This is the eleventh installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the tenth installment, Steve wondered if God made him eccentric.
The checkerboard squares of the stone floor were cold. And uncomfortable as they pressed into my ribs. It was Good Friday and after processing in silence, Father Kevin and I lay prostrate in the sanctuary of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. It was the beginning of the commemoration of Christ’s passion and it began with this ritualized self-humiliation and penitential gesture.
My sandaled feet were dangling over the steps. I was last in such a posture of humility during diaconate ordination, when a ritual prostration during the litany of the saints is asked of men about to be ordained. My mind was saying: This would be more comfortable if you lost a bit of weight. Think about it before you have to do this again at ordination in June. The discomfort helped me to turn my mind away from such thoughts and to what we were doing to remember Christ’s passion.
Lent had passed quickly. Perhaps more so than most years somehow. This, however, did not make it easier – it had been one of the more difficult Lents I could remember.
I’d begun Lent in early January, as I’d decided to do the Exodus 90 program with a Jesuit friend. Exodus 90 is a spiritual program that Christian men often do for some weeks before Lent and end the program after ninety days, on Easter Sunday. In following the book of Exodus, seeking freedom, it’s ninety days of cold showers and voluntary abstinence from meat, soda, sweets, alcohol, and social media. It’s ninety days of reading and reflecting on Exodus and what we might need to find freedom from. It’s ninety days of fraternal conversation and trips to the gym. It’s a grueling, austere, rewarding program – I’d done it once before. Last time, in 2020, I walked away with a sense that such austerity was possible for me and I learned from even the aspects I struggled with (like regular exercise).
This time around, I failed.
I had embraced it as an opportunity to whole-heartedly prepare for Easter. And I found, in the semi-burnout of post-pandemic, in my very last semester as a student (ever?), in the midst of diaconate, I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Initially, I kept all the commitments. And then three weeks in, I began slipping with the meditations on Exodus. Eventually, I was sneaking sweets from our kitchen.
When Lent came I began accepting that Exodus 90 was too much for me this year. I had picked up additional Lenten commitments and disciplines. Some of those were more straightforward for me and easier to keep and helped me see that maybe, this year, Exodus 90 just had too many moving parts. So I gave up meat and not just on Wednesdays and Fridays. I committed to daily walking, rather than something more strenuous. I committed to saying a “dry” Mass a few times a week as a way of committing to praying with and practicing the liturgical texts. I was open about this with my Exodus 90 partner.
Sometimes I felt like I had failed. Sometimes I felt relieved – with workload for school, writing a thesis, pastoral commitments and just life, I was spent and tapped out sometimes.
Time passed entirely too quickly. My annual, silent retreat came and went in early March. March came and went. A retreat with students from Boston University came and went. The time came to adopt daylight savings time and surrender that hour on loan from mid-Fall.
Lent was passing too. On Palm Sunday, it seemed like Ash Wednesday was only a few days ago, as we assembled for the reading of the first Gospel at the doors of the church, the blessing of palms, the procession, and the long reading of the Passion narrative. It was a bright day and the trees outside of Marsh Chapel were beginning to blossom.
I didn’t feel ready for Easter, but it was coming nonetheless, and I surrendered to the flow of liturgical time without a second thought.
Readiness and liturgical seasons of preparation, such as Lent and Advent, are things in tension for me. I always imagine I have more time and energy for the multiplication of spiritual and ascetical practices I (think I) desire. My decision not to attempt to sing the Exultet – the great hymn about the Paschal Candle sung at the Easter Vigil – was symbolic of my grappling with readiness. I’d tried learning it in the fall for a number of weeks, but I found it complex and I’m not a singer.
Holy Thursday came and we processed with the Sacrament in the pouring rain, from Marsh Chapel to the place of repose on the first floor of the Chaplaincy House.
Good Friday, with its red vestments and veneration of Christ on the Cross, was an interruption in the white and bright gold of the other days of the Paschal Triduum. It was a sunny, yet somber day, placed between the solemnness of Holy Thursday and the marking of the occasion of the First Eucharist and the expectant, empty quiet of Holy Saturday that yields to the joyous shouting of Alleluias, hymns that are begging to be belted-out (even by the musically challenged like me), and proclamations of Lumen Christi.
I’d been praying with a passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins that often comes back to me at Easter:
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
It was with me as we crossed the sanctuary where I’d lain on the cold stone days earlier. The rubrics for the rite asked that I do so, ready or not. The suddenness and the force of Hopkins’ verse was what always struck me. It did that morning. Perhaps there’s a grace in unreadiness. Whether it’s for Lent, for Easter, for ritual prostrations, for ordination (yes, even this).
I texted my friends (in Greek): Christos Anesti! (Christ is Risen) after the vigil and all Sunday. I preached about doubt and faith and the race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple in that morning’s readings. I preached about what I wanted to feel. And as I texted friends, I hoped they would feel something of joy, even if they were unready, too.
From the sanctuary looking through the chapel doors, I glimpsed what looked like snowflakes falling during the Easter Sunday Mass. They were white blossoms from trees instead. Students gathered in Marsh Plaza, outfitted for the occasion—dresses and neckties. I still wore sandals, as I almost always do – my congregation had been teasing me about wearing shoes for the Saturday Vigil. A bishop was presiding, I explained.
Donuts with brightly colored sprinkles were being served outside the chapel after Mass. And I thought: Easter, feasting, and weight loss do not go together.