Thursday, April 29, 2010

Column: A Dash of Fire and Water

The lines from Hopkins' are taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (at the end of "Part the First"). Robin's sermon and Stratoz' ruminations on fire got me thinking about fire and water, and finally about water. Though The Wreck is nowise my favorite of Hopkins' poems, I get a kick out of his reference to St. Augustine as Austin -- it always strikes me as a somewhat flippant and familiar mode of address for a saint who seems so staid in my imagination.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 April 2010.

Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow. — Ps. 51: 7b

Last Wednesday morning I was decorously pedaling along, dressed for work in skirt and stockings, a hundred papers to grade weighing down my bike bags and spirit. Cruising slowly up to the stoplight with the rest of the morning rush hour traffic, I was running through the day’s to-do list, and mentally bewailing a day in which I would hardly have space to breathe, let alone eat lunch. My day had barely begun, and I felt as if I’d already given it away.

Mired in my fretful meditations, I was startled by the sound of water hitting my helmet. Was it starting to rain? I looked up to see a cloudless blue sky. Not even an errant tree branch dripping a last bit of the night’s rain broke the dome above me.

I looked down. Dry pavement beneath me. No lawn sprinklers sprinkling, no one hosing out a bin at the pizza place. Mystified, I rode on, wondering if I had imagined it. Suddenly a sparkling shower of droplets danced before my eyes and hit me square in the face — flung my way by the windshield wipers of the car in front of me.

Utterly oblivious to the asperges he was affording the bicyclist behind him, the gentleman in the maroon car continued to swish and spray his windshield. He was gaining a certain clarity on the world. So was I.
“With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still.”
With these words, priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., vividly contrasts St. Paul’s fast and fiery conversion with Augustine’s slow soaking transformation. My morning’s drenching similarly had a bit of both fire and water in it. I had been awash in a gorgeous spring morning, and yet so unaware I required Hopkins’ “anvil-ding” to rouse me to the possibilities of the moment.

With a gentle touch of humor and a literal dash of water, God had found a way to get me to look up, take a breath and see His face in creation. I did have a moment to breathe, and now the clarity to see that I had been squandering it being anxious about not having time to breathe.

When we smell smoke, or hear flames or feel water on our faces, we feel compelled to look for the source. And like the spray in my face, the source can be hard to find, but we are restless until we know where to turn our attention. So we look up, we look around. We call on God.

In God’s hands, fire and water are signs that are hard to ignore. We know ourselves to be fragile in the face of such elemental forces. Too, fire and water are messy vehicles of grace. They leave little in their wake unchanged, even in small doses. They both reveal what is inside, stripping off the outer layers that can cloud mind and sight.

My morning encounter with God on the road side was not as life-changing as Paul’s on the road to Damascus — though my water covered glasses left me momentarily as blind — but like Augustine, I found God soaking into my life, “stealing as Spring.” I rode into the rest of my day, still carrying the weight of papers to grade and an overfull appointment book, but with the sure knowledge of where my next breath was coming from.

Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. — Karl Rahner, S.J., in Encounters With Silence

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lost and Found

I've lost 2 pairs of prescription reading glasses in the last two months. One vanished after a day spent in a library working on an article. Somehow they didn't end up back in my briefcase -- which makes me wonder if I left them on a shelf somewhere. Will they moulder there until someone else wanders through the same spot in the stacks? And just how long might that be? I've been in some dusty corners lately.

The second pair vanished last night, seemingly into thin air. They were in my bag when we left for a student event, never used, but gone when I got home. I opened my bag but once, to check my cell phone at intermission, at which point the lenses clearly made their escape. The first lost pair was as old as Crash, and held together by prayer alone (the bailing wire having given way long ago), I didn't mourn their loss much. This funky pair, a one of a kind pair handmade in Germany, I adore. And more to the point, with almost 100 papers to grade this week, reading glasses are a necessity, not an accessory. So , I spent much of the day struggling for detachment and trying not to worry about what I would do if they did not surface (besides stock up on Advil for the inevitable headaches that would follow).

Thank heavens for Barnacle Boy, Math Man and the college patrol officer, who searched the balcony of the theater this afternoon and glasses. Si quaeris miracula....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Column: Orans or not?

When I sent this piece in, I noticed that at this time last year I wrote about stillness too. There is something about the chaos April stirs into my life, or in the academic calendar, that makes me long for the still, humid days of summer.

While writing this, I asked my FB friends for their thoughts — the responses were as varied as my friends — which led to the litany of bodily postures for prayers: We can sit, stand, kneel, walk, dance, bow, genuflect, lie prostrate...

I tend to walk in prayer quite a bit (and I'm not alone), a posture that Ignatius leaves off his list, but suggests for reflecting on meditation. Patient Spiritual Director reads this omission less as a concern about walking being too "itchy" for deep meditation, as that praying deeply while walking could lead to a (non-metaphorical) fall! My feet know the paths I walk when I pray not a worry for me.

I wanted to write more about walking and prayer, but space kept me focussed on still prayer postures. Another piece is brewing about prayer on the move!

The full quote from George Herbert is: “[pray] not in a huddling or slubbering fashion, or scratching the head, or spitting.” Somehow I think the spitting advice was helpful for my current readership?

I was fascinated (OK, stunned) while doing a bit of research for this piece that some people think the orans position was invented out of whole cloth in the 1960s by radical liturgists.

(The photo is of a 4th century gold glass medallion of St. Agnes, her hands in the orans position found embedded in the walls of a Roman catacomb.)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 22 April 2010.

May my prayer stand as incense before You, my uplifted hands as the evening offering.
Ps 141:2

Final exams are looming large in my students’ lives these days. Much is at stake, many of them have returned to the classroom from time spent in the Peace Corps or working in community health care to prepare to apply to medical school. A poor grade in my class will put an end to those plans.

So there is a steady parade through my office, wanting to review the details of computing pH or to understand why a molecule behaves as it does. But often the question that brings the pilgrims to my door is broader, and deeper: “how should I study for this class?”

One of the things that I tell them is that cognitive research has shown that effective studying is not all in your mind, but that it matters what your body is doing as well. That if you study listening to loud music, you’ll do better on an exam if you listen to loud music while taking it — and of course, the converse.

Contemplative traditions have long known about the intimate relationship between body, mind and soul in prayer. And men and women of faith have struggled with the question, “what should I do when I pray?” It matters.

Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ sharp-witted devil, advises his nephew to persuade his quarry that “bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget…that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” I’m not sure that Screwtape is as fictional a character as Lewis would like us to think. All too often I find myself making the sign of the cross to begin grace at dinner — while dashing into the kitchen to grab the napkins the teen-aged table setter forgot.

Does it matter that I’ve not taken that extra second to sit and collect myself with my family? After all, the words of thanksgiving are being said, certainly God understands that the adolescent boys He created are ravenous.

True, but I wonder if I understand. The right words, even the right thoughts, are perhaps not sufficient. Early Church father Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, “His divinity is such that it cannot be adequately manifested through verbal signs, no matter how exalted they are.” Am I saying all I could say when I stick to the letters of the prayer and ignore what my body is doing?

Long before C.S. Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek manual on how to fall from grace, both Tertullian and Origen had definitive advice on what posture to take in prayer, echoing the psalmist. Stand, with arms outstretched, eyes uplifted, carrying in the body the very image of the stance that the soul should have in prayer.

There are many postures we can use in prayer. We can sit, stand, kneel, walk, dance, bow, genuflect, lie prostrate. Our hands can be raised, or folded, or held open in our laps. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola lists many ways to be still in prayer, and recommends none, except that which brings you closer to God. He further advises not being “itchy” in prayer — if you encounter God while kneeling, don’t suddenly decide to stand up.

Christian contemplatives, from the times of the desert fathers on, have counseled bodily stillness in the presence of God. Drawing on these traditions, Augustinian Father Martin Laird, in Into the Silent Land, offers clear and excellent advice on still and stable postures for prayer. Be firmly grounded and upright and open. (Eighteenth century English poet and mystic George Herbert put it more bluntly, “[pray] not in a huddling or slubbering fashion, or [while] scratching the head.”) It’s hard to imagine a better stance for body or soul.

So I’m on the alert for Screwtape and his ilk, resisting the temptation to pray with anything less than the whole of what God has given me: mind, spirit, soul — and body.

I will beg God our Lord for grace that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be directed purely to the praise and service of His Divine Majesty. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises [46]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hot topics

So...Saturday night Crash, I and his girlfriend were in the kitchen talking about chocolate and the amount of radiation it contains (it's a good potassium source, and hence a significant source of radiation exposure from potassium-40 -- enough to set off radiation detectors!) I pointed out that they, too, were radioactive, and curling up with the cat on the living room couch to watch a movie had exposed them to yet more radiation. Sleeping with another human, it turns out, adds to your risk. Crash snaps back with, "another good reason to be celibate!" After we all got through laughing on the floor (celibacy is perhaps not a topic frequently discussed with your girlfriend when you are on the verge of 16), it was generally agreed that this conversation would blog. But on whose? It had to be on Crash's...why, you ask?

As it turns out, Crash is an Ignatianphile (probably not a surprise living with me as he does). He's been reading Fr. James Martin SJ's The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything. The first installment of his review of the book looks at Fr. Martin's take on chastity. The follow-up post? Argument for Celibacy #245...with the kicker: "So if you don't want cancer, join the Jesuits!"


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Column: Murmuring Octaves

I really do hear shouts in my head when I encounter this passage at Evening Prayer in the Office! Tony is infamously in a hurry for Morning Prayer to start - he needs to be at work by 9 down the road. He's also five minutes faster than any other priest in the priory when presiding at Mass -- and manages it without seeming rushed and giving a cogent homily. Needless to say we tease him unmercifully. And yes, I have his nihil obstat on this piece....

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 15 April 2010.

Every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! — Philippians 2:11

“707, 427, 440,” Father Tony rumbles, thumbing through the breviary and calling out the page numbers for Morning Prayer. “It’s still Sunday.” It is the fourth day of the octave, the eight days the Church devotes to this great feast, a week of Sundays following the Sunday. Father Tony, like most of us gathered, has other places to be by 9 a.m. The sooner we are all on the same page, the sooner we can be out the door.

After the thundering glory of Easter’s liturgies, it’s always a wonder to me that these workday Sundays do not feel more awkward than they do. I’m lugging a tote bag overflowing with papers to grade, lectures and meetings are twined around my calendar like invasive vines, yet for these few minutes of my day, alleluias arise and resound from the walls. Garbed to toil in the kitchen, suddenly I am pulled into the feast as a guest. For me, at least, this week of Sundays is a swirling mix of expectations and hospitality, of sacred and secular.

I wonder what the first days after the resurrection must have been like for the disciples. Confusing, I imagine. Terrifying, I am certain. But Jesus comes again and again to them, opening doors that remained locked even by those who saw Him and believed, offering bread and fish and gentle humor. The Church echoes this hospitality, allowing us to soak again and again in these Easter mysteries.

In the midst of these warm invitations to rejoice, to join in the great feast, to know our redemption, there are other invitations being extended, harder questions being asked. The same questions that those first disciples must have asked themselves run through my mind. Jesus was gone from the tomb, where should I look for Him now? He has risen from the dead, how does this change what I have to do today? I suspect many of the disciples were as torn between the demands of the everyday and the intensity of the events of the previous days, as I am now.

Every time I see this passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians my mind, conditioned by modern email etiquette to read all caps as a shout, turns up the volume, like the DJ at a raucous party. Yet the very next line reminds me “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Easter Sunday trumpets He is Lord, but in these quieter octave days it murmurs: feed the hungry, heal the sick, let the Word be heard through all the Earth.

This year the flowering trees came into their glory for Easter and already they are giving way to a faint haze of new green leaves. No longer distracted by the brilliant hues adorning bare branches, we see again the winter’s detritus — the dead foliage and old leaves, the bits of trash blown into the garden by winter winds. The first triumphant beauty has faded, leaving a gentler growth in its wake, one that calls us to weed and clean, to tend what has been planted, in expectation of a yet greater glory to come in the summer.

What are we tending now that was planted in Lent and set its fruit in the burgeoning triumph of Easter? Can I sing alleluia, rejoice, and be glad — and get out the door to work in the vineyards before 9? I trust that God is at work in us all.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad, alleluia.
— Response to the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours for the octave of Easter

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cake mixes

I turned over another year yesterday. It was in many ways the perfect birthday. My guys took me out to dinner at a local bistro where I indulged in rare steak, Barnacle Boy baked me my favorite cake (rainbow angel food) and Math Man and I managed a lovely evening walk. Math Man braved the Internet with help from his IT support staff (aka my sons) and got me a mug with the warning "Not a good girl" and an 'inspiring' photo to help me get my game face on. I totally love it.

"What did you want for your birthday?" someone wondered. Truly? A block of time large enough to fold and put my laundry away. Though if you are asking about miracles, a fairy to clean my office and study would not go amiss!

There is always a bit of bittersweet in my birthday, a touch of winter's chill lingering in spring. Twenty-three (that many?) years ago my birthday was a gloriously warm Palm Sunday after a dark, damp winter. I threw all caution and class prep to the wind to play tennis with my husband. It was a joyous day, I had not a care. Tuesday I drove home early for a rehearsal for the Triduum. Wednesday he drove down to pick me up from a late night faculty meeting. He never went home.

Sitting in the sunwashed warmth of the bistro on Monday evening, the occasional wisp of winter worry drifted through the door.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Column: Pillars of Fire

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 8 April 2010.

Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God. Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night! May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning… — From the Exsultet

Last week, as Lent drew to its close, I was lingering in the back of the church by our baptismal font where for most of the year the Paschal candle stands. Even then, after shedding a year’s worth of light on Eucharistic liturgies and baptisms, the candle loomed large in both reality and my imagination.

I touched the wax nails and remembered the blustery night we pushed these grains of incense into the wax, when we struggled to keep this candle lit. I saw the warm circle of light it cast as we brought it into the darkened church, and stood around it to listen to the Word that spoke of salvation. I heard echoes of the great Easter Proclamation, “May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning…” The next night of vigil is nearly upon us and here, the flame is still burning.

The candle leads me back to the Easter mysteries, standing in mute witness to the night we are reminded in the Exsultet that “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence…” Long ago the bones of the liturgical calendar, the dates of the great feasts, were inscribed on the Paschal candle, guiding the community through the year, much as the Israelites followed the great pillar of fire through the desert.

In the days before the flick of a switch could light a Church brighter than it would be at midday, I wonder what it must have been like to see the great Easter candles — 30 feet high and weighing hundreds of pounds — aflame in the depths of the night? The dark of night is not so dark these days, and my parish’s candle, imposing as it is on its ornate stand, sheds not even enough light to read by. It must have been a powerful sign of Christ’s triumph over evil.

Some ancient Christian communities would break the candle up after the vigil, and the faithful would take pieces home, imbued with the memories of that burgeoning triumphant flame. The deacon’s Laus Cerei, the precursor to the Exsultet we now sing, extolled the spiritual and temporal benefits these bits would bring to the bearer — protection from tempest and trial.

Later traditions would see the old candle melted down just before the Triduum began, and recast the wax mixed with chrism into medallions depicting the Lamb of God — a way of keeping the bearer aware of the mysteries of suffering and salvation celebrated in the light of that candle.

Much as I might treasure a bit of that Easter light tucked away in pocket or drawer, I value yet more that candle’s lingering light in the Church throughout the year. St. Jerome, though neither a fan of the Easter candle nor the Laus Cerie that heralded its lighting, nevertheless suggests we listen to the candle’s song and cherish the Light — and get about the work of carrying it into the world. May next Easter find the flames now lit still burning in our churches and in our hearts.

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Savior shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people! — From the Exsultet

Photo from Br. Lawrence OP.

Friday, April 09, 2010

I have entered the depths

It was a steamy 91 F when I drove through the gates of the old Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville this afternoon. Now I'm sitting in the dark on the cool marble floor of the east cloister letting the cool breezes and the silence wash over me.

There is a bug on my virtual keyboard, attracted no doubt by the light of my electronic gadget. I elected not to turn on the lights when I came out here, so I'm playing the flame to every moth in the neighborhood.

There are a few others here on retreat beside me, but they are mostly of the silent and still sort. Even so there is one gentleman who I encountered on my walk, headed for the gate at a near run, rosary beads flying while his prayers bobbed behind in his wake.

I went for a walk after dinner and before seeing my confessor. As I walked along the road down toward the small creek that bounds the property I enjoyed the touches of hot and cool air that swirled around me. Much like the mix of emotions that I drove through the gate with, they were hard to sort out, coming and going almost too quickly to identify. That said, I feel like I've waded into a deep still pool. The silence seems extraordinarily deep this visit, though I couldn't tell you why.

There are a mix of retreatants here, some keeping silence, others not. Several have on a large name tag marking them as SILENT. I don't have one, and wonder if I would even want one. The silence I seek is somehow an interior one, and the silence here and my own commitment to seek it seems sufficient at the moment to further my interior journey to the still point. I brought along Marty Laird OSA's book Into the Silent Land. I enjoy the swirls of elegant prose and frank language. Somehow it makes the text feel more real, more like advice from a good spiritual director, one who is clearly and comfortably grounded in his or her own prayer life.
"This is why most people don't stick with a contemplative discipline for very long; we have all heard all sorts of talk about contemplation bringing inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace. But at this point it is precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting of lines of euphoric peace."

Friday, April 02, 2010

(Not a) Homily for Holy Saturday Morning

I very nearly started this reflection -- to be given at Morning Prayer today -- with the sense of utter disconnection I felt on the Holy Saturday after Tom died. All the funeral arrangements had been made, but everything was on hold until the Triduum was over. I was still completely stunned by what had happened - and utterly devastated. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world was dressing up in new clothes, going to Easter brunch, and generally ready to leave Lent behind. And I was -- and would be - in Lent for a long time to come. It made me wonder what those disciples long ago must have faced -- their world had come crashing down, while the rest of the world went out to celebrate Passover and the Sabbath.

In the end, I didn't and sought my usual touchstones -- poetry, the Church fathers and the psalms...but a friend has been thinking deeply and beautifully about that time, and about grieving in many forms.

The photo is from Eastern Point, and was used by a fellow retreatant during her contemplations of the third week.

Last night we walked the road to Calvary with Christ, witnesses again to the reality of Christ’s passion and death. I will admit that I find it difficult to avoid being transfixed by the horror, mentally scripting a Passion to compete with Mel Gibson’s cinematic version. I will also admit to a guilty sense of relief when the Liturgy ends and we all go home - where I am confronted with the laundry and a messy kitchen and not with Christ on the cross. Poet T.S. Eliot recognized what underlies my ambivalence, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The psalm we just prayed begs for assistance in the face of an overwhelming reality of pain and torment, “my eyes grow weak, gazing heaven-ward: O Lord, I am in straits, be my surety!” The psalmist cannot bear to look on such things for very long, either, I suspect.

But this moment we are now suspended in, the empty time between Holy Friday and the Great Easter Vigil, demands more of us than a passing acknowledgement of the grievous sufferings Christ endured on our behalf. St. Augustine’s advice on contemplating the Passion is difficult to hear:
“You suppose that having said ‘I cried out to you,’ you are somehow done with crying out. But even though you have cried out, you must not expect relief to come quickly. The agony of the Church and of the Body of Christ will last until the end of time.”
It’s a harrowing grace I seek on this day, to sit with the knowledge that Jesus has died, but not yet risen. All too often in my journey through the Triduum I have contemplated the Crucifixion while watching the Resurrection out of the corner of my eye - singing O Sacred Head Surrounded one moment, rehearsing Easter alleluias the next.

This year, I’ve thrown my lot in with Augustine, momentarily open to an experience of a world truly empty of Jesus’ physical presence. Hoping to sharpen my awareness of the depths to which I am loved, the lengths to which God has gone to redeem me. Hoping to know more fully the joy of the dawning light of Christ.

Psalm 69 offers a us a poignant yet powerful image of such an experience

I have entered the watery depths, and the current has swept me away.
I am exhausted with my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail from hoping for my God.

Holy Saturday is an invitation for us enter those depths, to let the current sweep us away, until we know what it is like to call for God until we are exhausted, to seek him until our eyes fail. Until we grasp what we proclaim at each celebration of the Eucharistic, until we comprehend what the first disciples did: Christ has died. For this one day, let us bear what reality we can.

Contemplative Time

My parish celebrates the Triduum as much as possible as "one day" -- gathering not only for the big liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil, but for morning prayer each day and for Compline on Holy Thursday night. It's a powerful experience, at least for me, to sit together for all this time, in silence, in song, listening and speaking. It requires the concerted efforts of so many to bring it off, and to bring it off in a way that seems "unbusy" yet deeply and attentively plumbs the richness of the liturgical tradition.

It always leaves me with a sense we are a community that can sustain contemplation, and the contemplatives among us. Clearly I'm not alone in that, as Crash reflects here.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Column: Holy Waters

I loved that line in the sermon about God pouring water into the seas and rivers and thinking about those same hands pouring water into a small basin. Two beautiful reflections on this same moment are Francis X. Clooney SJ's on washing without hierarchies and Gary Smith SJ's -- who would carry that basin to the world. (H/T to People for Others for the last).

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 1 April 2010.

He got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing. — Jn. 13:4-5

A few years ago I came home to find an 8-year-old Chris sitting on a chair in the middle of the living room watching television, his feet soaking in my biggest soup pot. Puzzled, I asked, “Are you all right?”

“I just had a stressful day, and I need to relax,” he told me. Ah. “Do you want to tell me about it?” I asked.

I listened to what was troubling him, retrieved the pot to use for dinner and dried his feet — still small enough then to enfold in my hands — with a towel. Now when I hear this Gospel passage proclaimed, I remember kneeling at my son’s feet, tenderly wiping off the last drops of water, surrounding him with my love, protecting him from the world battering at his heart.

Mandatum novum do vobis…a new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.” The traditional antiphon sung at the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday underscores the principal meaning the Church has attached to this practice for centuries — charity. The Church tells us this is a teaching moment, a demonstration of how we should treat our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Here, too, we see an image of Christ’s self-emptying, taking on what only slaves would have done, for never would the host stoop to wash the feet of guests. I remain struck by the vision of such humility that one early homilist conjured for his community, “He who pours the water into the rivers and the pools tipped some water into a basin.” It is a strong call to humility in service, but I sometimes wonder if the strength of that image drowns out other, subtler lessons.

St. Ambrose, in his treatise on the sacraments, challenges us to see the washing of the feet as more than an act of hospitality and humility, or even charity. “See the humility, see the grace, see the sanctification.” Learn, he says, how it is a sacrament, a mystery, a sacred sign of God at work in our lives.

In Ambrose’s fourth-century Milan, the washing of the feet was celebrated along with the rite of baptism. The bishop and priests washed the feet of the newly baptized, not primarily out of humility, though that was certainly a desirable effect, but to offer a bit of extra sacramental protection for the new Christians, to keep them from being “tripped up” by Satan.

Both Christ’s careful attention to this undignified task in the midst of a companionable meal, where He goes so far as to fill the basin himself, and the early bishop’s desire follow the triumph of baptism and offer to their sisters and brothers a more ordinary touch of grace, speak to me of a God whose love tends to all the small and messy details even in the midst of momentous occasions, a love that can change a basin of water and a towel into sacred signs.

As the Triduum unfolds these next days, we will celebrate the mysteries of our redemption with great solemnity and grandeur. Yet I find myself drawn to the contemplation of this small scene, the Creator of the oceans stepping aside to fill a basin with water, enfolding His followers’ feet with His hands, surrounding them with His love like a shield in the face of a world about to batter body, mind and their very souls. A sacred mystery indeed.

Lord, in your mercy give us living water, always springing up as a fountain of salvation: free us, body and soul, from every danger, and admit us to your presence in purity of heart. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — From the Rite of Blessing of Holy Water