Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday: An Awful Lot Like Dying

You know that old tv series, “This is your life” ? Tonight felt a lot like that–in a beautiful, mosaic sort of way.

I have not ever celebrated “Maundy Thursday” before with any fanfare and until I joined my Episcopal church a few years ago, I hadn’t heard of it at all. I am sure it was always out there, floating, like everything that exists but you have no personal relationship to–but tonight I entered into its universe and it shifted me. Like the plates of the earth, the way they move in imperceptible ways all the time, and no one notices except when it’s the large thunder of an earthquake. Tonight was a seismic shift for me in a microscopic way that no one but me would ever know, except by my explaining that it happened.

I guess that is how most transformation, or continuing transformation happens, in small microbes of change that could easily be ignored, even by the bearer, unless you make a conscious decision to notice it, embrace it, and change because of it.

Most of my life, as I imagine most of many people’s lives, is full of many more moments I bypassed than the ones I stopped to meditate on. Today, this feeling, even if recorded only for myself, isn’t something I want to forget quickly or brush past like an afterthought.

I have made a note this week, one that I have made before but forgot–breathlessness feels profoundly and exhaustingly like dying. There is nothing like the experience hour-by-hour every evening gasping for air to set the stage for Holy Week and its implications.

The nature of this process of death and rebirth which is the foundation of Christianity in Jesus’s life, death, and renewal in God is one that I have found hard to conceptualize and personalize before. The story is there, in Good Friday and Easter, but it has always come and gone with minimal reverence (besides the flicker in a Sunday morning, or the everyday, passive kind) and almost no personal experience of Jesus in the process.

The experience of Maundy Thursday, tonight, made Jesus’s last moments of freedom, before his arrest, very personal. It made Jesus personal and in this syncronicity of everything it seems that has happened in my life from (not coincidentally) Christmas to Easter I have come to a place of feeling the life of a man, of God, in a way that is real.

It is hard to admit and not easy to publicly say that I spent decades weathering the storms of my belief, coming to land in a place of my “faith of origin” by more than geography and family history, but even in this intentional outward experience of God and Jesus in my own life I found the ease of complacency. Transformative moments aren’t a Monday through Sunday experience for most of us and so religious life often becomes relegated to rituals and service, and an ebbing of intensity, passion, and visceral experience of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Maundy Thursday, surrounded by the “This is your life” of my church these past few years–at the altar stood the reverend  with whom I have had ever-increasingly intimate faith journeys over tea, in the choir my friend’s girlfriend, next to me my friend, to the other side my husband, in the second row a woman who has come to my contemplative prayer group who paused to whisper “this is a transformational night” to me as we passed each other in a congregational procession, the woman with whom I spoke, at length, about eastern traditions and Christian lineage, my husband’s youth group, his buddy from softball, two other women who were in my original contemplative prayer workshop two years ago, and in the midst of all of this community, was Jesus.

I am not sure there is an altogether non-cheesy, verging on “jesus-freak” sounding way to glorify a personal experience with God, with Jesus, or with the Holy Spirit. In reverence there is, maybe, a necessary amount of “cheese”.

I am ok with that, really, no really, I am.  Ok, I’m getting ok with it.

In the solemnity of the service, with scripture read, feet washed, soup had, and the stripping of the altar, my body felt like it was straining under the pressure of its own existence. Breath, heavy in effort, shallow in results, just kept fighting for air for three hours. I waged the internal war in a very literal, dying to self. Because, breathlessness really does feel like death.

And suddenly, there was a warmth, on my back and on my hands, pressed together in prayer–at once like the warmth of velvet and the chill of a cold wind. And the voice in my head, the one that is not exactly me that speaks to me, through me, said: Relax, relax relax, let go, let go, let go.

And my lungs gave way, gave up the fight and releasing a few more pockets of air than before.

These words to me, like a prayer, like a sermon, like an embrace, are the same words I use when I guide others in meditation. In the presence of a very personal Jesus, with my eyes wet with tearfulness, I breathed in life, and died to my will all in a simple experience of allergic asthma.

How easy it can be to find Jesus and how easy it could be to ignore Him. I am glad I chose an embrace rather than a rebuttal–just for today. Tomorrow I will battle the new/old war again of ego versus God and life versus death in all those microscopic ways, like personal earthquakes, which no one can see but me–and I can ignore if I choose to.

I will end with a prayer, a mantra of sorts, that I began to repeat tonight and I think I will stick with tomorrow:
“Jesus, Lord, God, have mercy on me.”

I hope everyone is able to find a deepening in their experience of God, Jesus, or into whatever space your faith is leading you. I pray for the blessing of everyone’s personal earthquakes.

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