By the Rev. David Brinton.
Some years ago in the Cowley Fathers newsletter Martin Smith wrote about an archaeological discovery made in the Egyptian desert near the pyramids. The archaeologists found a testimonial tablet, erected by ancient Coptic Christian villagers, on the site where their local hermit had spent his life. The tablet reads: “This is the spot on which our lord and father Apa Jeremiah bowed himself until he removed the sins of the people of the whole world.”
Who was this strange Christ-like monk? What role did he play in that community, in that culture which we can barely conceive of now? – a culture in which hermits existed in each community, in which sin was palpably real and prayer could actually change things.
What can he tell us about our life of prayer now and the holy week which begins today?
“Apa Jeremiah stood, bowed in one place, until he had removed the sins of the people of the whole world.”
We are familiar with some of the heroic and sometimes risible stories of ancient Christian monks, male and female, spending years on a column or subsisting on nothing but the Host for an entire lifetime. How long, I wonder, did this one, – Apa Jeremiah – stay in that spot, his back bent? At what point did his bones begin to ache, his knees begin to quiver with the strain of being absolutely still as he prayed? He seems like a column himself, somewhat rickety with age, not very stable-looking, but he doesn’t move. No, Apa Jeremiah, continues to bear the weight of his prayer as long as the weight needs bearing.
His is a remarkable image of the intercessory prayer of the whole church and, in particular, of those monastics committed to stability in one place and daily vicarious prayer made on behalf of the whole church and for the good of the whole world. He reminds us, too, of places of prayer, of churches, chapels and oratories. Older ones are often worn and cracked and chipped with the weight of the years, but they and the pillars that hold them up still stand, as if all the cries of sorrow that have risen silently from hearts kneeling in them over the years cannot make them give way. This chapel is still very new, but it, too, has a solidity about it: it doesn’t move, it is the cornerstone, the anchor for all that goes on around it and in it, and will do so, God willing, for many decades to come. Its focal point is that immense stone altar and hanging above it the stone crucifix, gazing down upon us all.
As the shouts and cries of Hosanna die away, this is where Palm Sunday leads us, to that pillar, the tree erected on Golgotha, planted in the ground, stretching into the sky.
It is a place that almost none of those in that first Palm Sunday procession would go to, for that is not what they thought they were following. They were following a king, but look where the procession ultimately – ends, the king hanging on a cross and in him the loving heart of God stretched in agony. That combined construction of skin and bone and wood and iron bears the weight of the whole world’s sin. Its pain and alienation, its brokenness is somehow taken into the very structure of God, is embraced by God and, in a miracle of divine architecture, all that should collapse under the sheer weight of human confusion and longing, is borne up, helped up, sustained. Something so frail, so temporary-looking and yet it conceals a hidden power capable of holding up the load it bears.
And so Apa Jeremiah was imitating the Lord Jesus, bearing the weight of the world’s sorrow in that dusty Egyptian village so long ago. And so must the Church, in every age, standing in place, bowed, bearing the load with her Saviour. As the WW I poet Charles Peguy put it
“We needs must take our stand at sorrow’s very heart.
And be firmly placed at the axis of distress”
The Church, all of us together, is called to be still and strong on behalf of a world that is so often breaking apart in pain, fracturing from too much unbearable stress. How do we do that, especially when we feel so frail ourselves? We do it by maintaining places like this convent as sanctuaries for those whose sorrow is too much for them to bear. We do it by consciously joining our prayer to the prayer of the whole Church, believing, like Apa Jeremiah, that if we keep on doing it, it will make a difference, just this much patient, unselfish prayer on behalf of people we don’t even know. We do it by helping in concrete ways those in distress, by providing for them out of our own resources, by advocating in the corridors of power for the weakest, by constantly being vigilant about our motives for accruing and hoarding our wealth.
How can we play our part in the load-bearing Church when so often we feel as if we are about to fall over, the joints and sinews of our own souls stretched and weighted down to the very limit?
This week we follow the one who goes to that place of silence and stillness at the heart suffering. And then on Easter Day we will sing from Ps 118 “the very stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Through the eyes of faith we will know that the stone is Christ, the unmovable pillar, who stood, rejected, at the point of greatest stress, receiving the evil, and is now glorified, sitting at the right hand of the Father. It is his strength revealed in and through his weakness on the cross, that strengthens us to be load- bearers in our own lives. At the axis of distress, the Son is there and in his outstretched arms we see and know the love of eternity embracing us.
May God grant us all grace this Holy Week and always.