Diary of a Free Range Priest: Spirituality and Holy Week


As far as I can remember, I have never missed Holy Week services. From my Roman Catholic upbringing to my Episcopal adulthood, I have been present for 49 foot washings and altar strippings on Maundy Thursday; overnight vigils until Good Friday; Stations of the Cross and the finality of the tomb; then the light into darkness extravagance of the Saturday night Easter Vigil; and of course the frothy joy of Easter morning. Maybe not every service every year - I can't remember all of them in my early childhood - but a mental montage of how this week has shaped my life and faith is part of my identity. In college I sang in the choir, and I can still remember the cool of the marble floors on my bare feet as I sang, having slipped off my shoes to have my feet washed by the priest. And the chill of the air as the whole congregation made its way outside to baptize new Christians in the courtyard fountain in the dark of Easter eve.

As a young adult I read the parts of the Passion story with awe and exhilaration - 'Crucify him!' from the pews, 'I wash my hands of this' when playing Pontius Pilate. In seminary processing with the bread and wine away from the altar to the oratory where we would stay up all night and watch - 'sing my tongue the glorious battle...', the huge iron doors of the chapel closing behind us.

And now years of priesthood - the faithful exhaustion of tending to each part of the story - Jesus' last days on Earth, the story of what we believe and why, witnessed and experienced all in one week. Holy Week is in every part of my bones, and my heart, and my memory.

I am very fascinated by a new series that the Atlantic is doing, focusing on millennials and spirituality. They are taking an in-depth look at the so called 'nones', those who profess no particular religious faith, or those who choose different parts of different faiths to practice, or not. I find this fascinating, but I also find it dangerous. Maybe not in the way you think.

Spirituality, it seems to me, is the awareness that one has a soul, has a longing to connect with something deeper, has a sense of some overarching power of good that is larger than ourselves. Spirituality, then, is exploring this.

Religion, though, is when that larger force reaches back. There really is no way to prepare yourself for the moment you think you are in control and you suddenly realize that not only are you not, something else is. And it is good. It is love.

Then, I think, the danger is, you simply have no choice but to follow, to be in relationship with this God who chose you, and that relationship is very particular, and it is called religion. Get too close to your own soul and its desires, and you will find that spirituality is just the start.

I was born in the fall, baptized at two weeks old, and so there has never been a Holy Week of my life in which I was not a Christian. Some of those weeks I don't remember, some I am sure I didn't understand, many were boring or forgettable or something to endure, for many reasons, I am sure. But along the way, although my religion was the same, my soul gradually heard the call of the convert. For decades now, this is my love story, the parameters of my belief: fully familiar, and fully mysterious. It is not a choice, it is a response.

I cannot imagine missing any of Holy Week. Yet if I were in jail, if I were in the hospital, if I were on my deathbed, I would just close my eyes and still see all the parts: the silence, the darkness, the candles; the solemnity and unbearable sadness; the slow march and then the burst of joy.

I know how this journey goes. I still can't wait to get there.