This past Triduum was a very dark and stormy experience. I have taken some time to write this post. In the midst of writing it I reached out to my spiritual father, a holy and wise monk. I posed to him the question, “who do the saints complain to in the midst of suffering?” Sadly, so many lives of the saints present them with a sugar coating, depicting them as being ever uncomplaining, even in the midst of great pain. I love St. Pio, and I know that he had a temper. Suffering the painful stigmata, misunderstanding, persecution, and downright lies about him for fifty years I can’t imagine he didn’t get upset, even angry at times, but one never reads that in his biographies. One gets the impression that he endured his unrelenting pain and suffering with nary a peep of complaint. So, if my thesis is correct, and even the great saint, Padre Pio had his moments, who did he complain to?
My Spiritual Father reminded me that Sacred Scripture is full of complaining to God. The Psalms are full of examples. There is a whole book entitled Lamentations, and who can forget poor Job. This wise monk encouraged me to Lament away in the spirit of the Scriptures, complaining to God.
This post should be read in the spirit of the laments of old. So, here is my Triduum Lament:
Maybe you noticed, but since Easter, I’ve been pretty quiet. I’ve been processing my experience of the Sacred Triduum, which was different from all others I have experienced. It was, and is, like a fresh wound inflicted upon my heart. A wound that is deep, and sears my very soul.
If you remember, near the beginning of Lent I wrote a letter to my brother priests. It can be found here, for those who would like to revisit it. In that letter I wrote at length about the gift of tears. I wrote the following:
“For me, I feel closest to the Lord when I am on the Cross, and tears flow from my eyes. Tears are not always sad, but even if they are, it means that the Lord is near.
Our Blessed Lord wept too. He wept in grief, he wept over Jerusalem when she would not follow him, and he wept in his agony. Was the Father not near him in those moments? He was, and is near us as well.
When we find ourselves in tears, we can unite them to the tears of our Lord, thus they become redemptive. We must always remember that our tears are not wasted. For as scripture tells us, “My wanderings you have noted; are my tears not stored in your flask, recorded in your book?” (Psalm 56:9)”
During the Sacred Triduum, I had to take my own advice, and remind myself of the value of tears shed in faithfulness to God and his mysterious, and at times, unfathomable will.
I wept over the fact that I could not prepare for, or celebrate the Sacred Triduum myself. I used to absolutely love Holy Week. I would spend my days that week doing the usual priestly things, but I especially enjoyed being in the sacristy. Polishing the Sacred Vessels, preparing the candlesticks, constructing the Altar of Repose, training the Altar Boys, preparing the music, the Paschal Candle, and the flowers so they were just right, and who doesn’t love preparing for the grand, and big new fire for the Easter vigil!!!
This year, I could do none of that. I thought I was done grieving the loss of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but in these days that wound was ripped open, and the tears flowed like the torrents of the sea. These are the days and feasts we priests live for! Now, the Lord, in his mysterious and searing will, has seen fit to allow them to be taken away. I have said before that when I can no longer offer Holy Mass, I myself would exercise my priesthood by becoming the victim offered. Little did I realize just how emotionally painful that would be. Yet this is truly what every priest is called to: to become both priest and victim.
I had planned on watching the live stream of the pre-55 Sacred Triduum from a priest friends parish, but even that consolation was taken from me. I came down with a fever and an accompanying headache on Holy Thursday, and I just didn’t feel right, which for a man with ALS, is enough to wipe me out. So, it was off to bed. I tried to follow what was happening in the Triduum in my mind, and I sent my angel to assist in my place, but mostly, I grieved the loss of not being able to offer the Paschal Mysteries on the day they were instituted. I wish every priest knew this sorrow, then they would never take for granted the immense gift they have received from the Master himself! Maybe they would not be so flippant about the way they celebrate the mysteries of our redemption, but rather, with humble reverence and great obedience to Jesus, celebrate the Holy Sacrifice with selflessness and gratitude. What I would give to be able to offer Mass, and yet so many priests do so with indifference. This, no doubt, wounds the Heart of the Beloved, which is why I so frequently offer up my suffering for priests, and in reparation for the thousands of ways we offend the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We all must pray for indifferent priest, for they wound the tender hearts of both Our Lord and Our Lady.
Good Friday was also a day of tears, which seems altogether appropriate, as well as painful. This day I ended up in the ER. I thought of sparing you the gory details, but on this blog, there is no hiding the reality of ALS, and among friends, there ought be nothing hidden. It began during my usual morning routine, which consists of using a lift to get me out of bed, followed by getting me settled in my recliner, then someone brushes my teeth. Then it’s a nebulizer treatment to open up my lungs so, in the next step we can get the gunk that settled in my lungs overnight out. We do this by using a machine called a cough assist. It works by pushing air into my lungs, then quickly pulls it out. This simulates a cough, since I can no longer really get a good cough myself. When something comes up, which is the goal, the phlegm is suctioned out of my mouth and throat. This often results in a good gag, and not the amusing kind. Well, this particular Good Friday, a chunk of phlegm got caught in my throat, and suction wouldn’t reach it, so, combined with a fever, a headache, and now a superabundance of mucus, it was off to the ER.
There, as is mysteriously fitting, I was poked and prodded. I was, again, as is fitting for a priest, stigmatized. I can’t remember the exact number of attempts at a blood draw and an insertion of an IV, but it involved both arms, both hands, and one foot. After the blood tests, an x-ray, and a CT scan, they sent me home. After all this, it was straight to bed for me.
Again, the tears flowed. I felt lonely, away from the people of God. I felt abandoned by both God and men. The Lord’s own cry was mine, “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned Me.” I felt that darkness that enveloped the earth as the Lord reigned from the Cross. I felt the earthquake as my whole world is shaken by this disease, this cross, that takes from me the ability, on this day, to remove my shoes, genuflect three times, then on hands and knees, kiss the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, I am on the Cross, the priestly victim with the Lamb of God.
Holy Saturday was a bit less eventful. But I still sorrowed and grieved, as tonight would be the Mother of All Vigils. In days past today would have been a day of frantic, yet joyful preparation, filled with rehearsing the exultet, rehearsing with the most faithful of the Altar Boys, getting the tapers ready for the darkened Church, and preparing for the massive new fire. But no more. Just the thought of the loss brought many tears.
The ancients teach us that on Holy Saturday, the Lord descended into hell to free those Holy men and women who died awaiting the Messiah. Among these were Adam and Eve, the holy prophets, St. John the Baptist, and St. Joseph. That whole day I couldn’t shake the image of the glorious Lord, having conquered death, descended to rescue and lift up those who were faithful. I guess it is my longing to be rescued from this limbo of ALS, a place of darkness yet hope. Perhaps it is a nascent longing for heaven…to be done with this valley of tears, yet, I don’t want to go just yet. Maybe that’s a rebellion of sorts, but I don’t feel that the Lord is done with me yet. I think, mind you “I” think. So much of this is letting go of the “I” and surrendering to the will of God. At some point, the “I” must disappear, and the only thing remaining will be Jesus. The fact I still struggle with this should tell you two things about me, first I am not a saint yet, and I, like all the saints am human.
Easter Sunday was bittersweet too. It was a day of rejoicing but also a day of great suffering over what I have lost.
Like all humanity, I am but a frail and weak bunch of dirt, that the Lord, in love, breathed a soul into. Which is precisely where this journey of Lent and Easter began. “Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return”
In closing, lest we forget that in all things there is hope, I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Holy Writ (emphasis added by me):
I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,
and broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.
He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has put heavy chains on me;
though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,
he has made my paths crooked.
He is to me like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding;
he led me off my way and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;
he bent his bow and set me
as a mark for his arrow.
He drove into my heart
the arrows of his quiver;
I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the burden of their songs all day long.
He has filled me with bitterness,
he has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and my expectation from the Lord.”
Remember my affliction and my bitterness,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is thy faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth. – Lamentations Chapter 3