Holy Thursday: Eating in Silence

Over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site today we have another terrific guest post in aid of the hermitage, this time from Matthew Leonard, author, speaker, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, on the sacredness of silence.  I hope you’ll take the time to drop by and read his really thoughtful post, on how it’s not just enough to be quiet or place ourselves in quiet surroundings to pray: we also have to quiet ourselves down on the inside, as well.  If you’re enjoying these guest posts from Catholic writers over on FLPH, please be sure to share them, and also please prayerfully consider a donation to help us establish a permanent Franciscan hermitage. We’re happy and grateful for any donations!

Tonight many of us will be going to church to commemorate Holy Thursday, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  For those who have never attended a Catholic Holy Thursday Mass, it is an evening full of symbolism, from ringing of bells to washing of feet, stripping bare of the altars to the procession with the Eucharist to the altar of repose, where it will remain until the Easter Vigil.  At my parish of St. Stephen’s, during the procession around the church the altar boy holding the censer is in the lead, but interestingly he walks BACKWARDS in front of the priest holding the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament, so that he is constantly censing the Eucharist.

One of the points Matt Leonard raises in his piece for FLPH is that “the sights and sounds we take in are food for the imagination.”  This is something the Church has always understood.  It’s why we have particular, traditional rituals occur on Holy Thursday which do not occur at other times of year.  It’s also why for centuries the Church commissioned beautiful art and beautiful buildings, to put us into a frame of  mind where we can focus more on heavenly things rather than earthly concerns.

However it’s also why when we take in the Food of God Himself, we do so quietly, rather than boisterously. When we receive Communion, we go back to our seats and remain in silence, rather than standing around chit-chatting like one would do at a normal meal.  We are sharing in a different kind of meal together, which though communal, simultaneously each of us is experiencing in a very personal, intimate way, differing from person to person in its impact.

At the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass tonight, all will depart in silence. There will be no music, no bells, and indeed no Mass again until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, when the Church erupts in song and the ringing of bells to mark the Resurrection.  So for those of you able to make it to church this evening, consider how that exterior silence, as you receive Communion and as you leave to go home, is something you can keep with you over the Triduum, to allow God to speak to your quieted self in a way that perhaps is impossible for Him to do in your busy, everyday life.

Detail of "The Last Supper" by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896) Private Collection

Detail of “The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896)
Private Collection





When the Whale Fails

We are, it must be said, a particularly noisy people in the present age. The cries of “Me! Me! Me!” raised by Western society over the last forty years are practically deafening. There is far too much noise, virtual and otherwise, which we generate with our phone calls, texting, emailing, etc., not to mention our incessant entertainment devices spewing sound waves at us all day long.  As a result, when we are stopped in our tracks and we cannot have all the noise we are accustomed to, it may make us a bit uncomfortable.

Those of my readers who are habitual users of Twitter know that the site went down last night for quite a long period of time. Many of my acquaintance migrated, at least temporarily, to Google Plus or Facebook in order to continue chattering away, while waiting for the infamous “Fail Whale” to re-submerge. I did speculate whether Google had orchestrated a site crash of Twitter just to test and see how usage of Google Plus might increase during that period, but admittedly this is a spurious idea. [N.B.:  Per “Metropolitan” character Nick Smith, should I inexplicably disappear or be found dead under mysterious circumstances, please insist on a full investigation.]

Being in a foul mood for various unimportant reasons, with the crash of Twitter on top of everything else I realized that it was providential for me to be prevented from tweeting. In that particular frame of mind, such communication would probably have led to my arguing with people about trifles. And thinking about the concept of Providence, I decided to read a bit from the classic “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J. (1675-1751).

If you are not already familiar with Caussade’s book, gentle reader, you certainly ought to be. It helped many Catholics during the French Revolution to make it through the trying times in which they found themselves, and provided comfort and direction to those targeted for punishment and execution. Blogger extraordinaire Father Dwight Longenecker provides a good overview of Father Caussade’s work, including the context in which it was written and its being a precursor to some of the ideas explored by C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”, and also why it should not be mistaken by those espousing hippy-dippy, New Age nonsense as anything but orthodox.

A thought of Caussade’s that particularly struck me was his consideration of two ways to exercise fidelity to the Will of God. He writes:

The active practice of fidelity consists in accomplishing the duties which devolve upon us whether imposed by the general laws of God and of the Church, or by the particular state that we may have embraced. Its passive exercise consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at each moment.

Abandonment to Divine Providence
Chapter III

You can see why the members of the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie found this advice helpful, as they sat in prisons awaiting their fates.  Caussade points out that reading itself may be just another distraction, a source of noise to keep us from doing what we ought, unless we are careful. When life prevents us from making the amount of noise to which we have become accustomed, considerations about who we are and where we are going manage to finally break through into our consciousness, and it is in these moments which Caussade felt that the opportunity to accept our duties in this life, making those alterations that are necessary, were finally possible.

Of course, one does not need to be in prison in order to find time to be quiet and reflect. Certainly the massive Twitter failure last evening provided that opportunity for those who chose to take advantage of it, and no impending trip to the guillotine was needed. However for those of us on the East Coast, there may be an impending opportunity to experience a kind of enforced silence, which we may want to consider taking advantage of.

The horrible heat that has plagued the American breadbasket for the past several days is making its way eastward, and temperatures here in Washington for example may top 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.33 Centigrade) on Friday. With everyone running their air conditioners at the same time, and staying indoors to watch television, use their computers, do laundry, etc., there is a decent chance that things will come to a halt in a brown-out. This will leave us in an unpleasant, sauna-like quiet.

If that happens, what will we do with ourselves? From a practical standpoint there will be various ways to try to keep cool of course, and among the best ways will be to not move about very much, for perspiration can lead quickly to dehydration. Without all the noise buzzing about in our brains, will we simply find other things to start buzzing around, or will accept the imposed time of inaction and quiet as an opportunity for reflection, on both our day-to-day life, and what we are doing with the paths we have chosen to follow?

Technology can be a wonderful thing; without it, gentle reader, you would not be considering these words right now. Yet turning off the technology for a bit, voluntarily, and without having to wait for Twitter to crash or a brown-out to hit your town, would seem to be a virtuous act.  The fail whale may ironically prove to be one of the best things that happen to you, but there is no need to wait for that to happen.

It is a difficult act to undertake, to be sure, in our technology-obsessed time – the deliberate removal of the self from the din of modern life. Apart from when we go to sleep, it is not practical, to those of us living outside of monasteries and the like, for more than a few minutes or hours. Yet in removing all the noise from our lives for some conscious period of reflective silence, we may find greater wisdom than in all the noise with which we surround ourselves.

“Man Reading” by John Singer Sargent (c. 1890)
Reading Public Museum, Reading, PA