“For a moment, a vision more wonderful than that of Tabor is granted to the woman whose compassion drove her to discover Christ in a suffering man.”
~ Caryll Houselander
Where do you sit in church? Do you automatically gravitate to a region time and again, maybe even a particular pew?
Everybody does it, it seems – at least that’s what I hear from priests. Pastors know where their parishioners normally sit and what Sunday Mass they normally attend, and they take note if they’re missing – or if their perched in an unexpected location.
Then there’s us: Inveterate congregational nomads. Side aisle, center aisle, Mary’s side, Joseph’s side – who knows where the Beckers will end up?
These days, however, on those rare occasions when we have a quorum attending Mass together (hard to do when you have older teens who can drive themselves), we usually end up on St. Joseph’s side of the church near the cry room. I’m not sure why – we haven’t had a wailing baby for much too long – but I’m happy to defer to familial consensus.
But when I’m on my own? For daily Mass? I prefer Mary’s side between Simon and Veronica – between, that is, the fifth and sixth Stations of the Cross. It’s a physical space where I feel spiritually at home, an intervening territory that pretty much epitomizes the state of my soul most the time.
Simon, you’ll recall, was the country bumpkin that the Roman soldiers grabbed from the crowd to shoulder Jesus’ hefty burden. The Gospel accounts indicate that he didn’t volunteer, and the burden was reassigned to Simon only after the Lord, weakened by beatings, had stumbled under its weight.
Even so, Simon’s act, whether willing or not, is a striking metaphor for what it means to become a Christian, to be a Christian: We take up the Cross by taking up our own crosses, whatever they may be. Jesus told us as much himself – it’s right there in Gospels for all to read – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that lived Christianity is associated with suffering and dying: Dying to self, dying to our pride and niggling selfishness, dying in ways we resent and resist. Dying, dying, dying, over and over again, way before we have to face biological death.
So that’s our starting place as believers – “Simon helps carry the cross,” the Fifth Station. A short stroll and a genuflection brings us to the Sixth, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” and we’re confronted with an advanced stage of discipleship. Contrary to Simon, a drafted Christ-imitator, Veronica represents a willing, even eager apprentice. She lunges through the crowd, defying the Roman guards and their scourges, and applies a towel to the bloody face of love.
It’s a desperate spectacle of compassion and affection, a moment of intimate connection between savior and saved, that leads to an unexpected result: A transfer of divine visage from Christ to cloth. The Lord’s face grew bloody again soon enough, but Veronica’s courageous compassion earned her a permanent and precious memento.
Unlike Simon the Cyrene, however, Veronica has no biblical pedigree. “As we read the Gospel account,” writes Frank Sheed, “we miss one familiar figure – for Veronica was not to arrive for a good many centuries yet!” It’s true that her deed of compassion was well established in the Stations by about the 14th century, and that the traditions associated with a wondrous transfer of Jesus’ battered likeness to a towel go back much further. In fact, the towel itself, its sacred portrait faded into obscurity, is still preserved in the Vatican as a holy relic.
But did Veronica even exist? Her name could be seen as a clever amalgam of the Latin vera for “true” and the Greek icon for “image,” which itself seems to have been originally applied to the relic itself. It could well be that the “veronica” cloth paved the way for the Veronica character of the Sixth Station; that she was a pious invention which dovetailed nicely with an instructive narrative exhortation. “The name Veronica is to be found in none of the early martyrologies,” writes P.K. Meagher, “nor does it appear in the present Roman Marytrology in connection with this legendary woman.” St. Charles Borromeo himself yanked liturgical honors associated with her story from the Milanese Ambrosian Rite.
Still, legend or no, Veronica is right up there on the wall of my church – as she is in your church, in virtually all Catholic churches and chapels. “Consider the compassion of the holy woman, Veronica,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his classic Way of the Cross. “Seeing Jesus in such distress…she presented Him with her veil.” Maybe there was no first-century Veronica; maybe the Sixth Station didn’t go down exactly like we recite it every Friday during Lent. Her legacy lingers intact nonetheless, and for me it endures as a singular spiritual goal.
For as much as I identify with the unwilling (or at least balking) Simon, my desire is to be a rash Veronica who assimilates the very likeness of Christ – no fear, no hesitation. It’s as if I’m drawn to that void stretching from the fifth to the sixth Station. It’s like a taut string on a steel guitar, and I get to be the empty bottle sliding fret to fret – from a religiosity of obligation to occasional high notes of energetic self-surrender, and back down again, over and over and over. No picking; no grand chords; no Christopher Parkening lightly skipping through Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Just a sloppy slide, a wavering rhythm, a warbling tune.
And if that image suggests a corny country-western song or a downer Memphis blues, so be it. Either (or both) could appropriately accompany my perpetual interior languor – “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24)
Which, of course, is why I keep showing up for daily Mass. I’m confident that its Music will continue to draw me forward – regardless of where I sit.