The Ninth Station of the Cross: An Oasis for Losers
Refuse to capitulate. Grit your teeth and trudge on. Christ is right behind you.
“There is no man who is not potentially a saint.” —Léon Bloy
“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” —Jack Dempsey
We tend to forget about the Stations of the Cross outside of Lent. They’re up there around the walls of our churches and chapels, part of the scenery that we take for granted when we show up for Mass — unless they’re missing, of course, like if they’re taken down for cleaning or some such.
For me, though, the Stations are buoys for my spiritual life — particularly the 5th and 6th Stations. In fact, I half-jokingly call Station V — where Simon is pressed into helping Jesus carry the cross — my spiritual home: The Cyrenean’s reluctance (at least according to tradition) to shoulder the Lord’s burden is my own. I wish I could say I wholeheartedly and willingly carry my own crosses in union with my Savior, but, more often than not, I do so grudgingly, grumbling and grumpy.
Simon’s faltering inclination toward sanctity is underscored by his proximity to Veronica’s selfless act of compassion at the 6th Station — her lurching forward from the jeering crowd to wipe the blood from the God-man’s face. Can you see Simon craning his neck to glimpse what she’s doing? I have this idea that it’s the moment of his conversion — when his continued cruciform encumbrance becomes a crusade. Similarly, I look to Veronica and the 6th Station for inspiration. I, too, want to eagerly step up, attend to Christ, and take on his visage as my own. That’s the idea, anyway, but it’s always back and forth, from Simon to Veronica, and then back to Simon again.
This past Lent and now into the Easter season, however, I’ve often found my attention straying across church to the far wall and the 9th Station — “Jesus falls the third time.” It caught my attention one day after confession — one of those confessions when you acknowledge through the screen that you screwed up again, the same old, same old. Oh, man, I’m guessing that’s got to be one of the toughest parts of hearing confessions for a priest — the tedium and banality of human sin, the repetitiveness and the enormity of moral inertia.
Anyway, I’m in the pew, saying my penance prayers, and there’s Jesus up above — falling again. The first time (over at the 3rd Station) was understandable given the weight of wood he was bearing before Simon stepped in — you can see in most depictions the Lord on his knees, pausing, resting. The second time (7th Station) would’ve been more degrading — the blood loss, fatigue, and pain, plus the sensory and emotional overload of the clamorous spectacle, driving our Savior even lower to the ground.
But, come the 9th Station — a third fall? Really? How was he able to get up again? Where did he find the strength, the energy, the will? Even if Simon was still helping at that point, how could Jesus proceed? “This is the worst fall of all,” notes Caryll Houselander. “It comes at the worst moment of all. It tears open all the wounds in His body; the shock dispels the last ounce of strength that He had mustered to go on.”
Yet he did, and I look to the 9th Station as a sign of hope for all of us who struggle with nagging habits of sin — the same things over and over and over. It’s the station for addicts, you see, the junkies and drunks, the bankrupt gamblers and porn fiends, the gluttons, hotheads and lazy bums. It’s their station — our station — because everyone is called to holiness, no matter our vice, no exceptions.
If that’s true — if God really calls us all to be saints, all of us, you and me, everybody — then we’re all guaranteed the grace required to get us there. We just have to want what God wants and grab the grace — over and over and over.
I think of Francis Thompson, the failed med student and impoverished poet of late-19th-century London. A devout Catholic, Thompson struggled with opium addiction his whole adult life. Yet somehow — somehow — he managed to compose “The Hound of Heaven,” a truly great monument of Catholic poetry (check it out in the back of your breviary) and an inspiration to myriad truth-seekers of all faiths, or none at all.
Servant of God Dorothy Day, for example, tells of playwright Eugene O’Neill, hardly a pious soul, reciting “Hound” from memory after a night of hard drinking in a smoky saloon. Can’t you picture it? “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,” he intones over the murmur and hubbub and clinking glasses. “I fled Him, down the arches of the years…” Dorothy herself was an atheist at the time, yet O’Neill’s recitation — and Thompson’s poem itself — clearly made an impression. “The idea of this pursuit by the Hound of Heaven fascinated me,” Day wrote. “The recurrence of it, the inevitableness of the outcome made me feel that sooner or later I would have to pause in the mad rush of living and remember my first beginning and my last end.” She went on to join the Church and then help establish the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House in Manhattan — a locus for losers, like the 9th Station, and the humble beginnings of the worldwide Catholic Worker movement.
Thus, the third-fall, fourth-fall, fifth- and sixth- and beyond-fall Francis Thompson — the opium-eater who couldn’t kick his self-destructive habit — still could convey a glimpse of our heavenly destiny that profoundly impacts fellow fallers well beyond his own time. We shouldn’t be surprised by this: Who better to testify to the tenacity and persistence of grace than one who repeatedly availed himself of it only to repeatedly flop? Such are the greatest witnesses of God’s relentless devotion to us, despite our machine-gun rebuffs. “He does not indwell only the virtuous, only those who are successful in overcoming temptation,” Houselander comments. “He chooses to indwell those who seem to fail, those who fall again and again, those who seem to be overcome even when the end is in sight.”
Is that you? It’s certainly me from time to time. When it is, I’ll make the 9th Station a refuge and pray with Houselander: “Do not let us despair. … Let us rise in Your strength even in this extremity … because in Your third and last fall under the cross, in the sight of God and men, You identified Yourself with us.”
In other words, trudge on — refuse to capitulate. Grab more grace, grimace and grit your teeth, and trudge on. He’s right behind you.