Good Friday 2008, I’m three thousand miles from home, I still don’t really speak Spanish, and — surprise — I’ve taken my propensity for emotional entanglement right with me to Peru.
This time it’s one of the brothers who belongs to the order I’m staying with. Brother P. and I are drawn to each other like old friends, or ancient enemies: whenever we spend time together we wound each other, but we can’t keep away.
People talk about “living in the past” as if it were a figure of speech; but the past, if it’s potent enough, rises up to obscure everything in front of us, so that we’re not talking to the people around us at all, but to our abusive fathers, our bullying schoolmates, our lost loves. We remake our neighbors into the images of those who have hurt us. We are ghosts, haunting the scenes of our hurt.
What face am I superimposing on Brother P., and what face is he superimposing on me? Am I his controlling mother or his cruel childhood friend? Is he my father? Or just my worst self?
I’m not often in sync with the liturgy — I’m chipper during Lent, gloomy on Christmas — but Holy Week seems to be the exception. In the days leading up to Good Friday, all the distemper in me rises to the surface, and every enemy I thought I’d conquered murmurs, I am still here. It could be spiritual attack. It could be some mystery of participation in the Passion, my spirit drawn to play a part it doesn’t understand: This is your hour, whispers my soul to its tormentors, when darkness reigns.
Or it could be coincidence and good old-fashioned mental illness. I’ve got no way of knowing, and it doesn’t help to guess.
Brother P. finds me wandering the grounds, disconsolate. He wants to know what’s wrong, and I tell him I don’t know, but that I feel just awful, and burst into tears. It’s an even bet whether he’ll roll his eyes in disgust or decide that my pain is worth reckoning with.
He chooses the latter way. We walk to the chapel, where he takes me inside. “Tell him about it,” he says to me. Him is Jesus, and I look up to the fresco behind the altar — a larger-than-life scene bathed in blue and white light, the risen Son ascending victorious to the Father through a world of soft cloud.
“Not like that,” says Brother P. He turns, redirecting me towards the large crucifix on the wall. This Jesus is as big as I am, and he hangs low on the wall, uncomfortably close to me. He drips blood, his skin welted and torn. His eyes stare in agony or disbelief, his hands are claws. It is a different Jesus.
“Like that,” says Brother P., very softly. “Tell him like that.”
He leaves me there, and I begin to tell Jesus about it. He knows it all already — for he himself knew what was in man — but I tell him anyway, this Jesus who not only knows it but feels it as well. I can see in his eyes that he does.
Dear Jesus, this is the enemy’s hour, when darkness reigns. We who suffer, and our suffering seems to us meaningless, and vain, and poorly done; we who struggle, pinned and wriggling, under our crosses; we who fight daily battles whose import we cannot understand; be with us, help us to be with you. You whose spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings, hear the words we do not know how to form. Speak them for us from the cross, to the Father that you, like us, can no longer see or feel.
Lead us to the unimaginable resurrection.