This month's vitamin is a piece by Beloit student and Spiritual Life Program assistant Elsbeth Pollack `09 ...
As I think back on my experiences and understandings of Lent, I immediately think of my time in Catholic school. I am a Presbyterian by faith, but attended a Catholic elementary school for nine years of my life. Every Friday of each Lenten season, my classmates and I left our classes to go over to the church for the Stations of the Cross, which walked us through, step by step, the journey of Jesus to his crucifixion and resurrection. The stations were usually led by an old white priest with a nasally droning voice that nearly put me to sleep every time. The only exception to this boring repetition for me was the last Friday before Easter, when the eighth graders put on the living stations. As it was a reenactment, we got to vote on who would be each character. All of the girls wanted to be Mary because that meant that people thought you were pretty and popular. And Jesus was always the most attractive guy in the class. So, when I was in eighth grade, I was a bit disappointed when I was picked as a reader. I didn't get to sit, as Mary did, with a half naked Jesus on my lap in the station when he is taken down from the cross. Poor eighth grade me.
This was my idea of Lent growing up. Missing my last two periods of Friday class to go to Mass, where I would sit, stand, kneel, sing, respond, and repeat in a monotonous manner. It was a ritual of remembrance, yes, but a pretty clean version. I was mostly glad to go because it got me out of my last period classes, but the ritual meant very little to me.
I continued into high school and college with this disconnected relationship with Lent, usually with the focus on the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, when I would get candy and see my friends and family.
But then, last year, I went down to El Salvador as part of my study abroad program. Before going down to El Salvador, torture was an abstract concept, something that I heard about but never came into contact with. But in El Salvador, I was bombarded with stories and images of massacres, rapes, and tortures. We learned about their twelve year war between the right-wing government and the left-wing guerrillas and the massacres at places like El Mozote and the assassination of Archbishop Romero and other priests and nuns. I heard stories from people impacted from that time and witnessed to their pain and suffering. And even then, hearing about those situations, I was able to think about it in the abstract, as something happening to other people. It was something that I could disconnect from.
On a trip to La Universitaria Centroamericana, the site of the murder of six Jesuit priests and two servants, however, I had a harsh realization. We went on a tour of the campus, where students were milling about on their way to classes. Led into a tiny, unassuming chapel, our guide told us about the beautiful banner in the front with depictions of doves, peace, and hope. We found a memorial to Archbishop Romero at the side of the chapel and we talked about the importance of remembering those that we have lost. Then our guide told us to turn around and face the back of the chapel.
It's hard for me to describe how I felt at that moment. I remember being dumbfounded and saddened. Sick to my stomach, wanting to cry, aching with pain. Words are hard to express what I saw. On the back wall, on plain white canvas, hung twelve black and white drawings of, naked, bound, whipped, stabbed, and tortured Salvadorans, meant to represent the Stations of the Cross.
I stood in shock.
The Stations of the Cross! The same stations that I sat through for countless hours during elementary school. The same stations that I complained about with my friends every Friday. The same stations that I was angry about because I didn't get to be Mary. The same stations that we glossed over in Sunday school before going on to talk about the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The drawings showed the pain, anguish and deprivation of tortured persons, the brutality that humanity can inflict on its own, and the recklessness with which we interact with divinely created life. They showed the power of hate, anger and evil that exists in the world. Turning around from a banner of peace and hope to a red brick wall filled with images of brutal torture was a shock that did something to me, changed something in me.
In that contrast of hope and sorrow, I was shocked into an awareness of the reality of torture in our everyday lives and into the reality of what it must have been like for Jesus to hang upon the cross for us, for our sins, for all of the wrong that we have done to the world and to each other. The Stations of the Cross, the story of Jesus' crucifixion, has taken on an incredibly different meaning from my disconnected relationship of the past. I see now the pain and suffering of being whipped and tortured and made to carry a heavy cross over a long distance, of being hung on a cross by your hands and feet, having a crown of thorns stuck onto your head, being stabbed in the side a few times, surrounded by blood and pain and a sense of, I would have to think, helplessness. Jesus died in that horrible manner so that we would not have to.
In the linkage of those nameless people to the image and reality of Jesus Christ, I am forced to confront the harsh reality of torture in our society. There are still people who walk the way of the cross every day, denied justice and dignity. People are still killed in massacres. People are still raped. People are still brutally murdered. People are still tortured. But the reality of torture shouldn't, and doesn't have to, exist. Jesus died on the cross—he was whipped, stabbed, bound, and tortured—so that we could be redeemed, so that we would not have to go through this pain and suffering. We must live out our faith in the power of the crucifixion and resurrection, sustained by the memory, hope, and presence of this tortured and risen Christ. And that means looking upon people as our brothers and sisters, regardless of our differences.
"We have a responsibility," a Salvadoran woman told me, "to do justice through our words and actions, to the names we know and those we don't know." Those nameless people on the wall of the chapel in El Salvador stick with me. In their pain and anguish, I am reminded of those other anguished people who have suffered and are suffering from torture. But I am also reminded of how Christ came to redeem us from that reality. Wherever torture still occurs, we are not living out Christ's message of redeeming grace.