Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
The educational process that most of us go through in school at this time in history seems to leave us with a life-long conviction that learning is a matter of having things explained intellectually. I always find that Holy Week is a really important corrective to this view. In a monastery the Great Three Days are lived in the context of several dramatic worship services which are very stylized and very formal. They are in a word, liturgical. One of the things that I meet each year is the truth that liturgical worship coveys deep learnings and experiences, and the learning is mostly at an intutive level. For me, this is a deeper learning.
On Maundy Thursday I kneel in the midst of our community and our guests and wash the feet of many of them. Before the ceremony we read the account of Jesus doing this foot-washing, but during the ceremony itself there is silence, or sometimes some music. As I wash the feet of the people I live with day in and day out, and of friends whom I have known for years, and of complete strangers, I am once again confronted with what I am supposed to be doing with my life. That confrontation takes place at a level far deeper than words. Washing those feet, drying them with a towel, and bending over to kiss them may be highly ritualized, but it is also deeply personal. I know that offering your foot to someone for this ceremony is an act of trust, so much so that many people don't feel comfortable with it. But to be trusted in that way always makes clear to me once again what my life is to be about. Serving in that formal way teaches me how my whole life needs to be lived in that pattern of offering tender care. And as I look up at each person at the end of washing their feet often enough they whisper 'Thank you". In that whisper I know that accepting that ministry is as powerful as offerning it. Someone could explain to me in a long and very erudite way the necessity for leaders in a Christian community to be servants just as Jesus was. But just kneeling there and accepting those feet offered to me for washing does more to transform my attitude to my life than any lecture or sermon ever could.
Good Friday brings another sort of enounter with intuitive learning for me. Because I am usually one of the leaders of the ceremonies I am one of the first to participate in the Veneration of the Cross. So I get to stand at the side and watch that long line of people who come forward to the stark, bare cross that is held out for them. And one by one they kneel and kiss that cross, or press their forehead to it, or reach out and touch it, and the passion with which people approach this symbol of injustice and suffering always brings me to tears. The depth of peoples' efforts to understand the suffering of their lives and to offer that depth of struggle to God is very visible as that long line of people approaches the Cross. I'm so glad we do this ceremony in silence. Any other vehicle - including words or explanations - would just diminish the power of that moment. And each year I understand again that my suffering and the suffering of those people is not meaningless. With that part of my life I am moving towards God, and the Communion which we share at the end of the Service assures me that in that pilgrimage we are met by God.
The climax, of course is Easter Day, at the Great Vigil, and for me the supreme encounter of this season is the Easter cry of Resurrection. A story is said to have circulated in Russia during their long years of religious repression, that in one small town in Siberia the local Commissar of Atheism appeared on Easter Day and ordered the village church shut. He brought all the people together in the town square and delivered a long and very astute lecture on the failings of Christianity and the values of the athiest life. At the end of his talk he asked if there were any questions or if anyone wanted to try to prove the existence of God. It is said that the village priest stepped forward and turned to the people and said loudly: "Christ is Risen" and the whole village got to their feet and yelled: "He is risen indeed". And the priest turned to the Commissar and said: "There you are, Comrade. That's all the proof you need."
Each year as I stand at the back of our darkened church on Easter morning and shout into that darkness: "Christ is Risen!" and hear the response of the people gathered there, and the bells begin to ring and the candles are lit and everyone starts to sing, something resonates deep inside me. That cry touches me at a level much more profound than proof. It speaks to a part of me that knows the reality that lies below all of the proofs and counter-proofs that this world has to offer. Proof is a valuable tool. More deeply felt, at least in my life, is the cry that lies beyond proof: "Christ is Risen".
Each year I come out of these three days knowing that I have been encountered at a level much deeper than proof or explanation or words. I also come out exhausted and in need of some sleep and recovery. Living on that level is demanding. As formal and inflexible as liturgy sometimes can seem to be, I know of nothing else that takes me to that level so effectively. Once more, the transformation that I seek has been offered to me. My hope is that, once again, I have been able to accept that offering.