There’s no denying that we live in a culture that worships at the altar of rugged individualism. Given that frame of mind, what are we supposed to do with the covenant that God and Abraham made, which Genesis succinctly describes? How could one man possibly commit generations of his descendants to an agreement in which they had no say? Was there no wiggle room for his children and grandchildren — to say nothing of all of his descendants to the thousandth generation? And if even one person had the nerve to walk away from the covenant, was that the end of the deal for everybody? Was the pact annulled from that day forward?
Had Abraham’s commitment been binding on all of his offspring, then the failure of one might have invalidated the whole thing. Had that been the case, the story would have ended with Abraham, and the Bible would have been a lot shorter than it is. Meanwhile, the other party to the agreement — God — could have wandered off in search of a more loyal flock.
Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, and Genesis gave way to Exodus and so on down the line through to the Book of Revelation. Throughout all this, generations of individuals came to terms with the implications of the covenant. Some followed it, and some did not. But the covenant endured, and the biblical narrative continues beyond Abraham and tells the story of all those successes and failures.
In the first grade we used as our religion textbook a short book with the rather focused title of Jesus and I. Ever since then I’ve been tempted to think of my relationship with God in rather exclusive terms — something strictly between me and God. How things were going between me and God was nobody else’s business; just as someone else’s religious situation was none of my affair.
In time I did grow beyond this slightly warped view. My viewpoint began to change as I realized that the “Jesus and I” relationship was a necessary first step, but it was not the goal. I began to understand that I have to respond to the call of Jesus to live with and in him, but that’s only the start. Life in Christ necessarily takes into account the people with whom I make my earthly pilgrimage to God. Frail and prone to failure as we all might be, we are still in this together, like it or not.
As much as I may resent that Abraham dragged me into his covenant without consulting me, I do have to give him credit for reminding me and everybody else of the social dimension of the covenant. We may make it with God, but we live it out with one another. We weave the covenant into our friendships and into our marriage commitments. And for those of us who have chosen to make vows in a monastery, it permeates our lives together. As a result, the monastery can never be just a residence hall where we as rugged individuals go about our business. We commit ourselves to seek the presence of God and to get a glimmer of God in one another.
Holy Week presents us with the chance both to renew and to participate in the covenant. Of course there’s nothing wrong with praying in solitude. But imagine a Holy Week schedule that catered to individual tastes. So the schedule on the monastery bulletin board might read thus: “Br. Edwin will celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s passion at 3:00 pm. Fr. Rudolf will do it at 3:47 pm. Fr. Peter will celebrate it at 10:45 am. Br. George will celebrate it at a time yet to be determined, if and when he gets to it. Reservations are highly recommended.” Then add one hundred more entries, and you get an idea of the chaos that would ensue in my own community. Inevitably that would say more about the dysfunction in a community than it would about any belief in the saving action of Jesus Christ.
So it is that monks and other Christians don’t celebrate the Triduum as solitary pilgrims, at their individual convenience. Rather, we gather together as friends and spouses and families. We monks even go to the trouble of lining up and then processing in together, and that’s not just to insure there’ll be only one official starting time for everybody. We do it so that we can begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together.
There is in this a certain irony of course, because whether we are monks or members of a congregation, our decision to be there is quite personal. Once gathered, however, we belong to each other and to the Lord. We’ve gathered as friends, family and as a community of monks to search for God, together. And together, in a renewal of the covenant, the object of our search becomes tangible. We truly seek and experience the risen Lord.
+On April 6th I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and for me it was a personal accomplishment. It was the first time to be celebrant since I pulled my back several weeks ago, and I managed to stand up without a walker or cane. Nor was there any mishap on the steps. I continue to make progress on my back and am grateful to all those who have offered their prayers.
+Every now and again I am reminded of just how long I have been at Saint John’s. Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my very first students, and the previous week I had met his son for lunch. His son is a senior at Saint John’s University and will graduate in May. From my own perspective I do not think of them as father and son, since I have not known them that way. Rather, they are individual friends of mine. The second son will be a freshman at Saint John’s this fall, so I will add a third friend to the mix.
+The first three photos in today’s post show items from the Cloisters Museum in New York. At top is a Palmesel (Palm Donkey, 15th-century, German), which was pulled in Palm Sunday processions in many German-speaking villages until the Reformation saw the practice fade away. Below that is a silver-gilt chalice, made in Northern Europe in 1222. It is among the few signed works of the time; and the inscription on the base — “Bertinus me fecit” — identifies Brother Bertinus as the maker. Next is a lindenwood Pietá, made in Germany ca. 1440. The Calvary is by the contemporary artist Gerald Bonnet, and it hangs on a wall outside of the chapter house at Saint John’s. At bottom is the crucifix in the Abbey refectory. The mural was painted by Br. Clement in the 1930s.