As I continue my trek down the holy mountain that was the Easter Triduum this year, I looked this morning for a word from Thomas Merton to guide my day. Here is what I found that may take more than the intellect to apprehend but is worth the effort nevertheless:
The great comfort is in the goodness and sweetness and nearness of all God has made, and the created ‘isness’ which makes him first of all present in us, speaking us. (The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 153)
The liturgical service on the evening of the Great Vigil of Easter is a masterpiece of ritual wherein we celebrate not only the historical event of Christ’s resurrection but, for those joined to Christ in faith, the possibility of our own transformation as well. The most obvious theme of the liturgy is from darkness into light (death to life) symbolized by a dark church transformed by the passing of the light to all participants from the new fire and celebrated in the chanting of the magnificent hymn called the Exsultet by the presider. I was struck last night by two phrases from that wonderful text that could in its entirety provide a lifetime of reflection. Both lines spoke of essential connection, the first being: Let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples! Although the response to that imperative was clearly present in the gusto of the congregation last night, the plural of the word “peoples” was not a misprint. The text was calling us to recognize our unity with all nations of the world who were singing Christ from death to life with unbridled joy! And in the joy of that recognition was also the call for us to perceive that on this truly blessed night…things of heaven were joined with those of earth and divine to the human!
Although the Paschal Mystery is still a mystery, inscrutable to the human mind, there are moments in life when we know that something has changed for us, in us. I can only hope that on this beautiful, fragile planet of ours, people of faith will come to perceive possibility in this union of spirit and cause, in time and with attention, the transformation that will truly light up the world.
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I had never read the entirety of William Blake’s poem, Augeries of Innocence, until just now but the first lines, so familiar, came to me as I sat to write about my experience of last evening – the second step on my Triduum journey. I chose to participate in a service that comes from the monks of Taize, an ecumenical community in a tiny village in France. The prayer is steeped in silence, punctuated by repetitive chants and occasional readings from Sacred Scripture or the writings of early Christianity. Having experienced and led many services in the manner of Taize, it was an easy decision for me to make that my formal prayer for Good Friday.
Blake’s poem begins: To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in your hand and eternity in an hour. Entering into a darkened church with two Sisters from my community, having greeted the music director at the door, was a fitting beginning to this hour of prayer. When I see Jan, the organist, I am always thrown back to images of him, a seven-year-old boy, practicing at the piano in his home while a group of us rolled meatballs with his Italian mother for a school fundraiser. How has he become such a virtuoso, now a man with his own grown children, in the proverbial “blink of an eye?”
We sing a repeated refrain: All you who pass this way, look at me, while Jan describes in verse the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. The music rises and falls while I alternately close my eyes and open to the images of the large wooden cross at the foot of the sanctuary and the painting of the crucifixion scene over the altar, the only lighted spot in the church. After more emotionally stunning music and a long period of silence, I watch my 82-year old friend of 45 years pull herself up out of her seat next to me to join the procession of people on their way to kiss or touch the cross. Seeing it as holy, they bend in gratitude for the willingness of Jesus to take on the sins of the world. Watching my friend struggle up the aisle, I see that same willingness. After falling three times over the past year, sustaining permanent injury to her back, she is now a witness to the power of her resolve not to give up on life. I weep for the loss of her younger self, all the while knowing that now is her inner reward.
All of the elements of this service come together in reflection on the power of what is happening to Jesus as we sing the hymn that recognizes the transformation that is afoot. O Christe Domine Jesu, O Christe Domine Jesu…we chant. My eyes travel up to the archway above the crucifixion scene where the Christ is seated in the glory of heaven, having passed through death to resurrection. “He was known to be of human estate,” Paul writes, “and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross. Because of this, God highly exalted him…” As that quotation flashed into my mind, I knew something that I had never seen as clearly, something I can only describe as the efficacy and transforming power of willingness to surrender everything for the life of the world. And in that moment, that surrender, the Jesus of history – the suffering servant – was also the Christ of my faith. Time was erased. Jan was both that young boy struggling with his musical scales and this accomplished musician, playing for God. Florence was both the dynamic high school biology teacher loved by her students and the struggling octogenarian determined to live as fully as possible in praise of God’s goodness to her.
Today is the waiting day, a day to hold the eternity of last night in my hand, reflecting on how willing I am to be transformed in response to what I now know, so that when I go tonight to re-enact the Great Vigil of Easter, I will truly be able to celebrate – with all my companion travelers – the joy and mystery of resurrection.
Last night I experienced what I have heard and said and sung for at least all of my adult life: We are the body of Christ. I entered a church already full of a great diversity of ages, nationalities and, thankfully, even races (although still in this valley we are in the majority Caucasian) where I could sense that nobody was there out of duty. We all came to enter into the Paschal Mystery that began with the “Last Supper” of Jesus with his disciples and will lead us through his death and burial into resurrection over these next three days. In welcoming all to the service, the music director instructed visitors that this was a place where everyone participated in both prayer and song – regardless of musical ability. And participate we did – from oldest to youngest – and I was struck by the ease with which everyone carried out their assigned duties. Especially notable were the children who served as acolytes and gave special assistance during the foot-washing and incensing both during the Eucharist and the procession to Gethsemane that followed. I was drawn along on the wave of devotion and feeling of family that is normative in that community and moved by the pastor’s comment during his homily that he was proud to serve at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church because it was such a caring and engaged community. It was obvious that the heart of Christ beats strongly there.
All that said, the most important facet of the experience was the quality of silence that followed the last hymn. The commentator, having explained that we were now “on watch” with Jesus at Gethsemane, called us into a silence that will last in the Church through today and until tomorrow evening at the Great Vigil of Easter. It was time, she said, for us to remain or to leave the church in silence. And that is what happened. Apart from footfalls, there was no sound heard in the hour that I remained. The silence was pervasive and profound. Whether people moved to the chapel representing the Garden of Gethsemane or stayed in the darkened church, not a sound was heard.
As I sat in that silence I became aware of an inner stillness that is rare for me. Even during my daily meditation I find my mind either racing or wandering and must keep emptying as soon as I catch the thoughts in order to come back to presence. There was none of that last night. No thought could penetrate that silence. The immensity of what we had shared of an event 2,000 years in the past collided with what had just happened in Belgium this week and there was no way to comprehend or even think about it all. I sat in utter stillness and in that state felt connected while also utterly alone. Upon reflection during my drive home, I sensed that I had touched something of what Jesus knew and felt in the darkness of that garden. This morning it expands to a sense of the immensity of pain that victims of violence and catastrophe around the world are feeling as I write. And it has only just begun…
With the words I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you (1COR 11:23) St. Paul begins the recounting of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. Tonight is one of the few times when many Christian Churches have special services in the evening as we begin the “high holy days” that tell the stories of what is called for many our “salvation history.” All the stories are known to us and by now many of the faithful could rattle off the order of the services, the prayers and some of the hymns that are as familiar to us as our own names (even – for those who are old enough – the Latin lyrics!). There is a special comfort in these rituals that call us back – through over 2000 years of history – to events whose essence has been preserved regardless of dogmatic accretions, religious wars or heresies. Tonight it is just about Jesus and his desire to be with his friends, this desire heightened by his sense of the danger that is building around him. John’s gospel says that he loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end. (JN 13) In an effort to show them this love while they were at supper, Jesus began to wash their feet, a startling thing for them as it was always the task of servant rather than one called “Master”. A startling thing indeed for us to hear, for Jesus was clear that the tradition was changing. Now we are all called to do the same for everyone we meet. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. “Stoop in humility to those who need a hand, a friend, a favor, a great sacrifice from you.” Wherever we see a need we must be ready to answer – as he was.
Tonight in the Catholic Church that I attend, it will be the priest who becomes the servant of all and actually washes feet. Later we will re-enact the walk to the Garden of Gethsemane, the scene of disappointment where the disciples with whom Jesus had just shared so intimately fell asleep while he was praying to be spared what was to be his fate. There will be people, myself among them, who will stay after the service to ponder the events that have taken place and the anticipation of what is to come. It will be late by then. How long will I be able to stay awake? How far will my mind wander? Will anything be changed in me by my participation in this ritual of remembrance? I hope so…as I always do.
In the face of all that has happened in the world in the last 24 hours of terror and political distress, just one sentence from Thomas Merton – out of much that he says to me this morning – suffices to focus my energy and resolve for the inner and outer tasks of this new day.
The real job is to lay the groundwork for a deep change of heart on the part of the whole nation so that one day it can really go through the metanoia we need for a peaceful world. (The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 92)
In the many years since Merton wrote these words, technology has brought us in touch nearly instantaneously to the whole world. As a result we must not only see and contribute to the groundwork of peace in our own country but also to soften our hearts for that goal of a peaceful world in more informed, expansive and conscious ways than were possible in Merton’s day. Welcoming those who live across the street and across the world is incumbent upon us in our thoughts, our discourse and our lives of prayer if true peace is to be achieved.
In my first waking moments this morning I was greeted, as I presume most of us were, with the news of horrific terror attacks in Belgium. It is hard to imagine the fear generated at the airport and in the subways there – as well as all around that country and Europe this morning. The news is sketchy but the video feed is clear; we live in dangerous times. On this Tuesday of Holy Week, I suggest a gathering of prayerful energy – for the victims of this act of gratuitous violence, for those who suffer violence the world over and for our entire world – that we will soon come to a place where good will overcome evil and peace will replace bloodshed. In essence this means a monumental change of heart which must begin with each of us. We cannot be satisfied to fight violence with violence but, on the contrary, to multiply acts of love and forgiveness in our daily lives in hopes that our efforts will bear fruit far beyond us. If this sounds counterintuitive, we have only to look to the events of this week in the gospels and follow the example of Jesus, in his moments of greatest danger, calling out to God for help. Psalm 71 seems an apt prayer for this morning. Won’t you join me in offering it for Belgium and for the world?
In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your justice rescue me and deliver me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, a stronghold to give me safety, for you are my rock and my fortress. O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked. For you are my hope, O Lord, my trust, O God, from my youth. On you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength.
anointing feet, Bethany, challenges, difficulty, Jesus, John, Lazarus, Martha, Mary, paschal mystery, psalm 27, refuge, strength, The Lord is my light and my salvation, The Sophia Center for Spirituality, walking the path of suffering
After the tumultuous events of what has come to be known to us as Palm Sunday, we learn from the Scriptures that Jesus returned to Bethany to be with his friends, Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. And why not? Here he was surrounded by care and compassion, expressed in today’s gospel (JN 12:1-11) by Mary anointing his feet with costly perfumed oil. If you have ever had a foot massage, you know how calming it can be and for Jesus it must have also felt like a renewal of strength for the path he was destined to walk. Picturing Jesus this way helps to me to remember that he was fully human and to know the importance of seeing him this way throughout this week if I am to fully participate in the Paschal Mystery, walking with him through his suffering and death – and only then into resurrection.
As my thoughts moved in that direction this morning, I was reminded of three people who are facing difficult challenges this week. Although I am confident that they will each proceed into and through the suffering that lies ahead for them, all three will need to surrender and look to God’s grace as well as support from their friends to remain steadfast in their faith. Considering the trials of these people in my own life whose circumstances differ greatly brings the reality of Christ’s suffering even closer to me. It calls me to consider as well that we are all members of Christ’s body, destined to a unity that endures and is strengthened by our consciousness of and prayer for one another. And so this morning I pray in confidence the words of Psalm 27, quoted here in two different translations. I pray these words for my three sisters in Christ and for all those walking the path of suffering today. For whom will you be praying?
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?…I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted and wait for the Lord.
God, you are for me a brilliant light. You are the one restoring me and saving all. You are the strength of life; I rest assured and strong in you. No fears, no shadows near can trouble me.