In truth, in this year 2020, Passiontide came early. Across the world, in the face of the terrible pandemic that is causing widespread suffering and death, our churches and their sacred rites have been veiled for some time now. Our own singing of the eight hours of the Office is now ‘hidden away’ here in our Chapter Room—something quite alien for Benedictines, for as Dom Guéranger reportedly observed, a monk’s choir stall is his pulpit. Current circumstances have taken that away from us, and in a way, have brought us to a more Carthusian observance.
Our civil authorities and ecclesiastical superiors have judged these measures proportionate in the face of the threat menacing us. Without waiving the right—or indeed possibly the duty at times—of making due representation to authority about their policies, we must accept that this is their prerogative. Dissent in these matters may well be nothing less than the sin of presumption. And it may have grave consequences which we are not individually sufficiently equipped to judge or to foresee.
And yet, locked down as we are, deprived of the possibility of celebrating the rites of the Sacred Liturgy and of Holy Week solemnly and fully as we so desire, we are not absolved of activity. The monastery is not suppressed or closed for business. We have not been given an extended holiday. No. Our essential service to the Church and to the world continues. Indeed, if it is possible to say it, it has become ever more crucial, even if in a veiled, more hidden, manner.
For the realities faced by the countries of the world are grave. Significant numbers are dying unprepared deaths in circumstances of great suffering. Relatives and friends grieve with few of the usual consolations, sometimes without even the rites of Christian burial.
We cannot be at their side or hold their hands throughout these ordeals. But we can implore the mercy of Almighty God on the dying: our singing of Psalm 50 each morning at Lauds can be offered that the Lord will turn His face from their sins; that their humbled and contrite hearts will not be despised in God’s sight.
We can pray earnestly that they will live from the truth taught in today’s Holy Gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (Jn 8:51) We can, as we have been doing, pray in the words of the hymn from None:
Lagire clarum vesperæ,
Quo vita nusquam decidat
Sed praemium mortis sacræ
Perennis instet gloria.
Grant us when this short life is past,
The glorious evening that shall last;
That by a holy death attained,
Eternal glory may be gained.
We can pray that the present widespread suffering and fear does not extinguish faith, hope and charity in those whom it afflicts. For, as we know from the passion and death of our Lord Himself, the darkest shadows of the cross are cast by the light of Easter morning. And it is in this light that the Christian lives and dies in this world, no matter in what circumstances.
In these days, in the more modest observance of Passiontide and the Sacred Triduum that the affliction of pestilence throughout the world will exact upon us, our vocation is ever more to prayer and intercession. Intercession for those dying without the comfort of loved ones at their side and deprived of the fortification of the sacraments. Intercession for those mourning their dead in the absence of the consolation of the rites of the Church. Intercession for medical professionals and staff, especially those whom we know, who serve in the front line of the care of those who are ill, even at great personal risk. Intercession for those who must take the risk of going out each day in order to keep essential services functional. Intercession for priests who seek to bring the sacraments to the dying, sometimes in the face of opposition, even from bishops. And intercession particularly for those tempted by fear and to despair in the uncertainty and loneliness of these days.
Just as Passiontide came early in 2020, so too the light of Easter morn may seem late to arrive. But it shall: that we know from the passion, death and resurrection of Christ himself. Whilst we attend its coming let the words of the Psalmist cry out to Christ on our lips from our hidden choir stalls: “Anima me turbata est valde: sed tu Domine, usquequo?” (My soul also is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long?) (Ps. 6:3; Monday Prime); “Usquequo, Domine, oblivisceris me in finem? Usquequo avertis faciem tuam a me?” (How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?) (Ps. 12:1; Thursday Prime). Let the responsories, antiphons and other chants of Passiontide, so pregnant with the anguish, grief and burdens of this life carry the needs of all those who currently suffer to God’s throne that is both merciful and just.
The light of Easter morning shall indeed dawn. It may yet be a while, but it shall come. Until it does—after particular judgement for those who shall die soon and who has kept the word of the Lord, or for the Church suffering, praying and interceding throughout these days of trial, eventually—our privileged and God-given role is to enter more deeply into that suffering, to pray more earnestly, and though our intercession to win the graces necessary for those who in this time of crisis so desperately need them. +