Were you there?

In the Sacrosanctum Concilium the Second Vatican Council reminds us that our “spiritual life is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy….according to the teaching of the apostle, [one] should pray without ceasing.” We hear this also in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

It is in praying without ceasing that we draw closer to God, spiritually grow and are moved to practice virtue. Through prayer Christ doesn’t change the world, He changes us, as we meditate on the mysteries of both His human and divine natures.

One way to pray without ceasing is in practicing devotionals to incorporate more prayer into each day. Devotionals don’t replace the liturgy, but rather serve to extend it into our daily lives. Saint John Paul II wrote an entire apostolic letter about one of these practices – the Rosary. Another devotion is the Stations of the Cross which is most often practiced during Lent, but can be prayed anytime.

The Stations of the Cross, also known as the Way of the Cross or Via Crucis, commemorate Jesus’s passion and death on the cross. This devotion began when believers returned to Jerusalem to trace the same steps that their Lord and Savior had walked on the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion at Calvary. At the beginning of the fourth century, shrines were erected at the most significant spots along the Way of Sorrows, which took the form of the fourteen stations currently found on the walls of almost every Catholic church throughout the world.

The stations memorialize the central event of our faith – Christ dying on the Cross – to save us from ourselves. Praying the stations allows us to step into the story on the wall that describes the Christian journey to redemption. As we consider how Jesus fell three times, how Veronica wiped his face, how Simon helped carry his cross and how his mother Mary cried upon seeing him, we are reminded of all the suffering in the world and perhaps wonder what we can do about it.

When I participate in the Stations of the Cross, the most powerful for me are the stanzas of the hymn Were You There?.* I think about those who were there 2,000 years ago, and I am heartbroken and horrified by the cruelty shown to Christ. And then I hear the question again, “Were You There?” and I can’t help but personally relate to it as I recall the times in my life that I have remained silent and gone along with the crowd. I realize I am complicit in causing Christ to repeat His suffering every time I allow others to suffer.

In walking the complete path of Christ’s Passion, we become united as witnesses to Christ’s suffering, death, and gratefully, his resurrection. We gain hope as the stations illuminate the depth of Christ’s mercy and the depth of compassion we are capable of showing to each other. We come to a better understanding and awareness of others’ suffering, which is our path to redemption.

In his book, Deep River, Dr. Howard Thurman of Howard University, tells a story about a group of African American students who visited Mahatma Ghandi in India. Ghandi asked these choir students to sing one song in his presence, Were You There?. This request intrigued Dr. Thurman as he wondered about the significance of the lyrics for Ghandi, who stated that “identification in suffering makes the cross universal and the mystery of the cross is found deep within the heart of the experience itself.”

I invite you to walk with us as we pray the Stations of the Cross this Friday at 6pm at St. William Courtyard. Together we can experience the weight of the cross, the people encountered, the suffering endured, and the hope of eternal life. And then we can say “yes, we were there” as we work to model our lives after His example, bringing redemption to the world.

* Were You There? is an African American spiritual that may predate the Civil War, having first been published in William Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns (1899).

—Reflection by Pat Cremer