There is something simultaneously curious and rigorous about walking in community through mostly empty city streets as a gesture of deepest Christian faith.
The curiosity is the way the almost unnoticed public act propels intensely rigorous private inquiry that demands answers with every step even as it runs ahead to the next conundrum.
Personified, the question, “Why am I doing this with these people?” abruptly ducks around the corner and puts on the invisible cloak of asking: “Why did He do this for all of us?”
Us, speaking generally, means all of humanity, of course. Why did this man, the Son of God we follow, walk the path we seek to imitate in order to give Himself up even for those who of us do not know Him, much less know how to love Him?
Us, speaking specifically, means a Catholic community with whom I have shared every Good Friday morning for the past decade or more walking the Stations of the Cross through downtown Montreal.
Yet the word “shared” requires nuance to be truthful. We walk as group of anywhere from 500 to 1000 pilgrims, albeit with the rigorous discipline of solitaries. Penitential silence is expected, not enforced. We walk in meditative file behind the Cross, which is carried in changing sets of hands for more than three hours, from corner to corner, Station to Station, church to church, past Old Montreal’s businesses, shops and boutique hotels. The odd tourist family leans out of doorways to snap smart phone memories of the old-fashioned religious curiosity parade passing by.
We make our way north from the river up along Boulevard René Lévesque to Place Ville Marie and stop in the belvedere between St. Patrick’s Basilica and Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral only a few blocks apart. We pray in the shadow of Mount Royal’s leafless tree bristled flank looming at the top of Metcalfe Street.
Along the way, the eyes of passersby, at least of those who don’t ignore us entirely, make visible the “why” that is invisibly evident in the hidden hearts of we who walk together. Their eyes ask outward: “Why are those people doing that for Him? Do they really believe in Him so much?” Our own eyes ask inward: “Why is He doing this for me? Does He really love me so much?”
As for me, yes I really do believe in Him so much. I believe in Him so much I cannot do anything but believe in His love for me, for us. But the pronouns “me” and “us” require nuance to be truthful. For, curiously, while the community is dependably there for me to walk with every year, I often fear I have never – at this point can never – fully embrace the “us” that full community requires.
It has nothing to do with the community, imposes no commentary on the “us” it comprises. It’s me. Born with the genetic deformity of journalism, fated by vocation to carry a notebook, a camera, for life, I walk each year observantly and observing from outside the outside edges of groups, looking inward to we, to us.
My Good Friday task is to be the duty photographer, to scamper like a sheep dog with nipping, snapping, clicking teeth alongside the group that walks as a well-disciplined flock. I slip ahead like a coyote and disappear round the corner to pounce on and try to capture an answer wrapped in a cloak of invisibility.
Why? Why did He do all this for us? For me?
And yet….To lean out, camera in hand, to focus my lens on the details of a face turned rigorously toward its heart, to see faith in the shape of eyes, mouths, hands, the shoes on pilgrim feet, is to experience a curiously distanced intimacy, as though I am about to ricochet off the true meaning of immediacy, that is the Cross, right here, right now in these mostly empty streets. A part apart, I am suddenly gathered in, made part of this immediate community but more, of Him that we walk to imitate, He whom we love, and who loves me as well as us.
So. Good Friday goes. Easter comes. Passes. Another year of Christian life begins.
Out of curiosity we might ask ourselves – I demand of myself – could we – could I – ever run ahead without Him? No, is the genuinely rigorous answer. Not even if no one in all the empty streets of the world neither noticed nor cared. For solitary fears aside, I am too utterly transformed into He and I, into the deepest depths of Christian we.
Photograph: Peter Stockland, Stations of the Cross, 2017.
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