Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday – Images of Service

Here at the monastery the tables in the dining room are bare, stripped even of table clothes. We are in silence all day. Even in the morning, when we normally have silence something feels different. Things feel heavier, there isn’t the sense of energy about starting the day.

We gather in silence in the chapel for Tennebrae. We recite the Psalms and the schola will sing the Lamentations of Jeremiah. These are ancient words of profound, unfathomable loss that contain no hint of hope. While they speak of the exile of Israel to Babylon thousands of years ago, they also speak to the hopelessness of this day. To be a monastic, inside or outside the monastery, is to be part of community, our immediate community or the community of the human family. On this day, as monastics we stand in solidarity and community with all those who can see no hope, who watch helpless as any promise of new life dies before their eyes.

To truly enter into this Good Friday is to experience it as the disciples did. They did not know or understand the coming of Easter. The immediate reality of torture inflicted at the hands of cowards, bullies and those interested only in their own power was all they could see. Today we stand with them as we sing the Lamentations, as we recite the same Psalms they did that attempt to name the suffering and despair that are beyond description.

After prayer we will gather for our “community chapter.” Together all the sisters and novices will come together and each one will stand and say a stylized formula for asking forgiveness. We then promise to pray for people who are suffering in the world in union with the Passion of Jesus. We don’t ask for reconciliation with specific sisters at this time but as everyone stands we all remember the hurts, the transgressions we have committed or experienced and have a chance to silently forgive and begin again. We forgive and know that shortly we will again hurt these people we love and in monastic life we will always begin again, we will always carry the image of Jesus forgiving those who caused his death.

The silence continues through dinner and into the afternoon when we gather at 3:00 for the reading of the Passion. We gather in chapel and as soon as the clock strikes Sr. Clarissa, our prioress, enters. She is dressed in a cucula, the long, black choir robe. She walks up the center aisle and prostrates on the sanctuary before rising and beginning the service.

It took me a number of years to understand the symbolism of this action, an integral part of our Good Friday services. The prioress in a Benedictine community takes on the role of Christ. She is the one who is responsible for the members of community, she is the model of God’s love and service to the motley crew of sheep she has undertaken to protect and serve. When she comes into the sanctuary and prostrates she is showing her willingness to give all that she has, to completely surrender herself in service as did Jesus. The model of Jesus is that of self-sacrificing love, a love given freely, not out of coercion or need but in full awareness of the cost. This is the deep, difficult and profound service that our prioress is called to. In this brief moment we are called to understand this sacrifice and to commit to support her on this journey of service.

In the reading of the Passion we have a chance to hear ourselves in the narrative of loss. The Passion is a historical event but it is also an event here, today. Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago but he is also being crucified in the world when people die from hunger, war, abuse. We are equally complicit in the death of Jesus when we fail to work to keep these deaths from happening again today.

The service also includes the veneration of the cross. A very plain cross, consisting of two plain planks of wood is held up by two sisters. We come up one by one and venerate, kiss or touch the cross. In doing so we embrace the profound paradox of the cross and of this day, that only if we deeply enter this impenetrable darkness will we ever know light.

Today is a day of death and perhaps it is best that we keep from venturing prematurely into hope, into tomorrow nights vigil and our knowledge of what will happen next. Many people in the world today only know the Passion, they don’t know the hope. Perhaps we do well to spend some time today in silent solidarity with those who do not have hope. May we hold them in prayer, may we hold their hope for them.

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