by Martha Shepherd.
Having recovered from her migraine headaches, Martha continued her pilgrimage.
Without any doubt, the most powerful event of my whole pilgrimage to Medjugorje was climbing Mt. Krisevac, the cross mountain.
I’ve never liked to climb hills. I hate the way my breath starts to hurt my lungs and my calves burn. And I hate to sweat.
Perhaps that was why it was all the more dramatic that as all the familiar discomfort began with this climb, what also began was joy, eagerness.
I wanted this climb; I wanted to get to the top. It was as if each step came as a question and each step I took was an answer. Yes! No matter what … Yes! If this is the way to union, then yes! I suddenly understood why Christians could talk about running joyfully to the cross.
Frankly, this came as a surprise to me "Really?" I asked myself. "You really want the cross? You hate pain. You don’t even like getting out of bed in the morning. You hate penance. You don’t like to fast. This is just emotionalism."
But as I kept walking, I kept feeling the joy of "throwing off everything that does not lead to God."
I knew this wasn’t emotionalism; I knew this was reality. Despite all the accusations I or anyone else could throw at me, this was reality. This was really all I had ever wanted. I knew that within me a decision had been made and was now being revealed to me.
There are no words to convey the joy of discovering that all my struggles had been struggles with myself to walk the way of the cross—with my weakness, my sinfulness. But this is the road, the way I had chosen long ago.
Mary had said in one of her messages here: "Give up something very precious." Now I understood that. In my life, it has been more that I have had things I held dear taken from me.
Walking this hill, I found that I could say thank you for that, for I saw it no longer as loss but as freedom.
On this climb, I learned in the most graphic way that to say that all people are called to holiness is to say that all sinners are called to holiness. The way of the cross is not just for spiritual athletes. It is for spiritual cripples, the spiritually immature, the spiritually cold and lazy.
That is why it is a way of the cross, not a sprint. It takes time to climb Mt. Krisevac—especially if you are a 75-year-old man, 40 pounds overweight and walking with two canes.
It takes time but you can do it. You can do it if your friends give you a hand over the rough spots and the group you are with doesn’t rush you. I know. I walked with such a man.
He was part of a small group of Americans I caught up with. They were praying Fr. Slavko’s Stations of the Cross, and as I waited for them to finish the station they were on, the words caught me:
"Jesus, as I see you falling, I am aware that you are not completely on the ground. You remain in that position as a bridge, the bond between man and the Father, a bridge that will overcome all obstacles, reconciling all who are divided and healing all who are wounded….
"Thank you for accepting the cross. Through it, you opened a new road for me."
A new road. The road is the Church. To walk this way of the cross was for me to learn what the Christian life on this side of the resurrection is.
Jesus was kicked and lashed. When he fell, no one helped him. No, they mocked him.
But as we climbed, no one would have dreamed of yelling, "faster" to the old man in our group. And when someone slipped and fell, someone else helped her up.
Yes, if you see someone fall, help him up. That is what the Church is, what Christian community is. We are companions to each other on the way of the cross. Each one is only walking because God himself beckons and calls.
We will not help each other get to the top with kicks and blame, judgments and impatience. There on that mountain, such things seemed entirely absurd. The way was hard enough already.
The Church is like that, an arm put out when balance is lost, a hand when breath is coming fast, a guide to point the way.
And the Church is universal. Such a stream of humanity continually went up and down that mountain that the rocks were polished smooth. Groups and individuals, Irish, Germans, Italians, Czechs, Americans, Canadians, West Indians, Yugoslavians, and people from everywhere else.
People who were all different—all walking the same way, in very different ways. Some walking barefoot. Some chatting. Some praying litanies. A couple of people on crutches. The healthy and the sick.
Which is the image of the saint? The athletic one walking straight to the top without pause or the persevering one with cerebral palsy and elbow crutches who gets there only with many stops and a lot of help?
Who is closer to God—the hearty Germans in liederhosen or the sophisticated Italians who bring their grandmothers?
All are called to holiness. All. God is calling every one of us up the mountain of the cross, and our task is to make the walk bearable for each other.
Even as the people among whom I walked taught me what it is to be Church, I found that praying the Stations of the Cross involved giving to God all the times it wasn’t that way.
I began this climb carrying many burdens I didn’t know I was carrying. My questions about the day in and day out agony of the mentally ill, the anger of the permanently injured, the crushing shame of the sexually abused, the beaten down families, the addicted, the poor and old and lonely, the lost, the refugees.
In a symbolic version of the pain of the world, all these people had crossed the doorway of Madonna House Ottawa where I live and serve. I was carrying them all within me without knowing it.
From the Third Station on, I walked with the American group praying Fr. Slavko’s Stations, simply because these stations seemed to express so well the prayer of my own heart.
At each station, I left all these people at the feet of Jesus. I "left behind" all the priests I prayed for on the Third Station, all families on the Fourth. I rededicated myself to all the suffering people on the fifth, and left the addicted and relapsed on the Seventh.
As a result, as I climbed, panted, and sweated, I grew lighter and lighter and experienced more and more energy, freedom, and joy. Now Christ was bearing these burdens. It is He who takes away the sins of the world; I do not have to carry them.
Fr. Pelton, my spiritual director, had once remarked to me that he saw my life in the tenth station—Jesus is Stripped of His Garments. So it was deeply significant to me when the leader of the group handed me the booklet and asked me if I’d like to read the prayers for this station.
As a good American, I kept my cool, but inwardly I was trembling. I knew that what Fr. Pelton had said was true. I had been humiliated, stripped, robbed of human dignity.
And I had not borne it well. It had created in me bitterness and fear and blocks to unity with other people, especially with my brothers and sisters in Madonna House.
I knew this was my big chance. I could leave all that there on the mountain if I wished to. I could pour out at the feet of Jesus who is God and who had endured this shame at the hands of his creatures, all my shame, all my pain, and all my bitterness.
I did want to. I had not been humiliated for many years, but only at that moment when I chose to lay down this burden did the residue of all this leave me completely. I left the tenth station free of my burden.
It had taken me eight years to leave my burdens with God, because it took that long for me to learn that Jesus’ passion shows us what our suffering can become on this side of the resurrection.
He won for us the grace to suffer with love and forgiveness, with dignity in humiliation, with meaning even in meaninglessness.
In myself, I don’t have the courage or any of the other qualities it takes. In myself, I certainly cannot say, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Lk 23-34). But with the power of Christ, I can.
It began to make sense to me, that phrase, "He redeemed our suffering." Jesus did not win for us the end of pain but the conquering of evil. And surely one of the worst of evils is to be overcome by suffering, to lose one’s humanity and dignity in it.
At the end of this way of the cross was the cross, the big cement cross the villagers had built in the 1930s. By the time I reached this cross, I had a greater understanding of the heart of the cross that I would kneel before.
There I was—free, light, joyful. I had left behind the burdens of others and my own burdens. I had surrendered anything that might have kept me from the way to God.
Now what? What lay before me on the other side of this moment? What would meet me at the top of this mountain, on the other side of surrender? Having decisively surrendered everything I had gathered in my first 39 years, how was I supposed to live in the next 30?
What met me, of course, was the cross, but the cross robbed of fear and shame—the big cement cross that has literally protected the valley from lightning.
The answer for me as a member of Madonna House was the Little Mandate, Madonna House spirituality. I thought of Catherine saying that it is only on the other side of Golgotha that we can live Nazareth. Now I understood this with my heart. Only now was I free to "Arise. Go." and live the other words of the Mandate.
Yes, the Little Mandate wrote itself into my heart at the top of Mt. Kristovac that day. It wrote itself into my heart as a way of the cross, holding all fifteen stations, as a way of life that is possible only because of all fifteen stations.
to be continued
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