i feel intense need for silence, as is so often my posture on this day of sorrows. no desire to add my voice to the cacophony. i turn instead to the voice of caryll houselander, a mystic and twentieth-century british catholic writer, who referred to herself as a “rocking horse catholic.” the title of her biography, written in 1962 by maisie ward (of the famous publishing house Sheed and Ward), is “that divine eccentric.”
i’ve always found the eccentric to be especially poignant. in the nooks and shadows of their beyond-the-boundaries ways of seeing, it seems the sacred makes itself especially at home.
houselander might have been eccentric, but she stirs the soul for me. i pull her The Way of the Cross off the shelf every Holy Week. i remember well the first time i stumbled onto her stations of the cross; “the way of sorrows” is how she refers to the long dusty ascent of jesus to the hill upon which he would die. would be nailed to a cross, stripped, speared, shamed.
her words gripped me so completely that first time, alone in a church on a dark gray Good Friday, and they’ve never ever let go. they bring good friday, the way of sorrows, to life for me, year after year. and it’s a place i choose to go, a dusty trail i am compelled to enter into, to follow footfall by footfall, year after year.
in the depth of sorrow — so many sorrows — i find an open wound of the heart for the one who stumbled up the hill, the one who fell not once but thrice, the one who called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” as the last bitter taste of the vinegar, put to him on the end of a stick, swirled over his tongue.
in reading even more of houselander this year, she makes the point that for most of his life jesus was hidden. little is known of his childhood, little is known of his life before he was 30 and stepped into the public square, where he preached in parable, healed the broken, toppled the hypocrites. she writes how he often dispatched alone into the desert to pray. how even on the eve of his crucifixion, he left behind his closest soulmates, went deep — and alone — into the garden of gethsemane to beg for this cup to be passed from him.
houselander, a deeply empathetic eccentric, writes how part of the trial — little mentioned but certainly deeply real in that awful moment of time —was how this paradoxically private soul was stripped of his deeply private self.
he was exposed, made public property. stripped naked before the whole world, not only in body but in mind and in soul. to reveal not only his love, but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity. “all his secrets were out,” houselander writes. i think long and hard about that exposure. i am thinking of that as i turn the page and read deeper into the way of sorrows.
she writes: “he is a man of sorrows. he is covered in bruises and stripes. he is made a laughing stock.”
i ask: how many of us have been made laughing stocks?
how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces?
how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt?
“his face is covered with spittings.”
how many of us have ever been spit upon?
“he is bound like a dangerous criminal.”
how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal?
“his friends have forsaken Him.”
how many of us have felt a friend do the same?
“the kiss of treason burns on His cheek.”
how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?
i leave you, quietly, with two of caryll houselander’s prayers from The Way of the Cross:
“Lord, that I may see!”
“…Let me recognize You not only in saints and martyrs, in the innocence of children, in the patience of old people waiting quietly for death, in the splendor of those who die for their fellow men; …
“Let me know You in the outcast, in the humiliated, the ridiculed, the shamed; in the sinner who weeps for his sins. …”
and, this, from the moment along the way of sorrows when a woman named veronica, a compassionate woman, burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus, and wiped his face, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was. this is houselander, with her own pleadings inspired by veronica:
give me Your eyes
to discern the beauty of your face,
hidden under the world’s sorrow.
give me the grace
to be a Veronica;
to wipe away
the ugliness of sin
from the human face,
and to see
Your smile on the mouth of pain,
Your majesty on the face of dereliction,
and in the bound and helpless,
the power of Your infinite love.
Lord take my heart
And give me Yours.
“Jesus is mocked” is one of the downloadable Stations of the Cross, by Scott Erickson. featured in Image Journal, for his “Stations in the City” project, posted around the streets of Portland, OR. He writes: “I think the stations are for everyone, no matter your religious affiliation, because they are a meditation on being human, so I wanted people to see them without the hurdle of having to enter a religious space.”
illustration above: Botanical illustration of the Zizyphus Spina Christi, the thorny bush thought to have been used for the crown of thorns placed on Jesus on that first long-ago day of crucifixion, from A pictorial commentary on the Gospel according to Mark, with the Text of the Authorized and Revised Version, (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.
my questions are in the litany above, the echoes to houselander’s cries….
how many of us have been made laughing stocks? how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces? how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? how many of us have ever been spit upon? how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal? how many of us have felt forsaken? how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?
i believe, like Erickson, the artist above, that regardless of religious affiliation, the Stations of the Cross in so many ways are a meditation on being human, and into that holy and intimate space, i enter….