Join me this week, as we make our way with Jesus, through his suffering and death, to his Resurrection. We call these holiest of days ‘Holy Week’. I will share a reflection with you each day, taken from the writings of Caryll Houselander.
The following passages are excerpts from her book The Way of the Cross (available in both ebook and print). I suggest you whet your appetite for her words here, and then go buy the book for yourself. You will never regret it!
I love how she describes attending the Stations of the Cross. This dichotomy – ordinary people and the cross. Often, as I stand in the church, surrounded with a ‘motley of people’ as she describes it, I find myself feeling more bound to them as the stations pass by. As if our shared journey with Christ creates some kind of unique brotherhood. And is that not the Church?
Three o’clock on a grey afternoon. Outside, a steady drizzle of rain; inside the church, an odd motley of people.
A smartly dressed woman, side by side with one who is shabby and threadbare. A boy and girl who appear to be in love. A very old man, so bowed that he is permanently in an attitude of adoration. A stalwart young soldier whose polished buttons glitter like gems in the candlelight. A couple of students, shabbily but elegantly dressed in corduroys and bright scarves, rubbing shoulders with a gaunt, round- shouldered man who looks like a tramp. A sprinkle of small children. And behind them all, as if he felt himself to be the modern Publican, though there is no reason why he should, a thickset, square-shouldered business man. And a few seconds before the priest, in come a couple of rather flustered little nuns, like birds shaking the rain off their black feathers.
What a diversity of places these people must have come from—luxury flats, tenements, small boarding- houses, institutions, barracks, studios, colleges, doss houses, schools, offices, convents. What sharp contrast there must be between their different lives and circumstances! But they seem to be strangely at one here, gathered round a crude coloured picture on the wall of the church, “The First Station of the Cross,” and it seems to come naturally to them to join together in the same prayer:
“We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee.”
“Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.”
An onlooker—one, that is, who was uninitiated —would be puzzled. In between the repeated ejaculations, he would hear the priest read meditations— at least he would hear the drone of his voice, but perhaps not what he said, as he would probably read without expression or punctuation. Even if he did hear the words, they would hardly be likely to enlighten him, for the meditations would very probably be couched in the most extravagant terms of sentimental piety and seem to have no relationship to the stark reality of the human suffering which they attempted to describe. Neither would the picture on the wall help him to understand what it is that brings such incongruous, oddly assorted people together in this seemingly formal and curious devotion. As likely as not, the picture would be uninspiring, crude, and without any aesthetic value.
If this onlooker asked one of the people there to enlighten him, she would probably be surprised that he should expect the picture to attempt either aesthetic beauty or to represent the physical aspects of the Passion of Christ realistically. She might explain that the Church does not ask for pictures at all, but simply for fourteen numbered crosses marking fourteen incidents on the way to Calvary, showing not so much the exterior incidents of the Passion as their inward meaning. She might add, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the Church tolerates the pictures that we use just as a mother tolerates the crude and almost symbolic pictures that the older members of the family draw for the younger, knowing that the little children will read into them just those things which are already in their own hearts.
Most of Christ’s earthly life was hidden. He was hidden in His Mother’s womb, He was hidden in Egypt and in Nazareth. During His public life He was hidden often, when He fled into “a mountain to pray.” During the forty days of His risen life, again and again He disappeared and hid Himself from men. Today He is hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, in Heaven, and in His Mystical Body on earth.
But in His Passion He was exposed, made public property to the whole of mankind. The last time He went up into a mountain to pray, it was to pray out loud in a voice that would echo down the ages, ringing in the ears of mankind for ever. It was to be stripped naked before the whole world for ever, not only in body but in mind and soul; to reveal not only the height and the depth and the breadth of His love for men but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity.
Different though each human being is from every other, uniquely his own though each one’s experience is, there are certain inevitable experiences which are common to all men and from which none can escape. One of these is death. Another is love. Every human being alive is on the road to death. Every one is capable of love for someone, even if it is only for himself, and the price of love, perhaps particularly of self-love, is suffering. But the power of love, and this does not apply to self-love, is to transform suffering, to heal its inevitable wounds.
Now it is easier to understand what it is that brings the incongruous motley of people together to “make the Way of the Cross.” Each one meets himself on the Via Crucis, which is the road through death to life. In Christ he finds the meaning of his own suffering, the power of his own capacity for love. He finds the explanation of himself in Our Lady too, the Mother of Christ in whose soul He is formed perfectly, as He was once formed perfectly in her body. And in those others too, who are taking part in the Passion of the Son of Man—Simon of Cyrene, Magdalen and John, Veronica, the Women of Jerusalem, the Good Thief, the Centurion, the man who lent his tomb, the scattered apostles who crept back, and ran to the empty tomb on the morning of resurrection. Those in whom, through grace and mercy, Christ is being formed, and growing from the darkness of the buried seed to His full flowering.
Yes, in the Stations of the Cross he who has the eye of faith sees the story of Christ’s historical Passion—His own individual story—and the story of the suffering world, in which Christ’s Passion goes on through time; the way of the cross which, though it leads to the tomb and the dark sleep of death, leads on beyond it to the waking morning of resurrection and the everlasting springtime of life.