At times in my adult life I have had responsibility for crafting and directing rituals for group reflection and worship. It is work I loved and work I think I was good at. The demands it made on me, though, led me early on to keep my Sunday mornings in the pews a time to sit and, to use the word of a friend, to steep – to be the eager recipient of the ministry of talented, generous people. I knew I needed that touch in my life if I was going to provide it from time to time to others.
I am filled with gratitude for what happens on a Sunday morning as a result of the conscientious efforts of ministers and priests and music directors and worship coordinators.
I am filled with gratitude because I need what they offer.
Holy Week is a ministry marathon. Ask anyone who works on the staff of a parish. I do ask – regularly and purposely. I know what it means to have someone show even an inkling of awareness of the effort it takes to make room for others to encounter themselves – and not just a presider – within ritual. God can certainly manage to reach individuals through some of the barest liturgical planning and execution. Spiritual traditions, however, again and again emphasize the training and energy that should go into directing the worship of a community.
With all the training in the world, a presider still will not know what goes through the heart and mind of individuals in the pews at their first or thirtieth or fiftieth Holy Thursday service.
No one in my parish could have known ahead of time how a particular opening hymn would affect someone like me embarking on the Triduum his first year living alone in a long time.
No one could have known that the tune of “O God, Beyond All Praising,” taken from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, would steep me in memories of my best friend in high school. His copy of a recording of the British orchestral work provided the soundtrack for many a Saturday evening talk in a darkened family room in New Orleans. It became the music of wondering what life might end up being like.
I found out Thursday evening that it can still be the music of wondering what life might end up being like.
I sang with the amazement of someone finding the words he needed most to say this evening in his life:
and whether our tomorrows
be filled with good or ill,
we'll triumph through our sorrows
and rise to bless you still…
The music director who had selected the hymn weeks earlier and rehearsed his choir in singing it so rousingly for the start of the Holy Thursday service ended the evening as one more parishioner in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament at a makeshift altar of repose.
I recall being startled to see him there seated with a small number of us before the candles and flowers and tabernacle.
Another member of the parish staff entered in a little while and settled in an empty chair close to the tabernacle. His demeanor communicated a need to be in that presence at this moment of his life as well.
A number of us, then, ready – in the words of the hymn:
to marvel at your beauty
and glory in your ways.
I was reassured that God knew what he was doing with us.
Who would not marvel at that beauty?
Photo of Easter Lily from St James Cathedral