Lenten traditions began with great-grandparents

I’m lucky to have many memories with my great-grandparents. They were the ones to pick us up from school, up until high school. They invented games for us to play, always had hidden surprises in the house and gave us a model for living a faithful life and trusting in God. My favorite image of my great-grandfather is his church attire: always in a suit, with a tie, his nice belt buckle and a fedora.

For the longest time, I associated the smell of church candles and incense with my great-grandparents. And, perhaps, it is because so many of my memories are bound up with Catholic traditions.

This year, with the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day occurring in the same season as Lent, I was reminded of two traditions. My great-grandparents constructed their own St. Joseph’s Altar in the carport of their house. I remember class field trips to Mama and PawPaw’s, and the goody bags of Italian cookies and breads given out. I’m obviously biased, but no other St. Joseph’s Altar has ever come close.

The statue of St. Joseph was quite large and now sits upstairs at my parent’s home, in my brother’s bedroom. My mother would often tell stories of the months of preparation that went into the altar. Not only the cooking and baking, but the construction of the altar. What I remember is the unavailability of the porch swing. For what seemed like a very long time, the porch was out of bounds.

But the payoff was worth it. To this day, whenever I visit a St. Joseph’s Altar, I compare it in my head to the fuzzy memories of my childhood. Only recently, in the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis, have I experienced cookies and breads that have come close in comparison.

The second tradition I remember is the attendance at the Stations of the Cross. I can never remember all of the churches, but I remember the sense of pilgrimage and devotion. In particular, I remember the Stations of the Cross at St. Ann’s Shrine. Climbing the stairs, pausing at each station – that’s the one that has always stood out to me.

As an adult, I can’t remember the last time I attended a Stations of the Cross on my own, willingly. Coming home from college for Easter, I remember dreading attendance on the levee. It had nothing to do with the devotion. It had to do with the pollen.

Easter, for me, has always been miserable because of allergies. Walking on the levee, reenacting the Stations of the Cross, I could imagine the pollen settling on me and the start of the itchy, watery eyes.

Of course, what I’ve missed is the point of the stations.

As a child, I’m sure I complained. Prayerful devotion and meditation was always difficult for me. My mind would wander – as it still does. But I feel as though I’ve gotten better at the kind of quiet, prayerful stillness that the Stations demand. They are, after all, a reliving of the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Sorrows. As we walk or spiritually encounter each of the stations, we join Jesus on the way to the cross. We watch and experience, just as Mary did, our savior and her son, stumble toward his death – his sacrifice for us.

This year, however, I’ve made a promise to myself.

I teach at a Jesuit school and have Good Friday off. In honor of my great-grandparents, I’ll return to the Stations of the Cross to remember the Way of Sorrows, but also to recall the fast-fading memories of family tradition.

Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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