Tag Archives: liturgy

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.

Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your kingdom.1

One nice thing about going to daily(ish) Mass is hearing about the saints, who I usually can’t even be bothered to talk to, much less read about. We’re under no obligation to do any of the above, of course, which is like saying that the son of a rich man could chew on corn cobs and sleep on a bed of hay, if he preferred to do so. Which of course we frequently do.

When I participate in any kind of daily liturgy, whether it’s the Mass or the Office, I try to remember that the readings for the day might very well be custom tailored to me, might be just exactly what I need to hear, if I have ears to hear it. That’d sound egotistical if we didn’t know the kind of love God has for us, which is — I keep reminding myself — intensely personal.

Today is Saint Luke’s day. The name always makes me think of Brother Lucas, who belongs to the order I stayed with for three months in Peru, back in ’08. My first memory of him is, in a sense, the first time I understood what the order was all about. We were sitting down to dinner and he was talking in Spanish; another brother, Br. José María, translated for me.

From the tone of Br. Lucas’ voice, I would have assumed he was discussing the weather, or the dogs,2 or a trip he had made into town. But the words coming from Br. José María were intensely personal: “It took me a long time,” he was saying, “to be able to offer up to God the blessings he gave me and the good works I did. But then He told me He wanted something else. I couldn’t believe it: I said, No, no, no! Because” — Br. Lucas took a big breath here — “He said that He wanted my sins, too.”

Was this standard dinner conversation around here? Was this, maybe, just what most Peruvians were like? A qualified “yes” to the first and a definite “no” to the second: one of the marks of the order was the sharing of interior lives to a degree I hadn’t encountered before, and haven’t since. But apart from them, Peruvian men aren’t generally big on sharing their feelings.

Mostly it was just Brother Lucas being Brother Lucas.

Brother Lucas is a big man: before joining the order, he used to coach high school crew teams. His voice is deep and rich and he has round, muscular shoulders, but I was always surprised how easy it was to talk to him: surprised because you wouldn’t think somebody with such a face, The Face, would be easy to talk to.

About a month into my visit, I was frustrated: there were some English speakers around, but most of the conversation was in Spanish, and although I spoke some of it, I always felt left out no matter how much the others tried to include me; and then of course if I noticed they were trying to include me, I felt awkward about that. It was an emotional place in general, too: you try sitting for three hours a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament and tell me some crazy stuff doesn’t come bubbling up from your heart.

So I was wandering around the grounds after dinner, 4000 miles from home and feeling every inch of it, when Br. Lucas saw me and asked what was wrong. “I’m sad,” I said in Spanish, “because everybody’s always talking, talking, talking, and I don’t understand anything!” and then I burst into tears.

He sat there with me for a little bit, and then said slowly and clearly: “Steve. Tu hablas Castellano muy, muy bien.3 He said it in Spanish, of course: making a gift not only of the words, but of the way he said them.

Whenever I ask myself what Christianity is all about — what difference it all makes, how it is that Jesus came to save us and yet here we are, profoundly un-saved — I remind myself: the only reason people like Br. Lucas exist is because Jesus came. There’s no other explanation for him than that Jesus lives in and through him. I know it doesn’t come through from two little stories. You’d have to meet the man.

Which applies to Jesus, too: you have to meet the man. When it comes to answering our deepest questions, words won’t do. Only a Person will.

1 From the Responsorial Psalm for today — Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.
2 They owned 6 German Shepherds, whom they trained assiduously. Naturally Br. Lucas with a German Shepherd always made me think of St. Francis.
3 “You speak Spanish very, very well.”