This thank-you note was written on the blackboard at the entrance of Cottonwood Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs during my May exhibit. It stopped me in my tracks one day as I walked in the gallery. From this note, I want to express my gratefulness to those who impressed me with comments and insights. Here is a summary of my reflections about my first professional art show of the fourteen originals from the book, “The Stations of the Cross in Atonement for Abuse and the Healing of All.”
“Fr. Ron, usually the image of Jesus is the same in each station. However, as I walked to the next station, I knew him! I saw him in my heart. You captured so many aspects of Jesus’ path to the cross” This comment came from an older woman as the opening of the show on May 7, 2021, was ending. There were only a few people in the gallery. I wish I could capture her body language as she spoke similar words to me. Her entire spirit recognized and captured the person of Jesus. As she said this, she put her hand to her heart. Tears formed in her eyes. She knew him. The art brought out her relationship with Jesus in a new way. I could not have asked for more as people walked around the room praying these images. For the Catholics who viewed these Stations, their hearts and souls were familiar with the handmade crosses that topped each image. Many people are familiar with how the images were displayed as prayer. They were used to walking the prayer of Jesus’ passion. As she held her hand to her chest, her complete body understood the pain of abuse and the path to Jesus’ death. Faith was revealed deeply from this exhibit, in ways I am still pondering from people’s comments.
“Fr. Ron, you said you allowed the images to emerge in each station. Yet, you traced the handprints in most of them. Could this be that children want to be perfect? And this perfection was a way to hide the abuse. They desired to touch the mystery, yet only in a way a child can without being overwhelmed.” I thought this was incredibly insightful. I used the handprint as a tag, or a badge on the images. The handprints are a visual way to control the chaos, to allow access to children and the child within each of us to enter the overwhelming reality of Jesus’ death and the unspeakable nature of much of the abuse. The handprints tame the chaos. They put innocence in the art, which is both negative and positive. This person really captured the meaning of the handprint and her insight moved beyond my intention. I loved her ability to take this art seriously. The woman who suggested this knows family suffering. These were the kind of comments that filled the first evening of the show and the parish gathering on May 23. People took this exhibit seriously. It was far deeper than a simple show of illustrations in a book. Faith and real-life issues brought about much discussion.
“Fr. Ron, you said that chaos is an important character in the story. As I view all of them, the chaos seems to diminish toward the last images. Why” This is a key observation and question. I had never viewed the art as an entire series until seeing it at Cottonwood. First, as I examine this question, I see the surrender of Jesus in the last few images. I see how his face and body surrender to death, as if he knows that in the end, all will be well. I want to hold on to that. There is another aspect of this for me. Perhaps I grew more afraid the closer I got to the death. Perhaps, I did not want to face Jesus’ death and the horrific abuse of children the closer I got to the image of death and burial, so I started to control the images again. I think this is only a human reaction, one which is brought out in this incredibly insightful question.
“Fr. Ron, it is good to be in a room that admits harm was done. We need to see the reality of lament by the church beyond the boundaries of church walls.” This comment came from a young person. He names the reality that the Church does not want to admit sin and crime. This version of the Stations of the Cross is the first resource available to help communities pray through the issues of abuse. Our congregations need to hear that harm was done to families. We must cease the generational abuse that is past down to us in silence.
“Fr. Ron, I was abused as a child…” I heard this statement many times during the month of May. In the center of a crowded room surrounded by the paintings, I heard this from parishioners and strangers. The Stations, the art, the topic of abuse, all came together to provide a safe place for people to examine their own lives. Our families deserve such honesty. Many people commented to me that the exhibit was the first time they saw the combination of faith, provocative art, and the naming of abuse. I continue to pray for them and for all people who remain silent about the past. We all have much work to do, to name our experiences, and to help change the stigma of emotional and sexual abuse in our church and society.
These were a few conversations that opened me to the ongoing reality of connecting faith to the reality of life. There were dozens of times during the month of May that surprised me, brought me to tears, and revealed to me the beauty of faith in so many people. I want to thank benefactors and friends who worked so hard to make this exhibit possible.