Holy Thursday. Tonight will be the Mass of the Lord's Supper, a liturgy of unearthly beauty and heartache that will conclude by removing, in solemn procession, a golden monstrance—that sun-flared medieval repository for the consecrated host—leaving its usual sanctuary open and empty. Then, at the "altar of repose," we will kneel before a little flat piece of bread while a choir sings "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum." The scent of lilies and incense will fill the air. It will be, depending on your point of view, the dizzying celebration of a divine romance or an atheist's laugh-riot.
That is what I love about the Catholic theology of the Eucharist: We take Christ at His word. "This is my Body...this is my Blood." Seriously? Oh, yes. It's why I love the lavish Baroque monstrance and hated the Seventies-era "authentic" wooden vessels and earthenware plates that the Kumbayah crowd bought for the altars. "We are 'star-stuff,'" intoned Carl Sagan, as he spun our physical connection to the Big Bang. Well, our God who made the stars makes Himself bread stuff. Wine stuff. Body and blood stuff. Us-stuff. Bring out the good china.
Here is my favorite prayer in the entire world: the "Anima Christi," a post-Communion litany. Every line is fathomlessly deep and instantly accessible. (I know my "malignant enemy," and you know yours.) The Latin rocks, so I'll give that, too. I've seen translations that take out the word "inebriate"...not on your life.
The 'Anima Christi'
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Never let me be separated from Thee
From the malignant enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints
Forever and ever
And in Latin:
Anima Christi, sanctifica me.
Corpus Christi, salva me.
Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
Aqua lateris Christi, lava me.
Passio Christi, conforta me.
O bone Jesu, exaudi me.
Intra tua vulnera absconde me.
Ne permittas me separari a te.
Ab hoste maligno defende me.
In hora mortis meae voca me.
Et iube me venire ad te,
Ut cum Sanctis tuis laudem te.
In saecula saeculorum.
I call it the Big Liturgical Kahuna, but the next few days are more rightly called the Easter Triduum. Lent is wrapping up. Fasting, as usual, was a disaster (not a pound lighter), but prayer-blogging has been a blast. I hope you have enjoyed sharing some wildly over-the-top spirituality from our Catholic tradition (and a few others), and that non-Catholic visitors might have glimpsed some of the mad poetry that is our heritage. For Holy Thursday and Good Friday, I have saved the best for last, so check back!
Before all eyes turn to the Cross and Resurrection, I must share my go-to prayer to Mary. I'm not much of a Rosary girl (although I dug mine out on 9/11). But the "Memorare" is the prayer I say in the elevator on the way to the doctor to find out what kind of lump it was.
My relationship with Mary has "evolved," as we say these days instead of admitting we were wrong. Growing up in the 1970s, I found her rather irrelevant: What kind of role model was both Virgin and Mother? One to make all us gals fall short, it seemed. Much later, pregnant and searching to allay my fears, I stumbled on New Agey advice that described how Native American women would connect to a female spirit ancestor. Wait, I've got one of those. The experience of childbirth erased the sappy image of a thousand holy cards and replaced it with a gutsy human whose body did the hard work of bringing a precious Life into this world. And motherhood shocked me with its intimacy and fierce protectiveness; if a broken heart could link Heaven and Earth, hers must have been the one.
The Memorare offers a rare thing: the consolation of a guarantee, "no prayer left unanswered." Intercessory prayer to Mary is one of the things that Protestants historically hold against us Catholics, but we cannot help ourselves; we find the concept of a Heavenly Mother irresistible, as apparently did God Himself. In Turin, when I went to see the Shroud in 2010, I visited the Basilica of the Consolata, Our Lady of Consolation. The icon shown above reigns over this shimmering high-Baroque confection of a church, and she's lovely. But what won my heart was a side-aisle festooned with hundreds of home-made ex-voto pictures attesting to La Consolata's miraculous intervention.
The paintings and drawings evoke a homey panorama of human suffering. The perils of war—exploding shells, prison camps—are well-represented. But so are the torments of watching a child languish on a sickbed.
Grateful amateur artists also depict a catalog of random catastrophes across the decades, and in each La Consolata floats overhead, guiding the victim to safety. Or perhaps, for some, she waved them securely into the Pearly Gates.
Yes, those stern Protestant Reformers were probably right that we need only pray directly to God. But we Irish and Italians know there are times when you just need to talk to your mother.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence, we fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins and Mother; to thee do we come; before thee do we stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not our petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer us. Amen.
On the seventh anniversary of Blessed John Paul II's death, here is his magnificent prayer for peace, delivered in 1981:
To the Creator of nature and man, of truth and beauty, I pray:
Hear my voice, for it is the voice of the victims of all wars and violence among individuals and nations.
Hear my voice, for it is the voice of all children who suffer and will suffer when people put their faith in weapons and war.
Hear my voice when I beg You to instill into the hearts of all human beings the wisdom of peace, the strength of justice, and the joy of fellowship.
Hear my voice, for I speak for the multitudes in every country and in every period of history who do not want war and are ready to walk the road of peace.
Hear my voice and grant insight and strength so that we may always respond to hatred with love, to injustice with total dedication to justice, to need with the sharing of self, to war with peace.
O God, hear my voice and grant unto the world Your everlasting peace.
My Lenten project—curating a collection of red-blooded, old-time Catholic prayers—has shied away from sharing one of the most deceptively simple and powerful ones. It is this, no more or less:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
As this Passion Sunday (the cooler name for "Palm Sunday") draws to a close, I'll give it a try. Variations of this brief utterance have a stupendously rich and complex history, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox communities. Calling it a "Christian mantra" doesn't do it justice. According to the daunting Wikipedia entry for the so-called Jesus Prayer:
"It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice, its use being an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm (Greek: hesychazo, "to keep stillness"). The prayer is particularly esteemed by the spiritual fathers of this tradition as a method of opening up the heart (kardia) and bringing about the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer of The Heart is considered to be the Unceasing Prayer that the apostle Paul advocates in the New Testament. St. Theophan the Recluse [hey, I know that guy!—ed.] regarded the Jesus Prayer stronger than all other prayers by virtue of the power of the Holy Name of Jesus.
Whew...this is heady stuff for someone who tends to exclaim the Holy Name mostly during attacks of road rage. Especially the notion that this prayer offers a way into St. Paul's rather impractical urging to "pray without ceasing." In a talk at my church, Bishop Frank Caggiano addressed this "pray always" mystery, suggesting that constant prayer was possible (even with TV and bathroom time, presumably). He said you'd need three things, more or less in this order:
I've seen directions for the Jesus Prayer that involve yoga-like breathing components, but I am terrible at breathing on cue, alternating between holding my breath and hyperventilating. For the past few weeks, however, I've been trying to say the prayer when I feel stressed. (Talk about "pray without ceasing.") It felt superficial and formulaic at first, and worse yet, it seemed vaguely reminiscent of talking to an imaginary playmate as I went about my day.
But curiously, as it has become a bit more of a habit, it has begun to feel comforting, like speaking to someone in the dark as they sleep by your side. A name attaches to a person, and a person is what I need when I'm needy—not a lovely, abstract syllable like "om" or even a good deep breath. During sieges of neurochemical misery, this plea for mercy seems itself to yield mercy. First, openness, then, encounter.
Come to bed, says the spouse to the blogger. How late are you going to stay up here?
For all those seeking sleep tonight, here's another prayer by the mighty St. Augustine of Hippo. For a titan of theology, he reveals a tender heart in this nighttime prayer. Somehow, it evokes the glimpsed nighttime windows of New York City for me: those lit with golden wealth, or the fluourescent strips of hospital rooms, or the bare bulbs of poverty. When are you going to turn out that light and come to bed?
A Nightly Prayer
Watch, O Lord,
with those who wake, or watch or weep tonight,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones, O Lord Jesus Christ;
rest your weary ones;
bless your dying ones;
soothe your suffering ones;
pity your afflicted ones;
shield your joyous ones;
and all for your love's sake.
- St Augustine of Hippo