Holy Thursday

A Buffalo native takes a nostalgic
Holy Thursday pilgrimage through
West Side Churches.

Beyond the somberness there was always an air of festivity. Feet shuffled, crowding bodies pushed, but with respect and forbearance. The thick atmosphere was heavy with incense, the fragrance of lilies and melting beeswax candles. Prayers whispered from the lips of black-shrouded women, their wooden beads clacking against worn pews. 

From far into the sanctuary a droning litany of male voices chanted ” ... misere Domine, … libera nos Domine … ” 

There, almost apologetically placed at the side of the nave, was the object of adoration on an altar gleaming in white draped satin with a sun-burst of gold at its center. Within the golden center, a white host.

It was always a mild evening, it seemed. Sometimes a light April rain lent a taste of spring. Our route was mostly through narrow traffic-filled West Side streets. Our pilgrimage covered the seven churches whose names sounded like the litanies chanted within: Our Lady of Loretto, Our Lady of Lourdes, Holy Cross, Holy Angels, St. Anthony’s, St. Michael’s, St. Louis.

Our favorites were the smaller, more crowded Italian churches: St. Anthony’s, Holy Cross, Our Lady of Loretto. Here the pilgrims were most alive and fervent. At Our Lady of Lourdes the spirit was nearly the same, but it seemed to be diluted the farther we were from the Italian neighborhood. By St. Louis’ the tone was definitely reserved — or perhaps it only seemed so because what fervor there was may have been dissipated in the largeness of the place, with its vaulted arches and Gothic character. Fewer votives, less light, made the air noticeably colder both physically and emotionally.

It was supposed to be a penitential time: the statues had been draped in purple; on Good Friday, the churches would be totally stripped of decoration.

But tonight, there was an inner comfort and satisfaction that grew with the outer fatigue of repeated genuflections. We even had a kind of thrill in dipping our fingers into the barren marble of holy water fonts that had been drained dry. We didn’t realize then that they were meant to symbolize the emptying of the old spirit, the dead ways, to prepare for the flooding of new life and energy that was to come on Sunday.

Holy Thursday was the last dazzling flash before death, silence, and the more serene, stable brilliance of Resurrection.

Social Distancing

I find it fascinating how a potential disaster causes the birth of new experiences, new vocabulary, new phrases. Sheltering in place is one I mentioned in my last post about saint Rosalia, in her lifetime a hermit, and whose prayers are credited with saving the city of Palermo from the plague.

Social distancing is another new phrase we now hear frequently, one that is self-contradictory because the very heart of being social or sociable is being close to one another, not distant.

These quiet days I sit by  my front window, watching parades of folks walking their dogs, and youngsters riding their bikes in company with a parent or two. Nor can I resist taking advantage of the warm weather. Closing in on a fellow walker, we laugh as we pass each other and ask, “Do you think there’s six feet between us?”

These are good days for becoming aware and thankful for what really matters. Youngsters are continuing their studies at home, maybe even speaking now and then with their parents. Getting a hamburger via McDonald’s drive-through is a major outing. Maybe families actually play games together. Friends exchange texts, checking up on one another and performing simple but appreciated acts of service for us older folks. What might be considered a limitation is transformed into an opportunity for new discoveries, even new relationships formed as we enter quietly into our room, closing the door and communing with our inner self or maybe even with God.

Mystics (i.e. people of constant prayer) such as Saints Augustine and Angela of Foligno (13th C.), typically describe feeling the pain of separation from the One they most love. But then they are given to hear Christ’s consoling words in their heart: St. Augustine discovered that God within him was “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” A thousand years later, Franciscan Saint Angela of Foligno records Christ’s message to her:  “I am deeper within your soul than your soul is to itself. I have not kept myself at a distance.”

God’s fidelity and indwelling are constant themes throughout Scripture. Here are just a few of my favorite and most consoling passages:

  • Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. (John 14:23) 
  • Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Corinthians 13:5)
  • What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35;38-39)
  • Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:20)

I suppose one could say that while social or physical distancing is necessary to prevent ill health through contagion, spiritual closeness is essential for our soul’s health. To be spiritually one with one another is to be one with God. To be one with God is to be one with others.

Good health!

 

A Saint for Our Time

The fact that my patron saint was a hermit might explain why I feel drawn to explore that way  of life. I now have another reason for praying to her — now from the voluntary quarantine, or “Shelter in Place,” necessitated by the outbreak of the infamous corona virus.

Santa Rosalia (b. 1160) came from a noble family — perhaps even descended from Charlemagne. Instead of making an equally noble marriage, she sought a cloistered life of prayer in a monastery. She later chose even greater seclusion, living in a cave on Mount Pellegrino just outside of Palermo.

It’s difficult to know exact details about her life and how she appealed to the people around Palermo, Sicily. Catholic Family News tells us this:

As happens to various saints, Rosalia – for reasons unknown – grew to be largely forgotten. Various apparitions and cures were attributed to her aid. At the end of the 1300s, having been promised that their town would be delivered from a great pestilence, the townspeople of the area built a church in Saint Rosalia’s honor and were subsequently saved. When Palermo was affected by a plague in 1474, the city senate resolved to restore the church of Monte Pellegrino, by now in ruins. Upon the church’s restoration, the plague ceased.

Since then, Saint Rosalia, nick-named La Santuzza – “dear little Saint” – by her affectionate and devoted followers, has continued to endear herself to the people of Palermo, Sicily. Many a daughter of Italian-American immigrants has been named after her.

Santuzza’s feast day is September 4.

St Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo
Artist: Anthony van Dyck, 1624

House of Prayer

Three Lenten practices: Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting

     

While waiting for Mass to begin, I saw myself in a cathedral of the middle ages: Notre Dame de Paris, now sadly defaced by fire; Rheims, where Joan of Arc witnessed the crowning of the Dauphin and the restoration of French supremacy; Chartres, where virtually no surface remains bare but is covered with intricate sculptures of saints and holy events. I remember being taught that statues and stained glass windows were meant to teach scriptural truths to the unlettered of that era. I wondered whether today’s faithful would find these adornments either distracting or inspiring. 

King Solomon supervised the construction of a temple that would give due honor to the Lord their protector. The first Book of Kings provides details, but as early as the book of Exodus, the Israelites had completed phase one: the construction of the Ark which contained the two tablets of the Mosaic law. It was written in stone to be a permanent reminder of the agreement between God and his people: God would guide and protect his people always and his people would always obey God’s Law. The Ark was designed to be portable so that wherever the Israelites went, the precious Law would always be with them, scrupulously obeyed.Isaiah foresaw a time when the Temple would be open to all:

Many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain . . . to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  (Isaiah 56.7)

Solomon was well aware of the huge distance between God and his creatures. He stretches his hands to heaven and says:

“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less the temple which I have built?”

Despite the physical splendor of the building, the God it praises remains elusive and inscrutable: 

When the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. . ..The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud.

Indeed, a  persistent cloud blocks our understanding of God. St. Paul repeats this metaphor: We see now as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Christ’s Teachings on Prayer
In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. The prayer Jesus describes is contemplation. He invites us to seek intimacy with God by entering our private room, our temple, our heart, this private and sacred space. It is about opening our heart to God, joining God in a spirit of companionship. 

Once we have welcomed the Lord into our quiet space, what do we say, how do we pray? 

With few or even no words: “Do not babble as the pagans do.” How very different from the formal, showy, and formulaic prayer of the Pharisees!  The mindless repetition of many words, whether ours or another’s, cannot substitute for one personal word of love that comes from the heart and is directed to the Lord.

To contemplate is to enter into the quiet and intimate temple of our very being. In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The important thing is not to talk much but to love much and to do that which stirs you to love.”

 Contemplative prayer is a quiet, wordless connection with God within the temple of our heart, the God of our life. 

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? . . for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17b)

It puzzles me to hear someone say they don’t feel at home in a particular church building. And yet, maybe that’s the way God wants us to know that he is not to be found in bricks and mortar, nor even in representational art, but in the human hearts of those within the building. For the human heart is the preferred temple of God, the House of Prayer where we do not know how to pray as we ought, but where the Holy Spirit comes to our assistance, praying within us with unutterable groanings. (Romans 8)

Soul Friend

 

I write this on Valentine’s Day, a holiday where friends and family outdo one another in demonstrations of affection. How wonderful! We can never have too much of that!

In my various posts I’ve often referred to my “epiphany” when I was brought back to the church after a 21-year absence. This call was so strong that it drew me to an almost constant sense of wonder and confusion. This strong pull was nothing less than bewildering and I knew from many years of Christian education that I needed a spiritual director. When I heard the homily of a priest new to our parish, I knew that my search was over.

I vividly remember my first visit to this, my first real spiritual “director.” “Now you know,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” This was a total shock, as I said to myself: Well, why on earth do you think I’ve come to you?! 

He also asked me to call him by his first name, dropping the Father. This was to remove any artificial and possibly unhelpful distancing between us, as Father denotes a relationship with a superior. 

Since my experience over a dozen years ago, “spiritual direction” has gradually and universally evolved into a more personal relationship as spiritual companion or friend. Even the organization called “Spiritual Directors International” has recently shown a preference for spiritual companion/friend.

So what is this non-directive direction like?

It didn’t take me long to discover and cherish this unique form of friendship. This was a person to whom I could speak freely about my experience of God; one who would not put me down but knew how to gently correct what needed correction; one who encouraged me, who was my spiritual cheer-leader. 

The spiritual friend is an attentive listener, familiar with the spiritual journey through his own experience and through study of the classic writings on the subject. Saints such as Ignatius, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and his soul-friend Jane Frances de Chantal, and many more have written extensively on the art of holy listening. Probing questions are designed to clarify and discover how the Holy Spirit – the true Director – is working in the soul. 

Even though each seeker is unique, the path usually has the same sign-posts. How do we know we are “making progress”? To put it simply, we know this if we can point to positive changes in our behavior toward others. If, for example, we can see that the anger and grudges we’ve carried around for years have quietly slipped off our back; if we are present to God so that our prayer has seamlessly become more connected with Him in even the most ordinary tasks of our life; if so, then we can probably say we’re more authentically responding to our call to holiness. The love we have for a soul friend can become a model for the love we share with others in our life.