The plaster cast felt like a glove, and it was about as tough. If I had molded it into a more grabby shape, I probably could have played hockey in it. I couldn’t help but make fun of the absurdity of a solid, hard plaster cast of my own right arm. It was to be exhibited on an artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, some kind of Jesus-related thing I had never heard of until a couple of weeks previous. Over the preparation for the exhibit, I also helped mold and paint little crosses.
The Stations of the Cross wasn’t a concept I had any kind of attachment to, at all. It sounded like another bit of Christian dogma my pastor had not bothered to teach me about in confirmation class. At least, I didn’t remember being taught anything about it. Considering that I hated confirmation class and had been seething quietly through what I considered an elaborate initiation ritual which would allow me full membership into my church’s wine and wafer club, I was concerned with getting just enough info to pass the final than actually learning anything. Confirmation class was a course I spent two years sitting through, after all, when no one I knew could offer a remotely satisfying answer to the question: WHY am I being denied what is obviously a very important sacrament of Christianity until I listened to my minister’s blah blah blah-ing for two hours every freaking Tuesday for two freaking years? Apparently I had missed a commandment somewhere along the line. Thou shalt have no other gods. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt take a two-year course to determine thine communion worthiness. Yeah, sounded about right.
Well, my inquisitiveness took its toll. Seven years after my confirmation, I had ditched Christianity entirely for a whole new religion. Three years after that, I ditched religion entirely. One of the instigators of my religious walkout was that everyone was dying for me to be able to perform rituals and recite passages on command, like some kind of dog/parrot genetic mutation. I was – am – an atheist, in large part because of these unbending dogmas I was being taught, and in even larger part because I had a bad habit of asking just where these rituals were written out in the Bible. The people I was questioning had an even worse habit of telling me the church does it that way because the church has ALWAYS done it that way. Grace Commons, my faith community in Chicago, was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled into it because here, at last, was a community which was challenging the very fundamental core of religion. The questioning of old religious tenants didn’t keep them from partaking in some of the rituals, though, so I saw no harm in partaking in the preparation and execution of the Stations..
Grace Commons being Grace Commons, they needed to give the Stations of the Cross an artistic spin. I was game and, truth be told, a little eager to see if I could get away with a little bit of stealth blasphemy. We created 15 stations with our own metaphorical spins on the traditional imagery. In the third station, in which Jesus fell for the first time, we created a drawing of a cross being pushed over by a montage of images of the world’s suffering and injustices, and propped back up with another montage of positive images of things which prop people in times of need. The tenth station, in which Jesus is stripped, was a board covered with red paint and black fabric. The fourth station, where Jesus met his mother, was a hand drawing of Jesus and Mary consoling each other.
I had a grand old time creating the exhibits. While creating the little clay crosses, I was given artistic license to create them however I saw fit, long as they were crosses. So I made a bunch of kooky-looking traditional crosses, some Celtic crosses, and one slab of clay on which I carved the word “CROSS” in large, commanding letters. I painted them however I saw fit, and I also created a weird little mold of my hand. Still, while I was doing these things, it was more out of my enthusiasm for being a creator than out of any attachment I had to Christianity. I had no feelings toward the Stations of the Cross one way or the other. As far as I was concerned, they were just another unwritten faith tenant the church had culled from the air in order to control the masses by promising some extra brownie points with God. My mother was more excited for my participation than I was. The Stations of the Cross had been something she knew while growing up as a Catholic. She was more appreciative of rigid religious observances and routines than I was, even though she’s a bit of a religious upstream swimmer herself.
The big day came, and I walked in fully prepared to make a few observations and maybe crack a few jokes. Basically, I was expecting to be at least mildly underwhelmed. I had never been particularly moved by the religious displays I had seen everywhere growing up, after all. Maybe it was just a result of the fact that everything about the killed-for-my-sins idea seemed was so distant, or that the questions I had surrounding the entire doctrine had wrecked it for me, or that I had been numbed by the imagery, but the common images always left me with a rather blase attitude. Well, my visit to this display felt a lot different. It WAS different, in a few ways. Instead of the redundant imagery of Jesus going through his crucifixion, the imagery in the Grace Commons Stations felt current, relevant. The focus of the Stations were rarely on Jesus, and few of the Stations featured his likeness at all. I saw the first Station (the condemnation of Jesus) with its portrayal of mob violence, and it clicked. My sense of cynicism had departed by the second Station, a painting of a man grieving the loss of his firstborn child, a metaphorical representation of Jesus being given the cross he had to bear.
Each Station was questioning me, and leaving me challenged; challenged about my ideas of injustice and sin; challenged about my role in fighting them; challenged about how I might have been a contributor. Many ideas which I held to be black and white in the past were being stirred up and tinted in grey. My mind searched for answers and coherent thought with each display as I moved along, and I began to withdraw into myself in a way I had done very few times in the past. By the 14th Station, a display of Jesus being placed into the tomb, I felt drained and somewhat broken down. Station 14’s display was that of a ghostly white face, against a white background, with a translucent white shroud covering it, inside of a pitch-black room lit only by a small flashlight which was there only to illuminate a real prayer, written by a Jew during the Holocaust, asking for the captors to be forgiven of their sins.
Station 14 was the point where I finally tore up. I choked up and fell silent and, in dire need of a breather, I returned to the area where the service had taken place. My thought had now overwhelmed me to the point where everything was now blending together and being replaced by a raw, unnamed emotion. As a handful of others slowly filed into the room after me, all I did was sit and watch the candle flames perform their silky tango. It was a half hour before anyone was able to say anything, and it was only once everyone had processed what we just saw that our usual post-service chirpiness started filling the room.
The traditional pictures of the Crucifixion had never affected me. Having seen them since a very early age at which I wasn’t able to understand what they were, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be affecting pictures of a suffering deity, and so I never had any feelings toward them one way or another. And now I was sitting here, with a series of images seemingly disconnected from the event, moved in a way I had never been by anything religious. Of course, it wouldn’t send me running to dunk my head into the baptismal font, but after many years of religious instruction being hotly questioned and abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel like something was finally working.