A Prayer Practice for Holy Week

A Prayer Practice for Holy Week

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality of God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…
Philippians 2:5

As we approach Holy Week, I give thanks for all in our congregations preparing meaningful opportunities for prayer and reflection on the greatest of mysteries at the heart of our faith: Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross, and his resurrection from the dead. Please do not casually absent yourselves from these offerings–they can be occasions of profound spiritual encounter.

An insight from Richard Rohr has captured my imagination: “the Body of Christ is crucified and resurrected at the same time.” He writes of the anguishing suffering of the Ukrainian people “that we watch in real time from an unfair distance” and calls us to loving solidarity “to bear what is ours to carry.”1

We live inside these mysteries, personally and collectively, which is to say that we experience death and resurrection at the same time, too.

On Easter, with preachers everywhere, I’ll focus on the resurrection side of this dual reality. But first we ponder the cross, the price Jesus paid for love, and remember the times when we, like him, are called to empty ourselves for love’s sake.

The phrase “empty ourselves” has passive connotations, but it takes a lot of energy to let go of control. (In this, your bishop knows of what she speaks.) It is not an abdication of our responsibility to address the things that lie within our power to change, but rather a posture of profound acceptance of the things we would do anything to change if we could–but we can’t.

Jesus on the cross is there for us when we can’t see a way out of the mess we’re in, when life hits us with the full force of its cruelty, when there is no alternative but to go through the storm, through the fire, into the very hardship we tried so hard to avoid.

I’d like to share with you a simple practice that I learned from the Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault at our most recent House of Bishops’ meeting. It has helped me call to mind my need to surrender to what I cannot control and open myself to grace when I need it most. It feels especially appropriate for Holy Week.

Bourgeault began with a word of encouragement: “Remember that hope and imagination flow out of the heart of Christ, that through him there is spiritual power available to us that gives life far greater compassion and coherence than we can muster on our own.”

She also named one of the demons we all face: “We are tired of living in bondage to fear. Perfect fear casts out love.” While it’s counter-intuitive, she said, the way to free ourselves from fear and reconnect with Christ’s love is to let go of whatever it is we’re holding onto so tightly.

She encouraged the gathered bishops to allow our bodies to lead the way. “Picture what happens inside your body when you’re angry, upset, or afraid.” We all felt our muscles tense, as we imagined closing in ourselves or lashing out, clenching our fist or our teeth.

“Now picture a posture of surrender and release.” We took a deep breath and felt our muscles relax. “Whenever that feeling of inner clenching or outward lashing comes upon you,” she said, “practice letting go. Practice self-surrender and allow grace to restore your equanimity–which is not the same as happiness. Equanimity is possible in deep pain and sorrow. It will allow you to act with integrity and freedom.”

More than once since that session, I’ve felt that familiar tensing up and the desire to do something to address whatever has knocked me off-center. The physical gestures of release, letting go and breathing deeply, helps me accept whatever it was that unsettled me, in order to be present to Christ and pray for clarity on how best to act, instead of react. I don’t do this perfectly, but perhaps that’s why it’s called spiritual practice.

On Palm Sunday we hear the words of the Apostle Paul: “Christ did not regard equality of God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself…” Emptiness is letting go of our grasp, letting the world have its way, trusting that God will bring good out of what we cannot.

With each acceptance of what we cannot change, we face a kind of death. But in Christ death always precedes life. “The losses that we thought surely would kill us are the losses that reorient our lives,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. “What death ends, it also begins. Painfully, perhaps. Fearfully, often. But never without new challenges, new gifts, new opportunities. It’s when we shutter up the windows of our souls and hide behind yesterday that tomorrow never comes, no matter how long we live.”2

As you pray this Holy Week, consider visualizing your body when you’re holding on and letting go. As you do, ask yourself what might there be for you to let go of, accept or let die, so that, in God’s time, new life might arise and take flight.
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1It Can’t Be Carried Alone by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, April 6, 2022.
2Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori/Triumph, 1999) pp.126-27