In His Will: Traveling the Triduum with Dante

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of,
in the thick of thickets,
in a wood so dense and gnarled
the very thought of it renews my panic.
~ Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I, tr. Seamus Heaney

It’s the last morning of Lent. Tonight, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the great three days of the Sacred Triduum commence. This is the most precious and wonderful season of the liturgical year, both for the Church and for me personally. Even before the liturgical ceremonies of the Triduum were restored to their proper order–one Vatican II gift to the Church that hardly anyone can argue with, except maybe the sedevacantists who don’t admit there was a Vatican II–this was a solemn and moving weekend. From the intoxicating perfume of the stock petals we white-veiled little girls scattered before the Blessed Sacrament on the way to the altar of repose, chanting the Tantum ergo in clouds of incense, to the bare silence of the stripped altar and veiled crucifix on Good Friday (O my people, what have you done to me?), to the chanting of the sequences on Holy Saturday night (My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside . . .) to the glorious pealing of bells and singing of Regina coeli at dawn on Easter Sunday, there was a drama that communicated the significance of these days to even the youngest child.

I am glad, though, to have the restored order, with the centrality of the Great Vigil and its connection to the sacraments of initiation. The first time we celebrated the renewed Vigil in my home parish (Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Hollywood CA) I was 21 and a lector. Because we had no deacon, I read the English text of the Exsultet while a schola chanted the Latin. It wasn’t liturgically correct, but we were wading in, and it raised holy goosebumps throughout the congregation.

A couple of years later, I was turned away by the new pastor at the church door when I arrived to read on a Sunday morning because, he said, “We have enough men who can read, so we don’t need your kind any more.” It was the start of me and my kind’s drift away from regular practice, and the Triduum began to hold too many difficult associations. I stood with the members of the Women’s Ordination Conference in silent vigil outside the cathedral Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. I helped organize and read at Vigils in the parishes and schools where a good priest friend was stationed, and envied the neophytes their sense of belonging. I worked with the pioneering members of the North American Conference on the Catechumenate–Christiane Brusselmans, Fr Jim Dunning, Fr Gene Walsh–on the annual institutes for catechists, and found in the liturgical celebrations of those weeks some of what I had lost, but it never moved me enough to come back.

Until two years ago–when, like Dante in the first lines of the Commedia, I came to myself in a dark wood. I was more than midway through the journey of my life when I began my reversion. But then, we are always at a midpoint, at a literal cross-road, when the call to Repent and believe in the Gospel comes. The journey of our life is traveled in microcosm every year in the liturgical calendar, as the journey of our salvation is relived in these three holiest days. Dante relives it in the Commedia, which begins on this day, Holy Thursday, in 1300 and continues through to Easter Monday. The poet’s travels through the depths of hell, up the mountain of purgatory, and into the highest spheres of heaven, guided by the classical wisdom of Virgil and the profound love of Beatrice, bestower of blessings, make the perfect spiritual reading for the Triduum.

It’s not just the liturgical timing, however, that makes Dante the perfect companion for this journey. It’s the message at the heart of the Commedia, the lesson we try to teach ourselves so painfully and stumblingly each Lent. In Canto III of the Paradiso, Dante speaks with a young nun who is among those who, while joyful, are set at the outer ring of heaven because their earthly commitment to God was not as wholehearted as it might have been. Dante asks whether they ever wish God would draw them closer. Beaming with content, the young nun answers that to do so would be to question the Source of that content:

“Should we desire a higher sphere than ours,
then our desires would be discordant with
the will of Him who has assigned us here,
but you’ll see no such discord in these spheres;
to live in love is–here–necessity,
if you think on love’s nature carefully.
The essence of this blessed life consists
in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will,
through which our wills become one single will;
so that, as we are ranged from step to step
throughout his kingdom, all this kingdom wills
that which will please the King whose will is rule.
And in His will there is our peace: that sea
to which all beings move–the beings He
creates or nature makes–such is His will.”
(tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

This has been my most conscious and intentional Lent in a long, long time, or maybe ever. And I have made some tiny steps toward surrendering my will to God’s, with the help of many Beatrices who guide and nudge and smack me into line along the way–my family, my friends in life and in cyberspace, the readers of and commenters on this blog. But I still feel the shadows of the dense and gnarled wood. I am conscious, so conscious, of how far from the direct path I have wandered. Yesterday I confessed that dissatisfaction with falling short–a dissatisfaction that is, itself, a kind of sinful pride–and my confessor, in a feat of reading hearts as insightful as any the Cure of Ars was known for, assigned me as my penance to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament giving thanks for all that God has done for me. Only after making room for gratitude, he said, would I be able to address, one slow step at a time, my catalog of faults.

And so I did, and do, give thanks that I am both on the road and already home for this year’s Triduum. Tonight, waiting an hour with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene that is the altar of repose, I will make my prayer his:

E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace:
In His will is our peace.

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