I recently attended my nephew’s baptism at a Catholic church. As a protestant, I don’t find myself in Catholic spaces often, but I have some experience. My old college campus was a Catholic monastery before it became a protestant college, and it had a stunning chapel on the grounds, with intricately designed stations of the cross around the perimeter of the interior. I loved studying in that chapel, with its perfect acoustics, walking around and admiring the beauty. When I traveled to France a couple of years back to visit a friend, I toured an old church in the little town of Albertville, and walked the stations of the cross, which were paintings hanging on the wall.
I wasn't able to visit as many cathedrals in Europe as I wanted during that trip, but I was able to get a quick visit to John Calvin's home church in Geneva, Switzerland before I flew home. It was a Catholic cathedral before John Calvin's time. It's known for its plainness, but entering the sanctuary immediately lifted my eyes and caused me to gasp in wonder.
Walking the stations of the cross is an example of the historic "spiritual discipline of meditation." I often wonder if Luther enjoyed this as a pastime, as he contemplated the work of the cross.
Discipline and meditation are both words that have baggage in churches, so let's unpack them. Discipline, in the general sense, is a gift that God gives us. It's something he does to show us we are his children. (Hebrews 12:5-6) He is the one doing it to us, for our good. While it isn't always pleasant, it's not always unpleasant either. It isn't a punishment; it's training. It's whatever means God uses to shape our hearts to be inclined towards him.
Meditation is a word that is equally as twisted in our modern language. Some religions use the words to apply to emptying our mind or becoming more self-aware. That is not how that word is used in Christianity, in fact, quite the opposite. The best synonym I can think of for Biblical meditation is "wonder." To meditate upon God's word is to wonder, as a child wonders at the stars. In fact, to wonder is related to child-likeness consistently as they do it so well. Children are masters of using imagination and wonder to make sense of their world.
My 6-year-old came inside after playing in our yard and said she was thinking about God, and wondered why he gave her legs that ran so fast, and she decided that God was very thoughtful to give her legs, because without them, she would have to bounce everywhere, and bouncing is much more tiring, and would smush our tummies, and he knew that would not be good for us. As I said, children are masters of meditation.
To wonder, God uses our imaginations to strengthen our faith. C.S. Lewis was a big proponent of this belief, as he talks about the baptism of the imagination and reason, so that when we wonder on Biblical truths or texts, our brain can put those abstract thoughts into concrete images which any educator can tell you moves those thoughts to the long-term memory in our brains.
The discipline of meditation is a restful training, as the brain sits in wonder over something God has done. Sometimes this turns to wrestling, as we often disagree with God, but that is part of the training too. In all the Biblical commands to meditate on God’s word, the meaning of that word is “muse, imagine, ponder, moan, complain.” God allows for us to wrestle through truths about him.
That’s why I love walking the stations of the cross. Before the Bible was available to buy at the store, in the days when much of the congregation was illiterate, and the printing press had not been invented, the word of God was read aloud. Christians heard God’s word, but besides a small, elite class of scholars, most did not read it. To help the congregation remember these stories, and dwell on them, artists would make stained glass windows that told stories, or mosaics, marble carvings, or paintings like these stations of the cross so that people could quietly meditate—wonder about what it must have been like.
Here’s how it went for me this last time, as I was walking around the stations of the cross during my nephew’s baptism, as I was following my squirmy toddler, and letting him stretch his legs during the quiet, private ceremony. I came to the picture of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross. I started to wonder why God included this story in the Bible. I wondered the significance. (Mark 15:21) Why would it be important to include that someone had to help Jesus carry the cross? Wow. Isn't that a statement. Jesus needed help saving the world? Is that right?
At the same time that I wondered this, I heard the priest behind me continue on the baptism, stating the Catholic reasons for Jesus' own baptism. Then my mind wandered back to wonder at Simon carrying Jesus' cross. Jesus wasn't baptized because he was a sinner. He was baptized because it was part of God's plan. Likewise, Jesus wasn't helped on his way to crucifixion because our God is needy, but because him being helped was part of God's plan. Why would God include this?
My wonder then drifted to all the time that I have to accept help from people, when I would rather just be sufficient. I would rather stand on my own two feet, and yet, I need help. I hate accepting help. I’m trying to get better at accepting it when people offer. Yet it’s…humbling.
Jesus needed help, and yet he did not sin. That made me pause. Needing help isn’t sinful, because Jesus was without sin. Therefore, it isn’t wrong to accept help. The wonder continued.
So did Jesus accept help to show me that I should accept help? No, it's more than that. Accepting help is humbling. Jesus was being further humbled on the way to the cross. I paused and wept a little inside. Jesus, is there any humiliation you skipped that day? Even a little? My mind then jumped straight to Philippians 2, memorized long ago, which talks about the voluntary humbling that Jesus took upon himself.
Jesus made himself needy enough to need help as a part of the humbling process, which was ultimately part of the salvation story.
So how does God use me accepting help as a means of disciplining me to be humble? Does he allow me to be needy for my spiritual good, so that I’m in positions where help is needed, and I’m aware in concrete ways my need for God?
Then my toddler ran some more, and I moved on to the next station of the cross.
Meditation is letting your brain be in wonder at the acts of God. When God is drawing you to meditation, you’ll know the signs that it is God at work because 1) it will always point to Christ, 2) It will always point you back to Scriptures.
Just like it lead me to worship yet another sacrifice of self-dignity that Jesus did for me, it also lead me to remember a Scripture passage (Philippians 2) which I was able to read again that night, to verify my thoughts earlier.
I then began reflecting on the gifts that are brought to a congregation when God brings in artists, musicians, and poets, and wondered at their purpose in the church. The stations of the cross are made by artists, for the purpose of igniting our imaginations to meditate/wonder on God. The cathedral I visited in Geneva, designed by architects, ignited my imagination to wonder upon the beauty and goodness of the Lord. Music with words that give beautiful images convey truth in ways our mind can understand:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Like the poetry above, painting images across our imagination to help us understand the vast nature of God's love, or stories like those of C.S. Lewis' Narnia move these abstract stories and ideas of God to concrete images that relate specifically to each generation, each culture, every tribe, and person. Meditation is the natural outcome of the Holy Spirit working through the vocation of artists within the church. To God be the glory.