Tag Archives: Simon of Cyrene

Stuck on the Way: The Simon-Veronica Loop

16 Jul

“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.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Fifth Station

20 Apr

Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
And you can learn to live with love or without it
But there ain’t no cure
~ John Hiatt

You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
~ St. James

I think Simon of Cyrene gets a bad rap.titian

Like many parishes, we made the Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoons during Lent, and we used St. Alphonsus Liguori’s meditations as our guide. Elegant and lofty, Liguori’s reflections on Jesus’ death march keep the focus where it should be: The Lord’s suffering and our complicity in it.

But there’s a moment along Liguori’s Via Crucis that has always made me wince, and I recite the saint’s words of devotion at that point with what the Jesuits call a “mental reservation” – a fancy way of saying “with my fingers crossed.”

It’s the Fifth Station – Simon Helps Jesus to Carry the Cross. Here’s how it starts off:

Consider how the Jews, seeing that at each step Jesus from weakness was on the point of expiring…constrained Simon the Cyrenian to carry the Cross behind our Lord.

“Constrained” is OK. It comports with what we read in the Gospel: Simon, a gawker in from the countryside, was “seized” along the way and “compelled” to pick up the Cross.

But then St. Alphonsus continues:

My most sweet Jesus, I will not refuse the Cross, as the Cyrenian did; I accept it; I embrace it.

Note the shift in tone. Ligouri sets up Simon as a pious foil – he refused; I won’t – but, frankly, that’s not what we see in the Scriptures. It’s not even really part of pious tradition.

Instead, the Gospels indicate (and tradition largely affirms) that Simon didn’t have much choice. The Roman soldiers clearly had the upper hand, and once they locked on Simon as the closest available stooge, he was cooked.

In any case, even if he did have a choice at that moment, can we blame him if he demurred? The cross, by all accounts, was a beast, probably weighing hundreds of pounds – daunting, to say the least. And what did the Cyrenian know of Christ? Recall that Simon was an outsider – a passerby, maybe in town just on business – who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. For all he knew, he was taking up a gruesome load meant for some random nasty criminal.

Seriously, it’s not as if Simon knowingly resisted coming to the aid of the incarnate Logos, the Messiah, the Son of God – as if, that is, the Cyrenian recognized his Savior, and still recoiled from the burden of the cross. It’s no wonder he balked. We would, too, under the circumstances. I know I would.

So I take issue with Liguori characterizing Simon of Cyrene as a faithless slacker, but what comes next in the saint’s Fifth Station meditation is right on the money – for me, for us, and probably even the conscripted cross-bearer himself:

I accept in particular the death Thou hast destined for me; with all the pains that may accompany it.

You see, I have this idea that Simon, very understandably, was both furious and terrified by imposed cross. Carrying it up the hill to Golgotha would’ve been an intolerable task – the weight, the rough wood scraping flesh, guards whipping and yelling and jeering. Impossible.

What’s more, the burden was itself offensive. An instrument of torture and execution, the cross was a stark reminder that death was terribly real. Sure, it was going to be some other guy’s death once the cross was delivered, but death was no doubt emblazoned on Simon’s mind as he trudged along. Still, what could he do? He had no options, and I picture him grim and stoic, resigned to the horror, and yet resolute – perhaps muttering “OK, dammit, let’s get this over with.”

I had patient like that once, way back when I was a new nurse. He was suffering from end-stage COPD or lung cancer or both, I can’t remember. What I do remember is that he had a cocky attitude about his impending death, and it fascinated me.

As a new nurse on an oncology unit, I had a steep learning curve regarding the end of life. So much of nursing education revolves around preserving and restoring health that the inevitability of the end is only acknowledged as a bothersome inconvenience. In fact, in one nursing textbook that I teach from now, death is frequently listed as an unfortunate “complication” of various diseases. I’m not kidding – it’s right there in the text. And it’s always listed last as an afterthought: “Let’s see, this disease process can lead to weakness, fatigue, seizures, and, oh yes, death.”

However, there’s no avoiding death on an oncology floor. It’s a subtle, lingering presence, cagey and lurking, the unspoken query at the end of every patient interaction: Am I next?

Not in that lung patient’s room, though. Gasping and heaving, every breath was a chore. “Air hunger,” we call it, and it’s not always relieved by more oxygen. Positioning helps, as does a bit of morphine, and sometimes an electric fan aimed at the face, but really it’s just a matter of time before the airways close up and foucauldno more breathing is possible. Nothing subtle or lurking in a situation like that. Death was raring to go.

And yet my patient had death cowed, and we all knew it. He was a big fellow, a bit rough around the edges – almost a stereotype ex-Marine – and very devout, with scapulars and a bunch of medals around his neck, holy cards and well-worn devotional books at the ready, rosaries, crucifixes, statues – you name it, he had it.

And on a bedside table, his mission: A small pile of Xeroxed prayers. Everyone who came in his room got a copy – nurses and doctors, housekeepers and dietary workers, everybody. It was the Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld – you probably know it. It starts off:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

The copy he pressed on me hangs in my room to this day. Whenever I look at it, I think of that patient (his name has long escaped me), and I remember how he urged me to take it to heart. “Pray this (gasp) prayer (gasp) every day,” he managed to croak out, fixing his eyes on me, “and (gasp) try to (gasp) live it.”

Now, here was a guy who was dying and could hardly breathe, and yet he was focused on living – and encouraging everyone around him to do the same. To be sure, his suffering was real, and he was not so pious as to pretend that dying wasn’t anything other than hideous. In this, he was in line with what Thomas More wrote about Tobit and Job in his last work, The Sadness of Christ (1535):

Now it is true that both of them bore their calamities bravely and patiently, but neither of them, so far as I know, was exactly jumping with joy or clapping his hands out of happiness.

Instead, my patient – like Tobit and Job, I’m guessing, and Thomas More for that matter – was indignant about having to die. It was a rotten business, yes, but it couldn’t be helped (short of a miracle), and so, in the meantime, he devoted himself – abandoned himself – to an apostolate of prayer and witness.

And what a powerful witness he was, at least to me. As I went on in my work on that oncology floor, and later as a hospice nurse, and now as a nursing instructor, I have always referred back to that man’s example of courage in the face of terminal decline. Without a doubt, he broke “bravely through the hindrances” of “weariness, fear, and anguish,” in the words of More, and seemed to take “heaven by storm.”morecaron3

St. Thomas wrote those words facing death himself while imprisoned in the Tower of London, and that reminds me of a relevant jail reference. A close friend who knows about such things loves to say that “jail is no joke.” I’ll have to take her word for it with regards to jail, but having witnessed death up close and personal many times, I can assure you that death is no joke either. Consequently, I side with Simon the Cyrene and, frankly, share his reluctance to take on the cross and its death associations – take that, St. Alphonsus!

Given that, there are still lessons to learn from the Fifth Station and Simon of Cyrene. I’d like to suggest the following three-point summary:

  1. Death sucks – there’s no sugarcoating it.
  2. We’re all going to die – plan on it, the parousia notwithstanding.
  3. There’s no better way to stick it to death than to live!

How? Like my patient, we can’t wait around to die, even if we’re dying. Every gasping breath we get is God’s largesse, so lavish it accordingly. Have another baby, for example, or maybe go to jail for some noble cause (like my friend), but it doesn’t even have to be that extreme. I can just decide to be kind to someone who doesn’t like me – or that I don’t like – and pretend that I like him, at least to start. Or that guy who cuts me off on the bypass? I can say a prayer for him, and yield to the next few cars as well. I can pretend that I’m selfless and saintly, even when I’m not.

That’s it, really. Like Simon, if we’re compelled to remember that death awaits us all, we’ll make all our living count for something now – every moment, even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it! Live, live, live, we’ll remember. And we’ll remind our friends and family, have them remind us in turn, and then post reminders on the bathroom mirror, in the car, and in the office, cubicle, and work station. Live, live, live! We might be burdened by the cross of our mortality, but we can sure give it a run for its money while we’re yet breathing, dammit!

Besides, isn’t that what Easter is about in the end? Up yours, death. Resurrexit, sicut dixit – alleluia!


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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