A prayer form that is most often associated with the season of Lent, the Way of the Cross (as it is formally called) is a prayer for all seasons. The idea of this prayer came from the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Some who had particular spiritual burdens to discharge, penances to do, or needs to intercede for would make the long journey to the Holy Land on foot in search of the special graces attached to the land where Christ had walked. Obviously, this took considerable time and resources to accomplish, and not everyone could make the journey even once in a lifetime. But the spiritual benefits of a pilgrimage were enormous, not the least of which was the community that often spontaneously formed along the way for protection, mutual encouragement, and fellowship. The final leg of the journey was to follow the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sadness—the route that Jesus presumably took through Jerusalem to Calvary with his cross. It was this final stage of pilgrimage that led to the idea of the stations, or stops, that Jesus took along that last sad street.
The stations of the cross became standardized over time, encompassing at last the fourteen stops we have today (fifteen if the Resurrection is included). Originally, the franchise of the stations belonged to the Franciscan order, who were the guardians of the Holy Land. At Franciscan parishes and retreat centers, anyone unable to make an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land was invited to symbolically journey through those fateful stops and make the same reparations and intercessions that other pilgrims made. Today almost every Catholic parish has a specially installed group of stations, and many retreat centers will have outdoor stations as well. By walking the stations one can literally “move” toward spiritual wholeness. We can understand our spiritual lives as a journey toward greater integrity through accompanying the passion of Jesus by this wholly engaging prayer. We can use one of the many books of meditations on the stations that have been written by spiritual masters to accompany us along the way, or we can simply offer our own prayers as we go.
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