Introduction: Prayer as a Lover's Journey
Anyone can use prayer to deepen our relationship with God -- not just specialists in a particular religion. As an intersex person who recently transitioned from the female gender assigned at birth to a masculine one, healthier for me physically and psychologically, I have struggled in my relationship with the religious tradition in which I was ordained and taught university-level theology for two decades. Job loss, divorce, social isolation and public shaming in social media have been a part of my spiritual journey these past two years. However, I still meditate and pray with friends in and outsides of the Christian tradition, particularly those who embrace queer identities.
Sixteenth-century Spanish mystics John of the Cross (who described his loving mystical union with Jesus in homoerotic poetry) and his teacher Teresa of Avila, periodic suffering is a normal part of a progressively deepening experience of complete union with God to be expected rather than avoided or denied. Acknowledging the reality of suffering as part of our spiritual journey allows us more clearly to trust God's work in and through it. Teresa calls this "journey of prayer" a way of daily living in friendship with God. By meditating on Jesus' own experiences of suffering, we pray WITH Jesus, deepening that relationship. Rather than merely reciting words TO God, we meditating deeply on who Jesus is and who we are in Him as a way of life and relationship: We spend time alone devoted to God without distraction or reservation, discovering more about our Beloved, motivated by our love for Him in the same way that couples in love desire know each other more deeply through shared mutual presence, with or without words. Like a cord of many strands not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12), drawing on our human ways of loving (philos, eros) only strengthens the divine gift of love of and with God (agape).
Saint Helena of Constantinople (ca 250-ca 330), mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great, started life as a west Asian stable-maid from what is now Turkey. When she was about 80 years old, she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, using her sway as the emperor's mother to help recover sites holy to Christians (such as Jesus' tomb) that had been buried under Greco-Roman temples -- work for which she is still renowned as the patron saint of archeologists. Under her supervision, shrines and churches were built at these recovered holy sites: Pilgrims could even walk Jesus' path along the Via Dolorosa or way of sorrows. Later, in medieval Italy, an aspiring knight who failed to make this pilgrim to the Holy Land due to injury and illness (now known as St. Francis of Assisi) came up with a mystical way of traveling this path with Jesus simply by praying the" stations" of the cross.
The "path of sorrow," or "way of the cross" (Via Crucis), a name that dates from the sixteenth-century, refers to the route Jesus walked in Jerusalem, painfully carrying the cross toward Calvary (Aramaic name "Golgotha", "the Skull"). The journey starts when Jesus is judged and condemned by Pilate at the site of the former Roman fortress Antonia, where the Herod lived, the Jewish dignitary who enforced Roman rule among his occupied people. The "path of sorrows" then proceeds to Golgotha, the site of Jesus' crucifixion, and ends at Jesus' tomb.
Since the late middle ages, fourteen "stations of the cross" mark the route. Pilgrims in Jerusalem itself begin at the Monastery of the Flagellation, where Jesus was not only questioned and condemned by Pilate, but also scourged and crowned with thorns. The second station is the Arch of Ecce Homo, the side where Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothes, where Pilate shows Jesus to the crowd. At the third station, pilgrims meditate on Jesus' first fall on the path under the weight of the cross, then fourth on the meeting between Jesus and his mother. Fifth, pilgrims consider the encounter between Jesus and Simon the Cyrenian, who carries Jesus' cross to Golgotha/Calvary as affirmed in the synoptic gospels. Sixth, they pray over the meeting between Jesus and Veronica, the name tradition gives to the woman who wiped Christ's face with her silk veil (still kept at St. Peter's in Rome). Seventh, they meditate on Jesus' second fall on this path and eighth on Jesus meeting with the pious women or "daughters of Jerusalem" (as recounted in Luke 23.26-28). The ninth station is the third fall of Jesus, and the rest are all within Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Traditionally these include Jesus stripped of His garments; Jesus nailed to the cross, where He promises His kingdom to the repentant (good) thief; Jesus' dying on the cross; Jesus taken down from the cross; and Jesus placed in the tomb. Some contemporary Christians add the Resurrection as a non-traditional fifteenth station.
Outside of Jerusalem, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians (especially Anglicans and Lutherans) have continued the medieval Franciscan practice of meditating on Jesus' final hours in groups or individually, most commonly during Lent, the forty-day season of reflection leading to Easter (the day celebrating Jesus' resurrection). The goal of this ancient, still widespread devotional practice is to make a spiritual "pilgrimage" by prayerfully meditating on the sufferings of Jesus Christ, perhaps even as part of our "unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified."
Though the Bible itself admits not all Jesus did has been written down (John 21.25), some Christians have concerns about the traditional stations of the cross since a few are not explicitly identified in the Christian scriptures. A few evangelicals have found creative ways to modify this Lenten devotional practice to keep it entirely Bible-centered as in the following example: 1. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26.36-41), 2. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, is arrested (Mk 14.43-46), 3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Lk 22.66-71). 4. Jesus is denied by Peter (Mt 26.69-75), 5. Jesus is judged by Pilate (Mk 15.1-5, 15), 6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Jn 19.1-3). 7. Jesus bears the cross (Jn 19.6, 15-17), 8. Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrenian to carry the cross (Mk 15.21), 9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Lk 23.27-31), 10. Jesus is crucified (Lk 23.33-34), 11. Jesus promises His kingdom to the good thief (Lk 23.39-43), 12. Jesus speaks to His mother and the disciple (Mk 15.1-5, 15), 13. Jesus dies on the cross (Lk 23.44-46), 14. Jesus is placed in the tomb (Mt 27.57-60).
Individual meditations from a queer, post-Christian perspective on the 14 traditional stations are posted in four articles to follow.