Yesterday we had a retreat day for men and women at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. Although we began and ended the day together for our introduction and opening and closing prayer, we split up for most of the time, with Deacon Thom Winninger leading the men and me leading the women.
I divided my time with the women into two sessions, one in which we looked at models of discipleship from among the women who encountered or walked with Jesus during his lifetime and the other in which we talked about more recent women who can inspire us.
The four women I spoke about in the first session were Martha, Veronica, Mary Magdalene, and my method was one of storytelling. As I explained at the outset, there is a reason Jesus so often used stories to illustrate truths; stories, and the truths they reveal, often touch us at a deep place. We react to them with our heart in a way that is often much deeper than if were simply told the same truth. (I gave the examples of the difference between hearing the story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus simply answering the question “who is my neighbor” by saying “everyone,” and the difference between hearing the story of the Prodigal Son and simply being told, “God is always ready to forgive you.)
Although I used material from other sources to tell the stories of three of the women, I told Veronica’s story using something I wrote several years ago. Since several of the women afterward told me how much they were affected by it, I thought I’d share it here.
So here is Veronica’s tale, a tale of a women who ignored social norms to be present to the suffering of another, who models a discipleship of compassion and presence :
We were in Jerusalem for the Passover. My husband’s family lived here and we often made the trip to spend the holy days with them. Although many of those visits meld together in my mind, this time was one I will remember all my life. I can hardly forget it. I think of it – of him – every time I notice the veil that I never wear anymore.
I had been out running some errands when I heard a loud commotion several streets over from where I was walking. My husband was always telling me to mind my own business when I went out in Jerusalem – to do my shopping and whatever other tasks I had and to come directly back to the home of his family. But my curiosity got the better of me, as it always does, especially when we are in the big city.
I made my way to where the crowds were gathering on both sides of the roadway. I pushed my way up so as to get a glimpse of what they were all looking at. First I saw guards clearing the path through. Behind them, the first thing I saw was a wooden cross, being carried slowly and precariously by someone. I couldn’t see him at first. But from the way that cross was weaving and jerking, the person was none too strong.
Then I saw him, and I recognized him. I had heard Jesus teaching before; he had passed through our home town on several occasions. I never paid too much attention to him – I certainly never thought of leaving my home to follow him the way some people I know did, but he had seemed like a good and kind man. I never would have guessed he was a criminal, but there he was, carrying a cross, clearly on his way to be crucified.
Oh, and you should have seen him. It made my heart break. He was bruised and bleeding all over and on top of his head was a branch of thorns twisted into an ugly replica of a crown. I could see where tips of the thorns dug into his flesh. From the pain I experienced when a thorn bit into my finger, I could only imagine how excruciating the pain was.
Tears sprang to my eyes as I watched him move past. Whatever this man had done, he didn’t deserve this. Every move he made was labored and I could see his suffering. And I could hear the jeering of the guards as they prodded him along. Some were clearly enjoying adding to his pain with jabs of their spears. I watched as long as I could, but could not tolerate standing there and just looking at him. In a burse of anguish, I pulled my veil from my head even as I pushed my way through the crowds.
He hadn’t been looking at me, but as I got through the crowd and neared him, he turned his face toward me. I rushed forward and wiped the blood from his face with my veil. I’m not sure where the words came from, but as I wiped his face I said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Forgive them. Forgive us.”
Our eyes locked and I felt in his gaze no anger, no judgment – only love. Love, and his pain. I knew my small act could not do much to ease that pain, but still I stayed with him, wanting him to know he wasn’t alone. As I continued to look into his eyes, I used parts of my veil to wipe blood wherever I saw it. And that is what I did until one guard grabbed my arm and pushed me away and another pushed Jesus forward.
After he was gone, I looked at my veil. It was the same veil, but it was different. I still pull it out and look at it from time to time. (I never could bring myself to wash it. I look at it and it reminds me of him…and what I now know about him.