By Retta Blaney
Like many a dutiful spouse, Pilate’s wife moved for the sake of her husband, but not happily: “I wasn’t thrilled about uprooting the entire household and moving to some place I’d never heard of. After all, Judea isn’t exactly a household word in Rome. But Pontius was elated. It was his first important posting, and he saw it as the first step to bigger and better things.”
How Mrs. Pilate really felt we don’t know, since she is little more than a one-liner of biblical history. But to Katie Sherrod, the author who brought her to life in Women of the Passion: A Journey to the Cross, her concerns are all too real. In the book, women become the narrators of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
As Sherrod thought about them, she felt their presence as if “they were standing behind me at my shoulder urging me to write.” When she would consider a station, she could almost hear a voice saying, “Here I am. It’s me.” She says it was the most powerful writing experience in a 30-year career.
“I’m really reluctant to say I wrote it,” she said. “The women wrote it.” Sherrod, an independent writer, producer, and commentator, intended the stories in her book to be read aloud, but lately they have found their way into the Stations of the Cross with women, and occasionally men, donning veils to tell the stories of the women behind Jesus’ Passion. This past Lent, composer Ana Hernandez created music for the performance at Sherrod’s church, St. Luke’s in the Meadow, in Fort Worth. Sherrod said men who have put themselves in the women’s places have been touched.
“I’ve had men say it was the most meaningful thing they’ve ever done, that it opened the Passion for them in a way that they had never experienced.”
In a telephone interview from her home, Sherrod said the idea of letting the women speak came to her in 1996 while she was preparing Lenten retreats for Episcopal congregations in her city and Dallas.
Sherrod wanted to empower women in the Diocese of Fort Worth and feed “that hunger women had here to hear women’s voices in the church.”
“Of course we all have ministries, whether ordained or not,” she said. “The church is not in control of this, not really. God is.”
Growing up Roman Catholic in west Texas, Sherrod found the Stations could become rote, so she discerned a way to bring them to life and offer healing for those women of the diocese who felt ignored. Writing in the first person, she would present the stories from the perspective of the women whose lives had been changed all those centuries ago.
“They wouldn’t have been cured by Jesus and then say, Thanks, see you later. They probably would have been hanging out with him and become followers.”
She imagined what they would have thought. Having been to Israel several times, she envisioned the city going on around them with people stopping to stare as a criminal was paraded through the streets with his followers behind him.
“They wouldn’t have left his mother, and we know she was there.” While she wrote the stories in 1996, she did not publish them as a 43-page book until 2006, in response to requests from the many people who had heard them across the years. To ensure performance accessibility, she grants free one-time copying privileges. The book is available through Amazon.
While little is known about Pilate’s wife, other women in the book are more familiar, such as the Marys. But Sherrod presents one of these, Jesus’ mother, with an anger we do not read about in the gospels. This Mary shocks some people, especially when, after touching the face of her son, she licks the blood from her hand.
“This station often makes men uncomfortable,” Sherrod said. “Of course that is what a mother would do. Women are more accustomed to blood than men are.”
She thinks such vivid portrayals might have been behind the rejections she received from the few publishers she approached. But Sherrod believed she could neither ignore nor sugarcoat what she heard from Mary. After writing about Jesus being placed into Mary’s arms, Sherrod was in tears. Her husband, the Rev. Gayland Pool, a retired Episcopal priest, asked her if she was all right.
“I said, ‘I am, but Mary’s not.’ I was totally unprepared for Mary’s rage, but when you think about it, of course she was enraged.”
Women of the Passion is used mostly in Episcopal churches, Sherrod says, although it has also been read in Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian, and United Church of Christ congregations. Her two most powerful experiences of its interpretation were with a group of women in their 70s, 80s, and beyond who presented it as if they were reminiscing about their lives and with a group of teenagers, since many of the women in Scripture would not have been far beyond their teen years.
This summer the Rev. Mary Janda, rector of St. Stephen’s Church in West Valley City, Utah, presented two workshops on Women of the Passion at the triennial meeting of Episcopal Church Women in Salt Lake City.
Sherrod compares her storytelling method to midrash, the Jewish tradition of interpreting Scripture.
As she was preparing the stories, she read some to her husband but did not seek any biblical scholars for direction. Instead she relied on her impressions from visits to Israel and the deep grounding in the Bible that the Sisters of the Incarnate Word instilled in her at a boarding school she attended in San Antonio. She also did research into the political and cultural ways of the era. She hopes one day to see professional actresses perform the stories.
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which includes interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad and Vanessa Williams.