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A Doleful Meditation

Andrew Portelli POSTED: 4/6/12


Time nears the midnight hour. I am in the middle of a small clearing, where I see a Man kneeling against a small boulder embedded in the terrain. The light of the moon seems as if it shines for Him and Him alone, directly hanging above His figure. He is dressed in a simple off-white garment, while His hair is slightly longer than shoulder length. I cannot yet get a good look at His face, as His head is down, buried in folded hands.

I notice a soft crying coming from Him, and undecipherable words that tumble rapidly from His lips. I am keen to approach and offer some comfort when, suddenly, a cry emits from this poor Creature as His gaze snaps up toward the night. It is at that moment when I get my first good look at this precious countenance – His beard is in the custom of the time, yet neat, His features sharp and His eyes are, quite plainly, brilliant. It’s those last items of attribute which anchor me to the ground and stop me in my tracks. Their color is a light brown, yet the magnificence is in how they shine, completely piercing and yet, they do not match the anguish which seems to be racking the rest of His Body. In fact, they are the very definition of peace.

I back up a bit toward a nearby tree, keeping watch from behind it. I can hear His voice more clearly now, and although it cries out with pain, there is a calming effect within that matches the eyes. I continue to watch as He gets up, slowly, and walks past me in the other direction. He comes back a few minutes later, still lamenting quietly. He kneels down again and puts His head into His hands shortly before snapping up again. For a split second, there is a terrifying look on His face, a mixture of sorrow, pity, and hurt. He turns to the heavens once more, except this time, I see something dripping down His forehead in many small rivulets – it is blood. As I wonder how this oddity is happening, a light which I had not seen before approaches Him. It stops and with a bright pulse, changes into a radiant angel, placing its arms around Him, giving comfort. After a short while, the angel pulls away from the Lord, and I see a chalice appear in his hands. He takes a Host from the depths of this golden cup, placing it on the tongue of this God made man. Then, vanishes.

At this point, I take a step back and remind myself of a few truths.

The first thing is of His humanity, how since He took the form of human flesh at the moment of the Incarnation, He was, is and would always be one of His own creatures.  I translate this to the events in the garden. The God remains, but the frailty of His human nature permeates His being, and understandably so. If I knew I was about to soon die such a horrific death, I would feel the same way. I would beg and plead and cry and lament for my heavenly Father to take from me this trial as He does now. This is compounded with the knowledge of those other trials which must also be suffered beforehand, increasing His torment.

However, the worst of it I realize comes in that moment when it seems as if He is having an epiphany, that split second where His holy face is contorted with such a crippling pain. In one fleeting instant, He has seen every single offense made against Him by the creatures He so infinitely loves after He will have given His life so that we might have salvation. In that instant, He has seen all of my sins; the ones I committed ten years ago, the ones from last month, from yesterday, from next year. The vision is so unbearable that when the moment has passed, it leaves Him perspiring blood. His only moments of peace come with the arrival of His herald, sent by His Father above. The angel comforts Him and then gives Him His own Body so that part of His nature which is weak – the part that is like to you and me – might be strengthened. I say a few Hail Marys, a Glory Be and an Our Father, asking for some strength of my own. When I look back, I am alone in the garden; He is gone, having been betrayed, seized and carried off to await judgment, a Criminal with no crime.

I move on, finding myself hours later in a small courtyard in which I am packed in with countless other spectators. I push forward, edging my way to the front of the crowd to get a better view of what everyone is looking at. There, in the center, is the remnant of a stone pillar, now a quarter of what it once was. Driven into its staved off top is a short, empty manacle, no doubt awaiting its Captive. To my left, a Roman centurion stands guard, waiting with everyone else. To my right, two soldiers of lesser degree also bide their time, but what holds my eyes to them is the manner of instrument in their hands—wooden handles with long, leather straps fastened to one end. At the ends of the straps are fastened every manner of sharp, lethal appendage, from barbs to bristles. Then, I notice something else, something which sends my heart into my throat. Across from me, there are four women and a man who noticeably stand out from the crowd. Two of the women cry openly. The third woman, very beautiful, is visibly distraught, yet she keeps looking to the heavens, praying silently. She looks familiar, and for one so grieved, maintains her composure, almost as if a certain degree of acceptance has settled within her. But how do I know this woman? I begin to realize that Her eyes are almost the same as His, as she looks at me with a pleading heart. My own reaches out to her, and I am ashamed. Suddenly, one of her companions shouts in horror.

I turn to my left, following her gaze. There are gasps and indrawn breath as the crowd parts.  They lead Him to the pillar, fastening His hands to the manacle and the shock that falls upon everyone envelopes me as well. He’s nearly naked, save for a small loincloth. His Body is literally covered in welts and bruises while there are scrapes along the ankles and knees where He was dragged. He bleeds from a few of His toes. On His neck, there is what looks like a rope burn where they harnessed Him. I reach His face with my eyes. What was once strong and beautiful is now battered and torn. One eye is blackened from a fist and He bleeds openly from a cut or two. There are more swollen welts from blows to the cheeks and chin. I notice He can barely stand, something which is made worse by the shortness of the manacle, forcing Him to hunch over the pillar. He lifts His head as best He can in an effort of prayer, asking His Father for strength, and, in that moment, I again notice the look of peace in His one good eye.  The centurion gives a nod, and the two soldiers move in. Then the blows begin and the tears begin to roll as I remember that I put Him in this position.

I see my fellow men wincing in unison with the soldiers’ alternating blows. The flesh parts readily with each stroke, small rivers of crimson literally cascading down His back. He cries out in pain at the first few lashes, and then admirably attempts to maintain His silence. It is almost impossible. He is growing faint from agony. Eventually, He sinks to His knees and leans against the pillar. The men do not relent, but rather laugh at His weakness. I make an attempt to look at His scourged torso and legs but it is too much – they are savaged beyond recognition. Blood has pooled beneath Him, and one of the female companions across from me shouts for them to stop. They ignore her as one of them grabs Him by the ankles and flips Him over, an action which elicits another cry.

As He hangs from the chain, His face, chest and stomach are exposed to the soldiers. The blows begin anew and now that I can see His face, the horror is utterly worse. His front now matches His back, a mess of torn flesh and the pool of blood beneath Him is huge. He tries to speak, or maybe gasp for breath, but all that occurs is a wordless moving of the lips. The soldiers stop for a moment, looking to the centurion. He speaks to them in Latin and gestures. They smile, switching their grip to hold the scourge by the end near the straps, as if they are wielding nightsticks.

The shouts increase with each of the 20 or so blows they give Him. One of them gives His head a vicious kick before they unfasten Him from the pillar, dragging Him away by His arms, barely alive. The crowd follows them out while I remain, staring at the blood trail that He has left behind. Before I leave, I take a last look at His Mother, who has yet to depart. I say a Hail Mary, asking for her forgiveness. Then another. And another and another as she cries openly, her pain more than I can bear.

Moments later, as the governor speaks privately with his advisors about the Man’s fate, I am left alone with Him in one of the outside antechambers. I gaze at Him from behind a column, hidden from view. The more I take in His wounds and labored breathing, the more I am distraught. Seizing a small amount of strength before it passes, I force myself to approach Him. He sits on a stone bench, cloaked in a violet robe. I know any garment at this point would merely cling to the open wounds, so that when He is eventually stripped, more flesh will come off with its removal. The color of the rob is yet another mock; the Romans’ idea of playing upon the Jews’ accusation that this Man calls Himself a King. He sways in front of me, only just able to hold Himself up while His gaze is downcast. As the hot tears begin to rise again, and with them the anger at this injustice, I catch His movement. With all of His energy, He raises His face to mine, and looks me dead on with that battered countenance. It is too much. Somehow, through my tears, I am able to say “I’m sorry.” I can hear Him in my head as we continue to stare at one another. Thank you, He says. Thank you for coming, when so many others do not.

Why, Lord?  Why? Why do You do this?

Of course, I know the answer. You know. It is the only Way.

Of course, He is correct. However, all I can think of is the world today in which I live; I think of its addiction to fornication, sodomy, blasphemy and abortion. I think of all of my loved ones, my friends as well, and how they live their lives. I think about myself, and how I live mine.

He interrupted my thoughts: When you think of your loved ones, remember to pray. There is always hope. Nothing is beyond possible with Me. Nothing. Remember how My Mother suffers with Me. Come to her and she will help you reach Me. When you fall into temptation, know that I am with you, and come back here, remembering what you have seen today. When you find yourself dwelling on the evils of this world, again, pray. But above all, always keep hope in your heart because in the end, I alone will triumph, and the unrepentant will not.

Now I’m staring at the ground. I turn my head up to look at Him, to thank Him for these words of comfort that He has given me even though He is the One in such pain. When I do, I still see the peace in His unwounded eye. I hear a commotion just then. I run back to my hidden place behind the column.

They come barreling in, four of them. One of them is drunk, while another carries a rod. This one hits Him in the head while the others laugh. Then, something on the other side of the chamber catches the eye of one of them, and he tells the monster to stop, before he runs out of sight. I peer around the edge of the stone as far as I can risk. He has run to the far side, near what looks to be a large bramble of dead bushes. The soldier tries to pull something from it, yelping and cursing in pain as he does. As he begins to walk back, I see him continue to yank back his hands as he works the branches and their six-inch thorns into a hideous device.

The soldier walks behind the Man while the others persist in their ridiculing and pointing. I am still a bit confused as to what this new devilry is for but within seconds my questions are answered. Blood pours down in fast, thin streams from the deadly puncture wounds that pierce His head all the way around. The soldier steps back to admire his handiwork and joins with the laughter of the others, who slap him on the back and tell him they wish they had thought of that. They get on their knees in mock adoration, as I ask through more tears for His holy Mother’s intercession for us all. They drag Him roughly to His feet and behind His quiet agony from these new wounds, I see a single tear drop, matching my own.

The crowd in the forum roars in maniacal joy. There He stands, up on the landing; the very image of Him would be enough to move the most hardened of hearts, but I know that is not the case here. He has just been condemned by a governor who caved to the mob’s bloodlust, to these leaders from the temple. I watch as the governor washes his hands of the matter. He looks regretful, so I hope he is yet shown mercy by this One Whom he has now sentenced to death. He wipes his hands dry, his wife by his side, crying. I will join her lament soon.

The crowd parts as they give Him the wood. It is  a huge beam, and must weigh a great deal.  I wonder how He will carry this, for He can barely stand and blood pours from His wounds. I see Him bring the wood close to His cheek, whispers escaping His lips to His Father above. The centurion cracks his whip from up high on his horse, signaling that it is time to march. The last leg of the journey has begun.

He falls under the weight within the first twenty or so yards. Before the executioners help Him, they deal out a few more kicks to His head. A few minutes later, someone breaks through the wall of humanity into their path.  I listen to the threats and shouts from the Romans, yet they grow silent within seconds. I realize why when I get a better look at the intruder. There she stands, no tears—simply looking at Him.  She lays a maternal hand to the side of His face, while He places His own over hers. He says something, something which I cannot hear but which I know are words of comfort and reassurance for her. He looks at her tenderly, this creature whom He chose before time began to be the vessel through which He would come to us, the one whom He loves above all others. Their moment is cut short when the centurion roughly breaks them apart. She disappears back into the crowd, while He is pressed on toward the inevitable.

Time moves on for what seems an eternity. He falls again, still thinly grasping to life. This time, they coerce a gruff, burly man to help Him carry the load. We tread on until we are stopped by a group of women who seem to share the sorrow of a whole people for His afflictions. He tells them not to weep for Him but for their children. As they are pushed aside by His oppressors, I can’t help but wonder if they know what His meaning was. I continue with my prayers then, asking for mercy for these women, whoever they are, and for all the courageous souls in our present day. My litany is interrupted once more. He falls to the ground, even with the help of the Cyrenian, who is left to hold up the weight himself while the Romans punish Him harder than ever, annoyed that they have had to stop so close to their destination.

Now people cry out for mercy, people who at first wished this fate upon Him. I join them. It has become too much; He barely can raise His hand, pleading for them to cease. Finally, they respond to the cries from the crowd and the shouts from the Cyrenian. They guide Him to His knees, giving Him a moment’s respite. His entire garment is drenched in blood. There are massive lumps on His head, where that hideous crown still digs deep into His flesh. His face is completely disfigured, full of bruises and blood. As another brave soul breaches the ranks, I see a young woman run up to Him and throw her arms around His neck. The threats from the soldiers are stilled by more cries from the Cyrenian, who issues his own warning to leave if they harm anyone further.

My attention turns back to the woman, who takes off her veil, gently holds it to His face and wipes away the blood. And that’s when I notice His eye again. Everything else is damaged beyond recognition, yet that one eye still holds within it the peace of God. It gives me new strength and my Hail Marys continue.

We have reached our destination.

I glance at the two who are to be killed along with Him, already nailed to their crosses. Before my initial shock at this gruesome sight fully registers, the barbarians grab His cross and throw it to the ground. He can barely stand up straight after all this time, so two of them have to hold Him upright while the others strip Him almost completely of His clothing. He winces noticeably and I can see the skin come off with each tear of fabric.

When this is done, they violently shove Him to the ground, dragging His limp Body onto the wood. I know what is to come next, letting my beseeching of His Mother continue to tumble from my lips in a silent stream. I turn my head away just before the hammer drives the first nail through His right hand. I hear the cry, the greatest He has yet to deliver this day, as the bone beneath the skin is divided by the nail. I can hardly look as they line up on the left hand and the feet simultaneously. As they finish the gory work, He looks as if He might faint from so many traumas. I hear another cry, even greater this time, as both nails are driven through flesh, bone and wood. Then I hear His plea, sent in the direction of the heavens: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

They raise Him, and when He is finally in place, I know the time is not far off. He is the Savior of men Who came to us to spread His Love, only to have it rebuked in death at the hands of the very creatures He came to save. I force myself to remember His earlier words to me, searching for comfort, finding my grief lighten a little.

Soon, though, I am drawn back into this scene of sorrow, when I see His Mother and beloved disciple approach Him. My eyes well up as she professes her love for her Son, who is dying in front of her. The disciple holds her close, hot tears burning his cheeks. Then, He speaks to her, offering more words of comfort.

As she is led away, I am given a surge of confidence. I run to the foot of the Cross, past the soldiers who have turned a blind eye to me while they gamble for His cloak. My eyes come level with His broken, bloody feet, in the middle of which I can see the grayish metal head of the nail. Another rush of courage has me pressing my lips to His flesh, giving Him thanks, my sorrow and my love. He doesn’t answer me just then, but I know He hears me.

Halfway through the third hour and now the time is imminent. As if to prove this sense of foreboding within me, He musters some strength, asking for drink because the thirst has become intolerable. An officer snickers and says something to his comrade. The latter takes a sponge, spears it with his lance and dips it into a bucket of liquid. He then raises it to the Man, who puts forward His head in anticipation. The moment it touches His lips, however, He begins to cough– it is gall, not water. The Romans laugh again, right before He shouts to the heavens in a piercing cry: Eli, Eli, lama sabancthani? “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

Without warning, storm clouds begin to gather overhead, causing the horses of the legion to stir in fear. All eyes are on Him now, because the people know as well as I do that the moment has indeed come. He raises His head to the sky for a final time with these words: Father, into Thy hands, I commend My spirit. And with that, His head drops to His chest.

It is over.

Thunder begins to roll, while lightning strikes violently, shaking the whole earth. The horses begin to bolt in fear, along with the holy men, their black vestments trailing behind their plump bodies. I feel the ground tremble, and I am reminded of another time, when I sat at my desk in a Manhattan skyscraper, while the aftershock of an earthquake shook the building. This is far worse, and I fear for my life. Of the living, the only ones that remain are a few soldiers, His mother, her companions and I.

One of the soldiers breaks the legs of the two thieves to ensure a quicker death. They scream, and then go still. When the executioners come to Him, He is already dead. To be sure, one takes his lance and opens His side, from which blood and then water immediately begin to flow.

Finally, two of His followers climb up to remove the Body from the wood. I watch from a distance as they place the lifeless Man in the arms of His afflicted Mother, who presses Him close and laments now with unrestrained sorrow. And then, blinded by my own tears, I see no more.

I find myself back in my own time. As I go over all of the events of the past fifteen hours, I make a final prayer to the Queen of heaven and earth, asking that through her we might become closer to her Son. Then, I pocket my beads, sit back in the pew, and think. We are now in the days of the holy season of Lent. This is a time of penance and prayer; a time of eating fewer than two full meals on a given day, avoiding meat entirely on others. It is a time to avoid favorite foods, a time to sit in silence and meditate. It’s also a time to avoid television, movies, secular music, and social-networking devices such as Facebook! It is a time to read scripture, contemplate sorrow, exercise patience, and mortify the flesh. Most importantly, it is 40 days of reflecting on those events described above and the Man who suffered, Who we must imitate and follow if our own salvation is to be won.

I am sure most who read this do not need instruction on how the Church’s season of penitence is defined. It is good, however, to always have a reminder in the midst of our trials. On the other hand, there are countless souls, Catholics no less, who will do absolutely nothing to unite themselves in any way with the Passion and Death of their Christ. The real issue is that, in reality, we are called to practice acts of self-denial as often as possible, not just once a year.

That is why prayer and fasting are needed most, for as He Himself said, nothing is impossible with God, and even the most hardened souls, including those of our loved ones, can still make good on that gift of salvation which was given to them long ago.

As for those of us who know what must be done, the trick is to somehow stay on the path even in our most self-centered society.  How do we keep in rhythm with the beat of self-denial? Try saying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary; place yourself at those events, using the Gospels, followed by pictures or films, as a template. Be there with Him in the Garden, at His scourging and crowning, on the way to Calvary and at the foot of the Cross. Try it, and see how you feel. You might find it easier, as I did. This is one of the ways in which I find peace in prayer, and so I thought I would share it with you. What is of absolute importance, however, is that we do pray, and pray we must, for if we do not, who will?

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