Guest Columnist

Michelle Francl-Donnay

I have entered the watery depths, and the current has swept me away.
I am exhausted with my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail from hoping for my God.
– Ps. 69:3b-4

As the Church moves from Lent to Passiontide to Easter, this is the third of four columns on a parallel journey, taking up the principal graces of the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola: to know God’s care for us even in our sinfulness, to enter into the mystery of God’s incarnation in Jesus more deeply, to be drawn in Christ’s passion and death, and to know the joy of the resurrection and our call to live in Christ.

Tunc ergo tradidit eis illum, ut crucifigeretur. In the silent chapel, the spare, plaintive recitative from the fourth movement of Arvo Pärt’s Passio threads through my prayer: So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. Like water tumbling down a rocky creek bed, Pärt’s contemplative chorale carries St. John’s Passion narrative inexorably from Judas’ betrayal to Christ’s ultimate surrender of His spirit; now swirling in chaos, now gathering in deep pools of silence and grief.
My prayer – and the ways in which I have betrayed Christ – have brought me equally, inexorably to this moment. I kneel, praying for the grace I desire in this third week: sorrow with Christ in sorrow; a broken spirit with Christ so broken; a deep grief for all that Christ endured for me.

I had set on this road to Calvary with Christ five days before, offering my imagination to God that He might use it to bring me into the reality of Christ’s Passion and death. It was difficult to avoid being transfixed by the horror, mentally scripting a Passion to compete with Mel Gibson’s cinematic version. St. Ignatius’ exercises demand more than an acknowledgement of the grievous sufferings; you must enter the depths and let the current sweep you away.

This journey was drawn out. I heard with new ears St. Augustine’s admonition, “You suppose that having said ‘I cried out to you,’ you are somehow done with crying out. But even though you have cried out, you must not expect relief to come quickly. The agony of the Church and of the Body of Christ will last until the end of time.” The Spiritual Exercises brought me again and again to each station of the cross, until like the psalmist, I was exhausted with calling out, and I wondered if my strength might fail from seeking my God.

The challenge was to let the Passion pierce me through, to let God forge more tightly in my heart the connection between the external experience of Christ’s suffering and abandonment on the cross and the fundamental truth of the unbounded love of the Father for the Son. It was to hold in my mind and let grow in my soul simultaneous realities: Christ, true God and true Man; Christ, suffering Servant and Master of our rescue; life gained only in the total surrender of death. It was a matter, as St. Ignatius advises, of understanding a few realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the third week was to give up seeing it as a challenge, an experience to be lived through, and instead let it etch its own design into my heart and soul. I now have a pattern to hold up, that I might more readily recognize Christ’s Passion in my own life. I seek with eyes open to bear humiliation and rejection for the sake of the Gospel.

Pattern in hand, I might also more readily see the Passion in the lives of those around me. I can look there for the strength to take their crosses upon my back; wipe their faces; stand by them in their most desperate and agonizing moments; hold them until they breathe their last.

I have walked this road year after year in the Church’s celebration of the Triduum, but all too often I have confronted the crucifixion while watching the resurrection out of the corner of my eye – singing “O Sacred Head Surrounded” one moment, rehearsing Easter alleluias the next.

From this experience of a world empty of Jesus’ presence, forsaken by the Christ I had followed so closely over the preceding weeks of the exercises came a precious, albeit harrowing, gift of wisdom: I know that Christ has died.

O God, whose Son, our Messiah and Lord, did not turn aside from the path of suffering nor spare His disciples the prospect of rejection, pour out Your Spirit upon this assembly, that we may abandon the security of the easy way and following Christ’s footsteps toward the cross and true life. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. – Opening Prayer from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: