By Joe Bonomo
Recently I looked at newspaper coverage of the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar mission: front page after front page of banner headlines, screaming two-inch type, giddy editorial cartoons, all reported manner of visionary enthusiasm and tearful astonishment for a new future where moon creatures have been disproved and NASA will rescue us all. Writer and sci-fi visionary Ray Bradbury wanted to create a new calendar, beginning with “Year One of the New Era.”
In Section One, on page two of the July 20, 1969 edition of the Chicago Tribune—barely noticeable in the lower-left corner, the insubstantial pica-width dwarfed to near extinction by the booster power of Apollo media coverage—ran a small item:
Mother Kills Self and Two Children
Millstone, N.J., July 19 (AP)—Mrs. Nancy A. Schnitzer, 29, killed her
children Douglas Jr., 9, and Donna Lynn, 2, with a 12 gauge shotgun and
then turned the weapon on herself at the Schnitzer home here, police said.
A headline near the top of that page read “Here’s Scenario for 1st Moonwalk!” But beneath was documented proof that what gripped much of a world barely penetrated the appalling consciousness of one house in New Jersey.
As a kid, I loved watching the television footage of the Saturn V and Apollo rockets lifting off from Cape Canaveral: the otherworldly orange of the heat and flame, the intense, God-awful vapors. I glimpsed the inside of a universe—a dream, a hell—that I’d never before seen. The attached scaffolding and ladders on the launch pad, surreal in its height of three hundred and sixty-three feet, fell away like so much lint as we struggled to master gravity while three hundred pounds of monomethylhydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, 41,000 pounds of engine propellants firing to make lunar orbit insertion, and the coral glow of the booster rockets all lit a world new again. Such backlit mise-en-scène. If the image-art of cinema offered this century not merely verisimilitude but indeed a new way of seeing the world and ourselves, then the liftoff blazes that enkindled southern Florida in the late Sixties and early Seventies were also atomic filters of a new frontier, lighting the antiques below.
The Stations of the Cross were welcome respite from the unexciting certainties of the classroom. For many of us grade school kids at Saint Andrew the Apostle, there was a cinematic drama in this Act of Contrition describing Christ’s final day on earth, unlike any other religious service. Church always held for me an overpowering theatrics. The grave silence bespoke a story in progress: entering church, I always felt as if I were entering a movie in the middle. It was a story I felt left out of many times. The bored faces of my classmates suggested that they, too, had missed the climax. Were we too young? Too inattentive? We had to listen hard for legend.
I absorbed a great deal about the art of narrative from attending church. The Bible readings and Gospels were full of stories suffused with imagery, their fragments arching into a kind of cohesion: the pantomime of Easter; the stripping down of the altar during Lent; the slender green palms we brought home to hang, drooping and ignored, in the kitchen.
Weekly worship had become rote and tired, and so I looked forward to Stations of the Cross with the keenest interest; there was a quiet dignity and spiritual heft to the ritual that seemed absent on Sundays. The Stations were unpredictably observed: I didn’t know when, or why, we’d head down in single file to the building annexed to our classroom wing. As we marched, the usual dread of the gloom-tainted church and of tense playground politics that manifested themselves even in the house of God, when with whom you sat could make or break an afternoon, dissipated, lifted into something grand.
I’d heard the narrative of the crucifixion told often, was no longer riveted by Golgotha and The Shroud. Rather, the deep pleasure of Stations was something closer to the warmth and bodily enchantment I experienced during “reading time,” the late-afternoon classroom diversion during which Sister Nena would ask us to lay our heads down on our desktops as she’d read to us from an oversized storybook. What luxury! My Formica desktop would moisten with my breath’s nearness. Plot didn’t much matter; it was her telling that enveloped me. When Sister would interrupt the tale to speak to someone at the classroom door, I’d have to wait, in a kind of suspension, half-drowsy, half-attentive, for the story to resume, her voice to again fill my small head with perfume. Afterwards I’d feel dizzy, and would resume my normal classroom activities in a kind of haze: surely this had as much to do with the sleepiness that the activity was designed to induce in rambunctious ten-year-olds as it had to do with a depth in myself that I felt had been reached by the story. Sister Nena’s reading time and the stories of the Stations of the Cross are linked in a timeless fabric, which, as a boy, I pulled over me in a darkness of myth.
I haven’t attended a Stations of the Cross service in years. Memories revolve around that grade-school boy who felt compelled to listen less by burden than by desire. As they are in most Catholic churches, the fourteen Stations were arranged along the side aisles at Saint Andrew, each story-fragment of Christ’s final afternoon manifested in an etching hanging on the wall. A church’s sweeping immersion of itself—and of its parishioners—into the arts was a magnificent introduction for me to a fundamental aspiration, the translation of the untranslatable. Church involves a panorama of the aural, the written, the theatrical, the visual, the plastic arts, which all nearly overwhelmed my nascent senses. The incense wafting into my lungs during Sunday’s High Holy Mass entered me not as the Spirit of God, but as the Spirit of Story.
For me, then, the great churches existed in an erotics of representation, pulsing as much with art’s invisible desire to make manifest the splendor of our chaotic world, as with the Holy Spirit’s desire to make itself manifest in our chaotic selves.
Characteristic of most devotional exercises, the fourteen Stations of the Cross demand a rigor of the body, a pious severity echoed in the harsh pews, the hush of the service, the rigid formulae of the idiom. And the meditative pause at each image for prayer and consideration reflected not simply the severity of Christ’s suffering but the immensity of the image’s power as a narrative. Though our heads were down in our prayer books, our imaginations wandered through the artful constructions of each picture. The etchings at Saint Andrew weren’t extraordinary in any respect, being Sixties-style generic reliefs of dark-brown wood and shiny, gold-tinted metal. But that didn’t matter: the constancy of Christ’s agony and sacrifice wrought by each pose attracted me. The desire for spirit made manifest in the physical realm was all too apparent to me as a young boy gazing upward at a thin man, his head hung in anguish beneath exhausted shoulders, forced to carry a cross after having fallen for a third time. Such pictures gripped me, and bred in me an appreciation for the power and durability of the narrative image. Saint Andrew’s, I marvelled, was as much a Church of Art as a Church of Worship.
And the stories accrue. Each of the individual Stations is horrific, abhorrent: Jesus condemned to Death; Jesus bears His Cross; Jesus Christ crucified; Jesus falls; Jesus stripped of His garments and given gall to drink. . . . The horror was echoed even in those stories which reflected relative moments of surcease. When Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross, when Veronica wipes his face with cloth, even the moment when Jesus meets His Holy Mother are merely pauses in a gruesome narrative, a cinematic detail akin to the clock on the wall ticking louder if we dare to ignore its power in our fateful affairs.
Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my own opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and regenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.
The etchings at Saint Andrew’s embodied worship, striving to incarnate the common and drab insults waged against Christ’s mortal body. That these illustrations hung in a church and not in a museum suggested that I focus on dogma. “The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy,” Bergman laments, and in my burgeoning artistic sensibility I found that I wanted a kind of aesthetic of worship that reconciled doctrine with engraving, creed with brushstroke. I couldn’t articulate this at the time, of course. I think that my article of faith issued as much from my gaping response to the sublime of creative, artistic representation as from the sublime of Christ’s spiritual agony.
In what did I truly (want to) believe? If these pictures hung in the immense darkness of my church? If these pictures held themselves together against disorder to tell a story? The fragments of Christ’s final day assembled themselves into a narrative so true that when I left church, blinking and sneezing in the banal sunlight, I lifted my eyes and saw wholeness.
When I became an altar server at the age of ten, I quietly hoped that my immersion in the spiritual drama of church would somehow intensify. I don’t attempt here to diminish the effect that serving mass had on me as a young boy. It tattooed me with compelling memories and worthy reflection. But I can’t deny that the experience—as appropriate as this seems to me now, many years later—was an unsolicited introduction to bureaucracy and backstage machinations. The first time I entered the sacristy I expected something akin to Wallace Stevens’s “holy hush of ancient sacrifice,” a kind of exotic portal of sacred vessels and vestments. What I saw first was a flimsy calendar hanging on a wall, dates circled hastily in red ink. There were fluorescent tubes and cardboard boxes stacked unceremoniously onto wobbling, cramped shelves. Communion wafers, pre-Consecration, waited in drab plastic bags, like materials for a classroom experiment. The first time I served with older boys, the frank and secular tone of their conversations—we were, after all, preteens— shocked me a little. Our sneakers squeaked on the sacristy floor as at a gym. It felt like a back room. I hadn’t expected that God needed a mini-refrigerator to keep His wine cool.
Despite these small disappointments, I looked forward to assisting the priest during the Stations. In this Act, the server’s role is modest. He (or she, as quickly became the case at Saint Andrew) is either the cross-bearer or the acolyte. I recall being assigned the latter duty more often, but I would often stare into the candle’s flame in exaggerated apathy. My languor surprised me: I’d hoped that serving would enrich and deepen my attraction to the Stations, but, though I now recollect them amusingly, the stage directions barked at me by various priests both frightened me and deromanticized the passion of the service, reducing it to another theatrical event.
Ultimately, what my distancing from the Stations of the Cross, what my ennui led to was a fascination for stories left untold. I see this now as the beginnings of my fascination with the marginal and the shadowed. In a kind of aesthetic democracy I began wondering about the lives of those people unrepresented in the Stations’ etchings. Surely their lives didn’t matter as much as the Son of God’s, and yet, I asked myself during one particular service late in my precocious dissatisfactions, weren’t their lives the very lives He died for, the very lives so graced and enriched by His agony and sacrifice? Whither went the dirt and pebbles swept from the temple floor? I wondered how many dignified faces disappeared slowly from the early drafts of the Stations narratives.
My proposal is that Jesus’ first followers knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial. What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. And it is necessary to be very clear on what I mean here by prophecy. I do not mean texts, events, or persons that predicted or foreshadowed the future, that projected themselves forward toward a distant fulfillment. I mean such units sought out backward, as it were, sought out after the events of Jesus’ life were already known and his followers declared that texts from the Hebrew Scriptures had been written with him in mind. Prophecy, in this sense, is known after rather than before the fact.
—John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
The Passion narratives of Jesus were constructed more than a half-century after his death. Prophesied backwards as Crossan suggests, the figure of Jesus grew in stature. His grace ennobling him into a kind of ur-reality, it is only fitting that the unknown, the ordinary around him, fell away. Though the canvas of redemption is an infinite canvas, stretching over a Zion horizon, it is also in some ways finite, a product of this world, painted by humans with revisionist strokes. Naturally, as the drafts proceeded, much commonplace history fell away.
The Stations of the Cross ask us to see Jesus as a slowly dying man whose spirit strengthens beneath the lash. The Stations also ask that we see Jesus as emblematic, as all of man. The Schnitzer household in Millwood, New Jersey, littered with the remains of three lives too scarred to be lifted, went scarcely noticed on the day of the Apollo wonder, the day Ray Bradbury, in his consecration of lunar culture, offered “The First Day of the Dawn Calendar of the New Era.” Surely on Christ’s final mortal day there were countless individual dramas enacting themselves near Nazareth, near Bethlehem, near Bethany, dramas which, in the boundaries of their own daily, but infinite concerns, enacted lives utterly important. W. H. Auden witnesses those everymen, who by the end of the poem will have to move on, in the opening lines of “Musée des Beaux Arts”:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along. . . .
There they are. Though the images of the Stations edit out the men and women who witnessed the crucifixion, foregrounding the mystery, the enactment of the Stations is a call to remember our very humanness, as mystery competes with fleshly suffering for our attention.
During the Stations services, my imagination wandered into the lives of those forgotten, and I wandered down the stony paths behind the buildings which lined the road toward the Place of the Skull. A kind of passion for the apocryphal, this fascination on my part reached zenith levels during particular services, and at times I was prodded by the peevish priest to move forward to the next Station. Beneath the continental cloud of the crucifixion drama moved a mass of humanity that I dreamed about in head-tingling rapture. Who are these people? What are their lives? What was in the trash heaps? What did a ravenous Roman eat for breakfast that morning? Did the trees bloom? Crossan quotes Martin Hengel reminding us that “[c]rucifixion as a penalty was remarkably widespread in antiquity . . . it was, of course, carried out publicly”—I recalled that some Stations pictures I had studied in books portrayed Roman citizens in the trees, watching the crucifixion as a spectacle. What did they wear? How well did their sandals fit? Which small children played in the dirt and sand a game of their imaginations, distracted by the high sun? Which citizens were uninterested in the drama? Was that one there shamefully newly pregnant, her consciousness fixed inconsolably on the spirit inside of her? Wasn’t there one man lying in his bed upstairs, belching and absently rubbing his stomach? Who turned their backs, and why?
That one over there, was his heart broken? My cinematic mind’s-eye panned any imagined crowd scene, training itself on the unremarkable, zooming in on the backs of buildings, searching for imperfections in architecture and construction, building a new vista for my increasingly secular imagination that could not help but wonder about the lives of these narratively forsaken.
Joe Bonomo is the author of many books, including Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Field Recordings from the Inside, and No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing. He’s the Music Columnist for The Normal School, a five-time “Notable Essay” selection at Best American Essays, and Professor of English at Northern Illinois University.
Originally appeared in NOR 5