At Notre Dame, on Tuesday of Holy Week, winter has gone on exactly too long. A dusting of stubbornly persistent snow falls from a galvanized gray-steel sky. Darting from residence hall to lecture hall, students stoop against the oncoming wind gusts, scowling into their iPhones, looking and doubtless feeling uncertain and out of joint, as if suddenly feeling that they don’t belong here, that some placement mistake has been made. And the feeling is contagious.
It should be. It’s hard to “fit in” to Holy Week. We believers are supposed to have been working on fitting in all Lent long…fitting in to the rhythms of the Church’s liturgy, fitting in to the life of the Church, fitting in to the life of Christ. That’s what the recommended prayer, fasting and almsgiving are supposed to have done.
Yet my soul seems as out of whack as the anomalous winter weather. The Kingdom within me should be warming up by now, rivulets of love thawing and flowing toward the Risen One, but instead, my spiritual indoors is every bit as cold, desolate and frozen as the meteorological outdoors. The Gospel seems to be an abstraction and Resurrection an event for other galaxies than this.
W.H. Auden memorably addressed this sort of dislocation in his wonderful commonplace book, A Certain World, and what he wrote is worth quoting in full:
Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing.
None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend.
We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
The nonchalance of Auden’s tourist in ancient Jerusalem, that breezy indifference to the mystery at the center of all human life and striving is more familiar to me than I’d like, and I can glimpse in myself what Leo Tolstoy observed when he wrote, “It is terrible to watch a man who has the incomprehensible in his grasp, does not know what to do with it, and sits playing with a toy called God.”
On Tuesday of Holy Week, I carry that unpleasant recognition with me to Holy Cross House, the priests’ retirement and nursing home on campus. I’ve gone there to visit some old friends and to be with them at the 11:30 Mass, where there is also a celebration of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The celebrant kindly includes me in his ministrations, relatively healthy and unordained as I am, and I receive the anointing with gratitude, knowing that I, too, need to be cured…cured of that small-mindedness and distraction, that indifference to the mystery of God’s mercy which is no less a denial than that of Peter, who preferred the approval of a suspicious serving girl to the acknowledgement of God’s love…cured of my reluctance to stand before and try to take in the sight of a dislodged stone and an empty tomb. As the celebrant smears a cross of oil on my forehead and then on the palms of both my hands, a reflection of the chapel’s light flashes across the face of his wristwatch, and I register just the briefest glimpse of Pascal fire.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.