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)

The Angels Are Silent

Gaudete! Rejoice!
     This is the mood and message of the third Sunday of Advent. This moment of joy within the dreary weeks of waiting is like the first kick of the infant in the womb. Hah! There is life there after all!
     The Scripture readings take us closer to the brilliant reality of Christ’s presence among us. Angels galore!
      Gabriel comes to Mary with an invitation which Mary accepts as a gentle command.
     Gabriel comes to Joseph to let him in on the secret and to detail his role as protector of the Holy One and His Mother.
     A whole legion of angels cover the freezing shepherds with triumphant sounds to guide them to the unlikely birthplace of the King and Messiah.
     Both Old and New Testaments tell of Angels who act in a way similar to the prophets’: they deliver messages from God as to miraculous events or appearances.
     Why don’t we hear from Angels anymore? Why are they silent?
     Psalm 8 tells us that we’ve been made “a little less than the Angels.” The Letter to the Hebrews repeats this, saying that now, after years of silence, Someone infinitely higher than the Angels has been given to us. This is God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
     Yet this great Person made such a silent entrance into our world as the child of ordinary parents, residing in a small town famous for absolutely nothing. It’s as if the Christmas story needed to be announced once and for all amid spectacular angelic fireworks, for the Savior’s  life in the world would be hidden and without any of the trappings of royalty or power.
      Once out in the world as an adult with a mission, Jesus continued to insist on silence: Tell no one of this miracle, or Tell the vision to no one, etc. Why the secrecy?
      I have a theory. Jesus planned his mission as a continuation through his followers, ordinary men and women, and not through Angels. Those who believed in the validity of Christ’s teachings would be the ones to teach the treasures of the Gospel — not necessarily with words but by their deeds. Jesus’ message had to be accessible to both teachers and the taught. Christ’s  presence and example needed to be lowly, thus maintaining a truer imitation of his actions and his gentle (but firm) commands.
     St. Angela of Foligno, fourteenth century mystic, writes:
See how Christ gave Himself as an example. He said: “Learn from me. I am gentle. My soul is humble. You’ll find rest for your hearts here.” Pay attention to what Christ didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Learn to fast from Me” or “Learn from me how to perform great miracles,” although He did these things well. . .
The point is that Christ made humility and gentleness the foundation for every other virtue. Nothing else matters. Not integrity, not fasting, not poverty, not shabby clothing, not years of good works, not the accomplishment of miracles — none of these is important without a humble heart.
     The splendidly orchestrated Christmas messages of the Angels were possibly their last hurrah. Without Christ, we might have thought that holiness required great deeds, the mastery of complicated theological dogmas, perhaps even martyrdom. Surely miracles.
Jesus’ miracles were born of his compassion, not to have people marvel at quasi-magical powers. He had already learned that from his desert temptation.
     No, now is the time for quiet. No more brilliance. No more forcing. No more threats of separation. No more need for virtually impossible deeds that only superhuman angels could perform.
Now is humanity’s time, the time for gently whispered invitations, and for our
quiet, humble  and joy-filled responses.