As We Tread Your Holy Way: Rediscovering the Way of the Cross

On the first Friday in Lent last year, I went to the Way of the Cross at Sacred Heart Church in Pittsburgh. I was one of just a few people from the community, and the others were elderly or had children in the parish school. This devotion was mostly for them. I felt like an intruder, so I sat in the last pew near the door.

As the kids filed in behind their teachers, the church was overwhelmed by their scent—sweat and recess. The older girls brought the smell of melon lip-gloss and gum and perfume, but still, under it all, that faintly childish odor. They eyed me with curiosity, in my sweatshirt and jeans, making me think I should spit out my own gum and set a good example. But I didn’t feel so different from them: still needy and awkward, determined to talk out of turn.

Looking at them, I saw myself at every age: quiet and intimidated in second grade, admiring the big kids and studying their manners. Whispering to my girlfriends in fifth grade, already growing taller than all the other kids and slouching over to hide it. In seventh grade, trying to sit next to the boy that I liked. I could tell the eighth graders right away: all the girls taller than the boys, their plaid skirts getting too small, their feet too big on their skinny legs. They wore lip-gloss and earrings. The boys had the beginnings of acne and greasy hair.

Once they were all settled in the pews, one of the teachers stood in the front of the church and called them to attention, saying, “Let’s practice.” Then she hummed the Stabat Mater, the refrain sung between stations.

The three lines change with every verse, but the tune is the same. It has the simplicity of a nursery rhyme and is easy enough for even shaky young voices to master. Yet it is so mournful—it sounds like a weeping woman. I hadn’t been to the Way of the Cross in 15 years, and when those little voices started singing I nearly drowned in nostalgia.

The familiarity hit me like an unexpected wave that knocks the breath out of you, takes you in, and spits you out on the beach, not knowing up from down.

Jesus, Lord, condemned, defiled
May we too be meek and mild
As we tread Your holy way.

My throat constricted as I choked on a sob. Two of the big kids read the text for the stations, flanking the priest in front of the altar. They probably rotated every week, or maybe only the best readers got this honor. These kids were good readers, even if they sounded more as if they should be reading aloud from Seventeen than from the Bible. How can a twelve-year-old wring the proper painful humility from Psalm 118?

I lie prostrate in the dust; give me life according to Your word.
I declared my ways, and You answered me, teach me Your commands.
Make me understand the way of Your precepts, and I will meditate on Your wondrous deeds.

What was this girl thinking as she read those words—was she worried about her hair? Her math grade? If her crush was watching? Was she really praying at all? Was it a little of all of those things?

I thought of myself at 13, wondering if my prayers were futile as my mother lay dying of cancer.

My soul weeps for sorrow, strengthen me with Your words.

Hearing all these young voices enunciating Scripture in unison, I felt something that I had long forgotten in my years outside of the Church, a feeling that was something like home and a little tribal. But it wasn’t just nostalgia. It was a feeling of connectedness with the living and the dead, with nature and supernature. It was enough to convince me that my unborn children must go to Catholic school, where every Friday in Lent they will file into a church and say these words and sing this song, until it all takes root in their hearts, until they begin to see in it, and through all the world’s symbol and metaphor and poetry, the meaning of suffering—God’s plan, experienced by all, everywhere. The rhythm of these words, the heads dipping in unison, the bending of knees to kneelers, the tiny sad voices singing Stabat Mater. The experience brought me to tears, caught in a rapturous web of connectedness.

Then, the 14th Station—Jesus is Laid in the Tomb— and it was all over.

I had to wait a minute with my head hung low, dabbing at my eyes while the big kids filed out, teachers shushing them as they whispered and giggled. When I emerged they were standing on the steps in the afternoon sun, waiting for their rides. The older girls were lying in the grass with their plaid uniform skirts hiked up and their knee socks rolled around their ankles.

Priest: We adore Thee oh Christ, and we bless Thee.
All: Because by Thy holy cross, Thou hast redeemed the world.

The devotion was over, but the rhythm, the images, and the feeling of connection across time and space stayed with me for days, returning to me in some moments unexpectedly, like faint traces of perfume in the folds of my clothes.

You’ll find a set of stations in almost every Catholic Church. But the Way of the Cross is a popular devotion, not a part of sacred liturgy, and so it evolves and adapts with the communities who use it. Early Christians actually walked in the footsteps of Christ from Gethsemane to Calvary. Those who couldn’t began to simulate that pilgrimage by making their own stations in their villages, homes, and churches. Along the way, elements have been added, subtracted, embellished—elements that help draw pilgrims near to the mystery, the way I was drawn close by the plaintive wail of the Stabat Mater. Famously, Veronica went so far as to insert herself into the narrative; she imagined wiping the bloody brow of Jesus with her veil.

The Church has never formalized the devotion, acknowledging that when it comes to popular piety, one size does not fit all. The faithful are encouraged to participate in the Way of the Cross during Lent but to stick to scriptural accounts of Christ’s Passion, such as those used by Pope John Paul II on Good Friday, 1991.

This is the set of stations that inspired the artist John Sherman when he decided to create his own Way of the Cross. In January, my husband and I went to the opening of the exhibit at Goshen College, a Mennonite school about 20 minutes from South Bend, Indiana, where we now live.

Sherman is a graphic design professor at Notre Dame. He has a ponytail and a kind face. He wears socks with his Birkenstocks. Fonts are his passion, so his stations are mostly text with very few images, and those iconic—an olive branch, for example. Each station features the relevant scriptural passage and its title translated into 23 languages—Swahili, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Aramaic, and so on.

The stations, simply framed, hung side by side in the gallery, which was brightly lit and bustling, especially for an icy winter day in northern Indiana. People were mingling and talking and laughing.

My first response was confusion. Should we go in order? Should we pray? Was this something to be entered and experienced or merely observed and appreciated? A small devotional booklet of meditations written by Sherman’s daughter, a recent Notre Dame theology grad, was on loan at the door. But was this a devotion or an art show or both? I wasn’t sure.

I approached the first station: Jesus Prays in the Garden of Olives.

I stood before it and stared. The placement of the type—a font Sherman designed called Felicitas illustrated the action described by the title: Jesus Prays in the Garden of Gethsemane in Aramaic, Chinese, Italian, and Swahili, floating up the page, the way incense and prayers aspire to heaven. A few paces down, the foreign translations of Jesus Carries His Cross buckled under the title, printed in English.

I tried to stand solemnly before each station and take in its meaning, but this was a reception, a joyful occasion, and others were waiting to get a look for themselves. I moved on quickly.

After the gallery closed, Sherman and his daughter, Theresa, gave a lecture in the neighboring auditorium. They discussed the need for a contemporary take on the stations, an updated way of practicing this centuries-old devotion that would speak to the concerns of the present. Many see the stations as morbid, they said, depressing. It needn’t be.

Theresa pointed out that focusing on the violence of the Passion was really a medieval embellishment; she invoked Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as a contemporary example of how the Way of the Cross can mistakenly focus on Christ’s human suffering rather than His Resurrection and His social message. She spoke of the Passion-related merchandise she saw in a Catholic bookstore—nails meant to be worn around the neck—with a shudder. She quoted a New York Times review of Gibson’s film that said it “succeeded more in assaulting the spirit than uplifting it.” The audience—college students, graphic designers, theology professors—seemed to nod with approval.

In his stations, Sherman chose to exclude graphic representations of Christ’s pain. He wanted us to bring our own experiences to the text, instead of relying on those images we were used to seeing in church. In his artistic statement, he explains that his stations are “a contemporary message for a modern universal church… since so many of the words are foreign, we cannot help but intertwine into our reflection the struggles and concerns of the people of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.”

The Way of the Cross should not be morbid, they said. In fact, it can only be fruitful, Theresa concluded, when it results in the selfless love of others.

But by subtracting the meditation on Christ’s particular suffering—all that blood and torture that help us understand the depth of Christ’s selfless love—it seemed to me that Sherman had changed the nature of the devotion entirely.

I remembered-then that last year on the third Friday in Lent, Sacred Heart in Pittsburgh switched the devotional book we’d been using for the Way of the Cross. The language of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the psalmists was replaced by something kid-friendly, adorned with cartoons of children on playground structures, a round-faced risen Jesus smiling and extending His hand. Even the Stabat Mater was different; subtle changes in the verses muffled the pain. And Station 15 had been added: The Resurrection. Why wait for Easter?

During the devotion, the children remained as they were—preoccupied, restless, gamey. No more or less engaged than the weeks before. I wondered, though, if anything at all was being imprinted on their hearts. If they would ever feel, as I had felt that first Friday, the intimate connection through this devotion to my own sad history, to Christ, and to the history of all His Church.

Was I the only one that mourned this change?

I left Goshen College with the same feeling. Something wasn’t quite right. The images were pretty. The story of a father and daughter working together was heartwarming. Their faith was evident, and the overall message was positive and rooted in the Gospels: Love one another.

Why had it all left me cold?

On the Friday night before Ash Wednesday, my husband and I were flipping channels when we saw the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen writing on a blackboard in his big, elegant cursive:
Love without sacrifice=romanticism
Sacrifice without love=violence

He turned and smiled at the camera, pausing dramatically. I stayed Dave’s hand on the remote control.

It’s keeping them both in mind that’s the trick, he said. Mortification for mortification’s sake is perversion. But you must repress the flesh in order to grow in virtue; suppress one characteristic to improve its opposite; deny one emotion so that another prospers. We must sacrifice so that love may grow. In fact, sacrifice is synonymous with love.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.

I thought of Passionist nuns, praying for afflictions so that they might offer up their pain for the souls in purgatory. I think now of the pope, serving on despite his great physical distress. I think of St. Therese of Lisieux, offering her suffering for the missionaries of the world; and of St. Francis, an originator of the Way of the Cross, emaciating himself for the poor. I think of St. Anthony’s of Troy Hill, a church on the North Side of Pittsburgh that glitters with reliquaries full of the blood and bones of saints and martyrs.

Perhaps this is why, especially during Lent, we should walk with Him from Gethsemane to Calvary and go knee-deep in the muck and the gore, no matter our age or class or ethnicity: so that we may know the depths of His suffering and of His love. So that by suffering, we may grow in love. So that we may love others as He loved us.

The children of Sacred Heart in Pittsburgh may not yet have understood the words of Psalm 118, or the way the Stabat Mater might comfort them in years to come. They may not yet have endured the kind of suffering that makes these things ring psychic bells. This is a devotion that we grow into, that accumulates meaning as we age and endure. In this way it is very much like liturgy; our understanding deepens, time after time.

Any version of the Way of the Cross that attempts to convey the power of Christ’s love but diffuses the physical pain of His Passion is skipping a crucial step. Sherman’s stations shift our focus from the bleeding and broken body of Christ to the Body of Christ—the titles in translation convey the vastness of the Universal Church, which is wondrous indeed. His objective is worthy—feelings of empathy, connectedness, selfless love of others—but what got lost in this shift? We can’t have selfless love without sacrifice. As Father Sheen instructed, love without sacrifice isn’t love at all; it’s romanticism. It’s sentimentality.

The experience of suffering is so abhorrent to our present culture that any serious contemplation of it is in danger of being dismissed with derision and scorn as medieval, stereotypical Catholic Guilt. We want instead to focus on social concerns—on what scant power we have to stop the suffering of others. But the Way of the Cross doesn’t call us to end suffering. We often cannot and should not, just as we cannot and should not pull plugs on life-support machines or abort babies with imperfections. Treading His holy way reminds us of the pain endured by all humanity—not only of its reality but of its inevitability. This is what we have in common. On the Way, we bind all our pain together and unite it with Christ’s.

Now, more than ever, we need this popular devotion to reveal to us how human suffering is real and inevitable and yet not unbearable. It is part of God’s plan. This is why the Way of the Cross can be so powerful: The human family is united around the globe and throughout all of history in this sacrifice, this love, this one body of Christ.


  • Jessica Mesman

    Jessica Mesman is a freelance writer. She lives in South Bend, Indiana with her husband, David Griffith.

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