For these last few stations, I found that I had very little to say. Sometimes tragedy is best dealt with in silence.
My first reaction, when I sat down to pray this station before painting it, was “no, not yet!” I felt like I’d moved towards this moment all too quickly. Jesus is already being nailed to the cross? Really? But I’ve just begun to sit with these stations, to immerse myself in them, and my understanding is still so small. And, as a painter, I’ve just begun to understand what I’m painting.
While painting these stations, I’ve gotten increasingly more chaotic and less controlled. The early paintings, which probably don’t feel that controlled, were really labored over. They were thought more than felt. But in the last few paintings, I’ve begun to trust myself more, to pull colors off the palette out of instinct, to give the paint more freedom to move about the paper. I don’t know if this has made for better paintings or worse, but I do know that I’ve learned a freer process.
And, in an odd way, I think that the stations are all about freedom. Dying daily to self is a way of seeking freedom, a setting fears of inadequacy aside, of caring less about being judged by others. Always the harshest judgement comes from ourselves. Always its our own broken and bitter persons that mock and beat us. For us to find freedom, these mean spirited and negative aspects of our personalities have to die. They fight this death, and we fight it, because we don’t know who we are without them. Yet its from this tension and this battle that the central paradox of the Christian spiritual life arises. By allowing ourselves to be nailed to the cross, we discover a path to freedom. It’s through our wounds that we are healed.
This tenth station presents a challenge to me, since I’ve been portraying Jesus as naked throughout this entire series, which means that the effect of seeing him stripped of his clothes is somewhat diminished. I’ve been painting him naked because that’s the way I feel when I enter into periods of great suffering. Naked, exposed, my dignity undefended. That, of course, is part of the difficulty and challenge of suffering. It leaves one naked before a world that may or may not be sympathetic.
So I couldn’t paint him being stripped of his clothes. I decided, instead, to try to give him an expression that could be read as naked – an expression on a bruised and ruined face, a face that injury has stripped of its beauty and peace. His lip is swollen, his skin purpled, and there’s a look of consternation, maybe even horror, in his eyes. Then, because I was looking at Hans Silvester’s photos of people from the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, I decided to paint his face in a manner similar to the way they paint their faces. They are better artists than I am, and the effect on my painting isn’t nearly as striking as the way they decorate their skin. But I wanted to contrast Jesus’s expression with a symbol of peace, so I painted white crosses onto his cheek.
I hope that this hints at the power of redemption. The cross is an insane symbol for the early Christians to have adopted, since it symbolized torture and suffering and the brutal use of power. But the early Christians understood that everything could be redeemed, without exception. So they set out to redeem an obscenity, the torture instrument that had killed Jesus himself. They claimed it as a symbol of love and peace. Let it serve as a reminder that the suffering we experience as we walk to our own personal crosses can and will be redeemed.
“He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light.” It’s a harsh thing to say about God, but not the harshest thing in the text for the ninth station. “He has besieged me and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes.” Who is this God who causes pain?
I’m of many minds about this. I have, of course, felt this way about God at certain points in my life, and I think it’s commendable that the stations give voice to such a heartfelt and authentic complaint. At the same time, I think it reflects an understanding of God that I don’t really share anymore. I think that God journeys with us through the dark times, but doesn’t cause them. And if prayer is a reaching towards God, I can’t conceive of God shutting it out.
Yet the dark times do reach for us, and I wanted to weight my painting with a creeping feeling of inevitability. No one wants to enter into this darkness, although many spiritual teachers say that it’s purgative, that it will help us let go of the parts of our souls that need to die. Maybe a time spent in darkness will help me to let go of pride, or shame, or the memory of some distant hurt. But I would rather free myself of those things without the darkness, if only I could.
“Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them.” This is the start of the surprising prayer that accompanies the eighth station, and it was much in my mind as I painted the women of Jerusalem. I couldn’t help thinking of all of the people whom those who claim to act for the church have hurt throughout history. I painted a Jewish woman who was being deported to the death camps, and a native woman who had seen her culture destroyed. I also painted a Civil Rights activist, who was supported in her work and her dignity by the black church and some portion of the white church, while, at the same time, being denounced and attacked by representatives of the white church and its power. In all these cases, its possible to find Christians of deep faith who opposed the destruction and dehumanization of large portions of the human race, but we must acknowledge that the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany had deep cultural roots within Christian Europe, that the people who sent Native children to Indian schools and stole their land couldn’t conceive of a Church that didn’t look like themselves, and that the Klu Klux Klan and other hate organizations regularly tried to wrap themselves in the mantle of Christ. There’s great horror in all of this, and great sadness.
The women of Jerusalem meet Jesus on his way to the cross, representing all those who have been brutalized and terrorized by people who claim religious authority. There was a time in my career when I would have tried to apologize for the church, and find excuses. But I believe that repentance requires a great deal of honesty, and that we can’t atone for things we aren’t willing to admit. I love the church, and all it has given me and taught me. In the same way, I’m sure that Jesus loved the temple and the synagogue. Still, it was the religious authorities who inhabited those communities of temple and synagogue who sentenced him to death, and his church is often inhabited by people who are just as frightened, small, corrupt, and cruel. How can we not mourn our sins?
For a long time now I’ve been haunted by photographs of lynchings, taken a hundred years ago or less in the South. Crowds of men and boys pose, looking at the camera, smiling, while a black body swings from a tree behind them. Hannah Arendt famously referred to the banality of evil, but when I look at these photos I don’t see banality, but bon homie. Here are men who are using murder to build social community, who are aligning their own sense of belonging to cruelty. And who have brought their children along, thinking that this is something they should teach.
This is what really shocks – the faces of the boys in the crowd. They don’t wear cruel expressions. In a different context, one would look at them and smile, seeing fresh enthusiasm and joy. All the things one would hope for children are present here, only twisted and corrupted. And all the terror that a parent feels on behalf of his or her child is also here, in the black man hanging by his neck. Who can imagine seeing one’s child reviled, terrorized, and killed, and then seeing smiling faces, rejoicing in his death, so proud of it that they want to document the moment.
By tradition and a handy little play on words, her name is Veronica, meaning true (vera) image (icon). Like Simon of Cyrene, she’s a stranger to the narrative of Jesus’s life and teachings, although she might have been one of the women who followed him around. But she only steps into the story as a distinct actor in this moment, when she wipes his face with a cloth as he trudges to the cross. She is known to us for this single action in what I imagine must have been an otherwise very full life. Did she fall in love, have children, find her way to purpose in a thousand small ways, like the rest of us do? I hope so. Her legend didn’t really develop until the 14th c., so there aren’t any stories of her going and evangelizing in some far off corner of the world, although she is credited with using the cloth that she wiped Jesus’s face with to cure the Emperor Tiberius. Since Tiberius was a miserably cruel and misanthropic man, I’m left wondering whether this was a good thing.
When the dust clears, what we see is a woman holding a veil, and that’s about it. The dirt and grime of Jesus’s face is imprinted on the veil. I’m tempted here to write something pithy about the veils that we all wear, the way we struggle to show our true selves to other people. But really I just want to sit with the image of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus – the sense of having come into contact with something strange and mysterious and terrible, the fear and wonder, the knowledge that she has had the courage to show her love, the awareness that doing so is a very small thing, but also so profound that people will ponder it for ages to come.