My grandmother had chronic stomach problems. A child of the depression, though, she felt doctors were unnecessary. She never went to a gastroenterologist, and would self-medicate her upset tummy with peppermint Tic Tac or Certs breath mints. When I was a boy, if I ever got nauseous or had a belly ache, my grandmother would invariably slip a few mint candies into my mouth, and without fail, I would feel better. When you’re a little kid, candy tastes much better than medicine! However, when I got older and started going to college, I learned about the placebo effect—that you could give someone a sugar pill, tell that test subject that it was medicine that healed something like nervousness, and that person’s anxiety would often diminish. The simple act of thinking something was going to cure you did something to your body chemistry that actually helped you feel better. I soon realized that my grandmother’s magic Tic Tac formula for an upset stomach was just an old folk tale. That peppermint candy really wasn’t helping me. The suggestion that the candy was a cure-all helped me.
Well, a few years later I heard on the news that doctors believe that peppermint actually does help digestion; an acidic stomach can sometimes be aided by sucking on mints. Looks like my grandmother’s herbal—or sugary—treatment had some truth to it after all.
I often remember my experiences with peppermint candy when I think of the Stations of the Cross. This centuries-old practice often seems outdated, something grandparents do in the afternoon during Lent while everyone else is in school, at work, or home taking care of the kids. We live in the age of 24-hour news coverage, iPhones, Facebook, and Instagram. Who needs old, traditional acts of piety like the Stations of the Cross anymore?
We live in a strange time when the differences between right and wrong seem to be growing more and more obscure. We feel confusion, frustration, and anger. More and more of us feel like we don’t belong to anything, anywhere. We hear that millions of people each year are leaving their religion behind—leaving behind tradition. But for what? Our individual faith often feels weak, and our purposes ambiguous. Collectively, many of us feel like wanderers, lost and unsatisfied by modern ideas on what it means to be truly human. The words of W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” feel terribly prescient:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction; while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What are we to do?
Often when we find ourselves lost—anxious and nervous about where we are going—it’s best to stop, survey the land, and turn around. Retrace our steps. Over the years, this has meant for me a return to tradition. When the world seems to have forgotten the past, what could be more countercultural than getting back to basics?
The Stations of the Cross in recent years have become a tap on the shoulder, a way of reorienting my soul’s journey to God. When we surrender to the tried and the true, devotions like the Stations of the Cross can help us over time to cultivate a richer, more spiritual life. They not only help us to know God better, but also to know God’s beloved Son Jesus more deeply.
And this is why I wrote Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross, as a salute to my grandmother and her old ways and as a reminder that in order to move forward we need to look to the past. Devotions, rooted in tradition, are a good vehicle for encountering a vibrant present.