In my parish church, we have a set of hand-carved Stations of the Cross that we purchased from Taiwan thirty years ago. In those days we couldn’t afford much, so parishioners were encouraged to “buy” one station. I chose to pay for the Fifth Station, where Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus. I still think of it as “my” Station, not because I helped pay for it, but because it illustrates the nature of my relationship with the Lord. It reminds me of the events that first helped me understand the words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld: “The more we embrace the Cross, the more we become one with Jesus.”
Those events occurred toward the end of my second year of doctoral studies at the University of Iowa. It had been a bleak time, despite the high expectations with which I had begun my graduate studies, and not only because of the seemingly endless blizzards that swept Iowa. I found that both faculty and students in the Comparative Literature program regarded me with hostility after learning that I was a believing Christian and a practicing Catholic — things that they deemed incompatible with authentic intellectual achievement. One classmate, Tim, liked to buy me drinks and, as soon as I was befuddled with liquor, he would grill me about “how such an intelligent person could believe so much crap.” I couldn’t explain why I believed; I only knew that I did. His constant badgering, however, made me begin to doubt my faith.
In an odd way, Tim reminded me of some students I had known during my college days, Protestants who claimed to have been “born again,” who said they had a special friendship with Jesus. They alienated many people, faculty and students alike, with their constant insistence that anyone who wasn’t like them wasn’t a real Christian. As a Catholic, I knew that I had been born again when I was baptized, but I envied these “born again” Protestants their special closeness with Jesus. And now, in graduate school, lonely and friendless, I longed more than ever for a sense of the Lord’s friendship.
Pray with me one hour
Although I was doing well academically, by the end of Lent my second year in Iowa, my spirits had reached their lowest point. I decided to quit the program and wrote to my parents telling them that I was dropping out. On Holy Thursday evening I trudged through the snow to the Newman Center for the evening liturgy, preoccupied with my dreary situation. The basement chapel that evening seemed uglier than ever, with its dull, scuffed linoleum and exposed pipes that hung from the ceiling so low that tall students had to stoop to enter the rows of battered folding chairs. I chose a seat on the aisle toward the back to isolate myself, hoping to avoid the hand-holding during the Our Father. With a little luck, I would be able to escape quickly when Mass was over.
But at the end of Mass, the priest invited us to stay after the dismissal and keep vigil at the Altar of Repose. Most of those in attendance stayed only for a brief prayer before leaving, but I couldn’t move from my seat. Along with a handful of others, I stayed in the darkened chapel, imagining Jesus going into the garden at night to pray, just a few hours before he was to die most horribly.
I thought about his agonized prayers to a Heavenly Father who must have seemed very far away as Jesus, sweating blood in the torment of his spirit, begged to be spared what was coming. I began to weep, silently but uncontrollably. I would have liked to leave, but somehow couldn’t make myself rise from my seat. With nothing but my sleeves to wipe my face, I continued to sit there in the dark, not knowing if it was Jesus or myself for whom I wept. Finally, we were told that the chapel must be closed for the night, and I was forced to go.
The next afternoon I returned for the Good Friday liturgy, sitting in the same aisle seat near the rear of the barren chapel as other students trickled in. Someone bumped my chair as he passed by — a tall, burly student dragging a large wooden beam, which he dropped with a horrible clatter on the floor at the front, before the bare altar. Another young man followed with another beam and dropped it athwart the first. They banged the two pieces of wood together with enormous nails; the sound of the hammer blows ricocheting like gunshots from the hard surfaces of the floor and the low ceiling. Then the priest invited us to come forward and reverence the cross. To my dismay, I found tears once again coursing down my face. Somehow I managed to stumble forward and kiss the cross, blinded by my tears.
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him
As I lay awake that night, I felt as Jesus’ disciples must have felt on that first Good Friday night — as if the light had gone out of the world. When I finally slept, it gave me no refreshment.
The next morning, the day stretched ahead of me as a great blankness. I knew the next day would be Easter, but I was not looking forward to it. Jesus might rise from the dead, but I would still be stuck in my sorry situation. That afternoon when I checked the mail, I saw a letter from my mother. I opened it, expecting to read how deeply I had disappointed her and my father. But she expressed no disappointment or criticism. She only said that she was glad I would finally be coming home. Reading those words, I felt a great weight lifted from my heart.
The next day, I was able to celebrate Easter with the joy it deserved. I left the chapel with a light heart, stepping out into the street where sunlight and a warm breeze told me the long, cruel winter was finally over.
What a friend we have in Jesus
As I’ve since come to see, that Holy Week God finally answered my prayers for a close friendship with Jesus. I had felt alone in my suffering, but Christ had been there all along, something I didn’t understand until I prayed with him in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his Passion. Like Simon of Cyrene, I did not choose the cross that weighed so heavily on me, but in carrying it, I found myself with Jesus close beside me. This has been a recurring pattern in my life, but now, each time I feel the weight of a new cross that I did not choose, I realize it means that God wishes to draw me closer still to the heart of his beloved Son.
This originally appeared as a guest post on Nancy Ward’s blog, Joy Alive in Our Hearts, as part of her “Joy stories” series.