I’m at my new church pretty much all week this Holy Week, except, for work reasons, the Maundy Thursday service. When I first realized this was going to be the case, I felt briefly crushed.
I’ve been attached to Maundy Thursday even during my time in the relative wilderness – since 1995, in fact, when I was just short of 18. That year was Peak Churchgoing. I was in all the choirs that would have me, voice and handbell, and that meant two services on Palm Sunday, one on Thursday, one on Friday, one on Saturday, and I can’t even remember how many on Easter Sunday. By that time I’d been in choirs for ten years, and I was an old professional, flipping expertly to the next hymn number and journaling assiduously during the sermon.
I think that Hymn 165 was the sequence, or middle, hymn on Maundy Thursday 1995. It’s the best-known poem by Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?), translation after John Mason Neale, set to the plainsong Pange lingua. Here are some other lovely Episcopalians singing it.
Here are the some of the words.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
of the mighty conflict sing;
tell the triumph of the victim,
to his cross thy tribute bring.
Jesus Christ the world’s redeemer
from that cross now reigns as King.
Thirty years among us dwelling,
his appointed time fulfilled,
born for this, he meets his passion,
this the Savior freely willed;
on the cross the Lamb is lifted,
where his precious blood is spilled.
Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.
I was sight-reading this, but it’s plainsong, so it wasn’t that hard, and my mind was, as usual, wandering to something unrelated, like The Pirates of Penzance. Then suddenly, as I recall it, I felt a great heave of emotion, or maybe not emotion exactly, but something that played handball with my innards, except that makes it sound too much like seasickness.
After the Maundy Thursday service, with the stripping of the altar and dimming of the lights, I wrote a poem, attempting to tack some words onto the thing. That poem has long gone the way of all paper, and I’m sure that it was terrible anyway. I can only really remember one line of it:
and You were there
I’ve thought of that long moment, two or three verses’ worth, thousands of times since then. I’ve read everybody from William James on down to try to find a description of it. When, during my times of greater faith, someone asked me if I’d been born again, I thought of that moment and answered close enough. In other times, I defensively rationalized it as a Maslovian peak experience or an artistic response to the liturgical drama. If I wanted to exaggerate some but not much, I’d say I went to college and majored in religion with an emphasis in Biblical studies just to try to unpack what went on in that moment.
And of course, of course, I’ve tried to recreate it and failed every time. I can get a darn good wave of feeling going, especially with that hymn, but it’s not the same.
So I was excited to think of doing Maundy Thursday in high-church style again, as close as possible to the circumstances of the original experience. Then I noticed my scheduling conflict. And I was, as mentioned, briefly crushed.
Then I thought hang on, wait, no: this is a good thing. Because guess what: I am so not eighteen anymore. If I’m only going to have meaningful experiences when the choir’s in tune and the candlelight is just right, that’s not a grown-up’s spiritual life. The last thing I need is to recapitulate my youth and sit there in a cloud of sentimentality, however pleasant. So I’m content to spend the week in worship with the one exception. Because whatever it was that grabbed me one Maundy Thursday, it returns, not when I or any church has set the table, but only in its own good time.