I first learned about stational churches from a classmate in graduate school. He was (and still is) a Jesuit, and he was writing his dissertation on stational liturgies in ancient Constantinople — today rebranded as Istanbul. At the time it was all new to me, though I’ve since come to appreciate that the same customs existed in other major Christian cities. In Rome the practice flourished for centuries, before it finally petered out. But the designation of stational churches has remained on the books, and in recent times the practice has gone through a bit of a resurrection.
Essentially, the custom was this. On each day of Lent people would walk in procession or gather at a designated church in the city, and they would continue the practice until the days of Lent were exhausted, or they were exhausted. In each case they assembled for prayer, and the whole experience served to introduce people to neighboring parishes and to other parts of the city. For visitors and pilgrims it provided the same exercise, with the added benefit that everything they saw was new to them. But for everyone it was a local adaptation of the greatest of pilgrimages — the Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jersualem. All were pilgrimages in their own way, and each local rendition was meant to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When I first heard of such a practice, I was fascinated. In fact, I was so intrigued that I accepted the invitation to join my friend for a few days when he went to Istanbul to do research one summer. I was going to be in Spain at about the same time, doing my own dissertation research, so I could kill two birds with one stone. I could get my own work done, and then go with an expert to a city that has always fascinated me. So we decided to meet there in June.
Unfortunately, a film intervened. One March evening my friend invited me to go to a movie. Neither of us knew much about it, save that it involved a tourist in Istanbul. Perhaps this might be a nice introduction to our destination. The film turned out to be Midnight Express, which told the story of a young American who got thrown into a Turkish prison for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Had I known the topic I might have reconsidered. Had I known that it was filled with violence that was graphic and totally repulsive, I never would have gone. I don’t deal well at all with violence, and so I covered my eyes for all of the brutal scenes. It was all too much for me, and any thoughts of going to Turkey that summer went out the window that evening. No Istanbul for me, and that was that.
Happily, Turkey has changed, even if my squeamishness about violence has not. I’ve since had the chance to visit Istanbul and discovered that the notorious central prison of the city has now been transformed into a Four Seasons Hotel. (How amazing is that in the lodging business — to go from no stars to five stars almost overnight.) As for the churches, the few that remain from ancient times just dazzle the imaginaiton. Just the thought of a liturgy at 6th-century Hagia Sophia is enough to send my history genes into ecstasy. But the visit also left me keenly disappointed. I was about a thousand years too late, and most of the grand churches and basilicas that figured in the stational liturgies of Constantinople have long since vanished.
Many of the churches and parallel liturgies in Rome still persist, however, and they are there for the visiting. By custom the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome is the stational church for Ash Wednesday in Rome. This year, as in the past, the pope and his entourage began the Ash Wednesday stational liturgy with the imposition of ashes at the Benedictine abbey of Sant Anselmo, which is a short walk from Santa Sabina. From there they process to Santa Sabina, the 6th-century basilica that for centuries has served as the headquarters of the Dominicans. It’s a lovely service, which I have yet to witness. But someday I hope to see my very first stational liturgy.
In the meantime, it is important to know that you don’t have to go to Rome or Constantinople or Jerusalem to replicate the experience of this Lenten custom. Since most major cities have more than enough churches to serve the purpose, anyone can construct their own Lenten pilgrimage to as many churches as they wish. For one thing, it’s a great opportunity to see some potentially interesting architecture. For another it presents the chance to see and even meet other congregations as they worship in their own spirit and local customs. It also allows you to meet other Christians who might very well have something to learn from you. And there is an added benefit. On any given weekday most city churches are crying for customers, so you might very well be welcomed with open arms.
God’s creativity is simply enormous, and in our pilgrimage of Lent it’s not such a bad idea to get out and see a few examples of it. At the very least it might might broaden your horizons. At best, you might see how God works in other parts of town.
+On March 9th I celebrated and preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s. You can access the sermon, Chatting with the Serpents, in the section of Presentations. In the Mass I remembered in a special way Mr. Bill McInerney of Oakland, CA, who died recently. He was a lovely person, a good friend to me and so many, and a long-time member of the Order of Malta.
+On March 2nd we received two men as candidates for the monastery. Nathaniel Putnam is from Oakland, CA, where he has managed a cafe and is a minister of faith formation in his parish. He received a BA in American Studies at UC Santa Cruz and the MFA from New College of California in San Francisco. Brad Rothrock is originally from Tucson, AZ, and more recently has been living in Boston. He received the MFA from Rutgers and is completing his dissertation in Theology and Education at Boston College. Pray for them as they enter this new phase of their lives!
+We at Saint John’s were surprised by a short video clip of Pope Francis’ visit to Sant Anselmo and Santa Sabina on Ash Wednesday. No one was surprised to see footage of the pope distributing ashes, since that was to be expected. But we were delighted to see that the second person in the clip, also distributing ashes, was our confrere, Fr. Nickolas Becker, who is studying in Rome. The video begins as the procession is leaving Sant Anselmo, going through the piazza that separates it from the palace of the Order of Malta across the way, and finishes with Mass at Santa Sabina.
The pictures in today’s post come from another lovely church in Rome, San Clemente. It has some of the finest mosaics in Rome and is well worth the visit.