This year, I’m not celebrating Holy Week.
Last July, I moved away from my spiritual home, the Monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. It was where I first discovered liturgy, a spiritual family, a holy place of prayer. For seven years, I shared Holy Week with the brothers and the congregation of those who gather with them week by week.
“Whatever you’ve found here,” Br. Curtis had consoled me on the eve of my departure, “you’ll take it with you.” I think he meant that I could find it elsewhere. I begin to doubt I will. But he was also right in a way that he did not mean: I have taken it with me, as memory. Holy Week, even more than the rest of church year, is about remembering. This year, I’m not celebrating Holy Week at the Monastery; I’m celebrating it in memory.
The light inside is always brighter, bluer, on Palm Sunday. The chapel hums with people trying to make it look like they’re not jostling and pushing, even as they jostle and push for the best seats. Every year, this irks me, which I suppose is my own way of trying to pretend I don’t feel the same impulse.
A brother comes out, all crisp energy, to lead us in rehearsal of the key crowd moments: “Hosanna” and “Crucify him.” One year, I heard him say in aside, “Good liturgy is good drama.” At the time, I stiffened a little at the comparison, for drama seemed to imply fiction, and surely liturgy wasn’t solely a performance. Seven years later, I remember that the Passion Plays were the very first expression of Western theater, and who’d want to quibble with that?
Is it terrible to feel put out, just a little, by Holy Week? I know it is, even as year-after-year I feel, when Palm Sunday rolls into Monday, just the littlest bit put out.
I admit it: I dread the coming week. Even as the feeling comes I reproach myself for it, calling up the idea of future years (like this one) when I will not have a full week of rendingly beautiful liturgies to anticipate and love and, just a little, dread. All those hours, the late nights, emotional drain—didn’t the prophets run away when God beckoned to them?
On Holy Tuesday, I act out. It happens every year. Some internal spring—wound tight from seeing all the serious faces around me, and perhaps because showy seriousness bugs me, or perhaps because I feel that I should be feeling serious, or perhaps because I am myself beginning to feel serious—pops.
It’s my first Holy Week, and tomorrow I will be starting a retreat at the Monastery that will last the remainder of the week. I’m standing with Br. Jonathan in the chapel after the Eucharist, cracking jokes about castration. How did we get on the subject? Something about Abelard.
When Jonathan meets with me a few days later to discuss the details of my coming baptism during the Easter Vigil, I’ll wonder if he recalls what I’d said. (It had made him blush.) “After you’re baptized,” he tells me, “you’ll be surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, swinging censors and honoring you as the newest-born Christian, singing out: ‘Make way for the image of God.’”
Three years later, another Holy Tuesday, I drop a reference to safe words at supper with the monks in the refectory.
From an apartment seven floors above Broadway, where an incessant rattle of cabs and scream of sirens goes past, I navigate to the Monastery website and click on Selections from Tenebrae. It’s the service of shadows, as one candle after another is extinguished until one single wick burns in the chapel. Hearing that first breath before the first note is sung on the recording, I’m back in that space. Christ became obedient for our sake. In a long black line, the community files in, singing the plainsong chant I had forgotten I remembered until I heard it. Do I hear the procession or remember it? No, I hear it, a breathlessness in the voices (bodies in movement don’t sound the same). The brothers file past the row of chairs I’m seated in. Br. Timothy always makes eye contact, a hint of smile. No. I open my eyes—Timothy left the order last summer. The clock reads 11:17; the buses’ airbrakes hiss; I’m back in New York.
I close my eyes again. Just a blink, and two hundred twenty-five miles and seven years slip away, and it is again the first time I ever heard that chant from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, before I was married in this chapel, confirmed in this chapel, baptized in this chapel, before I even knew the names of all the brothers who’ll step forward one by one to sing the verses. Sitting on my bed in New York, I can pick each voice out on the recording.
Jerusalem, O Jerusalem. The echo in the sound shapes the well-loved walls around me, and soon the other senses slip into play: A hint of dinner mingles with the afterglow of yesterday’s incense, the wood against my back, the program in my hands, the faces of the brothers who have left the order—Charles, Jamie, Rufus, Bruce—Br. Paul, who died in May.
Truly this is a service of shadows.
A little after midnight, in that indeterminate time between Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, our ceiling collapsed. For months, we’d ignored the growing greenish stain and occasional drip. Then, a little after midnight, the whole thing crashed down and our apartment was a swamp of rain-water, thick slabs of rotting nineteenth-century plaster, horsehair glue, mold, and toxins. That year, I did not attend the Maundy Thursday Eucharist and Vigil, as I’d kept something of a vigil the night before.
I always felt that I could miss this service, since Maundy Thursday seems extra, for good measure—until I skipped it. The genius of the Church has been to string the liturgies of the Triduum into one single mass that begins on Thursday and does not end until Sunday of the Resurrection. You may leave the chapel, go to work, do grocery shopping, but you’re still technically in the middle of a liturgy, one that you’ll pick up again on Friday night and which won’t end until Sunday. This suspended liturgy makes temporary monastics of us all.
Suspended animation: After the foot washing and Eucharist, the brothers move quietly about the chapel, dimming lights, stripping the altar, removing everything that is not nailed down—dressings and candles and icons and flowers and crosses—while we, hymning quietly, follow the celebrants in procession to the side chapel. There, the chairs have made way for Persian rugs, pillows, and wooden prayer benches. Green plants, gathered from throughout the Monastery, transform the space into an indoor Gethsemane. Thursday’s liturgy never ends because it leaves us all in the garden where Jesus asked his disciples, Will none of you watch with me? The vigil lasts until morning.
How long will I stay before I’m lured home to dinner and bed; before I have to pee; before I cannot make it through another hour of trying to pray, trying to reckon with the doubts and theological dilemmas of the nights to follow? The first year, I think I lasted about three and a half hours. Every succeeding year, I stay a little bit less long.
The “maundy” of Maundy Thursday means sorrowful. So my slow abdication makes me sorrowful.
Great awkwardness can arise from even small breaks in practice, and Good Friday is all about a break in the practical, normal way of things. As the brothers enter the chapel, they turn by habit to bow to the altar, but then, seeing the blank wall and bare altar, they stop mid-bow. People coming in peck awkwardly in the altar’s direction, not knowing what to do or not to do. Every year, I dip my finger into the empty font beside the door, forgetting that it will be empty. I always stop short. Uncrossed, I don’t know what to do with my dry finger.
The word awkward, at root, means “turned the wrong way; perverse; upside down.” God goes to die, from death comes life: What could be more awkward?
Last year, as I neared the gate to take part in the Veneration of the Cross (itself an exercise in awkwardness), I realized that I was the last person to approach. Everyone else in the chapel had gone, so there was no one left for me to pair up with. I’d never particularly liked going with a partner, since it brings up so many issues of timing and coordination when two people try to kneel, prostrate, and stand together, three times. Yet now the idea of going without a partner was terrible.
“Last and alone,” I thought to myself, and instantly my face was wet with tears. I felt in a way that I’d never before in my life felt—I’d known intellectually, but never felt viscerally—the isolation of every soul. Wedded, committed, loved by family, surrounded with friends, it doesn’t matter. Each of us is ultimately single, solitary before God. We all go unaccompanied to the grave. No, it’s worse. By saying it that way, “we all go unaccompanied,” I obscured the point, masking that most solitary experience with the first person plural. Death is singular. Truer to say: I’ll die alone. Desperation rising, my tears are threatening to become voluble; I clamp my hand over my mouth.
And then I feel a hand on my elbow. I turn and see Alice, who was ushering in the side chapel. She’d already taken her turn. Yet there she was beside me. She whispered: “Can I go with you?” Just a hand at my elbow, and it all became clear: Christ died alone—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me—so that none of us has to.
Joy comes early to the Monastery. After a week of complex liturgies, tears and tension, even fasting on Good Friday, suddenly on Holy Saturday, the mood breaks. Vestments and habits give way to tee-shirts and shorts, as everyone bustles around: scrubbing, polishing, ironing, arranging flowers, filling the baptismal font, preparing the paschal fire (a bundle of quick-lighting matches hides inside). Everything, animate and inanimate, seems to be humming.
Even the sun seems to sigh at last, streaming in bright bars through the leaded glass windows in the refectory, where Br. Curtis offers a prayer to bless the hot-cross buns he’s baked to serve with tea, a treat for when all the preparations finally are done. These are the first sweets served in the Monastery since Lent began. The buns’ mild sweetness is a foretaste of tomorrow’s feasting.
White icing melts on the top of each bun in a sugary cross. Just yesterday, the cross was a sign of devastation; today we nibble treats decked with icing crosses. Already life is winning out over the grave. So the Psalmist’s promise, the Easter promise is realized, a day early: You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
The fire waits, unlit, in the guesthouse garden. A tray of handbells sit silent in the sacristy. Hundreds of blossoms are opening in the chapel (we’ll smell them as soon as we step into the warm darkness at 4:00 am). And there, rising above the checkered marble floor, big-bellied, turquoise blue, the baptismal font. Soon the water’s surface will be flecked with drops of anointing oil, each bead a pool of that impossibly sweet fragrance—heaven and honey and the garlands of flowers held by the ascending saints in Fra Angelico’s glimpse of the Judgment. Throughout the whole of Eastertide, I’ll try to pierce a bead with my finger when I dip into the font to cross myself. I hadn’t known, the first year, the year I was baptized, that after the water Br. Curtis would anoint me with three crosses. One on my forehead. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit. And one on each cheek. And marked as Christ’s own forever. For days afterward, the fragrance clung about my temples. I’d turn my head and catch it in the air just next to me. It lingers still.
Kristin LeMay teaches writing at Ohio University. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Harvard Theological Review, Alimentum, and other magazines. Her book, Because She Cannot Pray: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, is forthcoming from Paraclete Press.