One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.
While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.
I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;
- Show up
- Slow down
- Stay still
- Stay with
Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”
It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.
Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.
Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.
Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.
I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?
Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.
So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.
As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.
Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.
As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?
As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?
Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.
How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.
If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.