St. Alphonsus’ Way of the Cross could well be the most popular form of the Stations of the Cross currently in use. It may be that the Stations written by St. Alphonsus are nearly as popular as every other set of Stations taken together!
Nevertheless, though The Way of the Cross which St. Alphonsus wrote is extremely popular, it may be the case that many would like to learn how better to pray these Stations with St. Alponsus. To this end, we will consider the Stations of St. Alphonsus in several successive posts over the next two weeks. In this first article, we will take a more general look at the structure and characteristics of St. Alphonsus’ Way of the Cross, pointing out the elements which are most essential to St. Alphonsus’ understanding of prayer and the spiritual life. In subsequent articles, we will consider the particular Stations themselves.
St. Alphonsus’ Way of the Cross is not Ignatian
It is often helpful, in order to come to a fuller understanding of a particular approach to prayer, to compare that spirituality to another. In this regard, we may consider how widely different is St. Alphonsus’ method of mediation from that which is most commonly called “Ignatian Prayer.”
The prayer which is termed “Ignatian,” and is most clearly embodied in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, focuses largely on entering the biblical scene. Over and over again, St. Ignatius directs the believer to imagine the original biblical setting (and especially particular realistic details of the setting) and to “enter into” the moment either as a biblical character or (perhaps) as oneself.
This Ignatian Prayer, valuable as it is, has little in common with the spirituality of St. Alphonsus. The Doctor of Morals directs us not so much to imagine the scene, as to consider the love which is manifested in the words and deeds of Christ. As we recognize this immense love, we are then able to make an act of love in return. For St. Ignatius, the imagination and the intellect hold a very high place; but, for St. Alphonsus, it is the will and even the affects which are of greatest concern.
[please note: By no means do we intend to pit these two schools of spirituality (nor less these two saints) one against the other. Rather, it is our intention simply to point out the legitimate diversity which exists within the Church’s life.]
Key themes in St. Alphonsus’ doctrine of prayer (summarized from The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection)
The necessity of the prayer of petition – For St. Alphonsus, the most necessary form of prayer is the prayer of petition. Certainly, thanksgiving, adoration, praise, and meditation are all very important. Still, the most necessary and truly essential form and aspect of prayer is the prayer of petition. When we pray, according to St. Alphonsus, we must ask for graces. All our prayer is directed to this end: That we might ask for the right graces, that we might persevere in asking, and that we might ask with great confidence.
Affective movements in prayer – While it is certainly true that St. Alphonsus allots a healthy role to the intellect, it is also clear that the Doctor insists on the primacy of the will in the spiritual life. By “affective movements,” we mean especially acts of hope and love. Affectivity is not merely to be understood as emotions or feelings, but as movements of the will (which must be in accord with reason). A good example of what St. Alphonsus means by stressing affectivity in prayer is his regular use of ejaculations: My Good and Loving Jesus, let me love you more and more!
Meditation as a means rather than the end – From these previous points, it follows that mediation is only a means in the spiritual life. For St. Alphonsus, the principle goal of prayer is the prayer of petition. But, we will only ask with confidence and perseverance if we are convinced that God loves us and that we love God – thus, the importance of affective movements. However, the primary motivation for our love is the Love of God as expressed in the life of Christ and the other elements of Divine Revelation. Thus, St. Alphonsus tells us that mental prayer and meditation are morally necessary – since, without mental prayer, it will be very difficult for us to engage fully in the prayer of petition (which is absolutely necessary to all).
The grace of final perseverance – Finally, first among those good things, for which St. Alphonsus directs us to ask when we enter the prayer of petition, is the grace of final perseverance. This is the goal of all our prayer: Salvation. This is the one grace needed for salvation: Final perseverance. But, St. Alphonsus reminds us, the grace of final perseverance is not merely that last grace which brings us into eternal life, but it is a whole string of graces throughout our life which inspire us to good works and, especially, to prayer. More than anything else, we must ask for the grace of final perseverance, since it cannot be merited but can only be imprecated and begged for from the almighty and merciful God.
Characteristics of St. Alphonsus’ meditations on the Stations of the Cross
Affective: Over and over again, St. Alponsus directs us to consider the love which motivated Christ on his sorrowful journey and also to make multiple acts of love for our adorable Jesus.
My Lord Jesus Christ, You have made this journey to die for me with unspeakable love […] I love You will all my heart […] You go to die for love of me. I want, my beloved Redeemer, to die for love of You. (from the Preparatory Prayer)
Petitionary: Throughout the Stations, St. Alphonsus leads us to ask for graces from our loving Savior. These petitions are at the heart of the Doctor’s spirituality.
Grant that I may love You always, and then do with me as You will. (the conclusion to nearly every Station)
Brief meditation: Notice that St. Alphonsus does offer a simple meditation on the mystery kept at each Station. However, it is striking to note that the affective prayer which follows each meditation is almost always substantially longer than the meditation itself. Consider how brief is the meditation offered for the Twelfth Station (“Jesus dies upon the Cross”):
Consider how your Jesus, after three hours of agony on the Cross, abandons Himself to the weight of His body, bows His head, and dies.
Tropological, or moralizing: By this we mean to indicate that St. Alphonsus regularly offers a spiritual interpretation of the historical event – usually focusing on a moral implication signified by the reality itself. The mysteries of Christ’s life are re-interpreted spiritually along moral lines.
My beloved Jesus, Your face was once beautiful before You began this journey; but, now, it no longer appears beautiful […] Alas, my soul also was once beautiful when it received Your grace in Baptism; but I have since disfigured it with my sins. (from the Sixth Station, “Veronica offers her veil to Jesus”)
Marian: It is good to recall that St. Alphonsus is the “Marian Doctor.” Thus, it is no surprise that the Blessed Virgin Mary plays a central role in several of the Stations. Beyond the obvious Fourth Station (“Jesus meets His afflicted Mother”), she is also mentioned with great devotion and tenderness in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Stations (“Jesus is taken down from the Cross” and “Jesus is placed in the sepulcher,” respectively)
Focused on final perseverance: The one essential grace for which we must daily ask is the grace of final perseverance. But, as we have mentioned above, this grace (according to St. Alphonsus) is really a whole string of graces by which the good Lord directs us in our daily perseverance, especially in the life of prayer. Considering the love of our Savior, witnessed and realized in his dolorous Passion, the believer is inspired to beg the good Lord for perseverance.
By the merits of this new fall, give me the grace to persevere in Your love until death. (from the Seventh Station, “Jesus falls the second time”)
“Meditation is nothing more than a converse between the soul and God; the soul pours forth to him its affections, its desires, its fears, its requests, and God speaks to the heart, causing it to know his goodness, and the love which he bears it, and what it must do to please him. I will lead her into solitude, and speak to her heart.” (from The Way of Salvation and Perfection)