For 14 years, my life remained much the same. Roots sank in it; moss gathered on it; spider webs were woven. It was a good life. I loved it. I miss it, though it was perhaps beginning to drive me a bit mad. The change was both a gain and a loss.
On Maundy Thursday, for those many years, I officiated at the Maundy Thursday rituals. There was a footwashing done with genuine love and reverence. Another worship leader and I would wash the feet of the first two people to come forward. I would then sit on a kneeler at the altar rail and watch as person after person received the washing then knelt to do the same for the next person in line – and I knew them all, knew their stories and where they came from, knew their faults, foibles, and nobilities – and I sometimes wept to see the beauty of their humility and vulnerability in this discomfiting ceremony.
Then we would adjourn to candle lit tables laid cruciform in the darkened fellowship hall. It was a simple Agape meal of dried fruit, cheese, olives, and bread. We ate slowly, deliberately, mindfully, in almost total silence. Any transaction that could be done by gesture was done so. Words were minimal and softly spoken. Periodically, I would read a prayer from the first centuries of the church or the Celtic tradition.
When the meal ended, we walked in silence back to the church and celebrated the Holy Eucharist, then stripped the altar, in a solemn process that culminated in Zen mindfulness as the altar was ceremonially wiped down stroke by deliberate stroke. And, yes, people wept to see the sanctuary emptied of God. The sacrament was carried to a Gethsemane Garden where we sat in one hour prayer shifts through the night. The gardeners had turned the room into a veritable jungle, with a couple of chairs, some zafus (meditation cushions), a Zen meditation bench, a pre dieu, and tables strewn with Bibles, prayer books, and meditations from great spiritual writers of the centuries.
I oversaw the process, occasionally napping in the library, taking my turn in Gethsemane at times, but mostly just being there – and sometimes talking with people before or after their prayer shift, as we sat in rocking chairs on the lighted porch. Crickets chirped. The night sounds of the Southeastern rainforest were our chorus. I knew those people more deeply than I had ever known anyone, and was better known by them – I had been opening my heart in front of them each Sunday for years. They knew me.
So the night passed until 9 o’clock, the hour of the crucifixion, on Good Friday morning. I entered the Gethsemane room and in silence removed the sacrament followed by the last shift of watchers. A few others would have gathered in the church to meet us. We prayed the solemn collects, then the Our Father, and as we stood in a close circle around the altar, we passed the bread and wine in silence until it was gone. I extinguished the sanctuary light and said “It is finished” then laid the chalice on its side and we all left without a word.
It has been five years since I last experienced Holy Week in the way that had become so much a part of my very identity. Holy Week, for me, is altogether different now. On the morning of this Maundy Thursday, I went to Christ Church, Las Vegas to bless the chrism which will be used in all our churches for all Baptisms this coming year. It is a simple service. There were only 14 of us. But there is no more important liturgical act in the Church Year. So a few people gather to make it happen for the sake of thousands who probably have no idea it is being done, no idea how the oil of Baptism comes to be.
The holy oil is then poured into small bottles, one for each church. I snagged three of them to deliver this weekend, and off I drove as I have done each year since moving back West. I did not drive through a rainforest but through the High Desert of the Great Basin – this place 19th century maps called “The Unknown Country” or “The Mystery Land.”
In Southern Nevada, it is Springtime, which means what people from cooler climes would call heat – that degree of warmth which still feels good on your skin, but warns you the place will be an oven soon. The skies are clearer than clear, and as I drove past Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases, there were white jet trails in the blue.
In Tonopah, I stopped for the only defensible cup of coffee between Vegas and Fallon, the only genuinely good cup of coffee between Vegas and Fernley (or Carson depending on which way one goes) – a coffee bar in the back of a turquoise and silver jewelry store – but it was closed again. They are artists, not entrepreneurs, not profit-driven, and therefore not reliable. In Tonopah, the warm radiance of Southern Nevada was gone. It was distinctly cold, and the wind blew the cold into me.
Past Tonopah, the sky turned grey with drifting clouds making the light itself seem to blow about in the wind. The wind picked up. Then it picked up the earth. And south of Mina I was driving through a thick dust storm. The dust had settled back to earth well before Walker Lake, but as I came to the Lake, the snow began to fall, blowing diagonally, and sometimes sideways in the wind. Not far past the northern shore, the snow stopped. Is it meteorologically possible to have lake effect snow in a desert?
At Shurz, I stopped for gasoline and pipe tobacco. I am particularly fond of the general store there. Also stopping helps me keep my speed down – a good idea while driving through the Walker Lake Reservation.
By Fallon, it was still chilly, but the sun was shining again, golden light on the fields and the horses. There are two particular garden spots in Nevada. I may be slighting somewhere along the Humboldt River. But the two sometimes green places I love best are around Lake Lahontan in the West and the Pahranagat Valley in the East. Fallon on Maundy Thursday was as lovely as I’ve ever seen it.
Then it was on to Fernley, where the hills become huge and rolling. Back East, they’d call them mountains. It was dusk, deep dusk, and the hills felt welcoming, reassuring. By Reno, it was darkest night in a city that has its share of neon. But on this night, the neon was shining through swirling snow. It was not a snow to pile up on roads and be dangerous. It was instead a snow that blocks vision with its whiteness and spins the mind in the paradox that it is the bright snow and not the dark night that obscures.
But as I was driving through the dusk and the night, people in parishes, large and small, were ceremonially emptying their churches of God, and keeping vigil in one hour shifts, watching and waiting, hoping and praying. Some of them were at St. Paul’s, Sparks. This morning I saw Fr. Kirk, bedraggled from his 2 hour of sleep night, just as I was in the years gone by.
This Good Friday night found me sitting in the pews at St. Paul’s. I was not on duty. I was there at the invitation of the Reno-Sparks Youth Group. They were performing the Passion Play for the Good Friday service. St. Paul’s does liturgy well and this was no exception. The Youth Group with painted faces mimed the Passion in a powerful and evocative presentation. We venerated the cross. We sang “Were You There?” I feel more now than I did in the Georgia days my dependence on the cross. I laid many a sin and many a desperate plea on the cross back then. But now I know a hundred times more surely than I did then that my very life depends on the merciful love God spent there in 30 A.D. and spends there today. It was good to be in a parish, good to sit in the pews, good to be the follower. I am grateful to St. Paul’s for giving me a few moments of the spirituality I lost five years ago.
So am I regretting this change in my life? Not an iota. I love this place, I love these people, and I love what I do. The life I left behind – well “I had stayed too long at the fair” already. But to be part of a parish tonight was a precious gift. Thank you, St. Paul’s – especially the Youth Group for taking me in – at this time of year when I am apt to feel particularly alone in our beautiful, fierce landscape.