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.
Prayer in a Pandemic
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
At the Crossroads:
The Intersection of Death and Life
Readings Available at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040520.cfm
Isaiah 50, 4-7
Philippians 2, 6-11
Matthew 26, 14 – 27, 66
On the journey of discipleship, the cross is the signpost of our lives. “Why the Cross?” Pope Francis asked in his Palm Sunday homily in 2013. “Because Jesus takes upon himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including the sin of all of us, and he cleanses it, he cleanses it with his blood, with the mercy and love of God.”
The cross looms larger than ever this year in the shadow of the coronavirus as Jesus takes upon himself the suffering of millions around the world affected by illness and death. Jesus chose to stand with those who were most vulnerable, those who were sick and tired, cast out and cut off from family and community. Because as Irish historian Eamon Duffy wrote, “The cross is not some arbitrary demand of God imposed on a hapless victim, but a marker where human beings find themselves at the intersection of justice and mercy, time and eternity, death and life.”
This Holy Week forces us to stand at the crossroads—which way do we go? At this intersection, our lives hang in the balance. Which way do we turn?
As Covid-19 prevents us from gathering to celebrate these sacred mysteries together, we turn inward and explore the landscape of the soul. In this sacred space of solitude, we are not alone but praying together across the miles.
In this difficult and dangerous time when we keep our distance in order to keep each other and especially the most vulnerable safe, we are humbled by this coronavirus that is claiming the lives of countless human beings. As the death toll climbs day by day, we watch in horror as loved ones die alone, unable to say goodbye to beloved family and friends. We bury the dead with few mourners as we seek to stop the spread of this disease. We are humbled by the heroic witness of doctors, nurses, first responders, EMTs, hospital chaplains, and so many others who seek to heal the sick and comfort the grieving. From grocery clerks to garbage collectors, we are humbled by those who place their own lives in harm’s way as they continue to provide essential services. And we are humbled by the millions who have lost their jobs, the means to support their families, as we keep our distance to stem the tide of this tsunami of illness.
In his 2015 Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis said the three words that still stick in the craw of most human beings are these: “he humbled himself.” He called it the way of humility and it is “a way which constantly amazes and disturbs us: we will never get used to a humble God.”
Humility weaves its way throughout Holy Week. The readings, beginning with the prophet Isaiah’s plaintiff plea we hear on Palm Sunday, “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced,” through the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, to the anguish scream of humiliation and abandonment on Good Friday, to the endless waiting as the lifeless body of Jesus is sheltered in a tomb, this week invites us to trace how humility marks the life of God and so must characterize our relationship with the Divine One and with each other. “Humility is above all God’s way,” Pope Francis said. “God humbles himself to walk with his people.”
Most people make a distinction between humility and humiliation. But Pope Francis invited us to “take this path of Jesus’ own humiliation. Only in this way will this week be ‘holy’ for us too!” After tracing the experiences we will share with Jesus that are humbling in the Passion story, the Pope says, “There can be no humility without humiliation.”
Certainly, one who is humiliated knows the feeling of being humbled. But practicing humility is really about putting others’ needs and concerns before one’s own. To be truly hospitable is to be humble. “In the end,” Pope Francis said, “humility also means service. It means making room for God by stripping oneself, ‘emptying oneself.’ This—the pouring out of oneself—is the greatest humiliation of all.”
Way of Humility
This way of humility is contrary to the way of the world that places too much emphasis on externals, on being full—especially full of oneself—the star treatment, status, success, vanity and pride. As Jesus confronted the devil in the desert the first week of Lent, refusing the way of the world and choosing another way, so Pope Francis says that “only by his grace, with his help” can we “overcome the temptation to vanity, to worldliness, not only at significant moments, but in daily life as well.”
The reason the Suffering Servant from Isaiah and Jesus in the Passion story could stand in the humiliation that they experienced is because they knew who they were as God’s beloved. In the shadow of this pandemic, the words of Raymond Carver in a poem called “Late Fragment” are poignant and invite us to consider our identity as the beloved:
And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.
Maybe this is one of the questions we can ask ourselves this week: Have I got what I wanted from this life—do I feel beloved? Notice it is not, “Do I feel loved?” Rather, it is the identity of being the beloved. Perhaps the difference is subtle but it seems real. We can feel appreciated and admired and even loved by others. But do we feel beloved?
When one is humiliated it is counterintuitive to feel beloved. Instead we feel like dirt—the root word for humility, humus. Isn’t this the experience of the servant? “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.”
If you ever had anyone spit in your face, then you know what it means to be humiliated. But the beloved knows “God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
In Paul’s hymn, the emptying, the humbling, the “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” is turned upside down as “God greatly exalted him.” The challenge of this Holy Week is to wait and walk with Jesus with open hands and open hearts; to be humble, to be loved.
The knowledge of being loved allows one to let go of those plaudits and applause that certainly feel good at the time but then fade in memory and inspiration as the journey of life continues. They are the “brief shining moments” that capture a feeling of exhilaration, of victory, of joy. But they do not last. Could this be any clearer than what we experience on Palm Sunday when Jesus is welcomed as a hero with palm branches waving in the sun; and a few days later as the sun is in full eclipse and darkness hovers over the land, those palm branches become nails driven into his flesh as his body is fastened to the wood of the cross.
The Great Kenosis
“Grace comes when you stop being preoccupied and stop thinking that by your own meddling, managing, and manufacturing you can create it,” Richard Rohr writes. “We’re trained to be managers, to organize life, to make things happen. That’s what built our culture, and it’s not all bad. But if you transfer that to the spiritual life, it is pure heresy. It doesn’t work. You can’t manage and maneuver and manipulate spiritual energy. It is a matter of letting go. It’s a matter of getting the self out of the way, and becoming smaller. It’s a matter of the great kenosis (Phil 2, 6-11)—the emptying of the self so that there’s room for another.”
The “Great Kenosis” sounds like the stage name for a magician or circus act. And now, introducing, the Great Kenosis, who will thrill you… “It’s very hard for us not to fix and manage life and to wait upon it “like gentle dew,” Rohr says. We want to forge ahead and make things right and this is why reconciliation work is so difficult. We can establish a circle and an environment but then grace has to move. It is why this present crisis is so confusing and frustrating. We want answers; we want a cure; we want to stop the spread of the virus and the suffering.
The Great Kenosis is about emptying oneself of all that is false within you so that the real, the true, your true self, is revealed. “All that God asks you most pressingly,” Meister Eckhart wrote, “is to go out of yourself—and let God be God in you.” The true self is the God self, the Divine Image, within.
This divine presence, this image of God, this Divine Indwelling, is captured most eloquently in one’s breath. One of the primary symptoms of this coronavirus is shortness of breath. Covid-19 attacks our very ability to breathe which is why the need for ventilators is so essential to keep those afflicted with the disease alive.
When Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, he was giving them God’s spirit, the breath of God, again. The word for God, considered literally unspeakable, is translated as YHVH or “Yahweh.” The name of God is beyond human language. We cannot speak the name of God. But we can breathe the name of God. As Richard Rohr points out in his book, The Naked Now, “Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. This means that every breath speaks the name of God.”
German theologian Ulrich Duchrow adds, “Whenever created beings inhale, they receive new life. If every breath we inhale is new life, then it stands to reason that each exhale is a sign of death. He breathed his last. Expired. We must be prepared to give things up. To pour ourselves out. To inspire others. In every exhalation we must die a little. Courage and confidence are attributes of exhaling. Whoever pauses before inhaling, experiences it as an overwhelming gift.”
Most of the time, we take our breath for granted. Perhaps now, in the shadow of this coronavirus, we will never do so again. Which is why centering prayer and focusing on one’s breathing is a powerful and practical spiritual exercise. But I not only “take” breath, I give life. When I breathe out, exhale, I surrender my life to the world.
This coronavirus is literally, tragically, taking our breath away. And even when we are not infected by the illness, panic and fear can confiscate a breath or two. Our anxiety attacks and makes it hard to breath.
As Jesus went out into the desert to begin his mission as Messiah, so the season of Lent afforded us the opportunity to catch our breath. But as Lent drew to a close, our breath was taken away by this mysterious virus spreading around the world. The breathing lessons prescribed by Holy Week are:
Breathe in forgiveness, exhale fear;
Breathe in hope, exhale hurt;
Breathe in grace, exhale grudge.
Chaos of the Cross
Alan Jones in his book, Reimagining Christianity, writes how “the cross turns our ideas of power upside down. People yelling for revenge and thinking themselves righteous are deluded. Imagine a mob running after someone to lynch him. He has offended rules of society and he is a scapegoat. Just as they are about to string him up, there is a revelation. The very one they are about to hang is the chosen one of God. He, the victim, turns out to be the one who shows us who God is and what God is like.”
This is precisely where the cross is planted—in the silence of those who have died from Covid-19, whose bodies are wrapped in shrouds and stored in the back of a freezer truck parked outside the hospital because the morgue is full.
Here is where the cross is planted—in the chaos of an emergency room as weary doctors and nurses work around the clock try to keep pace with the stream of patients unable to breathe.
Here is where the cross is planted—in that unreasonable space where there are no answers as to why a 35-year-old nurse, a wife, a mother, dies of this virus, leaving a husband and three children to mourn.
This Holy Week ushers us into the passion of Jesus who in his vulnerability shows us the face of God who loves us even and especially in the chaos of our lives. The cross is God’s attempt to enter human suffering not with answers or avenues of escape but with attitude—the attitude Paul described in the hymn from the Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” Jesus “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Holy Week does not answer the question of human suffering but in the words of Rowan Williams, “From human chaos God makes human community.” Reasons to believe are found in the cross—Jesus’ and our own.
The Inward Journey
Sometimes I wonder if the call of the spiritual life is more of an archaeologist—surveying and digging up old bones—rather than adventurers who set sail for a new horizon. Maybe it’s both. But the adventure always begins within and as Basil Pennington wrote, we don’t often like what we see. “Unfortunately, in seeing ourselves as we truly are, not all that we see is beautiful and attractive. This is undoubtedly part of the reason we flee silence. We do not want to be confronted with our hypocrisy, our phoniness. We see how false and fragile the false self is that we project.”
Holy Week invites us to look inside and sometimes we see the clutter—the negative thoughts or harsh judgments that have accumulated in the dark corners of our soul. When we have the courage to stop and step inside and rest awhile in this space of the soul, we no doubt will see the rejections that have grown into resentments.
When we look inside, we may see the labels we use to patch the cracks of our fears that keep us apart. We know the labels—“She’s too conservative, she’s too liberal, he’s always been that way, or he never listens.” When we look inside we see those “pity pots” we’ve constructed ourselves—those self-pity pots that take shape when we are too self-centered. And playing on the sound system throughout our inner room are those old tapes of what we should do or should have done and failed to do.
The inward journey to that sacred place of the soul is where we know who we truly are. It can be a lonely place if we have spent our lives projecting to others our false self so as to be accepted, liked, and even loved. How often have we heard someone say—or have said ourselves—“If they only knew me, they could not love me.”
In her memoir, An Interrupted Life: The Journey of a Young Jewish Woman, Etty Hillesium writes of this vast loneliness within: “Life may be brimming over with experiences, but somewhere, deep inside, all of us carry a vast and fruitful loneliness wherever we go. And sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inward in prayer for five short minutes.”
When the doctor puts the stethoscope to our chest or back and invites us to take a deep breath and hold it, perhaps the doctor is searching for this vast place within where we are whole, healthy, and holy. “Your heart sounds fine,” the doctor says. If she only knew how broken it is at times. But as Pennington advises, we have to go through this painful experience of recognizing our own hypocrisy at times “to come to our true self. It is a harrowing journey, a death to self—the false self—and no one wants to die. But it is the only path to life, to freedom, to peace, to true love. And it begins with silence. This is the great value of silence. It is the pathway to all we truly want.”
It is all there inside of us, the good and the bad, the grace and beauty and the ugly evil, the pain and the promise, the hope and the hurt. It does no good to focus only on the one and not the other. We wrestle with the better angels of our nature but we also don’t neglect the demons lurking in the shadows feasting on the dead bones. We invite them all to the dance.
This week affords the opportunity to take an extended deep breath and enter the interior castle of the soul. We won’t find any magic but we will find a God who with patience and grace will help us clear the clutter and find a place to rest awhile. In this sacred space we find the saving grace that will allow us to continue the journey of faith and the courage to look inside ourselves.
Abraham Joshua Heschel calls this interior castle the soul’s residence. “Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use,” he wrote, “a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home.”
Spending time in this safe place of prayer, the soul, affords the realization that “the true source of prayer is not an emotion but an insight,” Rabbi Heschel continues. “It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable that enables us to pray.” Here we encounter the Divine Mystery—“the mystery of living and dying, of knowing and not knowing, of love and the inability to love.”
God is the Divine Mystery and yet God is beyond the mystery. We move to prayer at precisely that moment when we know how little we know about prayer, about life, about God, and even about ourselves. We move to prayer when we are emotionally spent or a wreck or when we don’t know what else to do so we might as well pray.
In his book, In Search of the Beyond, Carlo Carretto puts this Sacred Mystery in perspective when he writes, “Let us keep this truth before us. You say you have no faith? Love—and faith will come. You say you are sad? Love—and joy will come. You say you are alone? Love—and you will break out of your solitude. You say you are in hell? Love and you will find yourself in heaven. Heaven is love.”
It is true, isn’t it? When we love, we are loved, we are close to God and God is close to us. For God is love.
When we enter this sacred space of prayer where we make ourselves at home, we learn to listen. This is not easy to do, of course, because we are so distracted by so many things. But as we shelter in place, this week invites us to go inside and listen to our own story. We do this not for our own personal purification or salvation alone; we do this so that we may be able to listen to and hear another’s story better. If I am so preoccupied with my own story, there is no room for yours. If I am so focused on making sure my voice is heard, that I am listened to, then I am less likely to open a space in my life for your truth.
As we enter the Passion of Jesus during this pandemic, may we open the ears of our hearts to listen to God’s word and find our truth in the story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Then, when we are able to rise again from our solitude to join others around the table, we will be humble enough to listen to each one’s story, to the breaking of bread and the breaking of each one’s heart, and to drink deeply of the new wine of another’s story and taste the precious blood of a new creation.
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?