Walking the Way of the Cross From a Different Angle

Pope St. John Paul II’s ‘Profiles of a Cyrenean’

‘Christ Carrying the Cross,’ also known as ‘Christ and the Cyrenian,’ Titian, c. 1565
‘Christ Carrying the Cross,’ also known as ‘Christ and the Cyrenian,’ Titian, c. 1565 (photo: Public domain)

It’s 1941. Poland. Night. Megaphones spouting Nazi propaganda fill the streets. Yet, behind the shades of a home, a banned Polish culture flourishes. A few actors have gathered in a living room to perform poetry. They perform by candlelight, with no costumes, props or curtain. 

In this theater, the word takes center stage. A young Karol Wojtyła is involved in this underground performance known as the Rhapsodic Theater, the Theater of the Word. 

One Easter many years ago, I was given a copy of The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II, translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz. Most of these poems were written before Karol Wojtyla became pope, and they offer insight into his way of thinking and being in the world. He delights in looking at people and ideas from multiple perspectives. One particular poem cycle in the collection that has continued to resonate over the years is Profiles of a Cyrenean

The poem is one of slowly zooming in. The cycle is arranged like a triptych: The first part, “Before I Could Discern Many Profiles,” allows the nameless first-person speaker distance from a scene that at once takes in Christ, Simon and humanity at large: 

“I know the Cyrenean’s profile best, /from every conceivable point of view. / The profile always starts alongside the other Man.” 

The second section, “Now I Begin to Discern Individual Profiles,” allows readers to see the person of Simon of Cyrene like a diamond. Made up of 14 smaller poems, which Alan C. Lupack in a 1983 review of Karol Wojtyła’s Collected Poems points out, is reminiscent of the 14 Stations of the Cross, it together presents a three-dimensionality to the person of Simon of Cyrene, inviting readers to locate themselves in the various profiles. 

The third section, “Simon of Cyrene,” delves into Simon’s inner world as he is at once repelled and drawn to the suffering Christ: 

“No, I don’t want merely to be just. / I stand on a threshold, glimpse a new world.” 

Though the poem as a whole contains deep richness, it is the second section that has most drawn me over the years. The individual profiles of this section include a vast array of people, including a melancholic, a girl disappointed in love, an armaments factory worker, Magdalene, and an actor. Each contributes to a “profile,” a facet of Simon of Cyrene that invites a look at the many facets contained in one individual, and the variety of people who are called to be Simon in modern life. In the Theater of the Word, the actor, Wojtyla says in his essay, “On the Theater of the Word,” “does not become a character but carries a problem.” The problem of this poem cycle is the question, “What is my relationship to the cross, to Christ? Will I carry the cross?”

Over the past two years, I’ve gathered friends together virtually to read through this resonant yet mysterious poem. 

This year, a small group came together at the start of Lent, and throughout the season, we have spent time with these profiles in anticipation of two Holy Week performances in Kansas City. Our performance style is one we hope will be similar to the Theater of the Word. Parts I and III are performed in a reader’s theater style. Chorus — or lines in which multiple or all actors speak at once — is one component of the Theater of the Word. Another is making room for what we are speaking to be the main component of our performance. 

To help us accomplish this, our only prop is a wooden cross, and our clothing, though carefully chosen to correspond with our various profiles, is not costume. There is no curtain; only the words we speak stand between us and the audience. 

Unlike most plays, Theater of the Word is not based around a plot but a problem. The various characters speak into this problem. For us, the problem begins to unfold in Part II, where each profile must grapple with his or her relationship to the cross. Some profiles struggle to carry it; others don’t want God to break down their defenses; some are dealing with the painful vulnerability of being united to God but aching in that space. Here is a small sampling:

Melancholic: “I would not carry it. And now this pain— / how much longer is it to last?—”
Girl Disappointed in Love:
“you think you are the center of things.
If you could only grasp that you are not:
the center is He,
and He, too, finds no love—”
The Armaments Factory Worker: “Though what I create is not good, / the world’s evil is not of my making. // But is that enough?
Magdalene: “At times love aches: there are weeks, months, years … // But it is He who feels / the drought of the whole world, not I.”
“I became a channel, unleashing a force
called man.
Did not the others crowding in, distort
the man that I am?”

The climax of the piece comes in Part III, the moment in which Simon of Cyrene is pulled from the crowd and comes face to face with Christ. In this section, all profiles converge. Here, the “I” is Simon, pulled from the crowd. 

The poem takes us straight to his inner world — which could, in fact, be my own — where resistance and attraction to Christ meet. He begins “Eye to eye with this Man,” with the desire to remain separate; “let me keep myself to myself. / No beggar or convict will ever break into me; / neither will God.” 

As the poem progresses, Simon seems pulled toward compassion, toward a threshold that will forever unite his profile to that of Christ’s. He resists: “[D]on’t touch my thoughts / or my heart — you’ll stir nothing there.” 

And yet, it is in the act of carrying Christ’s cross that Simon’s body converges with that of Christ’s. With Christ, he receives the harsh words and rough handling of the soldiers and notes, “Who is to say which is which / when the weight knocks us both to the ground— / me and him?” 

Simon crosses the threshold suddenly, and seems to struggle against language as the weight of the revelation of Christ finally touches him: “Smash it to pieces, open it up! (Sentences must be compact, / words must speed urgently on, no well-rounded stanzas.)” It is not initially clear exactly what Simon wants smashed to pieces — the cross, his own “petty world,” or language itself.

As we’ve practiced this poem cycle, I’ve found that it is in the struggle to grasp at meaning — both in Wojtyla’s poems and at times in my own relationship with Christ — that actually positions me to be most like Simon, most like any of the voices in the second section. 

To bear the cross is to struggle, to fall, to read strange words in the dirt, and then to rise, to take small bursts of revelation as they come. In realizing the difference between their profiles, Simon brings to memory the assertion of the first section — “(Profile becomes cross-section)” — and paradoxically draws even closer to the Christ he now must touch in the carrying of the cross.”

“You could overlook the pettiness in your great world,
smash my world to nothing;
bearing the cross you could bring it all to the brink.
You are accessible, broad: [A]ll men are contained in you.” 

In his act of helping Christ carry the cross, in the glimpse of a polyhedron of profiles, I can also say of Simon, “[A]ll men are contained in you.” 

Profiles of a Cyrenean has opened for me new frontiers of contemplation, breaking open the biblical figure of Simon of Cyrene and showing me that there’s room not only for me, but for the whole of humanity. We can each walk this way of the cross and find ourselves pulled from the crowd. There’s room in this experience for doubt and disbelief, horror and revulsion, mystery and hope. 

Poet and writer Lindsey Weishar holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She writes for a variety of outlets, including Verily magazine. Her column, “My Vocation is Love,” appears in The Catholic Post, the newspaper of her home Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.