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What happens when Holy Week isn’t just history?


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Living in a monastery means Holy Week is a special, profound time. Our lives are oriented around the liturgical calendar. But I think it would be easier if Holy Week was just about historical events. I mean seeing the events of 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem as a history lesson is still powerful. We read about the high hopes of the crowd and the disciples as they enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday we feel the agony of crushed hopes and suffering, on Easter Sunday we enter into the unknown of an empty tomb. But even in our liturgies it is easy to do all this from a distance, as if we were watching a movie, seeing this week as something that happened long ago and far away.

But I realized something this year at our Palm Sunday celebration here at the monastery. This year didn’t look new, it was the same gathering in the hallway with palms, the same singing as we processed into chapel singing, the same reading of the passion and once again I missed the memo that went out for everyone to wear red. On the surface everything looked the same as it does every year. But something shifted in how I understood what this week means.

The events of this week are a microcosm of our monastic life, probably a microcosm of everyone’s faith life. It starts on Palm Sunday when everything is new, exciting and full of hope and possibility. For those of us who entered monastic life this is the time when it feels like our life is about to be fulfilled. Like Jesus riding in on the donkey there is a sense of paradox, this isn’t about a triumphant entry on a white horse. We have entered a monastery after all. We’ve given up a lot to just get here, to enter the doors with our vastly whittled down collection of motley belongings. But what anticipation, what a sense of call and faith to finally be here! The crowds wave palms and shout hosanna, people greet us and welcome us into a new adventure. The sisters look at us as the crowd looked at Jesus, full of promise, full of projected hopes for their idea of what we should do and be.

Then there is an interval of sinking into everyday life. The Passover will be different this year with Jesus, but Passover comes every year. Even as someone enters monastic life there are still chores to do, prayers to go to, a new role to adjust to. There is normalcy in the midst of anticipation and newness.

And so Holy Thursday comes. Jesus introduces his frequently clueless disciples to the reality of service. His ministry isn’t about glory or power it is about taking the role of a servant, demonstrating a new reality of upended expectations and the foreshadowing of suffering to come. So too in monastic life the reality sinks in that this isn’t really what we expected. This isn’t the Disneyland version of monasticism, this is real life. People aren’t always nice. We become aware that we are often the people that aren’t nice. The darkness and shadow side emerges. Serving others isn’t easy, it’s messy, it’s frustrating, it doesn’t end.  The excitement of the entry into Jerusalem, into the monastery is over, a new, disconcerting reality is taking over.

The time of Holy Week is linear, it is symbolic time where events clearly fall one after another. In real time, in monastic time it isn’t always straightforward. But Good Friday comes. Jesus enters into the stripping of hope, of expectation, of rescue. Here is the point when the only reality is suffering and torture, the only feeling is abandonment and pain. In monastic life the suffering will come in its own time.  It comes in the disconcerting early days of transition, being stripped of one identity, of a previous sense of accomplishment and competence and the vulnerability of a new way of being. It will come around again in sickness, old age, unexpected reversals. Jesus’ anguished cries of abandonment won’t be an historical event they will be a shared reality.

The transition always comes in the night. In deepest darkness, in the place of no hope, when there are no answers, no light, the new fire is lit. At the Easter Vigil we gather in chapel, read the stories of salvation history and light the new fire, which is the coming of Christ, the light and life, into our darkness, into our lives. In our monastic lives there are times when a small spark will light a new fire, when we are also able to sing: “lumen Christi, light of Christ.” Something happens in the life-long commitment to this monastic way of life. There is a transition to new life, we bend over, see that the tomb is empty and finally understand. New life isn’t quite what we expect, it happens in God’s way, in God’s time and not our own. Resurrection is a new way of seeing, a new way of being in the world. Resurrection is not resuscitation, it isn’t going back to how everything was before, it is a hope beyond comprehension, a trust that God will act. The light is God’s light not our own.

This is monastic resurrection. When the light comes there are still chores to do, difficult people to live with, prayer to be distracted during. But now there is a new foundation, a new reality, a new way of being, God is present in a new way and we can live in a hope we don’t fully understand, we walk in a light that we see with faith and not our eyes. In the days of resurrection this monastic life is truly life giving and our light is for the world.


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