I was quite surprised to hear from Gus last Friday. I’d not been in touch with him for two years, and so his email came as a bolt out of the blue. I use that phrase judiciously, because it’s the most apt description I can think of. You see, Gus passed away two years ago.
Most of us hope for at least some measure of immortality, but modern technology sometimes gives the illusion of it in ways that would stun our ancestors. In his case, Gus had already achieved a touch of it with his friendly voicemail greeting. In the days following his death, I had left message after message. Naturally I took his silence personally; but I also knew that such lapses in kindness were not like him at all. Only when someone finally clued me in did I realize the cause of our failure to communicate. Gus had been detained on business elsewhere, and rather unexpectedly at that.
This week we pass through the most sacred time of the Christian calendar. In a culture that can set aside scarcely any time to celebrate anything other than sports and Thanksgiving, Holy Week has become an oddity for most people. Unlike their neighbors, however, many Christians try to dial back the intensity of their lives, and they engage in a bit of thoughtful reflection, punctuated by the most solemn liturgies of the year. Those can require more than passive observance, because the marathon of the Triduum makes demands that are both physical as well as spiritual.
Over the years Holy Week has become my favorite interlude in the monastic calendar, but it hasn’t always been that way. For one thing, I used to find the hours and hours in church oppressive. For another, my work schedule took a big hit. It’s true that the offices were closed for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and that did provide a measure of consolation. But I’m also a big fan of routine, and the irregular schedule was a major irritation.
Granted that I did get more done over that stretch of days, I always wondered how much more I could have done without all those lengthy distractions in church. This was compounded by services that went late into the evening. As most of my friends can attest, I’m not a night person, and evening liturgies were likely the toughest part of the Holy Week endurance contest.
I’m not sure when the change in attitude came over me. Perhaps it began when I realized that, try as I might, I was not catching up on work and likely never would. So it gradually dawned on me that there might be a better use for Holy Week than just sticking as closely to the desk as I could.
I also came to better appreciate one nugget of wisdom bequeathed to us by a long-deceased prior, Fr. Berthold. During a typical day he scarcely left his office, but the hours were filled with phone calls and monks knocking at the door to ask for something or to register a complaint. He personally staffed the complaint department in the monastery, and I always wondered how he managed such a serene disposition. One day a monk asked how he stayed sane, and how he ever got any serious work done. Fr. Berthold merely smiled and offered this rejoinder: “I make interruptions my priority.” Since people knocking at the door were his primary interruptions, it finally occurred to me that Fr. Berthold had made people his priority. All else was secondary.
I’ve long since given up on the priority of work over all else, and when it comes to Holy Week I know that the desk will still be waiting for me on Easter Monday. In exchange for the call of the desk, however, I now let the week itself speak to me. And the week speaks in an extraordinary number of ways.
For one, the change in routine is actually a wake-up call for lives that are on automatic pilot. I marvel, for instance, at being in church at distinctly unusual times of the day. We’re not used to being there in the middle of the afternoon, and so the Good Friday service brings with it a special intensity of the sun. That brightness reminds us of the inexorable change in the season. As much as we might have resigned ourselves to an endless winter, it is really about to give way to a joyous spring.
Along with the sun, the silence speaks volumes. Classes are in recess, and most students are away. Because it’s still too early for lawnmowers, the campus is hauntingly quiet. Only the birds are out, calling to each other in a desperate bid for mates and territory.
Best of all, I’ve now come to the point where I yield myself to the liturgy. I learned that if I simply surrender to the beauty of the music and the sights and sounds of the ritual, then time becomes irrelevant. Cares about schedules simply melt away too. In the liturgy I’ve come to appreciate the pagan chief who visited Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 7th century. He’d seen nothing like it in the woods of Bulgaria, and he marveled at what he beheld and experienced. “I entered into heaven there,” was all he could think to say. In that spirit I’ve come to appreciate the verse in the Passion that notes that the curtain in the temple was torn when Jesus died on the cross. Whatever else that might signify, it suggests to me that you can catch a glimpse into eternity, even in the most mundane of Holy Week services.
Sometimes we all need a special wake-up call, and this Holy Week I was privileged to get mine from Gus. I know full well that it was a virus that sent out the email under his name. Ironically, however, the email showed the emptiness of all promises of immortality — all save one. That, I would submit, is the message of Holy Week. In Holy Week I now remind myself of the primacy of people over the routine of work. Even better, I once again appreciate the search for God. And with the help of many brothers, I sometimes even get a glimpse into that eternity.
+On April 5th I spoke at the annual luncheon of the Friends of the Libraries at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I first came Columbia ages ago, when I stopped to visit a student from my very first class as a teacher at Saint John’s University. He’s now a physician in Austin, TX. Meanwhile, Columbia remains the lovely university town that it always was.
One special treat was a visit to nearby Fulton, MO, where Westminster College houses a museum on Winston Churchill. He delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there, and today the museum resides in the remains of a Christopher Wren church that was shipped from London several years ago. It’s not what one would expect to stumble upon in central Missouri.
+Among the solemn and arresting chants of Holy Week is Christus factus est – “Christ became obedient for us, even to death on a cross.” This beautiful rendition is sung by the schola of the Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, located just outside of Vienna. It is one of the oldest continuously-existing monasteries in Western Europe, and the Romanesque/Gothic church is well worth the visit.
+The pictures in today’s post derive from my recent trip to Missouri. The first five show the exterior and interior of the Christopher Wren church in Fulton, while the last two are from the campus of the University of Missouri. I spoke in the Memorial Union, which is the last picture in today’s post.