This week, in the Christian calendar, Holy Week, which, to be perfectly honest, is the time in the liturgical year that I am grateful to have been raised Catholic. It is highly ritualized. Feet washing, incense, the absence and reemergence of the Eucharist, the kissing of the cross, candles, white lilies, holy water. The materiality of the week makes faith suddenly more tangible and palpable. The poignancy of the week indicates to. me the place of faith in my life, shows me how it has changed and strengthened over the year.
In the Catholic and Episcopal traditions, the only two Christian denominations within which I have practiced, vigil is kept on the Thursday before Easter. The service involves a ritual washing of feet. Each person’s feet are washed in holy water, then she kneels to wash and dry the next person’s feet. It is a practice in communal humility and a ritual of inversion. The teacher becomes the “servant.” Last year, at the candlelit chapel altar of our church in the West Village, I knelt down, and with the still, dark evening surrounding me. Tears began silently running down my face.
On Holy Thursday, I am reminded of what is beautiful in Christianity. I remember that we believe that God, as Richard Rohr says, “loves things by becoming them.” I remember that we are not abandoned in the great ocean of human suffering. And, although theologians and poets and parents have grappled with the idea of a loving God in the face of such a dehumanizing and frightening world, we believe that we are loved and held in a loving contingency throughout it. I remember.
Religion is no longer very popular, I know. Most people I know are atheists or self-reported “spiritual but not religious” types. Religion, of course, so often loses its way, so this hesitation is not unfounded. Nearly every person I know has stories for how the tradition of her upbringing has failed her and failed the mission it purports to envision.
I have witnessed how Catholicism has failed to acknowledge the full humanity, equality, and agency of women. I have seen it distort religious wisdom for “social causes” that only shame women in times of great, unimaginable pain and need. I often do not attend church, not nearly enough to now have a degree in religion at the top of my resume. But I maintain that religious wisdom, the questions that theologians ask from deep and searching places, is not antiquated. We have not evolved past it, the notion that people can “progress” past asking theological and existential questions or “progress” past searching for better ways to be human and become more compassionate, is severely misguided.
I may have been born with a feminist mind, that cannot reconcile sexism with an ideology of love, but I was also born with an innate thirst for wisdom. It feels natural to me to ask questions about the meaning of things and to care about other ways of knowing. In this final year of divinity school, I have spent most of my time rehabilitating my faith through intellectual work. My capstone thesis has focused solely on the work of women, feminist and womanist theologians, female mystics, and autobiographies of women of faith. To my advisor, I wrote, “This has been the work of restoration.”
This Easter season, I am praying and witnessing with the lines of women far wiser than I echoing in my head to a God who is a just as female as male, beyond gender.
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Julian of Norwich was an English anchoress who lived during the Middle Ages. She was a female mystic, writer, and teacher. She prayed for three wounds of contrition, compassion, and an “earnest longing for God.” Though she lived largely in isolation and seclusion, with only a window to give spiritual counsel to seekers who came to visit her, she witnessed from her anchor hold great unrest, including the Hundred Years War and the Black Death. She received magnificent visions which she recounts in her seminal work, Revelations of Divine Love. Julian, who conceives of God’s love as maternal love, brings me great comfort. Her words are like those of a much wiser, older sister. She reminds me of the beauty embedded in the Christian tradition and helps me stave off feelings of despair and futility.
Julian describes, in one instance, a vision of a hazelnut in her palm, writing “[God] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first that God made it, the second that [God] loves it, the third is that God cares for it… truly the maker, the lover, the carer.”
This is the sort of all-encompassing love that brings tears to my eyes on Holy Thursday. It is the sudden recognition of our smallness, the paradoxical nature of vast and particular suffering, and the fact that we are held, here, in loving not punishing contingency. We are sustained by parental love, never shamed, never abandoned. It is the message of Easter, in other words, Renewal.
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This world is brutal. It was brutal in the Middle Ages, and it is has continued to be brutal in multivalent, multilayered, divergent ways ever since. Not everything “happens for a reason.” I refuse to believe violence is somehow a part of the loving arc of the universe. We suffer. Not only because we have the knowledge of suffering, but because we feel and endure suffering in our bodies in different ways. It is the work of empathy, compassion, love to learn how the bodies and minds of others know deeply pain in other ways. The cruelty of contingency, of human finitude, of temporality, of violence, is real. The myth is that God ordains it. Rather, She is just with us in it; She is not separate from it.
As seems to be the case every week these days, it has already been a wild one. On Monday, Notre Dame, a beacon of Catholicism, gothic architecture, and French history, a place very close to my heart, burned. Today, the Mueller report has been made public. The ebbs and flows of our collective life. In the midst of so much uncertainty, this sacred week makes the space for much-needed contemplation.
The pattern of Easter is one of death, then rebirth. We have to surrender, in order to be liberated. We must crumble, in order to rise from the ashes. The bunnies and chocolate eggs and colored plastic grass sweeten Easter through sentimentality. But Easter is actually the acceptance of a gruesome reality. We spend days preparing for the fact that the world remains a place in which people are crucified. Look around, there is plenty of injustice, of death, of suffering around us today, and I don’t just mean Christian suffering. I mean human suffering.
Easter, however, despite its bloody story, rife with grief, opens onto love. It reminds us that love prevails. And as Maya Angelou reminds us, “love liberates.”
May we all, no matter how we pray or eat, grow a little in wisdom this weekend.