It is common to wake up with the remnants of a dream blurring my morning vision. Or to hear the echoes of a song, the lyrics drifting away. But this morning was different. I woke up and felt the reverberations from a long ago ritual: the Stations of the Cross.
At St. Euphrasia Elementary School in Granada Hills, California, we were taught to walk the stations in second grade. We had recently received our first Communions and first confessions, so this next step in the process of becoming a grownup Catholic person was pretty heady stuff for a 7-year-old. It was a lot of information to take in and memorize.
I clearly recall the solemnity of our second-grade teacher, Sister Fatima, and school principal, Sister Rosalita — imposing Mexican Dominican nuns in their brown habits — as they herded us along the walls of our church.
As they had us look up at each successive plaque, seven on each side wall, they explained that when we did the Stations, we should imagine that we were on the Via Dolorosa, the road in Jerusalem that Jesus walked between his condemnation at Pontius Pilate's palace and being crucified at Golgotha.
I can still see and hear the boys elbowing each other and chuckling about the gorier details of that long walk, poor Jesus trudging along, carrying his cross.
At the time, I found the boys irritating, of course. Boys.
In hindsight, I can't blame them for being compelled to find something interesting in that long and tedious ritual. First, we were taught to repeat the opening prayer:
"Oh, my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at thy feet. From the bottom of my heart I am sorry for all my sins, because by them I have offended thee, who art infinitely good. I will die rather than offend thee again."
Then at each stop, Sister Rosalita would give a brief explanation of what happened to Jesus that day, and then say: "Jesus Christ crucified."
We were taught to respond: "Have mercy on us."
Then she would say: "May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace."
And we all said: "Amen."
Over and over. Fourteen times.
I remember tracing the edges of the chunky peanut-butter-colored bricks on the wall as we waited to graduate to the next picture and story. I tried to make my face look serious and devout, but a lot like during Mass on Sundays, it was mostly a waiting game.
Just keep breathing, try not to get in trouble, don't make eye contact with friends, because that would make us giggle and get us all busted. Most of us had learned the hard way that in a pocket hidden in the folds of that brown habit, Sister Fatima had one quick and stinging ruler.
But even through the fog of my jaded 7-year-old ennui, the details of what Jesus suffered that day sneaked into my head and heart. I remember hating to hear about when he fell, then fell again ... then fell a third time.
Like school kids everywhere, my knees and elbows had perpetual scabs from falling. Crashing my bike. Tripping during dodge ball. Tumbling from the monkey bars. Falling I knew. Falling I got. Falling is no fun.
And the idea of falling with the extra weight of a massive wooden cross on my shoulders onto rough cobblestones, with a bunch of guards yelling at me and prodding me on, and an angry crowd shouting ugly things — well, that was something I could only imagine hurt much worse, in so many ways.
I felt relieved when I heard the parts where other people helped or comforted him. When Veronica wiped his dirty, sweaty face with a cloth. When Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for a while, even though it was unclear if that was Simon's idea or not.
The part where Jesus meets his mother, Mary, made me both happy and sad. I know I sure would want to see my mom, if I were in that unenviable position. But it also must have been awfully hard, for both of them.
I could easily imagine my mom being both really mad — as she was one fierce Catholic-cussing little lady — as well as frustrated at her powerlessness to stop what was happening. It would have made her crazy, and I imagined that Mary felt much the same way. Holy man or not, that was her little boy.
The last five stations were the hardest, as we heard that Jesus was stripped, nailed to the cross, died, was taken down and laid in the tomb.
Each time I had to repeat: "Have mercy on us," and "Amen," I just got madder and sadder. It just seemed so unfair. Fair had always been a big deal to me, and this seemed to be the granddaddy of all unfair things.
This young man of gentle words and amazing miracles — who healed the sick and disabled, loved little children, made wine out of water and made fishes and loaves multiply, and showed us all how to treat each other as brothers and sisters — somehow had to die this horrific, tortuous death.
Even though I understood in theory that Jesus accepted his death as necessary to his resurrection, realizing how much he must have hurt made me hurt, too.
Which is, of course, the point.
Later in life, I learned that it was St. Francis of Assisi who first propagated the idea that in reliving what he called the Passion of the Christ, we can more fully contemplate and venerate what Jesus went through for us. And it was the Franciscans who built the first shrines along the Via Sacra, so that pilgrims visiting the Holy Land could pause and pray, as they followed the final footsteps of Jesus.
This didn't surprise me, because St. Francis' words had long pierced my heart, starting with singing "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" during Mass at St. Euphrasia.
St. Francis seemed to me to be the originator of practicing random acts of kindness. He saw God in each person he met, felt the divine in the humanity of Jesus, and translated his miraculous love into small daily decisions and actions. So hearing that Francis believed that if we walk the walk of Jesus we will more deeply feel and appreciate his sacrifice made total sense to me.
Regular life can often feel like that long walk. It is a sure signal that "all is right with the world" when we never get to handle one challenge at a time, but an unwieldy bundle of them, all at once. And these caravans of cares — while certainly never as grueling to carry as the cross — can definitely wear us down, feeling increasingly heavy as we trudge along.
The adage "God never gives you more than you can handle" is the opposite of comforting. It makes us feel less in strength and lower in faith, if it catches us mid-trudge.
But the Stations reassure me. If Jesus himself fell not once, not twice, but three times under his great and terrible burden, I don't think we should beat ourselves up too much when we crumble at times under ours.
That is the gift of the Stations of the Cross for me. My compassion for what Jesus went through starts with him and extends to every person, surprisingly even myself. When I stumble — and going on seems hard, scary and exhausting, even temporarily hopeless, I think of him.
Then I get myself back up. And walk on.
[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]