The Easter Triduum, When Time Stands Still

During our Good Friday liturgy this year, one of our priests commented that a parishioner once said to him, “In the Triduum, it’s as if time stands still.” This is true. The Three Days — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Resurrection — have been venerated by Christians for 2,000 years as the holiest time of the year. Appropriately, the feel of the liturgies during the Triduum is different from any other. The unity of these Three Days, and thus the “time standing still” character of them, is reinforced by the fact that in Catholicism, the liturgies are treated symbolically as one extended event from the opening of the Holy Thursday Mass to the close of the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of this, there is no formal dismissal at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which ends with Jesus waiting for his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there is not the usual beginning or any dismissal in the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death; and there is certainly not the usual beginning of Mass at the opening of the Easter Vigil. At the conclusion of the Vigil, we finally have again the formal dismissal. Only with this does the Triduum end and time moves forward again. At the Easter Sunday Masses the next day, the Church returns to the normal format.

Each of the Triduum liturgies has its own unique character and purpose. At the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the sign of his eternal presence with his people on this Earth; and we re-enact his washing of the disciples’ feet, the sign-act of his commandment for humble service of others. This is the refrain of the hymn that we sing during the washing of feet at our church: “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant… I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet… This is my commandment, to love as I have loved you… Kneel to wash each other’s feet, as I have done for you.”

It’s almost impossible for a self-aware person to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy without feeling a recognition of all the ways that we do not love as Jesus loves us, all the ways that we resist the idea of humble service or even humility in general, all the ways that we resist the idea of washing another’s feet even metaphorically. Our overly-developed sense of individualism and our self-centeredness so often get in the way. But Jesus knew that, and that is why he gave us this sign-act as an example for us to follow, and we remind ourselves of it at this time each year. If the incarnate God who has emptied himself out as a fellow human being can kneel to wash his followers’ feet — a servant’s job — why can’t we try a little harder to do so for one another?

The Good Friday liturgy, of course, is characterized most by its solemn nature. The altar is bare; the Tabernacle is empty; the suffering and death of Jesus are read aloud; we all come forward to kiss a wooden cross; there is no eucharistic consecration (Communion is taken from the many hosts that were consecrated the night before on Holy Thursday); and at the end of the liturgy, everyone leaves in solemn silence. We are mourning, and we are waiting now, for the Resurrection. Even amidst the mourning and the heaviness, we who are gathered have a joyful advantage the very first disciples did not yet have: we know already that there is a Resurrection.

This brings me to the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. Yet I really don’t have adequate words to describe the Vigil. As a kid and a young adult, I heard other people talk about how magnificent, how rich in ancient symbolism, and how moving it is. But, having always gone to Easter Sunday liturgies (which are wonderful too), I had never experienced the Vigil myself until two years ago, when my husband became Catholic and had his Confirmation at the Vigil, which is the worldwide custom for adults joining the Church. It was the first for both of us, and now even our 8-year-old daughter exclaims, “You know, the Easter Vigil really is addicting!”

You can feel the anticipation start to build when you first sit down in the dark church, holding your unlit candle and waiting. You know it has begun when the priest and the altar servers, standing in the center of the church, ignite a pillar of fire in an iron stand, light the Paschal Candle from it, and begin speaking of him who is the Alpha and Omega. From that fire the altar servers light their candles and share their flame with the first person in each pew, who lights their own candle and passes the flame until everyone in that pew — and eventually the entire church — is holding a lit candle. There are no other lights on in the church when now a solo cantor begins the Exsultet, a 10-minute-long a cappella chant recounting why we should rejoice in God’s eternal love for us on this holy night, when God revealed the ultimate impermanence of sin, suffering and death — and the ultimate promise of redemption and eternal life — with the Resurrection of his Son.

Through several Old Testament readings, beginning with Creation and going through the Exodus and finally the prophets, we arrive at the New Testament still brandishing our lit candles in an otherwise dark church. Then we know we’ve all arrived at something big when suddenly the lights are thrown on, the Gloria is sung to the accompaniment of everyone ringing bells, and (at our parish, at least) a liturgical dancer ushers in the reading of the Gospel. Now comes what is for many the most special stretch of the Vigil. This is the full reception into the Church of catechumens (unbaptized adults or older children, who will now be baptized) and candidates (adults or older children who don’t need to be baptized but are joining the Church from other Christian denominations; sometimes there are also “cradle Catholics” who simply never had their Confirmation).

This leads to a rather extraordinary time of the night. It’s during this part of the Vigil that everyone forms two lines and comes forward to the baptismal fountain. When we arrive, we reach into its running waters (one of the many benefits of electrical power!) and cross ourselves with the water in memory of our own baptism and its lifelong call to the continual journey of personal holiness. This, for me, is one of the most moving parts of the night. In our parish, we approach the fountain to the musical setting of “Come to the Water,” which everyone can join the cantor in singing. There is nothing quite like being one of literally hundreds of people all walking forward together to bless ourselves with the same water, bolstered with such powerful and inspiring music as we do it. Sitting in our pew after my husband, daughter, and I have returned from the fountain, just watching the dozens of adults and children continue to file past us, all heading for the same water, to remember the same baptism by which we all were baptized into Christ, is an experience that is impossible to encapsulate in words. It is one Christ, one God, one baptism, and in coming to the water of baptism we present ourselves to God, our ultimate Source. And we come to Christ, whose Resurrection we are there to honor and proclaim.

The spiritual journey of Lent and the Easter Triduum that concludes it are over for another year. But the season of Easter lasts a glorious fifty days, ending in Pentecost. Before we know it, we will be in Advent again, awaiting Jesus’ birth into the world at Christmas. Not too long after that, Lent will begin again. The rhythm will continue, a foretaste, we’re told, of the feast to come.

© 2015 Elizabeth Keck

A Community of the Imperfect

many candles

Yesterday I read this article from America Magazine, titled “A Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an Imperfect Church,” and I was touched by its insights. The writer, Leonard J. DeLorenzo, reflects on how the church can simultaneously hold so many sins and failures, and yet also be the life-giving source of healing, joy, sustenance, and communion that so many of its members know and feel it to be. Musing over this perhaps counterintuitive reality, DeLorenzo writes:

The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.

What Congar and others rediscovered at the [Vatican II] council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be.

That is often what strikes me each week when I go with my husband and our daughter to Mass. Sitting in our pew after receiving Communion, I watch all the rest of the people approaching the Eucharist, lining up together, advancing slowly forward together to receive the same Body of Christ, each one together participating in a worldwide communion of 1.2 billion Catholics — and a broader communion with another billion non-Catholic Christians — found to varying degrees in every corner of the globe in thousands of different cultural settings. And I think to myself as I watch them that, in the words of St. Paul, each one of these is a member of Christ’s mystical Body; each one is precious; each one is equally important; each one is sinful in his or her own ways, and each penitent one is lovingly redeemed. We are a vast yet intimate community of one body having many parts, sharing in the wounded-and-risen Body of our common Lord. In the words of a favorite hymn of ours: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone…”

We do not stand alone — even though our communion is imperfect and consists of very flawed people. It’s impossible to be fully in relationship with Christ without also being in relationship with the rest of his flock. While each member of the church has his or her own individual relationship with Christ, Christianity isn’t a religion for individualists preferring to remain apart from the community of Christ’s people (as Pope Francis has reminded us on many occasions). Christianity is in fact a deeply communal religion that calls its members not to a purely solitary spiritual journey of individualistic isolation, but rather to a spiritual life lived as a vital part of Christ’s earthly Body-in-community. This Body-in-community is the whole church.

The notion of real community often doesn’t rank very highly in our individualized Western culture, which can make it seem easy to think that the church as a community is irrelevant, or at least unimportant, to a person’s active living practice of his or her faith. But this would be a very incomplete understanding of what Christianity, as a relational religion, truly is. The church community, comprised of ordinary folk, certainly isn’t a perfect society in either its human leadership or its laypeople. It will always bear sins and failures within itself, some very grievous. It is us in all of our humanity: the beauty and the ugliness are both there. More importantly, the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit is always there — in that communal body, in the sacraments, in togetherness — just as his grace also dwells in the individual prayerful heart. The grace is always there, always offered to us, the flood of light to warm our spirits, to comfort us and beckon us to walk toward it, to let it guide us on our way.

I began to experience an awareness of the church’s communal wholeness in a new way when I recently signed up to be a eucharistic minister (one of the people who offers either the eucharistic bread or wine to those coming for Communion). It happened that the very first person to whom I ever gave Communion was my husband, who himself chose to become Catholic two years ago, followed by our daughter, who had her First Communion almost one year ago. There I was, holding the chalice of wine, looking into their faces and hearing myself say to them, “the Blood of Christ,” as I gave them the cup. (Our daughter, who is 8, always gives me a big hug right after I give her Communion before she heads back to the pew, which makes it that much sweeter!). As each person after them approached me, I felt more and more a sense of humility; of how, despite my flaws, I am a part of this body of equals before God, and how awed I felt to be able to serve that body-of-many-parts in this very modest way. Each time that I’ve served as a eucharistic minister since then, I have experienced this sense of humility and awe. There’s something very special going on in that body, imperfect though we all are.

In a somewhat related way, all of this reminds me of what Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have repeatedly said about what Christianity is: Christianity can’t be defined as primarily a system of ethics and morals, as though it were simply a kind of philosophical humanism. Christianity is primarily a relationship with a divine Person, from which these things then flow. It’s a relationship with a God who emptied Godself to become enfleshed as a human born of a woman, to become a Person both fully human and fully divine; this Person suffered torture, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven in his luminous, resurrected physical body — as witnessed by many women and men who would later go to their deaths for refusing to say this did not happen. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians around the year 50 (and scholars say he was likely quoting an even earlier source), this divine Person demonstrated the divine love for Creation in the most self-emptying of ways, which in some mysterious way also brought about our own redemption and salvation.

DeLorenzo reflects on the church community as Christ’s ongoing earthly instrument in this:

And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.

This sinner thanks God for that!

 © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

The Rhythm of the Hours

Glenstal Book of Prayer

A popular, pared-down version of the Liturgy of the Hours, very good for busy laypeople. Saint Nicholas graces the cover.

Recently, my husband and I went on a weekend retreat to a Benedictine abbey a mere 23 minutes from our home. It was an undirected retreat, meaning that our time was ours to structure as we saw fit. We went on a lot of very peaceful and renewing walks, spent time in the chapels, had a nap or two, did some reading and talking, and enjoyed partaking of the meals that the monks kindly provided for us in the guest dining room. We enjoyed their friendly warmth and good humor, too. The Benedictine order sees hospitality to all comers as central to its mission, taking its cue from the fifth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, which states that “guests are never lacking in a monastery.” According to the Rule, the monks or nuns consider that they are hosting Christ when they host their guests.

But probably the most surprising thing that happened during our retreat was how endeared we both became to the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office or Breviary). Before that weekend, we had basically zero experience of the Hours, even though the Hours are a form of Christian prayer that is emphatically not reserved just to clergy or consecrated religious — though these folks have become most often associated with it. But laypeople are also encouraged to pray the Hours, in private and to whatever extent they are able in the circumstances of their days.

What are they? Well, the Hours are organized prayers that consist largely of psalms, juxtaposed with other prayers that have come down to us over the centuries from the early tradition of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is observed (under varying names) by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and sometimes Lutheran traditions. The full Liturgy contains 7 daily prayer times, each ranging in length but none exceeding 20 minutes or so; several of them are a good deal less. As a layperson, you can choose to do one or all of them. Each day has different psalms and prayers — variety is the spice of life, after all. Two of the daily prayer times are singled out as the most important of the day. These are the morning and evening prayers, also referred to as lauds and vespers, and are considered the “major” hours; they represent praise and thanksgiving. There are other, shorter prayer times for the mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon (terce, sext, and nones); these are known as the “minor” hours. Finally before bed, there is night prayer, called compline. Perhaps the Liturgy of the Hours, in concept, is similar to the well-known Muslim practice of prayer five times a day. Pope Francis has said that he “loves praying the breviary” each day.

So what did my husband and I find so special about these prayers that I am sitting here at the end of a busy day, gushing about them on the internet? I’ll try to explain. When we were staying at the abbey, a large old-fashioned bell would ring precisely ten minutes before each of the Hours that that community observed (they didn’t observe the minor hours of terce and nones, or at least not all together in the church; they may have done so individually on their own time). Hearing that bell and going to the sacred space of prayer time — literally and metaphorically — became such a steady, gentle rhythm in our short time there that it was the thing we missed the most when we left. We didn’t plan for that, either. When we arrived, we figured maybe we’d go to a couple of prayer times. But after the first one, we just kept on coming back like we couldn’t get enough. When we first arrived, one of the other visitors said to us, “There’s a rhythm to the life here. It really grows on you.” It didn’t take very long for us to understand what she meant. There is a refuge in the prayers, a gentle communion with the divine that keeps you wanting more.

And now, here in our home? After a few weeks without the Liturgy of the Hours, we picked up over the weekend a copy of The Glenstal Book of Prayer: A Benedictine Prayer Book. This wonderful little book out of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland became a bestseller, and is now the source for our simplified Liturgy of the Hours in our lives. My husband can do one or two of the Hours each day, usually vespers and/or compline; due to my more flexible schedule I can do more on most days if I choose. The point is that these prayers are not a requirement or some obligation: they are a great and marvelous opportunity to be entered into freely. As the Glenstal Book of Prayer says in its introduction:

Prayer is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the human heart through which God reaches out and embraces human beings. It is a duet of love in which the action of the Spirit inspires and sustains us in the darkness of faith. It is an inward call from Christ who dwells within the depths of the human soul, and who longs to be known and loved there. It is the exciting adventure of the search for God’s presence and the endless joy of rejoicing in it when it is found. It is the growing perception of the infinitely gracious, infinitely merciful Source, the Father who reveals the beauty of his face to the inner eye of the heart and the sweetness of his voice to the inner ear attuned to listen.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

A Response Boston Catholics Can Be Proud Of

Crowd inside Saint Paul Cathedral Boston

Catholics and their supporters gather in St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowds process from MIT chapel to St. Paul's Cathedral

Crowds walk in Eucharistic Procession from MIT chapel to St. Paul’s Church. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowd in St. Paul's spilling out the door

Crowd in St. Paul’s spilling out the door. Photo by Boston Globe.

As many are aware from coverage in the local and national news, a satanic “black mass” was to be performed in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall on the night of May 12, 2014, sponsored by a student “cultural awareness club” from the Harvard Extension School. The black mass was to have been performed by members of The Satanic Temple of New York. As was extensively reported throughout the controversy leading up to the event, the main purpose of a so-called black mass is to parody and denigrate the Catholic Mass, which is the most sacred rite in Catholicism and beloved worship liturgy for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

Although the satanists insist they are atheists and do not believe in an actual devil or in any supernatural being, the black mass itself is designed to “invert” and mock the Catholic Mass through the use of satirized similar language, parody vestments and, apparently, the desecration of a Eucharist (a consecrated host). As many people know, the belief that the consecrated Eucharist contains the Real Presence of Christ — the Body of Christ in reality, not in symbol — is a central pillar of Catholic faith. Therefore, even as The Satanic Temple eventually changed their plans about “obtaining” (stealing?) a consecrated Eucharist to use during the black mass and claimed they would use an unconsecrated host, the impending event remained a source of visceral offense for Catholics of many stripes.

But it was also clearly an offense for a great many people of goodwill who supported their Catholic brothers and sisters. Some pointed out that for an event that purported to be about “cultural awareness,” not much “awareness” was shown by the organizers. The black mass would have been no different from any similar performance denigrating a Jewish Shabbat, or a Muslim or Buddhist prayer service, or a Native American sacred ritual. People should renounce any such denigration as uncivil, disrespectful, and hurtful to our human community. At the last minute, following an enormous yet non-violent outcry which evidently included a petition with 60,000 signatures, the student club canceled the event about an hour before it was due to take place.

Nevertheless, my purpose in writing this post is not to recap what happened. My main point is to express my happiness with, and my admiration for, the community’s response to the black mass. The Archdiocese of Boston, led by Archbishop Séan O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap, did not make any call for angry protest marches or fist-pumping. Instead, the archdiocese arranged to have a Eucharistic procession starting at the MIT chapel and ending at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Harvard Square, where participants would take part in a quiet prayer service to honor Christ, the Eucharist, and to pray for those involved in the black mass. The Catholic Church, being full of human beings, will never be perfect, and it is often painfully not-perfect. But I have to say that Archbishop O’Malley and the Catholic community of Boston hit this one out of the park. The Catholic response was not to start fires, not to throw bottles or Molotov cocktails or even pies; the response was not to condemn any person (only the event itself); the response was not to shout angry slogans or incite riots or damage property. Not a single stone was thrown.

Instead, Catholics and other people of goodwill walked peacefully behind a monstrance containing the Eucharist; they walked from one place to another. When they arrived at their destination, they were over a thousand strong and could not all fit in the cathedral. It was standing room only. And it was quiet and peaceful. These people perfectly exemplified Christ’s call to non-violence and humble dignity, and in doing so they manifested the kingdom of God here in this place. They embodied Christ’s exhortation to turn the other cheek, which does not mean lying down as a doormat, but rather standing in peaceful, redirected resistance. It seems to me that last night’s procession and Eucharistic prayer service was a triumph of the Holy Spirit.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

 

“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

This year my daughter is preparing for her First Communion at our Catholic church. Before taking part in the Eucharist, though, she has just celebrated her first Reconciliation, or confession. Naturally, my husband, daughter, and I have spent a lot of time the last few months talking about this sacrament, so now feels like the perfect time to put forth a few reflections on what I think it all means.

In Catholic theology, each sacrament constitutes a genuine — not merely a symbolic — encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacraments are believed to impart real divine grace within the person who is participating (provided he or she is doing so with a “willing disposition,” which basically means free will and a heart open to receiving God’s grace). It isn’t magic or some kind of hocus-pocus. The theology is that if the person is internally disposed to cooperate with God’s grace — because God doesn’t force Godself upon us — then the grace received will take root and grow within that person. If that grace continues to be nourished with prayer and action, its positive effects on the person will become more and more clear to that person and the outside world.

So I’m beginning to put myself to sleep with all this theologizing. The real question is, does it work? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Well, in my experience it does work. But I can also say without fear of exaggeration that after my daughter took part in Reconciliation, I noticed a genuine difference in her that lasted for about a week afterward. I’d like to call it a grace bump, if that doesn’t sound too silly. She’s a kind, good girl to begin with, but still I noticed a consistently better attitude from her, more patience, more cooperation. There was a positive effect.

So what about this sacrament in particular? It’s relatively easy to see how partaking in the Eucharist could bring one into encounter with Christ. But with Reconciliation, we don’t take the Body of Christ into ourselves. Instead, we meet in particular with Christ as Shepherd. My daughter’s religious education program emphasized for the kids how Jesus is always their shepherd, who is willing to walk about the entire pasture to find them and to make them safe with him. They also emphasized the story of the prodigal son. In this story, the human father who unconditionally welcomes back his contrite son stands for God the Creator who waits to welcome us back with open arms as soon as we turn to meet him.

But since God’s forgiveness of sins isn’t conditioned on the sacrament of confession (especially where common everyday sins are concerned), why do we go? To put it simply, we go because it feels good. Even my daughter, with only seven little years under her belt, understood and experienced that with her first participation. It feels good because we are unburdening the weight of our negative thoughts and actions; we are surrendering them to God through Christ and then hearing the priest’s advice and assurance of God’s forgiveness.

This is spiritually and psychologically cleansing. In fact, it’s downright liberating. It’s peace-inducing in a major way, because you know that you’ve just taken ownership of your shortcomings, with no denial or excuses. You’ve simply admitted it: yep, I could have done better for others, I could have thought better of others, and hearing of God’s forgiveness sure makes me feel good right now.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave his apostles the ability to absolve sins — to pronounce them forgiven on Jesus’ behalf. He said that “the sins you release are released, and the sins you retain are retained.” I used to wonder why he specified this. Then I thought of a couple of answers a little while ago. I can’t claim they’re the answers, but to me at least, they make sense. So here’s the first one. Sometimes we can tell someone we’re sorry, but they might not want to forgive. That’s between them and God, but what Reconciliation does is release the contrite person from the sin he or she is genuinely sorry for — whether or not the other person is willing to release them. Christ has released them.

There are other occasions, too — times when it’s impractical to ask the other person for forgiveness. For example, maybe I wasn’t having my finest hour one day, and I indulged some uncharitable thoughts about someone. Maybe I even muttered some nasty things about them privately. Sure, I felt like they were making me irritated, but it isn’t as if they ran over my dog and then laughed about it. I probably could have entertained fewer nasty or judgmental thoughts if I’d really wanted to. In such a situation, it isn’t really practical to walk up to someone and announce, “Hi, I just wanted you to know that yesterday I was thinking that you’re a real jerk, but I’m sorry about that so please forgive me.” It’s safe to say that would fall into the category of making things worse rather than better. Best to save it for the Reconciliation Room, if you ask me.

To pronounce the Lord’s “release”, the priest, acting in his capacity as Christ’s minister, repeats the words of absolution that millions of people have heard, and will continue to hear, across the globe, day in and day out, in dozens of different languages:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Rosary Mantra and the Saint Bodhisattvas

In Buddhism, mantras are words or groups of words believed capable of creating transformation. They are repeated many times with the assistance of prayer beads, which serve to keep track of the repetitions so that the person saying the mantras can meditate upon them more easily, rather than allocate mental space to counting. Prayer beads are used for similar purposes in many of the world’s religions.

In the Catholic faith, the rosary is not unlike a mantra, and praying the rosary also involves prayer beads to assist the person praying. The rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by one Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), three Hail Marys, one Glory Be, and one Lord’s Prayer. After this initial part of the rosary comes the main portion, known as the “five decades” of the rosary. This consists of ten Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and a Lord’s Prayer. That set is prayed five times, which completes the rosary. When praying the rosary, a person may meditate upon what are known as the Mysteries; in addition, the person may meditate upon a special intention for which he or she is praying.

The rosary, in addition to being a prayer and meditation aid, can also be a sacrifice or an offering, made on behalf of a loved one or in the service of a certain goal. A rosary can be dedicated, for example, to a loved one in particular need of help, or said on behalf of world peace. This is not unlike the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice or an offering to God, in addition to its role as the community’s worship service. In the same spiritual vein is the Catholic practice of lighting a candle for a special prayer or in memory of someone; the candle burns as an ongoing representation of the prayer before God, long after the person who lit it has left the church or indoor/outdoor shrine and returned home. If the candle is lit at home, it burns as an ongoing symbol of the prayer until blown out. Candles are also lit for this purpose in Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other religions.

I recently visited a place called St. Anne’s Shrine in Sturbridge, central Massachusetts. St. Anne’s Shrine is a 35-acre plot of land that is largely woodland, but also hosts a full church, as well as a small St. Anne chapel — in which one can light candles — attached to the church. There is also a separate votive chapel called the Hall of Saints, and a small icon museum attached to a gift shop. The 35-acre grounds are consecrated to St. Anne, mother of Mary, and 10 of these acres hold walking trails. In various places are outdoor shrines and grottoes to Mary and to Anne (as well as a few other saints), and one can walk through outdoor Stations of the Cross. In one place, at the top of a giant stone staircase, stands a life-size white cross with a bronze Christ, overlooking all. The entire area is sacred ground.
Mary of Fatima

St. Anne, as I mentioned, is remembered in tradition as the mother of Mary, and is also my spiritual namesake; at Confirmation, I chose her as a personal saint and assumed the spiritual name Anne. Her daughter Mary, Jesus’ mother, is venerated in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the Blessed Mother, the spiritual mother of us all, in accordance with Jesus’ words on the Cross to the apostle John, who stood beside Mary: “Behold, your mother.” When I visited the grounds of St. Anne’s Shrine, I felt a kind of sacred communion as I walked a very small portion of the grounds. The experience set me thinking more about saints, and who they are, and what made them who they are.

St. Anne with Mary

In another interesting confluence between the two religions, Catholic saints are not entirely unlike Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is actively on the path to enlightenment, to buddhahood, and who has the enlightenment of all sentient beings as his or her goal. A bodhisattva is not content with only reaching buddhahood by him or herself; a bodhisattva chooses to devote his life to helping others reach it too. Likewise, a saint is not content with private spiritual exercises alone, but is always involved in the betterment of the condition of their fellow human beings, through constant prayer and work with the poor, the ill, the spiritually needy, the average person, or all of the above. In fact, there are three states prior to sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, for example, are both currently Blessed, and on the way to sainthood. In terms of the way a saint-to-be lives his or her life, it is telling that so many poor people around Calcutta, India became Catholic, not because Mother Theresa ever tried to convert them (that was never the focus of her work), but because she and her sisters devoted their lives to helping them — in what was one of India’s most desperate population centers — when even their own countrymen would not.

I can’t be completely sure, in a purely intellectual sense, whether the saints (or the bodhisattvas) can hear what we ask or act upon it; whether they can hear the offerings-up of our rosaries or our mantras; whether they know when we are standing before an outdoor shrine in a woodland of God’s creation, thinking a prayer and trying just to do the best that we can. I cannot be completely sure; but the breeze that passes over my face as I stand there, on its way to places I cannot know, and the giant Crucifix that stands at the top of the staircase and embodies the God who made that breeze possible, make me want to think so.

Crucifix Staircase

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck