Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S. authored a Holy Week Retreat that we will present here on the province website. Each day will be added the morning of the presentation.
There are discussion questions for the retreat at the end of the text on this page.
Prayer in a Pandemic
(To be prayed each day)
God of Life,
this Holy Week we stand under the shadow
of the cross of Covid-19.
Each day, the numbers of those infected rise and the death toll climbs.
It is a time of fear and
confusion as we cry out to you in our distress.
As your heart breaks at the suffering of your people,
you bend your ear
and hear our prayer.
As we walk this holy way,
help us to empty ourselves
to make a space for your paschal mystery.
Open our eyes to see you,
our ears to hear your voice.
You do not abandon us
but send your Son, Jesus,
to walk this road with us.
With our fragile faith,
You give us the courage
to remember how
You accompany us
along the way,
to remind us we are not
alone but stand together
under the weight
of this cross.
Holy Week 2020 Retreat: Conference 3
Embracing the True Self
Isaiah 49, 1-6
John 13, 21-33, 36-38
Readings Available at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040720.cfm
Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others;
Rather, it means never living apart from your true self.
Jan Richardson is a Christian writer and artist who offers reflections on the Sunday Scriptures on her website, The Painted Prayerbook. Her husband, Gary, a songwriter and singer, died on December 2, 2014, of complications following what they thought would be routine surgery. Her description of the day Gary died reflects what so many are experiencing during this pandemic as loved ones spend days or weeks on a ventilator, holding on for dear life. It also sounded so similar to my family’s experience when my sister Mary went into the hospital with the flu and died after spending a month in ICU.
A major difference, though, is that Jan could be with Gary on the day he died and my family could be with Mary when she died on November 29, 2010. Jan writes how she “stayed in the room as his nurse removed everything that had helped to keep him alive during the awful and beautiful vigil that we had kept with him for 18 days.” Jan watched as the nurse “removed the ventilator tube that had kept him breathing, watched as she took out the seemingly innumerable lines that had delivered medications. Finally, Gary was shed of everything that had kept him living, everything that had tethered him until it became clear that nothing would return him to us.” Jan placed her hand against Gary’s chest and said to the nurse “that it felt so strange to feel a heartbeat, and know that it was only my own pulse.”
The nurse said, “His heart beats in you now.”
A similar scene is captured in today’s gospel as Jesus reclines with his disciples. In the midst of this disturbing announcement that one of his closest friends would betray him, there is tender moment when John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved…leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, ‘Master, who is it?’”
The image is striking; the scene is intimate. John can hear the heartbeat of his teacher and his friend as he leans against his chest, feeling his pulse in his own body. Jesus and John were very close and Peter knew if anyone could get Jesus to identify the traitor, it would be John.
Jesus loved all of his disciples but it seems that some were closer to him than others. John, his brother James, and Peter formed the inner circle. And of these three, Peter took a leadership role while John took a more intimate role of close friend. If Peter was the authority figure, the one Jesus entrusted with the keys to the kingdom, John was the confidante, the spiritual or soul companion.
Jesus tells his beloved, “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.” Then “he dipped the morsel and handed it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot,” and says, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Judas left the table to set the wheels of destruction in motion.
The gospel says, “And it was night.”
Becoming Our True Self
As we meet at the crossroads during this of retreat and shelter in place, both readings for this Tuesday of Holy Week invite us to reflect on the question of identity. What is our true self? One of my favorite spiritual writers, Parker Palmer, defines the true self as “the self with which we arrive on earth, the self that simply wants us to be who we were born to be.”
So, who were we born to be?
In Luke’s gospel, after spending an all-nighter in prayer, Jesus is ready to pick his team—the people with whom he was reclining at table that night when he grew troubled and named the one who would betray him. Luke names the usual suspects, identifying them only by name except for Simon whom Luke says was a Zealot, suggesting he was a member of the political party advocating the overthrow of the Roman occupation. But when he comes to naming Judas, Luke writes, “And Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”
I am struck by that phrase, “He became a traitor.” Judas wasn’t born a traitor. He became one. He could have become a barber, a baker, a butcher or a candlestick maker. He could have become a priest, prophet, rabbi, or rabble-rouser. He became a traitor. He was called to be an apostle but as an apostle he became a traitor.
How does one become what one doesn’t want to be? It didn’t happen overnight. When his name was called by Jesus, I imagine he was as surprised and thrilled as any of the others to be chosen as part of his inner circle. Perhaps there were those in the crowd who knew Judas and when Jesus named him, they were jealous or incredulous, whispering to themselves or each other, “Judas? What is Jesus thinking?” We all make mistakes but remember this is Jesus we’re talking about! He is not supposed to make such poor personnel decisions!
But the text suggests that Judas was not always a traitor, a cheat, or a scoundrel. Indeed, Jesus had spent the night in prayer, in discernment, and had found the name of Judas etched upon his heart. But rather that becoming his true self, Judas became a traitor.
We are all in the process of becoming. The question Holy Week asks, “What will you become?” What will we become?
In his play, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neil wrote, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done, they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” Is this what ultimately happened to Judas? Some have suggested that he was also a Zealot and so his belief in the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation led him to believe that Jesus would never condone such violence. It was not in his nature. Jesus was nonviolent and all of his teachings were more focused on reconciliation than resistance. But did he ever think that he would betray Jesus?
The Beloved of God
In our first conference during this retreat, we reflected on the way of humility. St. John of the Cross defined humility as “the gentle acceptance of that most tender place inside” each of us “that throbs with the pain of separation from the Beloved.” The more we focus on our false self, the more we experience the pain of separation—and separate ourselves from our true self. In a sense, the purpose of any retreat is to come home to the truth of our identity, our true self, that we are made in God’s image and likeness, that we belong to God, that we are God’s beloved.
Holy Week invites us to surrender the false self by gradually taking off the masks we wear to keep us from recognizing the true self—which is the image of God within us. For Christians, Easter affords us the opportunity to reclaim the person of Christ dwelling within and become a new creation in the Risen Lord. There is within each of us a new person waiting to be born. A theology of Baptism says: water the person and watch her grow into the person God created her to be. When we renew our Baptismal promises at the Easter vigil, we reclaim our true selves as children of God, as God’s beloved.
This is our true self, our most sacred identity, our most treasured relationship, our greatest gift—being the beloved of God. But most of us struggle with this identity because we feel we are not worthy to be God’s beloved. Henri Nouwen wrote the book on the struggle to believe he was God’s beloved. In his book, Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes, “Being the Beloved is the origin and fulfillment of the life of the Spirit. I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of this truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth. From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.”
This journey ultimately leads us through the door of the cross. Which we see played out in the gospel after Judas leaves and Jesus talks about the glory that awaits him and where he is going. He tells his friends, “You cannot come.” Peter, of course, jumps in to ask where he is going so that he can follow. Impetuous Pete boldly promises, “I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus tells him, “Right.” then predicts “the cock will crow before you deny me three times.”
John’s intimacy and Peter’s authority are both on display here, along with Judas’ lack of integrity. Was Peter jealous of John’s intimate relationship with Jesus? Was John upset that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom instead of him? The gospel doesn’t say. But Peter seemed comfortable that Jesus was closer to John than him and being a responsible kind of person—he ran his own fishing business before he was called—Peter wanted to be on the top of things, be in the know since knowledge is necessary for those in positions of authority.
John seems far more interested in the person of Jesus than power. John and Peter seem to get along well because they know who they are and their roles within the inner circle. Peter is Jesus’ right-hand man; John is Jesus’ trusted friend. John, perhaps because of his youth, is not ready yet for a leadership role. And Peter, crusty old fisherman that he is, isn’t interested in spending quality time with Jesus, leaning on his chest because there’s fish to catch.
Restoring the True Self
The poet, Mark Nepo, calls the true self the “unencumbered spot—free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry” that comes to each of us in birth, “an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God.” All truth, whether it is religious, psychological, spiritual, personal or communal, flows from this sacred space. The Hindu greeting Namaste names this sacred space:
I honor the place within you where the universe resides.
I honor that place within you of love, of light, of truth, of peace.
I honor that place within you where, if you are in that place in you
And I am in that place in me,
There is only one of us.
Even before this shelter in place and separation from one another, when people were still going to church and gathering around the table for Eucharist, there were many who mandated not shaking hands or hugging another during the sign of peace to stop the spread of the virus. Perhaps this greeting, Namaste, offers an alternative when we offer the sign of peace. Hands folded, eyes meeting the other, we profoundly bow and say, Namaste. It is what the Sign of Peace conveys: I recognize in you the image of God. I see you too are God’s beloved.
Holy Week encourages us to return to this space, our true self. In the silence of these days, we trace the roots of our authentic self in the manner of the servant of Isaiah: “God called me from birth, from my mother’s womb, God gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm”—so his words cut through the denial, red tape, fears and frustrations designed to tie him up and impede or distract the message. Even in those moments when he thinks “I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,” he knows who he is and that his “reward is with God.” It is God’s voice, God’s vision, that matters. It is God who desires that the servant’s mission is meant not only “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” and “restore the survivors of Israel,” but to be “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Reclaiming our true self is not so much discovering something new, Helen Luke reminds, but “a long and painful return to that which has always been.” For example, this return to one’s true self helps us see an old story in a new light. In the parable commonly referred to The Prodigal Son, when the younger son finally comes to his senses, his coming home is a return to his original self. In the image of the Father, the story says God sees us where we are, is always on the lookout for us, but gives us the freedom to go where we feel we need to go. But when we come to our senses and realize we are not being faithful to our true self, our original self, and begin the journey home, God will run out to meet us and accompany us home to our true self.
This process also applies to the older son in the parable who equates good behavior with merit or reward. He isn’t being true to his original self either since his reaction to the father’s generous reception of his younger brother indicates that he is being faithful for the wrong reasons. Not because it is an expression of who he is but because of external influences, pleasing his father, living up to the expectations of being the oldest and the responsibilities that go with it, being the “good son.” He expects to be rewarded for being good. So, he stays outside pouting, envious of his father’s forgiveness of his younger brother who he considers a spoiled brat. When the father meets the older son pouting on the patio, he wants to accompany him into the party to reclaim his true self, which is always there. “Everything I have belong to you,” he tells his son.
Like the older brother, many of us fall into this trap of following the rules, living up to peoples’ expectations, whether these are our parents or our profession or our church. We work hard to fulfill these expectations and when we reach certain milestones we expect to be rewarded for our good behavior. All the while, we sense the tension as we distance ourselves from this sacred space of our true self. This is why we need solitude because as Parker Palmer says, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others, rather, it means never living apart from your true self.”
The Need for Community
The deeper we go into this sacred mystery of our search for our true self that shapes and sustains our lives, the more we realize how connected we are. Which is why not only do we need solitude to reclaim our true self, we also need one another. We need community. Parker Palmer emphasizes this need for community in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. “A strong community helps people develop a sense of self,” he writes, “for only in community can the self exercise and fulfill its nature: giving and taking, listening and speaking, being and doing. But when community unravels and we lose touch with one another, the self atrophies and we lose touch with ourselves as well.”
We need others to help us embrace our true identity, our true self. If we only listen to our own story in a kind of solitary flight from the world, we can become so self-absorbed that we also become sick to our soul. This is why we need others to listen to our stories and we need to listen to the stories of others. “The beginning of love,” Thomas Merton wrote, “is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to find our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Coming to terms with one’s true self humbles rather than inflates one’s ego. It is humbling to tell another our story or to acknowledge we don’t have the answer, we can’t provide the avenue of escape. In accompanying another, this stance of compassionate presence is difficult because our first instinct in listening to and accompanying another is to want to help, to want to take another’s pain away, to want to try to fix whatever the situation is that is causing the person’s pain. This is a place of vulnerability where we are not sure of ourselves, uncertain about what we are to say or to speak.
This is where we learn humility. This is the place where we learn that we don’t have all the answers and that we can’t do this journey of life alone. This is the place of powerlessness where the best we can do is offer the ones we love our very best self.
We nurture our best self in the company of caring and supportive friends who feed and nourish our sense of hope. In those times when we feel like the servant, that we have toiled in vain, we can nibble on appetizers of negativity. You know these snacks of sarcasm and cynicism are always within arm’s reach and like those good old greasy potato chips that taste great but are not good for us, sarcasm and cynicism are not good for body or soul. They cause the worst kind of acid reflux in the soul that comes out in the anger and bitterness. Or even worse, the arteries of our hearts and souls harden. This is why it is absolutely essential to surround ourselves with those who supply us with a steady diet of hope.
The Journey from Fear to Faith
Reclaiming our true self in solitude and in the company of friends helps us to find the courage to face whatever it is one needs to face as we gather under the shadow of the cross. This year especially as we spend Holy Week in the deep crisis of the coronavirus, we recognize how the Christian faith is in the shape of a cross. In all of our lives, at some point or another, for a short time or for the long haul, are shaped by the cross—by those experiences in our lives that have taken us deeper into the paschal mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Reverend Alan Jones, former rector of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, recalls seeing a sign outside a church in London that read, “We welcome all who worship, all who doubt and all who move from fear to faith.” He wondered, “How do we move from fear to faith.” In answering that question, he quotes an English monk who said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. People confuse certainty with faith. When you are absolutely certain you have nothing to learn, there’s no mystery, no risk, and no real joy.”
Jones maintains we cannot move from fear to faith without knowing who we are and what we are born to do. “Each of us was born to create,” Jones writes. “Many of us were told when we were young, ‘You gotta make something of your life.’ As if life was like a piece of wood, a lump of clay, a block of marble out of which might come a beautiful work of art.” But “when our need to create is neglected,” Jones says, “our imagination dries up and becomes dangerously vulnerable to negative images and thoughts which undermine and threaten our freedom. We so hunger and thirst for meaning that we’ll suck it up wherever we can find it no matter how mediocre or trashy.”
A negative spirit that begins within because we didn’t measure up to other peoples’ expectations or feel we never had the opportunity to unleash our creativity projects outward to affect others. We know from personal experience how each of us gives off certain energies. There are some people who are downright bubbly and perpetually upbeat, whose energy is exhausting if not contagious. And there are others who seem to have a force field of negative energy about them that when you stand close to them you feel sucked into this deep dark space where Snow White becomes Darth Vadar.
Most of us fall somewhere in between, we have bright days and dark ones, but each of us give off a certain energy that either attracts or distracts. The image we project—dare I say the “image of God” we project—has consequences.
“We move from fear to faith when we wake up to who we are and begin to create or ‘make’ something of our lives, in confidence that the most real thing about us is the Holy Spirit,” Rev. Alan Jones writes. “We are the place where God chooses to dwell, the place where God happens. This gives us the confidence of faith to face everything else we may be—all our mistakes, sins, silliness, regrets, are put in proportion. We can face the truth about ourselves without being crippled by what we see. Forgiveness is part of God’s plan. And so is delight.”
He tells the story of Chief Leonard George of British Columbia who works with the disadvantaged and disaffected youth of his tribe. “He wishes for them one thing,” Jones says, “that when they get up in the morning and see themselves in the mirror they love, honor and celebrate what they see.”
So, when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?
In his book, Reimagining Christianity, Jones relates another story about a woman named Susan who is at the end of her rope, ready to lose hope. She is teetering on the brink of utter despair, seriously considering taking her life, when she reaches out for help. She knocks on the door of her friend Stephanie. When the door opens, Stephanie is covered with flour. But she sees “her friend is in great distress and invites her into the kitchen, gives her a cup of coffee. And Susan pours out her heart as Stephanie goes on with her baking a triple batch of chocolate chip cookies. As Susan tells her story, she is slowly brought into the cookie project. She is crying as she gets her hands in the dough and shapes the cookies on the cookie-sheet. Once in the oven, the cookies make the kitchen smell delicious.”
As Jones points out, Susan’s pain is still there but now “she’s holding it in a different place in herself. There are things other than her pain—the kitchen, the cookies, her friend, and the noise of her friend’s children. She smiles as she recognizes the seed of hope. She moves slowly from fear to faith when she realizes something else is going on inside her. It is the stirring of her true self as a child of God.”
One of my favorite poems is by the late Derek Walcott called “Love after Love”:
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger that was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
In these days of shelter in place and solitude when we cannot come together around the table of Eucharist, may we take the poet’s words to heart and “Sit, feast on your life.” It is an invitation to take some time and embrace our true self, who I am and to whom I belong. It means savoring the flavor of God’s grace that made us in the divine image. It means embracing our true identity as children of God, as God’s beloved. It means touching again that goodness, godliness, within each of our souls. To feast on one’s life means to name my unique gifts and claim them with gratitude.
Who is that stranger looking at me in the mirror? That stranger I haven’t seen for some time. The face looks familiar. Who is he? “We cannot be fully ourselves unless we learn to love that stranger staring at us in the mirror.” The journey toward wholeness and authenticity begins by looking in the mirror and being honest with ourselves. Only then can we begin to live with integrity. Only then can we be our authentic self.
Holy Week offers us an opportunity to “sit and feast on your life.” I invite you to spend some time looking in the mirror. What do you see? As Alan Jones writes, “If you look closely you will see someone beautiful, unique, remarkable and quite lovely. You will see someone on the great journey from fear to faith. You will see someone who holds this world together.”
Spend some time feasting your life because no matter how messy it is at times, there is meaning there all the time for nothing—not even this pandemic—can separate us from our true identity as the beloved of God.
At the Crossroads: Reflections at the Intersection of Life and Death
- Where does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus find a place in your personal story?
- How does the coronavirus pandemic reflect the paschal mystery?
- What does it mean to you to be holy? Who are some of the people in your life you see as “holy”?
- The world stands under the cross of the coronavirus this Holy Week. But what personal crosses do you stand under at this time in your life? Listen to the whisper of the wood of your crosses; listen to your losses. What do you hear? What are they teaching you?
- What sorrows have left scars upon your heart?
- Who are the fallen, the forsaken, and the forgotten in your life?
- What have you learned from those who have fallen under the weight of their crosses and losses?
- Our mistakes and missed opportunities are our best teachers. What have you learned from your own stumbles, fumbles, and falls?
- Recall an experience when going through the door of the cross led you deeper into the heart of the paschal mystery.How have you experienced God’s presence in your suffering?
- Who has shared the gift of tears with you recently? Reflect on experiences in your life when another has invited you into her Garden of Gethsemane? What was that experience like for you?
- Whose feet have your washed recently? Who has washed your feet?