Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 18

In the House of My Invisible Lord

Making the Stations of the Cross

Emilie Griffin

01.  Introduction

It was a Friday in the spring—still cold weather in the Borough of Queens in New York City—when I drove up the long, winding drive to the Jesuit Retreat House on Long Island known as Inisfada.

At the time the property was large and the situation of the retreat house commanding. It was a late Victorian mansion with many stories. The house was set high on a rise of land. Steep stone steps led up to an elaborate front entrance. Such were many Catholic retreat houses I found in my exploration of the spiritual life. This one, like others, had been given to the Society of Jesus (no doubt by some Catholic family of the late Gilded Age) in the expectation that the good fathers would use it in their teaching, their spiritual formation of young men, and their renowned retreat work with men and women “living in the world.”

I left my car in the parking lot and headed toward the front door, but I felt afraid. Just then a metaphor struck me, one that quickly began to take shape in my mind and to help form me in the spiritual life. In making a retreat I was trusting myself to God—trusting myself to a Lord who was unknown, unseen. Hours later, I tried to capture it in a poem:

Like Psyche I went unattended
To the house of my invisible Lord.These are the first two lines of a poem by the author, written shortly after her retreat at Inisfada in 1979.

Maybe the size and grandeur of the house had reminded me of the palace in the Greek legend of Cupid and Psyche, which is the story of Love and the Soul. C. S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, is a full-length fictional exploration of this story and its possible Christian meanings. I was like Psyche, the younger sister who left her family in response to a summons from a divine being. Risking, but still afraid, Psyche went to meet a lord and master whom she did not yet fully know or recognize, in a beautiful palace where everything was prepared for her arrival. But the lord himself, the divine master—fully in command, his authority to be felt in every room—was nowhere to be seen. Where was he? What would he say? How would he make himself known? The Greek fairy tale was a clear analogue to the way I felt about making this retreat at Inisfada. I had come to give my heart and soul to a Lord and Master I could perceive by faith, no other way.

02.  A Place That Leads to Grace

In that retreat setting I found things that touched my heart: the bare simplicity of the rooms, the worn condition of the furniture, the way the drawers didn’t seem to pull out or push in, not so different from my own furniture, but grander, donated or left over from another place and time. Perhaps most touching of all was the crucifix on the wall of the room assigned to me. The crucifix was everywhere. In that sense Jesus was in every room: in the chapel, in the main church where the larger liturgies would surely be held, and in every modest, cell-like chamber the retreatants were meant to use, fitted out with a Bible, the rules of the house, a printed sheet of Catholic prayers, and a modest schedule (times for meals and how meals are conducted on weekdays, weekends, feast days, penitential days, and the like).

I had come into this place to meet Christ Jesus, and meet him I did. Yet he was already with me. What a mystery! He had come with me on the journey. His grace had gone ahead of me. Later I learned it was good Augustinian theology that grace comes first and prompts our vision of the good, leads us, leans us into the encounter with God. Christ Jesus had been with me when I left my home, backed our family station wagon out of the driveway, headed out onto the Long Island Expressway, dealt with the massive onslaught of metropolitan traffic, the chanciness of changing lanes—till at last, following directions, I came into country lanes. And all the while I felt inwardly a kind of beckoning, not in words, but nevertheless a strong invitation. I seemed to hear the Lord saying, “Yes, I am with you, but if you come away with me and if you make this complete gift of yourself, your time, and your heart, I will be with you more deeply and more fully. Here.”

And so it was. At Inisfada, for the first time I experienced the fullness of that ancient desire of the Christian pilgrim, to walk with Jesus all the way to the end.

03.  Some Historical Background

The historical information given here is largely drawn from articles in The Catholic Encyclopedia, the editions of both 1911 and 1968. I am also indebted to my husband, William Griffin, an editor and writer, for his article, “Stations of the Cross: With Hassan on the Via Dolorosa,” published in Catholic Twin Circle, March 24, 1991.Scholars say that over the early centuries of the Christian era, the Way of the Cross was kept not only along the presumed, traditional path to Golgotha—the Place of the Skull—but also in many churches and houses of devotion throughout the Middle East, the Near East, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic places. These places began to depict Jesus bearing his cross as a series of “stations.” These “stopping places” were not exactly standard, or even similar, in the different churches and worshiping communities where the devotion was likely practiced. There were from the beginning disputes about how, precisely, the Stations were to be erected in churches, and how or whether pictures or tableaux were to be attached, how the pastor might receive such a commission from his bishop, and so on. England, where Roman Catholics remained a troubled minority, did not begin the use of the Stations until the mid-1800s, and then there were always questions about precisely how the Stations were to be made. But wherever the devotion was practiced, however many the Stations or how few, with pictures or without, the motive was always the same: to be with Jesus, heart and soul, as he is made to drag the heavy wooden instrument of torture and execution from the place of imprisonment to the place of his death.

By the time I went to Inisfada, I had been a Roman Catholic for sixteen years. I had watched in countless churches as pious men and women, experienced in Catholic prayer as I would never be, went obediently and attentively from one side of the church to the other, moving from the first to the fourteenth (and sometimes the fifteenth) station. This long-established devotion is based on and draws its strength from the Way of the Cross, long practiced by Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, especially but not always at Eastertide.

Christians for many centuries practiced this devotion, following Jesus by exercising the sanctified imagination to place themselves at his side and walk the last steps with him. Probably, though, the number of the so called “stations,” that is, scenes or snapshots along Jesus’ rugged way, did not settle down until centuries later into the familiar pattern Catholics use today. Scholars tell us that in earlier centuries, even as late as the early 1500s, there were wide variations in the devotion, even within the same locale. The Stations apparently included nineteen, twenty-five, and as many as thirty-seven scenes or stopping-points along Jesus’ sorrowful way.

A book published in 1584, with the title Jerusalem as It Flourished in the Time of Christ, gave twelve Stations, which correspond to the first twelve of the fourteen which modern Catholics use. Surprisingly, the devotion began to come together as a post-Reformation practice, fixed in number by Pope Clement XII in 1731, and further reinforced by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742 when he exhorted pastors everywhere to enrich their churches with these devotional artifacts, insisting on the great graces to be received through regular practice of following Jesus along the Via Dolorosa—the sorrowful or mournful way.

Much of this history has a certain whiff of the old Protestant and Catholic standoffs over Catholic set liturgies and Protestant improvisational prayer. But somehow the devotion itself has escaped all that. Quickly embraced by Catholics worldwide, it speaks directly to the imagination of adults and children. In spite of the fact that the story of Veronica’s veil is told not in the Bible but in the oral tradition, today’s Evangelicals who are in search of spiritual renewal come easily to this devotion and what it has to offer in the formation of the heart.

04.  Suggestions for Making the Stations While on Retreat

To encourage this devotion, most churches have wall-pictures of the Stations, the so-called “tableaux.” In small churches and huge cathedrals, worshiping groups and single devotees move quietly from Station to Station, pausing at each one to pray, addressing Jesus each time:

Verse: We adore you, Christ, and we bless you.
Response: Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

The Stations as modern Christians practice them are these:

Of course, there is more to the devotion than these fourteen or fifteen short statements. Pamphlets or booklets have been written to elaborate each scene and offer prayers to be recited by the faithful. Sometimes meditations are included, especially useful for a person making the Stations on his or her own. Groups and communities develop their own devotional folkways. In some churches or communities, favorite hymns are sung, often in honor of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, or other hymns well suited to the Passion of the Lord. Whole congregations make the Way of the Cross at a special service on Good Friday, honoring Jesus’ way of suffering according to their particular church or parish customs. Still, the Roman Catholic Church has long encouraged the broadest possible use of this devotion: privately and in groups, not only at the Easter season but any time of year. The Stations extend the Way of the Cross devotion into something that can be practiced not only in sacred settings but just about anywhere.

Though prayers composed for use with the Stations of the Cross are recited by many American Catholics according to easily recognized, repetitive formulas with familiar refrains, these prayers are not essential to the devotion. What is essential is to place oneself with the Lord Jesus in his time of execution, his final agony. This was an aspect of Catholic devotion that I learned early and found deeply attractive: to enter by an act of the will, by an act of the religious imagination, into the living presence of Christ and to join one’s own sufferings to his—as it were, to nail one’s own sufferings to the Cross.

How can one open oneself to this experience fully and imaginatively? Of course, the posting of the artistic representations do help and invite us to prayer. We discover them on the interior walls of churches old and new. Sometimes we find the Stations curving along a garden wall, as they do at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, California, echoing the spirit of the Spanish Franciscans, who brought Christ to the New World. Sometimes we find them as huge standing crosses along a roadway, calling us to prayer. I once walked in the rain to follow Jesus along such a roadway at Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado. And sometimes, as at Inisfada, they are mounted on high columns around a formal garden. But however the Stations appear, even in small booklets meant for devotion, they serve to show us the painful walk that Jesus took, and more than that, the obedience of that walk, the submission of humanity and divinity to a mystery beyond measure.

On retreat, one way to prepare for making the Stations—inside or out, on sunny days or icy ones—is simply to read a Gospel account of the Passion. The story is brief enough. In liturgical churches, we hear these texts on Passion Sunday (Roman Catholics read this story on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter). But merely to read the story again, quietly and attentively, is a call to prayer.

I think I must have done this at Inisfada on a fine spring day with winter just beginning to let go its frosty grip on Long Island. There were in the garden a few plants trying to bud. Spring was groaning once again her hint of the resurrected life. But arranged on formal columns throughout Inisfada’s amazing garden were the Stations of the Cross, high and lifted up. And, as it were, for the first time I gave myself to the Passion. I gave myself to Jesus Christ in his Passion. I walked with him. I fell with him. I wept with the Daughters of Jerusalem. I watched the sorrowful mother give up her beautiful son. I saw Veronica wipe his lovely face with her veil.

And I wrote this poem:

At the first station
I promised to be yours completely.
By the fifth station
you swept me away.
At the twelfth station
I knew I had promised a dozen times over.
And at the fourteenth
I closed my eyes against the sun
and the cross burned red into my brain.

I have given myself to you;
there is no turning back.
Yet something in me wants to run.
Even a little sharing of your cross
is more than I can bear.
The things you ask—hard things—
make me break into a terror of sweat.
I do not have the strength for Calvary.

Let me tell the authorities I have changed
my mind!
Let me recant,
say I was making it all up,
a child’s hoax,
a dalliance, a make-believe.
I cannot walk with you, my Lord.
Your stride is longer.

Yet even as I think it
I feel the print of the nails in my hands
and I am filled with love.This poem by the author was also written after the retreat at Inisfada in 1979. The poem appears in my book, Simple Ways to Pray: Spiritual Life in the Catholic Tradition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, 51-52.

What did I learn in my brief stay at Inisfada and in other such retreats I have made? Something that often comes first of all with the gesture of going there in the first place, overcoming and transcending the fear of what might happen, going in search of the farthest reaches of the heart, going somewhere to spend time with my invisible Lord. What I learned is to face the depth and mystery of my own soul, the unpredictability of my own small Way of the Cross, joined as it is with the huge sacrifice of Calvary. I learned again how to stand at the foot of the Cross, like Mary, like all the Marys and those who followed Jesus. And I must relearn this. I must learn it over and over. Repeatedly, I must surrender the old self, give up the self I was, and ask Christ Jesus to lead me in his way again. For me there is no sense of “once converted, always converted.” Instead, there is a heavy cross and the necessity to pick it up and carry it until I stumble and fall short. But always, there is a vision just ahead. Steps are leading up to a great Palace of Transformation, where the Lord of Glory hides. There, by the power and the grace of his love, he is preparing a banquet to be served by unseen hands. And there is music strumming, music that speaks to my heart, on harp and lyre, in each of many amazing rooms.


Emilie Griffin is an editor, writer, and speaker who is the author of a number of books on the spiritual life. Among these are Clinging: The Experience of Prayer, Wilderness Time: The Experience of Retreat, and Small Surrenders: A Guide to Lent. She is active with the RENOVARÉ movement for spiritual renewal and a founding member of the Chrysostom Society, a group for writers of Christian faith.