When I was a child, on Lenten Fridays my mother would corral us into the Subaru and head to church for Stations of the Cross. Afterward, we would rumble back up the dirt road for the second essential feature of a Friday during Lent: tuna fish casserole. We referred to this dish—noodles, peas, canned tuna, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup—as “tuna fish shut up.” This was because every week, before we could start complaining about what was for dinner, my mother would tell us to, well, shut up.
We were good practicing Catholics: Mass every Sunday, grace before meals, and years of sacrifice to keep us in Catholic schools. At the same time, we weren’t necessarily paragons of devotion. We thought it was hilarious when a more devout classmate told us “we don’t say ‘shut up' in our house.” We almost never prayed together. We said grace before dinner but not before any other meal. I loved my rosary because it glowed in the dark—not because I meditated on the mysteries. We never missed Mass, but we also never missed the opportunity to critique the homily on the car ride home. The faith was unquestionably the most important part of life, but we didn't gush about it.
And yet there were those Fridays in Lent. We would arrive and find our seats amid old ladies, other families, and Msgr. Watson, who seemed shocked that Stations were still a going thing. Most of the time, I wondered why there was so much genuflecting, kneeling, and standing with so little sitting. We would grudgingly walk around the church while reciting St. Alphonsus Liguori's meditations on the Stations, trying to remember how many there were. It was always crushing when we got to the tenth station and realized we still had four more to go. Did he have to fall three times and have us remember each stumble?
But our greatest source of discomfort was the words we were praying. My family wasn't given to emotional expressiveness, yet here we were looking at a stumbling Jesus and saying to him, “I love you, Jesus, my love.” Liguori's language seemed too effusive.
I have prayed other Stations, even at times preferred other Stations to Liguori's. After the Second Vatican Council, there was a drive to make the various practices of the faith more scriptural. This led to a change in the language for Stations—less “I devoutly kiss the cross on which You would die for love of me” and more Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The point wasn’t just to add Scripture, but also to simplify the language a bit. I liked the idea, and in my twenties, I drifted toward parishes that had long ago consigned Liguori to a dusty drawer. Get rid of the emotivism of kissing crosses, stones, and feet; get rid of referring to the man of sorrows as “my adorable Jesus.”
But today, twenty years later, I have learned to love the Liguori Stations again and have realized why it was so important for my family to pray them before our tuna fish shut up. I now find myself bringing my toddler to Stations on Friday evenings and shuffling around the church with a few others, looking at the mosaics and saying, “Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me what you will.”
You see, it was precisely because my family was loath to say the sort of things Liguori wrote that we needed his Stations. Liguori, among many things, was a writer of what Catholics fittingly call “devotions.” Liguori helps us practice being devout even if we rarely are. My reluctance to pray the Liguori Stations for years was often a reluctance to say those essential words: “I love you Jesus.” It was too intimate and emotional for my abstract faith. But intimacy is essential to Catholic devotional life. What is so striking about this intimacy is that it is shared. We say these words of love together—in a way that instantiates what philosopher William Desmond calls the “intimate universal.” Liguori offers us the chance to speak the hidden words within our restless, but shy, hearts.
The Liguori Stations may not quote the Gospels, but Scripture is creatively represented in the words, the art, and the consideration of our hearts. The Liguori Stations take a deeply Catholic approach to Scripture, encouraging us to inhabit the stories of the Bible creatively. Each station tells us to “consider.” This admonition is central to biblical faith; we are to look and consider what “my beloved Jesus” did for us.
Last Lent, when Stations were canceled, I took a copy of the Liguori Stations home and prayed them on my couch with my wife. I was still doing what I had done as a child: wondering how many Stations there were left and yet saying those words of love. On certain days, as sacristan at my parish, I would pop into the church to make sure things were well sorted, to take pictures to share on social media for people missing sacred spaces, and to ring the bells for those starved for sacred sounds. Every once in a while, I would see a solitary nun walking the Stations with her copy of Liguori. The church was dark. The mosaics were barely visible, much less the words of the pamphlet. And yet there she was, looking at the mosaics presenting the via crucis, and daring to say: “I love you Jesus, my love.”
Terence Sweeney is adjunct professor of philosophy at Villanova University and theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.
Photo courtesy of Terence Sweeney.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.