Striking gold with a Lenten prayer vigil

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  • April 3, 2014

Did I really want to spend a long evening sitting alone in a chapel — not getting done any of the things I wanted to get done, not visiting any of the people I wanted to visit, not having any of the adventures I wanted on a Friday night? Instead, a seven to midnight Lenten prayer vigil.

“How will you spend the remaining golden coins?” somebody had asked me that morning. The golden coins of life, each precious and irretrievable. I wasn’t sure the prayer vigil was worth gold, but I’d promised, so I stuck with it. During the vigil’s silent beauty, I was surprised to find I wasn’t alone. Others stayed in the chapel, spending their gold here this night. Eventually, as the voices inside my head wore themselves out, the silence did come to me, bringing its gifts.

I found myself recalling a story I’d read, while researching the dreaded poliomyelitis outbreak of the early 20th century. A woman named Martha, infected with polio as a child, spent the rest of her life — more than 60 years — in an iron lung. This meant lying encased in a body-length metal tube, without which she couldn’t breathe, only her head outside it, from 11 years old to 72. Not long before her death, she remarked: “I’ve had a good life.”

The sentence arrested me. If I’d been researching “the good life,” I wouldn’t have started with iron lungs. She spent her life in a way the rest of us might consider bitter gall. Yet the sentence rang true, not tinged with irony or bitterness or even resignation. My few hours of silence almost instantly revealed resentment, vitriol and other unpleasantness. Where was hers?

It seems she spent her golden coins well. As a child, she delayed telling her parents she had polio, because they were grieving her young brother who had just died of it, and didn’t want to burden them. Friends said her relative longevity, given her illness, was due to her vital spirit, others’ care for her, her thirst for learning.

The good way, the Way of Life, is available to us all, but we might not all be so ready to accept it. “The one who has surrendered to it knows that the Way ends on the Cross,” wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, “even when it is leading through the jubilation of Gennesaret or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”

It’s not hard to notice Martha’s cross. She could have been a strong advocate for “assisted suicide” if she’d so chosen, her suffering plain to all. What’s more surprising are her joy and peace.

Nor is it hard to see why we need Lent (even though I doubted the value of a Lenten vigil). Sin, betrayal, crucifixion, are obvious. During Lent, our outer and inner worlds match; violence and sin within us are echoed in liturgies, images, stories. It’s harder to see why we need Easter; not surprisingly, we tend to give up on it much more easily. We follow Lent through the 40 days and into Good Friday. By the second or third day of Easter, we abandon it to work and regular life.

Martha might be a good symbol of the cross’s seeming victory over life. Why wasn’t her fate better than this? No, she says with her life, there’s no better: the power of the cross is not what we think, I had something to give and I gave it, something to receive and I received it. I was loving and loved.

Hammarskjöld well knew the price of surrendering to the Way of the Cross. The second Secretary- General of the United Nations, he gave his life in active service of peace. In 1961 he was on a peace mission in the Congo. His airplane crashed one September night in a remote place in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia; the cause of the crash unknown, speculation continues as to whether he was assassinated. His body was found splayed up against an anthill, which in Zambia means a hill many feet tall. It may seem his way ended with defeat, unaccomplished goals, and an undignified, purposeless death. As with Jesus. Is that the way of the Cross?

The way of the cross doesn’t actually end with death. “The one who surrenders to it knows the way of the Cross ... Do not seek death,” Hammerskjöld wrote in Markings, his book of poems and meditation. “Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfilment.” We need Lent to help us walk the Way together. We need Easter to see what’s really going on among us.

My tiny golden coin, spent in Lenten vigil from seven to midnight, was spent not alone, but in company with the dead and the living. Vigil is the way the Church lives these realities before God, as the Body of Christ on Earth: bearing the wounds of the cross, and breathing the true life of resurrection.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)

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