focus of our souls, and the commitment to our spiritualties.” The wisdom and guidance in each of the fifteen Stations (yes 15, Chittister adds The Resurrection as Station 15) is truly a master plan for living a life of meaning and service. It helps us to identify the “masks” we wear, and have the courage to remove them. It helps us open our arms, let go of everything we thought we wanted and see that the daily deaths of life are the gateways to new directions. As a result of being part of this experience, I will face each day’s challenges and “daily deaths” with a renewed sense of hope and meaning and I will continue to ask myself the questions of The Way so that “the struggle of my life is worth enough to struggle to the end.” Yes, indeed, this experience was more than memorable; it has transformed forever my thinking about The Stations of the Cross and about life, in ways I never expected and ways I have yet to know.