SINCE 1759

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The First and Thirteenth stations from Barnett Newman's "The Stations of the Cross," 1958-1966
[National Gallery, Washington]

Easter Oratorio
The Stations of the Cross

As a young boy in Lebanon, church wasn’t an option for me and my brothers. We had to attend. We had to survive. Every Sunday. It was our weekly Guadalcanal, a chore more painful than having to learn atrocious Arabic poems by heart (and recite them in front of thirty classmates ready to ridicule every Monday morning slip up). Libertine priests had nothing to do with Sunday’s horrors. Ours in their bushy beards and bad breath tended to be chaste, as far as we knew, or at least publicly so, although god knows Lebanese babes veiled in black lace and smirking rouged lips filled the congregation by Updikean scores while the rest of us cherubic boys rotated through altar-boy duty with harem-like variety. I can imagine our eroticized priests, telling mass in a mixture of Aramaic, Arabic and other gibberish, speaking in tongues to hide their delirium behind verbiage they assumed none of us could understand, as indeed none of us prepubescent shmucks did. We might not have been so bored had we been able to decipher flirts from consecrations. And didn’t the women in the congregation manage invariably to show up without husbands? But bored we were, bored I was, to the point of never forgiving god and his retinue. True, my mother would let me and my middle brother escape to the garden in front of the archdiocese for a few minutes during the sermon, the part in the service that teases eternity. For all her piety my mother always had heart enough to know the limits of god’s dominion on her boys, especially when it paused as mean-spirited and squinty-eyed Jesuit teachers at school. But escaping sermons wasn’t enough. Church wasn’t just a bore. It was hell, especially since my mother never let me take a book along.

No wonder then that as far back as my memories of church go, what I remember most aren’t the smells of incense or priestly halitosis or the sighs and sights of girlish ankles just so exposed from the confessional (I was seven, eight, nine: girls hadn’t yet become the compulsive escort to my thoughts except in their unsolicited grazes and fondles here and there, to which I remained regrettably dense and Catholic until much later). What I remember most were the Stations of the Cross.

They hung, all twelve or thirteen or fourteen tableaux, around the church walls in sequence, like panels in a comic book but more attractive for their darkness and violence, for the mysteries to which they lent themselves even though I knew, from my earliest days as a Good Catholic, how the story ended. I’m writing this as if assuming that most people know what the Stations of the Cross are. But at least seven-eighth of the population of the globe has no reason to know what I’m talking about, and nine-tenth of Americans, where Christianity is more pose, hammer and sickle than genuine faith, know next to nothing about all things biblical. That’s not to be critical necessarily (except of those who do use their religion as an expressive echo to the Second Amendment). My Christian upbringing was more torture than Christian. I shouldn’t want it inflicted on anyone. But there is such a thing as basic civilizational knowledge, especially in a country that deafens us with pretensions of piety and exports it with flattening ordnance. That knowledge, unfortunately, is about as prevalent as Americans’ understanding of the electoral college.

Briefly put, the Stations of the Cross is Christ’s Passion and death from the moment he’s condemned to the moment he’s laid to rest in that tomb from which, Merlin-like, he’s alleged to have zipped out three days later. Along the way he travels the road to Golgotha with his cross—with a little help from Simon of Cyrene—to his date with crucifixion. He suffers more taunts and jeers of what must have been a bunch of ancestral Boston Red Sox fans, as drunk as ever. He falls three times, isn’t unkind to a slut who wipes away his blood with her veil, he’s stripped, nailed to the cross, ripped with a sword on his left side, and after a while removed to his tomb, turning over the rest of the story to CSI: Ascension.

I kid now. As a kid then, the Stations represent an overwhelmingly moving series of events that absorbed and sometimes flattened me with their power. My mother aside they were the only meaningful thing around me at mass time, the only Truth with a big t that I could see in those churchly surroundings. It wasn’t the religious aspect of the Stations that meant anything to my nine-year-old eyes. It was their human quality, the beauty and calamity of Christ’s suffering as a human being, and the universe of interpretation his march through those Stations demanded. Each Station, each frame, was a world to be filled in every Sunday, every scene a flood of the human experience at its most fundamental and most fundamentally irreversible. I didn’t understand the images intellectually, which is to say I understood them as the Passion should be understood — intrinsically: cruelty, suffering, compassion, frailty, courage, but the courage of others, not that of Christ; Christ wasn’t courageous. Courage in his circumstance would have demeaned the purpose of his Passion. He gave himself no choice, which isn’t courage but something superior because less self-conscious: a form of supreme conviction without a hint of fanaticism, the conviction of responsibility. A courageous man would have been too stupidly proud to say, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”—why have you abandoned me? Christ says the words in the ninth hour, maybe even the ninth panel, “when there was darkness all over the land,” because he isn’t a soldier doing his duty, blindly and smugly taking solace from adversity. He is humility and humanity to the core. He is honesty and truth. And so he says, Eli, Eli… and dies.

Here’s how J.S. Bach in his St. Matthew Passion renders the moment, to the following words: [Listen to the mp3 file here, set to the following words:]

Be near me, Lord, when dying
O part not you from me!
And to my succor flying,
Come, Lord, and set me free!
And when my heart must languish
In death’s last awful throe,
Release me from my anguish,
By your own pain and woe.

Here’s the same moment as Bach renders it in his St. John Passion.

No matter how visually shocking, the Stations to the eyes of a nine year old couldn’t have evoked more than surface impressions, something instinctive and real but nevertheless incomprehensible: How could everything surrounding me in church be speaking peace and love when the writing on the wall was hatred and violence? A nine year old could only sense the disconnect, not express it. I’m not sure adults can. It takes something else, and Bach has it, to convey the simple truth that the disconnect is as real as its transcendence, which is the very point of the Passion, though who among us could ever hope to do more than taste it, to sense the transcendence the same way nine year old eyes could sense the incomprehensible truth behind the Stations?

I looked at those fourteen images then mostly for entertainment, to transcend the boredom of the service. But no matter how often I looked at them, no matter in what church—for they were good enough to follow me in every Lebanese church I attended—there was always more to them that demanded something, and not just from the imagination. They were stamping their impressions in me all those Sundays so that decades later, without having returned to Church for years, they’re still the most evocative part of my Christian upbringing, if not the most fruitful: As an adult long exiled from anything Catholic I am moved to this day by the mere thought of the Stations, although in one significant way I “see” the Stations every time I hear one of Bach’s passions, as I have a few hundred times in the last two or three decades.

They don’t have the Stations in American churches too often. Maybe they’re worried the images would scare the kids, offend the elderly, distract those in between from giving up their dollars and knickers. If there ever was a chance I’d return to the Church, American churches ensured I never would: too sterile, too similar to Wal-Mart shelving aisles, to stacked with congregants who look like spiritual accountants. Coming to America sealed my Fall from Catholic grace.

It also meant discovering the greatest Stations of them all. Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” fourteen astounding paintings, called abstract but not really, in a subterranean room of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I know next to nothing about Newman or the works’ genesis, other than that he painted them between 1958 and 1966. The work stands on its own, reconnecting with something timeless. We all have our places of pilgrimage down to works of art we travel half the world to see. Newman’s “Stations” is the work that takes me back to that subterranean gallery of my childhood, the white room illuminated by the fourteen canvasses in Washington as bright as the memories of gloom from those Sundays in church back in Lebanon, although the feeling is never gloomy anymore, only sublime.

I’ve never understood the paintings and never tried. I don’t walk, panel after panel, looking to figure out what this vertical black means, what that jut sideways suggests, what Barnett Newman meant. I sit in the middle of the room, and there, the feeling is as inexplicable as it was when I was nine. Explication, at any rate, would be redundant. Into the Stations I commit my spirit.

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