Monday through Friday I ride the Long Island Railroad from my home in Rockville Centre to my job in mid-town Manhattan. Often I take the express train, which zips me into the city rather quickly (about 45 minutes when there are no delays). After work I have to take the local, which includes numerous other station stops. That means a longer commute. Not fun when you’re packed in a rail car with tired, grumpy, and sometimes smelly passengers who all want to get home. (This does not include coughers or those kind folks who sneeze into the air without even attempting to cover their faces. Nice. Really, nice.)
I hate taking the local, but over the years I’ve come to see that this particular train forces me to slow down after I’ve been on the go all day. Though I usually have my nose in a book, I have started paying more and more attention to particular stations and the stops along the way home—Forest Hills Station, with its tree-lined streets and delicate brick work feels like you’re pulling into a Tudor garden; urban Kew Gardens Station is little more than a platform about three feet above the ground in a bustling, noisy, and crowded part of Queens. (There is a bar on the north side.) Over the years, I’ve come to see that each station has its own personality, each station is a point of arrival and departure for various people doing various things with their lives, and each station, if you pay attention, ultimately tells a story.
On my ride home I am often reminded of the Stations of the Cross, an age-old devotion that forces me to slow down and pay attention to a very particular and tumultuous time in Jesus’ life. I know I’ve been guilty of zipping through the stories in the Gospels—there’s Christmas (presents!) and then, bam, we’re into Easter (chocolate bunnies). But the Stations say: “Wait! Pay particular attention to these moments in Jesus’ life!” Like the stations on the Babylon branch of the Long Island Rail Road, each Station of the Cross has its own tale to tell with lessons to be learned. For instance, consider the Station when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. It’s a visually dramatic moment, but also one that demonstrates how acting compassionately, as Veronica does toward Jesus, leaves us with the face of Christ before us. It’s a story and scene that asks us if we’ve been compassionate in our lives. Have we seen the face of Jesus in our actions toward others?
In the last year I’ve wanted to get to know Jesus more deeply by focusing on the many trials he experienced at the end of his life. So I began applying a variation of the Examen—a reflective devotional exercise described in St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises—to the Stations of the Cross. I make it a 15-day exercise (I always add the Resurrection to the 14 Stations), focusing on just one Station a day on my commute home, Monday through Friday. This adds up to a three-week exercise, and it has helped me not only to decompress on the way home but to engage in my relationship with Jesus in new ways. Oh, and to make sure I remember to do this exercise, I set an alarm on my phone as a reminder!
I invite you to do the same. You can approach this reflection at any time in your day, before or after work or dropping off the kids, wherever you are in your life’s journey. Here are five simple steps, derived from the Examen, to help you unlock the Stations of the Cross in a practical, contemplative, and reflective way.
Step 1: Choose a Station. Let’s say we’re focusing on Jesus taking up his Cross. You can read a passage from the Bible that correlates to that scene or simply picture an image in your mind. Then take a few deep breaths and ask God to help you quiet your head and open your heart. Often we only try to focus on getting rid of all the mental chatter inside of us, but it’s also important to place our attention on the waves of emotions and feelings inside us. Something in you might resist focusing—you may feel tired, nervous, or angry, but that’s okay. Allow yourself to find a level of openness that is true to you.
Step 2: Remind yourself that God is all around you. He’s inside you and outside you and his heart beats in yours. Try to feel that reality as best as you can. Then take the picture of Jesus carrying his Cross, and imagine placing the image inside you. Let it take root in you.
Step 3: Ask the Holy Spirit to rise up inside you and give you the wisdom to acknowledge God in your life. Ask the Spirit to help you meditate on the scene inside you. How do you think Jesus felt when this was happening? What was he thinking? What is your cross to bear? How heavy is it? How does it affect your relationship with God?
Step 4: Review your day. Where did your cross feel the heaviest today? Where did you encounter the cross on the shoulders of others at work, on the news, or in the streets? Where is God in these encounters? Ask God to make you more aware and compassionate of others and yourself.
Step 5: Give thanks to God for the opportunity to know Jesus better, and ask God to help you to become more aware of the crosses that everyone carries in life.