Some people dismiss the Stations of the Cross as a devotional relic of a bygone generation. But not Gary Jansen. In his beautiful new book, Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross, Gary recounts how the devotion has changed his life and opened him up new spiritual depths. Today, Word on Fire’s Brandon Vogt interviews Gary about the Stations and his new book.
Brandon Vogt: Let’s start off with a basic question. What are the Stations of the Cross and why do they matter?
Gary Jansen: The Stations of the Cross refers to the fourteen images depicting Jesus’ Passion that we see in many churches. These stations are a meditative exercise that has been around since before the Middle Ages. The purpose of the exercise is to make a spiritual pilgrimage through what is arguably the most dramatic moment of Christ’s life. For me, each station is a profile in character, and each one is a demonstration of Jesus’ integrity. We can learn what it means to be truly human—and by this I mean the kind of human that God wants us to be—by meditating on these events.
BV: In the book, you say “The Stations of the Cross is a pathway to spiritual awakening.” How is that so?
GJ: The Stations of the Cross by their very nature, and the images associated with them, are emotionally charged. They aren’t just words or Bible passages. They are pictures and pictures often create emotions in ways that words cannot. The Stations reveal the lowest point in Jesus’ life and, in turn, the Stations resonate with the difficult times we experience in life as well as the tough times that we hold in our memories. In this way, the Stations appeal more to the heart than they do to the head. And by heart I don’t mean the organ that pumps blood throughout our bodies, but the biblical understanding of heart, which is to say the center of our beings, the place where experiences find meaning. After Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and is told that she will be the Mother of God, the Bible says she ponders the news not in her mind but in her heart. When we take Jesus’s suffering into us and ponder the events he experienced in our hearts, we are stirred from spiritual sleepwalking. To be awakened like this can be a little frightening. But the point of the exercise is to nudge us into thinking about how, as Christians, if we’re supposed to be imitating Christ’s life, what do the stations indicate about where we are on our own faith journey?
BV: You make a strong case that the Stations offer a unique response to suffering. Tell us about that.
GJ: One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is essentially thirteen short poems, each one revealing a different side of a blackbird, the poet writing the poem, and the reader reading the lines. One afternoon, a couple of years ago, when I was praying with the Scriptural Stations (given to the Church back in 1991 by Pope Saint John Paul II) I started to see that, like Stevens’ poem that show different aspects of a bird, each of the stations offers a unique way to see, understand, and appreciate how it was that Jesus responded to suffering. The Passion is where we find Jesus at his most human. Once Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, there are no miracles. There’s no changing water to wine or walking on water. There are no healings. The blind people listening to the commotion in the streets as Jesus is being led to his death don’t regain their sight. This is Jesus bare to the bone, quite literally. Yet, in this most human of times, he doesn’t do what most humans might do in these atrocious situations. He could have cursed his enemies. He didn’t. He forgave them. He could have freaked out when he was taken captive but he didn’t. He stayed calm. He could have hated Peter for denying him. But he didn’t. Jesus accepts Peter’s weakness and then chooses him to be the rock of the Church.
BV: How did you first become attracted to the Stations? How have they shaped you personally?
GJ: Having spent twelve years in Catholic school, praying the Stations of the Cross was something my classmates and I did every year. However, I never really connected with them, and as I moved into adulthood I still didn’t feel a connection. I preferred Christmas—it’s so much happier! I like presents [laughs]. But a few years ago, I was alone in a hospital room with my grandmother, who was dying. She had been like a second mom to me, so seeing her hooked up to monitors and watching her struggle to breathe literally took my breath away. There was a moment, a moment that I talk about more fully in my book Station to Station, when I experienced all the pain she had suffered in her life. Even though this was a fleeting sensation, still, it was a deeply emotional experience. Sometime after my grandmother passed away, I don’t know why, I wasn’t thinking about it, but I just felt drawn to the Stations and began to meditate and pray with them throughout the year. Now, years later, each station, for me, is a reminder to live with integrity. I fall short a lot of times, but as the Stations and the resurrection reveals, God is there to lift me up.
BV: Let’s talk about the actual Stations themselves. Which Station do you find most compelling?
GJ: For the traditional Stations, I find the one when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus to be exquisitely beautiful. For me it symbolizes that when you act with compassion what’s left behind is the face of Jesus. In the scriptural Stations (though it also appears in the traditional Stations), the one where Jesus promises his kingdom to the repentant thief activates something inside me that is both emotional and ineffable. Here is Jesus, suffering terrible pain. Jesus not only forgives those that persecuted him but he also tells the sinner who asks for forgiveness that the two of them will be in the kingdom of God forever. Talk about Good News for all of us who humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness! This idea of forgiveness, wow, just seems to be nonexistent in our social media-driven age in many ways. If we could only live our lives like the heart of that story.
BV: Which Station do you think we reflect too little upon?
GJ: That’s such a great question. I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do think that, for me, it is when Jesus is laid in the tomb. Emotionally, I always want to jump ahead to the next event, which is the Resurrection. But that fact is, Jesus’ body was essentially rotting in a tomb for three days. Our faith reassures us that amazing spiritual things were happening during that time. But the Apostles and Jesus’ followers didn’t know about any of that. They just thought: Jesus is someone who won’t be more than bones soon. They felt defeated. What a waste. We thought he was the Messiah but now he’s simply dead and buried. Soon, they would see that from the waste something extraordinary would grow. That’s a very powerful thought for me: that new life grows out of old life. That the seed needs to be broken—something that must be terribly painful for the seed—in order for new life to blossom. That truism gives me hope. I hope it gives others hope, too.