“You have kept an account of my wanderings;
you have kept a record of my tears;
are they not written in your book?
Then my foes will be put to flight
On the day that I call to you.”
“Where are you from?
Jesus did not answer him.
–John 19:9, Christ before Pilate
I took a road trip to White Sands National Monument Tuesday through Thursday, reflecting en route that I’ve often been away from home during Holy Week: Taos, New Mexico: Joshua Tree, California, St. David, Arizona…. Some pilgrim urge unconsciously comes upon me, it seems.
Travel, at least the way I do it, is always in large part penance.
I travel alone and that means a certain amount of anxiety. Anyone who’s done a lot of road trips has had car trouble, for example. Then there’s fact that there is no real food readily available to interstate travelers, only the chemical calories in food0sh substances to be purchased from corporate franchises. So I bring my own food–nothing fancy; sardines, crackers, nuts, dried fruit–but there’s that, and the cooler, and the ice, and the phone charger, change of clothes, reading material. No-one to run a decision by, no-one to spell me on driving, no navigator, no-one to talk to.
For the most part, I like all this, and the car is one of the few places (church being another) where people can’t “get” to you. They can leave voicemails and send emails and text–but you can choose not to look or not to respond. So freeway driving, especially through the desert, can actually be pretty restful.
What also makes my travel penitential is that I don’t go hoping to “take it easy” or be waited upon (God forbid) or even hardly to “see the sights.” I go to mingle my body and blood with the people, the air, the flowers, the trees, the landscape, and to be nourished in return. So there’s always a lot of walking involved, once I get there. Walking is one of the most Eucharistic activities I know. Doesn’t even have to be pretty, especially, where I walk. I just need to get out on the road, or the sidewalk, or the park, or the trail.
For some reason, I’ve been wanting to visit White Sands National Monument. I’d seen the photos. I’d read the essays. Typically, I hadn’t realized it was surrounded on all sides by the White Sands Missile Range, a military testing range for the U.S. Army which is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The world’s first explosion of an atomic bomb (in a ghastly, unholy act of hubris, code-named Trinity) took place here in 1945.
All of which, as it turned out, was a perfect backdrop for Holy Week. The Monument is very easy to navigate, an 8-mile or so loop, with five or six “trails” depending off of it. A couple are on hard-packed ground and clearly marked. But the Alkali Flat Trail and I think the Back Country Camping Trail are up and oown sugar-white sand dunes that are mesmerizingly beautiful and go on and on and on and quickly disorient as to time and space. People have died out there. There are metal markers stuck in the sand every so often but in a windstorm when visibility can quickly become very low, or in blinding sunlight, and if you started to get heat stroke or run out of water…
“Isn’t it beautiful here, Lord?” I asked my trusty Companion at one point. Then I realized, “Oh, you’ve already been here. You made the place!” But then I realized: “Yeah, but you haven’t been here with me.”
Every so often, I get a definite, very clear feeling that Jesus likes having me around. He likes going places with me. He likes the way we travel together.
I came across a Psalm the other day, which I of course now can’t locate, that encapsulated the human condition perfectly. First, it lamented all the “ruthless men who are seeking our lives” at any given moment. People to whom we’ve bent over backwards trying to do good and who have responded with smearing, slander, spying. Then it mentions in passsing–on the other hand, we’ve kind of brought some of this on ourselves. (I extrapolated whether by unwise choices in friends, or failing to stand our ground or whatever). Then the Psalm goes on to beg mercy for the times we’ve “sought the lives” of others: the times we’ve betrayed, manipulated, smeared.
Who can sort it all out? I thought, lying flat on my back on an isolated bank of sand and gazing up at the sky.
Also, nothing like a road trip to drive home the point of what a mess we’ve made of the world. No matter how much you try to focus upon gratitude, no matter how hard you try to be cheerful–just seeing what people drive, eat, buy, watch, listen to, build, destroy…yikes.
Holy Week is always a big, big deal. Maybe especially for those of us who are not first in anyone’s heart except for Christ’s (whose heart is so big EVERYONE can be first in it if they want that). If we have been following along all year, we really do experience something of what Mary must have experienced, and the disciples, and Christ himself as the Crucifixion drew near.
As always, Mass is what makes everything bearable. Wednesday morning before heading out to the dunes I caught the 9 am and the Basilica of San Albino in Mesilla, a small historic town just outside Las Cruces. WONDERFUL Mass. Wonderful priest. Spoke of Dante’s Inferno. Reverently said each word of the Eucharistic prayer and consecration–not in a showy, peformative way but in a way that made you hear.
Thursday night, back in Tucson, I attended the Holy Thursday Mass at the U of Arizona’s Newman Center. Parking was nonexistent due to a women’s softball game at the nearby stadium so had to circle back across Campbell, park on a darkened side street, and pick my way across a crazy busy 3-lanes each side commuting corridor and stagger in late. No matter. He makes my feet swift as those of hinds, as another Psalm, or maybe canticle, runs. The conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass, where most everyone leaves and the few who remain sit in darkened silence before the altar of repose, is possibly the “best” interlude of the whole liturgical year.
Good Friday I walked to Sts. Peter and Paul at noon in the blazing sun, resolutely refusing to be annoyed by the many things during the service that were not as I would have wished them (besides, who asked?) Veneration of the Cross: I take it back. Maybe kneeling and kissing the wood upon which Our Savior was crucified is actually the best moment (besides the Eucharist itself, of course) in the whole liturgical year.
This morning, I attended an 8 am Tenebrae service, again at the Newman Center and mostly put on by the students, that was deeply moving. Afterwards, over a DONUT (dying from Lenten lack of sugar) in the courtyard, I met one of the seven young people who will be baptized, confirmed and come into the Church tonight. At the endless Easter Vigil. Which, being exhausted and emotionally wrung out, I feel too overwrought and weakened to attend.
But will anyway.
Because how could I possibly miss being at the tomb when the stone is rolled away?
I’ve thought a lot these last few days about how Christ must have felt Friday morning–the emotion of the Last Super, the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal of Judas, the cops, the swords, the clubs. The interrogation. The total lack of sleep. The anxiety unto death. Peter’s desertion. The mocking, the spitting, the striking across the face. The scourging. The Crown of Thorns. Not at his best, Jesus, as he was forced to carry the cross to Mt. Calvary.
It was as if a whole human life were packed into that few hours. Because that’s how we are, almost all the time. Not at our best. Exhausted and thus cranky and short. Feeling betrayed and bewildered and thus unable and mostly unwilling to formulate a snappy retort. Ugly before the people we want to attract. Weakened in the sight of those who we wish would love us. Not up to the task before us. And profoundly, intensely, afraid.
Still, deep inside, a human heart. Always a human heart. Always, the desperate, mad hope in the Resurrection: that we’re capable of loving others; that we’re loved ourselves.
In the midle of a missile base the size of two states, a pinpoint with sunglasses, lying alone on a dune. Isn’t it pretty, Lord? Here I am, Lord, send me. Help us to stop killing each other, Lord. Yeah, I know you’ve been here before.
But you’ve never been here with me.
Wishing you all a wonderous Vigil and a glorious Easter season.