“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
This one phrase from John’s Gospel encapsulates the essential sprit of what we call the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection to New Life. On this Tuesday evening in Holy Week, these words are also something like a “preview of coming attractions,” awakening our hopes and grounding our intentions as we prepare for the single, liturgical arc of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.
We believe that our sincere and wholehearted participation in this liturgical drama is one of the central means by which we participate in the saving work of Christ. This is the unfolding drama of how, in his own particular life and flesh, Jesus underwent the human experiences of suffering and death and was, in defiance of all expectation, raised from death by the One he called Father. As a liturgical tradition, we do not simply re-enact or reminisce about very significant events that happened long ago in ancient Palestine. No. To see what we are doing as pious commemoration would be to keep the Crucified at a safe distance in the historical past, separate from ourselves. Rather, the unboundaried space opened to us as the assembled body of Christ invites us truly to enter the sacred, inner dynamic of the events by which we have been claimed and marked as His own forever. On a personal level, this week invites us into a more intimate, transformative encounter with the mystery of our own suffering, death, and resurrection. Each of us has undergone, and will yet undergo, countless passions, deaths, and resurrections – in churches, yes, but also in hospitals and office buildings, by bedsides and firesides, under the open sky and around kitchen tables. Though these experiences are potential fountainheads of meaning through our union with Christ, many of them go unnamed as such and so their graces remain unrealized. In the chapter from our own Rule entitled “Holy Death,” we receive this reminder: “Week by week, we are to accept every experience which requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life.” This is the paschal mystery writ small, in lowercase letters, across the individual history of every child of God. The small mystery enclosed within one’s own skin is grounded afresh in the Great Mystery of Christ’s Body by reading our small print alongside the bold, capital letters of this week’s unitive liturgical action.
It is not unusual, when Brothers are speaking with guests, that they have lots of questions for us. It is safe to say that people are interested in what and why we do what we do, especially if the idea of monasticism is new to them, or if they are on a first visit to either the Monastery or Emery House. They are interested in who we are; where we came from; what we did before we came to the community; what we do in the community. Inevitably most of them are curious about two other things: what is the best part of community life and what is the worst part of community life?
I am no longer surprised when people ask me those two questions, and frequently now I will beat them to it and answer them even before they have a chance to ask. On hearing my answer, many people are surprised at first, because the answer is the same. The best and worst part of community life is … community life.
There are many reasons why I came to the community to test my vocation. One reason is that after living on my own for a number of years as a parish priest, I knew that I needed and wanted to live with other people who took seriously the same things that I took seriously. I knew that I needed the support of a community. I also knew that I needed the companionship of others as I learned to face more honestly all that was within me: good and bad; light and dark; joy and sadness. I knew that I needed a container for my life that would channel my gifts, but would also bind up my wounds.
Probably the greatest joy of community life is in fact the community. But that does not make less true the fact that the most challenging aspect of community life is also the community. It is no accident that our Rule of Life requires us to make our confessions once a quarter. We do this not because we are especially pious (or conversely incredibly wicked), but in part because we live so closely with one another. It is not possible to live in community, whether that community be a family household, a university residence, or a monastery, without sooner or later manifesting to one another our frailties, our brokenness, and our need of forgiveness.
The possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of the Christian faith. Because of that they are part of the daily bread of community life. Living and working as closely with one another as we do, there inevitably (and frequently) comes the time when we need both to forgive and be forgiven. Our Rule teaches that “we cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt. If we stay estranged in our hearts we jeopardize the communion we have with our brothers and our fellow members of the Body of Christ” (Ch. 30).
As sacramental and liturgical Christians we believe that the sacraments and liturgy have the power to transform us. One of my favorite passages from Father Benson on the subject of Holy Communion reminds us of this. In The Religious Vocation he says:
And we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh coloring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and color of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and color of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and color, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness.
If it is true that Communion has the power to change and transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ, so I would suggest that each exchange of the Peace also has the power to change and transform us.
For me, the thing that is more challenging is not the frequent receiving of Holy Communion, but the frequent exchange of the Peace! There are some days I simply do not want to encounter a particular Brother, never mind exchange the peace with him. When I find myself in that place, an exchange of the Peace is exactly what needs to happen. Slowly but surely, day after day, liturgy after liturgy, exchange of the Peace after exchange of the Peace, my heart begins to melt, and I find myself in a place where I can at last speak to the one from whom I have been estranged or else the wound has been healed and the Peace again becomes a genuine expression of my desire for all that is good to be bestowed upon the other.
Wisely, our Rule of Life recognizes that we will “fall and fall again.” The question is not if but when. When that does happen, there is a mechanism to help us all get back on our feet again, and for me it begins with the exchange of the Peace.
There is a story that comes to us from the desert tradition. There was an old woman who lived near a monastery, but she never saw any of the monks. One day, by chance, she saw a monk returning from a journey, so she approached him and asked: “What do you do in there all day?” He looked at her and replied: “We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up.”
For me, part of the getting back up involves a simple gesture and an equally simple word: the clasp of a hand, and a word of Peace.