By Cari Shields
Last year during Lent I decided to keep a journal of meditations on the Stations of the Cross. I wanted to spend time with a question that I had heard from the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama – “Is there a story that can hold me?” Ó Tuama’s commitment to story comes from his life as a poet, theologian and mediator working in Northern Ireland.
To see the full journal follow this link to Stations Journal.
As I was working on the journal, I read a lot and looked at many artists’ renderings of the stations of the cross. In a desire to explore the work more personally, I decided to find my own expressions of the stations in my daily walks through the neighborhood where I was living for that season. I had transplanted myself to the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia for the first six months of 2018, to live with my daughter and son-in-law to assist with the care of their newborn twins while the parents went back to work. Beginning in late February, I took daily walks with the stroller up and down the hills of Germantown. These daily explorations got us out of the house and afforded me time for meditation as well as opportunities to observe the varied trees, shrubs and flowers as they changed from day to day and week to week.
The experience of meditating on the Stations of the Cross and looking for images drew me deeply into stories of suffering and faith as well as moments of beauty and revelation. The process of finding the pictures surprised me in profound ways as did much of the reading I did during that time. The first few images came as I was taking pictures of an old fence in the parking lot behind my daughter’s house. The wooden fence was old, worn, and covered with vines. The image of a cross presented itself easily and the top of one of the vine-entangled posts resembled a head bearing a crown of thorns. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, two instances of trees supporting each other readily represented Jesus’s encounters with Mary and with Simon. Looking for a fallen tree to depict Station Thirteen when Jesus is taken down from the cross was simple after a heavy snow storm of March 2. A hollow space in a stone wall provided an image of the tomb.
Finding the image for Veronica wiping the face of Jesus proved more challenging and I set that search aside for a time. It was after I began to reflect on that station and to discover a resonance with what I was reading in Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura that it became clear that I was looking for the face of Jesus represented by a worn image. With that in mind, I was able to spot the bark of a Sycamore tree and take close ups of the patterns. When I came home and began to edit the photos, there was one that had the hint of a worn away face and I knew that I had what I was looking for.
The most astonishing picture of the group was when I went looking for a nail driven into a piece of wood. I found a post outside of one of the houses on the block and took some pictures. The post was in the middle of a rose bush and I wanted the picture to have a little vegetation around it. It was not until I got back to the house and looked at the picture more closely that I realized that the rose bush had cast a shadow on the post, perfectly hinting at a crown of thorns. I am in awe of this picture as it was an image that was revealed to me rather than one that was planned. I am still not sure what to make of it.
- I would love to hear from this community about your experiences of finding images or words in your work that were revealed rather than planned.
Below is an exerpt from the Introduction to the Journal.
The Jewish artist, Barnett Newman, has a series of abstract paintings entitled The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabacthani. The powerful paintings are large with black and white lines painted on raw canvas. They evoke a hint of Jewish prayer shawls in their overall effect. In an article about the paintings, Valerie Hellstein writes,
For Newman, The Stations were not merely about Jesus’ agony but attested to the human condition. In his catalog statement, Newman wrote, “Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” In this moment, it is not just Jesus’ agony one faces with the Stations of the Cross, but as Newman explained, “each man’s agony: the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.”
This year during Lent, I decided to meditate on the Stations of the Cross. For the first few weeks, I did a lot of reading and meditating and writing, not really sure where I was going with this. Then it came to me that I was wrestling with a question asked by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and mediator working in Northern Ireland. I heard him speak last month on a live feed from the Trinity Institute in New York. He talked about working for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants and included his own experience of challenging assumptions about who is included or excluded in God’s embrace. His use of story-telling in the work of reconciliation comes out of his own existential question – “Is there a story that can hold me?”
That is what I am asking in this study of the Passion of Jesus as expressed through the Stations. Can this story hold us? And how? There are certainly other questions we could ask of the story. Is it true? What does it all mean? Why did Jesus have to die? What is the best theological understanding of the atonement? But using Ó Tuama’s question we ask how we let our lives be enfolded in the passion narrative. How does the story create a context within which we can live our lives in this broken world? How can we live inside of the story even on days when faith is hard won or not won at all?