The Stations of the Cross Give Us Peace in This Vale of Tears

“Our Savior’s passion raises men and women from the depths, lifts them up from the earth, and sets them in the heights.” —St. Maximus of Turin

Lorenzo Lotto, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1526
Lorenzo Lotto, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” 1526 (photo: Public Domain)

I still remember the sense of contemplation that Sister Mary carried with her as she prayed the Stations of the Cross, in the ornate oratory, in the serene depths of the Carmelite cloister where I was a postulant.

Nearly every single morning, at about 5 a.m. or so, Lent or no Lent, she would drag herself off of her straw mattress, put on the several layers (even in August) of her scratchy brown and white habit, tip-toe out of her austere cell, and go pray the Stations before praying in the larger chapel with the other nuns for a couple of hours before the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass began.

She was a nun with quite the conversion story, and God only knew all of the heinous things she had done before she surrendered her entire life to Our Crucified Lord in Carmel. From what I can gather, before she entered the convent, she spent her days nailing herself to the world’s pleasures. Now as a nun, she treasures the bare cross on her cell wall — the Carmelite bare cross, which is traditionally bare, signifying that each nun is to nail themselves on it through a life of prayer and sacrifice.

Truly, God's grace works miracles. As she prayed, she meant business, and it showed.

When I think of this beautiful devotion, I also can’t help but think of a friend of mine who I often sat behind as I prayed the Stations of the Cross at my former parish during Lent. Toward the end of her relatively young life, soon after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, I watched her pray them with such great love. With a scarf over her bare head, she would sit limply in the pew, her body racked with fatigue after undergoing surgery after surgery.

As I would fumble to pray the Stations without being constantly distracted, I would remain in awe of how peacefully she prayed hers. Whenever I would ask her how she was doing, she would tell me she wanted to die whenever Jesus wanted her to die, and that if it was soon to be her time, she would willingly pass from this life to be with him. With heroic simplicity, she would also say that she was offering up her sufferings to God, so that he could do with them as he willed.

The Stations of the Cross accompany us throughout our lives as pilgrims, uniting us to God in extraordinary ways. The Stations give us a way to follow Christ, the Suffering Servant, as he travels the arduous path from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium all the way to his tomb. In the 16th century this pathway was officially entitled the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way), or simply the “Way of the Cross” or the “Stations of the Cross.”

This devotion has evolved throughout the centuries. Tradition holds that our Blessed Mother visited daily the scenes of our Lord’s Passion, and that many pious Christians followed in her footsteps in the years to come. St. Jerome (342-420), living in Bethlehem during the latter part of his life, attested to the crowds of pilgrims from various countries who visited these holy places and followed the Way of the Cross.

In the fifth century, Christians wanted a way to honor these sacred stations in other areas throughout the world, so that pilgrims who could not actually travel to the Holy Land could still do so in a devotional way, simply in their hearts. For instance, St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, constructed a group of chapels at the monastery of San Stefano which depicted the more important shrines of the Holy Land, including several of the stations.

When the Muslim Turks blocked the access to the Holy Land, reproductions of the stations were erected at popular spiritual centers, to edify the faithful and bring them hope. This included centers such as: the Dominican Friary at Cordova and the Poor Clare Convent of Messina (in the early 1400s); Nuremberg (1468); Louvain (1505); Bamberg, Fribourg and Rhodes (1507); and Antwerp (1520). Many of these stations were crafted by world-renown artists and are still considered masterpieces today. By 1587, the Muslims reportedly forbade anyone “to make any halt, nor to pay veneration to [the stations] with uncovered head, nor to make any other demonstration,” basically suppressing this devotion in the Holy Land. However, thanks to Divine Providence, it continued to grow in popularity in Europe regardless.

In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV exhorted all priests to adorn their churches with reproductions of the Stations of the Cross. The devotion was also profoundly encouraged by preachers like St. Leonard Casanova (1676-1751), who reportedly erected over 600 sets of stations throughout Italy.

As it explains in the Enchiridion of Indulgences (63), “A plenary indulgence is granted for those who piously exercise the Way of the Cross, actually moving from station to station where they are legitimately erected and while mediating on the passion and death of our Lord. Those who are impeded from visiting a church may gain the same indulgence by piously reading and meditating on the passion and death of Our Lord for one-half hour.”

This Lenten Season, may we experience the bountiful mercy of the Crucified One as we meditate on the Stations of the Cross. By doing so, we will be imbued with the love of our Creator, who longs for us to spend eternity with Him. As St. Maximilian Kolbe once said, “The cross is the school of love.” Ave Crus, Spes Unica! Hail, O Cross, our only hope!