It caught me by surprise that the Carmelite Sisters keep a complete and prayerful silence during the Holy Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, not speaking until the conclusion of the evening Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. I remember when I was the “new kid on the block,” a recently-arrived postulant who was learning more and more each hour of each day about the way of life of the Carmelite Sisters. They amazed me, and I, who usually have the right words to say what I want to communicate, was rendered speechless at the pristine purity and beauty of their way of life.
I was all eyes and ears. I took in everything – the simple furniture, the absence of television, and the evident priority given to God and the things of God. I marveled the utter clarity and purity of intention of the sisters. It was all so other-worldly. When Holy Week arrived, I watched the preparations and participated in some of them. On Holy Thursday, life took a new, very-focused, very-meditative pace. Everything just slowed down. Some activities stopped. Literally. Others moved into second or third or fourth place in priority in order to make way for the Holy Triduum.
It reminded me of Carl Sandburg’s poem, Fog. “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city . . . and then moves on.” If I could paraphrase, “The Holy Triduum comes in with a prayerful, waiting silence. It enfolds both exteriorly and interiorly . . . and then moves on.” Our life changed radically for those three days.
That is what I want to write about. What our days are like during the Holy Triduum. Why? Even after many, many years as a Carmelite Sister, I still marvel at Holy Week in Carmel. I won’t and shouldn’t write about everything, but I would like to give you a glimpse.
Everyone knows the famous story of the onion. You peel off one layer and another one appears. Peel that one off and another appears. I hope you don’t mind my comparing the holiest week of the year to an onion, but it is the best analogy I can think of, so, here goes.
As a child, I grew up in an Irish Catholic home. As I grew in wisdom, age and grace, when Holy Week arrived, my family life was different. As a child, when I was old enough, I attended Stations of the Cross on Fridays. During my junior high years, I spent 3 hours on a beautiful, spring day enclosed in a church listening to the seven last words on Good Friday. As a high school student, I joined my family more fully and participated in the Holy Triduum liturgy. It was very long, but I loved it. Something in my deepest spirit was stirred, even though I didn’t know yet exactly what it was.
Then, soon after high school graduation, I entered the Carmelite Sisters. This Holy Triduum was far deeper there than anything I had ever experienced before. And it happens each year the same way. The Holy Thursday Passover evening meal over, we stop talking. The grand silence wraps its mantle around our convent. Grand silence – days of contemplative silence, not making unnecessary noise or doing anything extraordinary – becomes the order of the day. I felt and still feel that I was in a very sacred place where God and the things of God took precedence.
The Holy Triduum in Carmel is exclusively for Jesus, to accompany Him, to console Him, to meditate on His Passion and to contemplate His love. Everything else is silent that we may listen to and speak with Him. Each step we take, each movement we make, each thought we think directs us to Him and Him alone. What I am trying to say is that it is intense and so very, very real.
Good Friday is a day like none other. We live and breathe the liturgy. There are no distractions. On Good Friday evening, according to the custom of our founding sisters who came from Mexico as exiled refugees during the religious persecution of the 1920s and 30s, we participate in the traditional “Pesame” service which takes place during the early evening hours of Good Friday. Pesame is translated as “condolence.” Dar el pésame is the expression used to offer one’s condolences to relatives upon the death of a loved one. Our Good Friday Pesame consists of the rosary recited in the bare chapel. We spend that time near our Blessed Mother to accompany her in her sorrow. We meditate on Our Lady of Sorrows and spend some time in prayer – friend to friend.
During the whole day on Holy Saturday, we physically feel a separation from Christ. The tabernacle is emptied. The sanctuary light remains extinguished. Oh, how we feel this emptiness. It is all-embracing. Quietly we begin the preparations for the Vigil Mass that evening and our joyful time together which follows the Vigil Mass.
The new fire. The paschal candle. The Exultet. The Old and New Testament Readings. What a night! As a teenager, I was first introduced to this most impressive liturgy and it drew me in. Now, many, many years later, it still draws me in – like a magnet. And each year, my understanding of and love for the Paschal Mystery deepens. Like the onion, each year a deeper layer is discovered. Year after year, for over fifty years now, the Holy Spirit has peeled off the layers for me and directed me to yet another nuance or a deeper entering into the mystery.
I read somewhere that because in eternity, there is no time dimension, when we participate in the Holy Triduum, we are actually companioning Jesus. We are there. We are with Him. We can tell him of our love, of our gratitude for what He is doing for us. We can give Him our sins, our wounds in need of healing, our family troubles and burdens, and He receives them with so much love undergoes His passion, death, and resurrection.
Our churches will be filled with Easter flowers and alleluia will be heard throughout the world. But, this year, when you enter the Church during Holy Week, may you remember the humble onion and allow the Holy Spirit to peel back a layer. Amen. Alleluia!