‘In ancient times, rabbis would chew on little pieces of the Torah, believing that by taking the Word of God into their bodies they would become more like God, holier,” Gary Jansen writes, introducing his new book Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross. Station to Station is perfect for practical spiritual reading this Lent — taking the Word of God and the person of Christ into a fuller, more prayerful view than we typically do in the busy-ness of life. Inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and the saint’s intensely scriptural approach to prayer, Jansen talks about the book and the approach.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “We encounter Jesus in stillness.” Is that even plausible on this planet? Stillness? And in New York, where you live and work and commute?
Gary Jansen: We can encounter Jesus in many ways throughout each day — at Mass, within our families, with our friends, in nature — but encountering Jesus in stillness is a very powerful experience. And I think it is plausible and possible even in the middle of a big city, even when you’re busy. We have a lot of minutes in the day — 1,440 to be exact. No matter how busy or frazzled we are, each of us can find a few minutes during the day to try to be still and focus our attention exclusively on Jesus. It’s not easy, especially in our current Twittering world where there are so many demands and distractions.
But, simply saying the name of Jesus throughout the day can bring us to an encounter with stillness. I’ve become a huge fan of the Most Holy Name of Jesus devotion and it has worked wonders in my life. When you get stressed, when you’re stuck in traffic, when you’re in the doctor’s office, just say the name Jesus. Repeat it as often as you can. For me, and for many others, it instantly brings a feeling of calm. Just saying the name once refocuses your attention on where our attention really should be. Try it now. Just take a breath and say the word Jesus to yourself.
(More from Jansen about finding 15 minutes for prayer here.)
Lopez: You are in the book business, so, in your experience, does suffering sell? Is there a real danger that when Christians talk about the cross and suffering, they lose people?
Jansen: It depends. I think your instincts are right. Suffering is a downer. Who wants to talk about it when we see so much of it around us? Many of us feel helpless. What should we do? Most of us don’t know. Better to watch a cute kitten video or read something that helps you escape from everything nasty that’s going on in the world. But I wanted the Stations of the Cross to become a guide that reveals and demonstrates how Jesus reacted to suffering.
All of us suffer and will suffer. It’s not a happy thought, but Jesus’s Passion shows us how we should react to suffering. When things didn’t go His way He didn’t freak out or curse His enemies or turn His back on the people who turned their backs on Him. No, He stayed calm. He was courageous. He forgave those who caused Him pain. If you look at how Jesus responded to suffering, you’ll see that we are living in rather unchristian times. That’s a broad statement, of course, because there are a lot of people living with Christ in their hearts, but from what you see in the news reports, it makes you wonder how many people have any character at all. Jesus’s Passion is a lesson in character building.
Lopez: You write in the book about “that unsettling feeling of lost time.” That might be a close second to suffering on the list of things we would rather not think about. Who has time to practice the Stations of the Cross, even if they might help?
Jansen: Everyone has time for prayer. You can pray when you’re going to the bathroom or taking a shower. You asked about stillness. Well, take one particular station with you in the shower in the morning, or to the sink while you’re brushing your teeth, and think about it, feel it, pray about it. Make the station part of your examination of conscience. Get creative with your prayer.
I sympathize with people who have difficulty praying, because for years I needed to be in a very quiet place to pray. But I rarely found myself in a quiet place, so I didn’t pray as much as I wanted. Then, a few years ago, I felt like I was given a grace. I thought, “Well, if I can’t find a quiet place, there are certainly moments throughout the day when I’m alone doing my day-to-day stuff. I can pray then.” And those moments opened up other moments and somehow I found time in places I’d least expect.
Lopez: In her introduction to your book, Jennifer Fulwiler describes you as a mystic. What does that mean exactly? How does a mystic operate in the practical world?
Jansen: I think that was just her nice way of saying she suspects I’m a little nuts. Jen was very kind to write such a thing, but the truth is, I’m a sinner like everyone else. I am very interested, however, in the mystical experience, or those moments when you experience union with God. Sometimes those experiences happen during Mass, sometimes they happen on the Long Island Rail Road, sometimes they happen with my family. I think a lot of people have peak experiences like these. I just happen to write about them. I think all of my writing is intended to help others pay attention to the mystical experiences that may be going on around them all the time, to pay attention to the supernatural that is around us all the time. I think we’re all called to be mystics, in the same way that all of us are called to be saints. I think the mystical experience is really about developing that one-on-one relationship with Jesus and paying attention to what happens in those encounters.
Lopez: You write of the Stations at one point: “But there is nothing you can do except watch and pray for mercy.” Is that really the case sometimes? How do you know whether or not there is any power in that? How do you know that it is action rather than inaction?
Jansen: I think sometimes action becomes an idol for us. People want to be helpful, but they sometimes act too quickly without reflecting on what they are doing. Action for action’s sake is a bad thing. You see this on social media a lot. Someone makes a political statement, and a dozen people react in seconds without missing a beat. Maybe we should just pause a bit when life happens and ask God for guidance. There is a kind of “Wild West of the 21st century” mentality now, where a lot of people are shooting from the hip and asking questions later.
Mary couldn’t stop the events of her Son’s Passion. She could have acted like a crazy person or protested or attacked a Roman soldier, but instead she kneeled at the foot of the cross and prayed for mercy. I’m not saying that there aren’t times when you need to act quickly. Prayer shouldn’t be a cop out. But sometimes our actions do more harm than good. We need discernment, and we need to take a breath before reacting. Sometimes the peace you bring to a situation is enough to make a huge difference. Sometimes we don’t have to do anything except carry the love of Christ in our hearts.
Lopez: You say that “prayers know no boundaries.” How is this the case, and how can you be so sure?
Jansen: Prayer has no boundaries the same way that radio waves seem to have no boundaries. All the broadcasts in the world are hovering somewhere in the universe. Our prayers are out there, too. Our faith tells us that when we pray, we are communicating with God, and we know — from the Old Testament to the New Testament to the lives of the saints to the stories of ordinary people — that prayers are heard and answered. Sometimes they are answered in ways we don’t expect, but every prayer is answered.
Lopez: “When we align ourselves with God in humility and stand firm, we never have to be afraid of who we are.” Is that what freedom truly is? Have you seen it in people alive today? Care to name names?
Jansen: I think so. True freedom comes from aligning our desires with God’s will. Believe God is always with you, follow the Commandments, follow the Beatitudes, follow the Golden Rule. If you keep all of these things in your heart, you can then do just about anything you want because you’re following God’s plan for respecting His creation. Most of our suffering comes from breaking those rules. Why are things messed up in the world? Because, simply, we’re breaking God’s rules. Following the rules, as difficult as they can be — and I’m not a rule follower by any means — really does bring about peace of mind, and when we have peace of mind we have God-of-mind, and then we can experience God in all things. Peace is that vehicle. And I do think Pope Francis is an example of that today. As much as some people may agree or disagree with his leadership, I do believe, above all else, that Pope Francis has a peace of mind that all of us can emulate.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.