I’ve sometimes had the thought that I could measure my adult life in Maundy Thursdays. In my introspective inner life, the Paschal Triduum – and, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to me, Maundy Thursday in particular – has emerged as a series of mile markers on a spiritual journey. Of course, this year and last, these markers have been harder to detect and sadly unremarkable, for the obvious reason – not so much akin to traveling through a desert, which has its own kind of sparse beauty, as to traveling through a humdrum, charmless part of town.
As I once again grasp at reminders that we are indeed entering the Church year’s greatest liturgical crescendo, I offer a glance back at past markers, in the form of lightly edited excerpts from my journaling over a decade and a half of Maundy Thursdays.
2005 – Gonaïvies and Désarmes, Haiti
In a country where I am continually reminded that I am a minority, the words kò Jezi-Kri – the body of Christ – jump out at me as being the same words that are spoken to everyone. I take joy in participating in the Mass, saying the liturgy, listening to the sermon, crossing myself, singing the songs, passing the peace, all in tandem with my brothers and sisters. Here I am not a blan, not an outsider, but a sister and a member.
Coming home we sang, wiped dust off our faces, pushed the car out of a rut, bought sachets of water, got passed by the priest and stalled by a flat tire, drove through the lake – all together. We were a church group, unified.
This Maundy Thursday, Jedi Sen, has been a very churchy day. Sometimes I think I could go to Mass all day, and today I almost did. After realizing a big part of why I find so much meaning in it, I went again this evening and was suddenly struck by a kind of fear in knowing that when it was over, I would have to go back out those doors and be a blan again. But that’s just it: I can’t simply go to Mass all day. We have to go out and live out what we’ve been symbolizing in church, and the church is a wellspring of strength for that purpose.
The service was long, but I didn’t want to leave. When I finally did, I hadn’t even reached the door when I saw some neighborhood children: Amanda, Ketlinda, and Chelcie. They were waiting for me. After I went out into the churchyard, I looked back in at the few people who were still there – such beauty and stillness! But the children were calling my name.
2006 – Goshen, Indiana
Sitting there in the Maundy Thurday tenebrae service, there in that dark space with a single remaining flame, was like sitting inside a macrocosm of my own soul. Praise the Lord, the flame is still alive. And now we are waiting for the resurrection. We walk out en masse, in silence.
2007 – Goshen, Indiana
A trusted mentor washes my feet, doing symbolically what she does every day. And so we act out in symbol the service that defines this woman’s life. The Mennonite sacrament.
Even one minute of collective silence is too heavy for us; we punctuate the silence with creaks and coughs and clearing of throats. In the silence between readings I mentally recite the Lord’s Prayer which I’ve just learned in Greek, feeling full of useless talent.
2008 – a village in Burkina Faso
Three years ago, I was seeking the face of the Lord among Haitian Catholics.
Je cherche le visage, le visage du seigneur. Je cherche son image, tout au fond de vos coeurs.
I seek the face of the Lord. I seek his image in the depths of your hearts.
Two years ago, I was depressed but thankful for one remaining flame in the darkness.
One year ago, I was ashamed.
And now? Jeudi Saint has become un jeudi ordinaire. It’s funny but I’m wishing, just for today, that I could be in Goshen. I haven’t really had much proper solitude today, with nothing profound in my interactions either, and I’m tired. As I began to write this, there was still a conversation going on close by. Now I am drinking in the refreshing silence.
2009 – Orodara, Burkina Faso
The altar is stripped,
the light extinguished, yet the
drums crash like thunder.
2010 – El Paso, Texas
in the shadows I can’t still my mind … we leave in a clunky, cluttered silence …
a seven-church singing tour
Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi.
harmony and adoration
a long but beautiful night
veneration: to kiss the feet of the crucified King who opposes Caesar
2011 – St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota
We who sit in this
heavy silence, before this
are reoriented toward
something bigger than ourselves.
We can never quite
handle this silence; we punch
holes in it: clearing
throats, shuffling feet, loud thoughts. Thus
we depart in cluttered peace.
Still, you sanctify
ordinary things. Still, you
teach us to serve each
other in ordinary
ways: for this, we keep silence.
2012 – St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
This commandment questioned me with every person who got up to leave.
The other thought that stayed with me in the sacramental silence – casual-sounding but oddly reverent – was what I said at the ostrich farm in South Africa: “Hi … I just ate you.”
And from the year following that one I can trace a whole bittersweet history of Maundy Thursdays.
All I ask today is that you will lead me to the resurrection.
Do I presume to know what that means?
2013 – Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota
Viv Jezi-Kri, vivan nan losti.
The abbey’s Maundy Thursday liturgy and adoration always somehow take me back to that Haitian Creole translation of the Tantum Ergo, to the day when I realized that I believed in Eucharistic presence.
2014 – Phoenix, Arizona
Another Lent in the desert leads me to another Maundy Thursday where I’m thinking of all the places I’d rather be: a dark round Goshen sanctuary, dimming to one remaining flame, sounding thirty-three chimes … the abbey church and chapter house, processing and praying in that holy company, walking back in true silence … cherchant le visage du Seigneur in the Haitian church where I first found him in liturgy and sacrament … making rounds to 7 El Paso churches, singing intensely, Perdon, O Dios mio, Adoremus te, Christe … all that beauty I now miss.
But there were flashes of beauty here too: following in that choral procession that seemed to flow so naturally, I felt myself part of something real, something ancient, something beautiful. But a beauty marred by banal chit-chat and near occasions of idolatry. For some reason – maybe my temperament, maybe past experience, probably some of both – it never feels quite honest to give beauty the last word. Or even hope.
2015 – Phoenix, Arizona
Maundy Thursday is always somehow a landmark – the start of the Holy Triduum, this liturgical high point that gives me so many “kid in a candy store” moments. And tonight I’m just grateful that there are some: the wild words, the holy oils, the body and blood … touching the Virgin Mary’s hand because she’s so near … kids getting into the footwashing with laughter … the catechumen in a brown garment holding his baby daughter … and the well-oiled machine feeling of the ensemble, watching and listening and taking cues, singing a cappella into that chapel sounds and feels good enough, like a little gospel choir, that even my pickiness falls away … and the candles around the Presence, a scene I’ve sometimes longed for, which now makes me think back to previous Maundy Thursdays, the drynesses and fullnesses and desert oases, all the way back to Je cherche le visage, le visage du Seigner; je cherche son image tout au fond de vos coeurs … but now I still hear us singing in my head, “We are standing on holy ground,” and I’m grateful to feel some drop of the truth of this, and not to be completely dry.
2016 – Phoenix, Arizona
Maundy Thursday has become a day full of images. And it gets fuller by the year, since the year it became holy to me. The same longing is there to preserve the image, this altar full of candles, remembering times I so desperately craved such a space. And the inevitably clunky silence. And inevitably feeling the need to regain the silence before I can leave. And this time I find I keep looking back – like Lot’s wife in reverse – into that otherworldly space. Holy ground indeed. Every time I turn to look, it’s a little farther and more obstructed. But even coming out the gate I can still see the lights burning in there. Like the top of Sacré-Coeur: someone is in there praying.
It occurs to me that this image could be the answer to what attracted me to Catholicism. The image, the space, the experience. That’s just it: it must be experienced to be understood.
2017 – Queens, New York
In that Burkinabé desert I wished so badly to be in Goshen then, where I’d first learned the word Triduum.
Rehearsing the music tonight I was strangely missing St. Benedict’s Parish, with the proper Pange Lingua procession and those songs I hadn’t thought I could like again, singing a cappella into that candle-lit chapel that became an oasis of sacred space….
So long a wait for the silence … at last, a few breaths of it. I think of previous cluttered silences: El Paso, St. John’s Abbey … and this immediate eruption of mundania makes me want to cry. If I try to be charitable I can think of the incarnational descent into the thick of human noise, but I still have to wait for it to dissipate, to find my silence, before I can leave. And even then my mind too is cluttered, full of criticism and judgment. But within this, a flash of beauty: a young girl kneels and crosses herself, and I wonder as I did when all this was new to me: does she know how numinous a faith has been handed down to her? A woman in a long lacy veil, now fully prostrate. Two women who had been praying together now kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament with their arms around each other’s shoulders, as if bearing each other up under the weight of something.
2018 – Portland, Maine
Despite Easter Vigil preparations, the Triduum itself seems to have burst upon me. And the inevitable mental comparison to some amalgamated ideal of Maundy Thursdays past, from a jumble of memories of incredibly rich and incredibly lonely ones.
A determination to participate leads to an embarrassingly cursory footwashing (really just a dumping), and as I sidle back into the pew to join in the Servant Song, I realize there is nobody here I can sing this with and mean it. But then I’m snapped out of my self-pity by that terrifying promise: “to be ready to joyfully sacrifice our own self-interest.” I respond, “I am,” without being at all sure if I really am. And the adoration is always, always a cluttered silence.
The visual symbols in the annex were cluttered too: St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks still hanging from the ceiling, crucifixes and flags – the symbol of victory in defeat next to the symbol of empire, the way of the cross and the way of the sword. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
But even there, the tabernacle between the candles makes something of the sacred space I’ve longed for in still lonelier moments. And I hear songs from Maundy Thursdays past in my head as I find my silence.
The Triduum is the high point of the liturgical year – that is never lost on me. And somehow it’s always Maundy Thursday that affects me most. I can measure my whole adult life in Maundy Thursdays.
2019 – Portland, Maine
Still seeking silence, more elusive than ever.
Last year the Triduum seemed to sneak up on me, like an interruption of something.
I hadn’t thought I would be coming now with this weight of anger and woundedness.
An old cliché comes, I don’t know from where: “Lay it at the foot of the cross.” Most of the time I don’t know what that means. In these three days, at least, it means something. That’s the power of liturgy.
But even at the cross – rather, at the tabernacle – it’s noisy and bright, not quiet and dim. Realizing that there is noise under the noise, that the silence will not be had, I am left with this emptiness longing to be filled, and at the same time this crowdedness longing to be emptied. And the one prayer: “Why am I here?” And it means many things at once. But in all that, at least, there was a touchstone of familiarity, of community. I am not completely alone.
But walking out of that brightly lit, chatter-filled parish hall, there is not even the vision of sacred space to turn back toward.
I walk out through the cold mist and glance toward the church’s stained glass, as if searching for some trace of that to grab hold of.
I thought of driving home in silence – more chatter is out of the question – but instead I turn the radio to classical, to still the internal chatter as well as the external. A Mendelssohn oratorio is playing, perhaps for Passover. That is as much sacred quietude as I will get tonight.
2020 – Falmouth, Maine
Isolated in the Holy Triduum for the first time since Burkina, except that now we all are.
Trying to remind myself that it’s Maundy Thursday when it hardly feels like it, holding on to mental images of Maundy Thursdays past: College Mennonite, St. François Xavier, St. Patrick’s, St. John’s, St. Benedict’s, Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Hope … everywhere grasping at the silence, drinking it like someone dying of thirst. Even when the silence is clunky and imperfect, where there is Eucharistic presence, community in communion, the Body surrounding the Body, there is beauty.