Image: Detail, Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Chartres Cathedral, 12th-century, stained glass.  

When I was three years old, I told one of the teen Sunday School helpers that he was being “ridiculous and uncooperative.” This, needless to say, spread around the church like wildfire and grown-up Julia has not lost the ability that little Julia had for talking and using big words.

This is a blessing and a curse (a curse mostly for the many people to whom I turn to verbally process every minute event in my life). And a blessing during this April—truly the cruelest month in graduate school. Comprehensive exams to pass, papers to compose, public presentations to deliver, lessons to teach, condolence cards to write, and summer jobs to apply for have reduced me to a one-woman-multi-modal-content-generating machine.  

The constant babble of words in my head—all clambering for my attention—was not conducive for entering into Holy Week. “Words, words, words” is how Hamlet responds to Polonius when he asks what Hamlet is reading. The same could be said (I admit to my shame) of me during much of the readings over the course of the Holy Week services. Distracted by the internal buzz of the content-machine and dulled by a long winter of work, I felt the extended Maundy Thursday and Good Friday readings go in one ear and out the other.

But, in the darkness of the Holy Saturday’s Easter Vigil, some words finally stuck:

How Holy is this night . . .
It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.
It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

Holy Week is for the cynical and tired, the self-pitying and the frustrated; it’s for me. An idiosyncratic take on the Vigil liturgy, perhaps, but these were the particular words that I needed to hear. And after hearing them, I could more actively join in the “Alleluias” that followed and more attentively ponder the words of the Easter Story.

Of course, my attention was never free from the self-absorption and personal distraction even after my small Holy Week epiphany. Language is a slippery, imperfect thing. Coming from the mouths of half-hearted, scatter-brained humans, our prayers would be a garbled mess to God’s ears if not for the merciful miracle of Holy Week. On this side of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit guides our sorry prayers with precision, attention, and power “too deep” for our human words (Romans 8:26). C. S. Lewis articulates this tension between God’s unbounded attention to our woefully wayward pleas in a sonnet called “A Footnote to All Prayers.” It sums up my Holy Week quite nicely, and the prayer in the final couplet seems a fitting way to end.

A Footnote to All Prayers  

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

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