You know those things that no one celebrates, that you kind of think are deserving of a medal? I feel like surviving Holy Week was one of those for me this year. As an RCIA candidate, it was definitely a bit of a marathon, one that I can hardly believe drew to a close nearly a week ago already.
The truth is, I’ve been sort of avoiding this space, and to some extent the people I know and love this week, because I knew they’d ask about Holy Week, and I just haven’t known what to say. Making the major faith shift from Protestantism to Catholicism seems to generate a lot of curiosity and quite a few expectations. It is, after all, momentous and strange – especially to those who distance, time and realities of life have prevented from walking the daily grind of this journey with me, but have only checked in at points along the way. I felt that expectation from some members of the RCIA team as well, and when the reality of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil played out differently from those expectations for me, I’ve wondered what to say, and how to describe the things in my heart as I continue to move forward. I think that the best thing is just to tell you some stories. Snippets that stand out for their humorous quality, or their joy, or some other reason that has engrained their clarity within me.
I’ll start with Maundy Thursday. That day I sent out a prayer request to a few friends who have walked with me along the way, though scattered across the world. As Holy Week had progressed to that point I’d felt a growing, deep-rooted certainty that being received into the Catholic church was the next right step in my walk with Jesus. I also felt increasing nerves, stemming from two factors. First, my entire family would be attending the Vigil mass and I remained concerned about the way they would process that, and the questions and criticisms I knew I would potentially face. And second, my anxiety over the unknown was in full gear, since the RCIA team in my particular parish prefers their catechumens and candidates to be minimally prepared for what will happen at the various masses, in favor of simply experiencing the mysteries of each moment. The family issue wasn’t one I needed to worry about too much until the Easter Vigil, so on Maundy Thursday I was busy thinking about the unknowns of the mass I needed to attend that evening.
I decided that for the time being I was going to ignore my deeper instincts towards comfort in knowledge and try to roll with the idea of experiencing through mystery. I chose humor as a coping mechanism, and after showering in preparation for the evening wryly texted a friend, “On the list of things I never thought I’d say: I just shaved my legs for a priest!” I had no idea how far up my leg the priest was planning to wash, and coming from a protestant background where footwashing can extend as high as the calves and knees, I wanted to be ready for any eventuality!
And then the kiss happened. I knew about the foot washing, but no one told me to expect the priest to KISS my foot! In pure shock, sitting on a chair facing a room of hundreds of people, I was fighting what felt like a losing battle against bursting out in awkward laughter! In retrospect, I find it humbling, but in the moment I was shocked, uncomfortable, and mostly thinking about how completely inappropriate it would be for me to lose it and burst out laughing. A friend in attendance that night later commented that I had a “cute” expression as the Father finished washing my feet. When I explained what I was fighting, she assured me that she couldn’t tell, that the expression was more of a “Well. That happened!” look. And, yes, yes it was. So that happened.
That kiss (along with a conversation with numerous other candidates and catechumens feeling the same uncertainties as me) was the catalyst for a desperate email to my closest Catholic friend, and the end of my resolve to roll with the mystery thing. I wanted to know what to expect at the Vigil, and I wanted to know now! I was particularly interested in knowing if I needed to expect any more kissing! I was determined that there would not be cause for embarrassment on such an important moment of my life if I could help it, and my preference for knowledge trumped my willingness to submit to the RCIA team on this issue. My friend came through and sent me a link to a wonderful article outlining the Vigil. I promptly printed off numerous copies and distributed them (with much thanks!) to those I’d been chatting with before the Thursday mass. It seems I wasn’t the only one who preferred a little knowledge to a lot of uncertainty.
And then there was the Vigil. I don’t remember a lot about it, if I’m honest. It was long and it was lovely. I appreciated the readings and psalms, and tried not to be overly conscious of sitting on the front row (my least favorite spot to sit in church). I was acutely aware of my sponsor sitting on my left, and a catechumen friend sitting on my right. I was even more aware of my family – both parents, both brothers and one sister-in-law – sitting somewhere near the back of the church, and spent a great deal of time wondering what they were thinking over the course of the night. I was also oh so aware of the bittersweet taste of the night – I knew I was following where Jesus was leading, but was unable to ignore that this also marks an ending and a separation of sorts from most of those I love deeply.
What I think of it now, when I think back to that night are the few perfect moments. The moments when I watched the catechumen friends I’ve journeyed with submit to the waters of baptism, and clapped and cheered as they emerged.
And this – I was finally able to take part in the Eucharist. It wasn’t the moment of partaking that stands out, but one shortly afterwards. In the moment I was thinking about what to do and how to do it, and the odd texture and taste of the host wafers (I may have had a moment where I missed the beauty of freshly baked loaves of bread used in so many protestant communion services, and I definitely had the passing thought that, “Jesus tastes better in the protestant church!” which, yes, I know, is probably sacrilegious and is definitely bad theology around the real presence).
The perfect moment was this – I’d returned to my spot on the front row, standing and singing in the tradition of my parish while the congregation continued to process forward to receive – watching as others I know came forward and ate and drank of Christ – and the musicians began to play a song that has had meaning in my life for several years. I smiled – it’s been rare lately for the music ministry at my parish to play songs that are not overtly Catholic, though their former leaning in that direction was one of the things that initially drew me to the parish. But this night, as I felt the last remnants of the host in my mouth, I had a moment of perfect joy and worship, singing along with hundreds of others, “My God is mighty to save!”
There wasn’t an overwhelming moment of change. There still isn’t. But there are things from Holy Week that make me laugh, and those that are sweetly perfect, and those things – the laughter and the joyful perfection – are the ones I’m holding on to, and that I’d love to tell you about if you ask me how the actual evening of confirmation and reception into the church took place.