A Holy Thursday tradition: church visitation
“Do not hide your face from me.”
Seven years into my infertility journey, the consolations of my spiritual and personal life seemed sparse and fleeting. I had experienced the loss of an adoption match the previous summer and the limbo of several years of unknown primary infertility weighed heavily on my heart. That Holy Thursday, lost and empty, I placed my worries at Jesus’ feet and felt his invitation to go deeper.
It was a pilgrimage of sorts. From the awe-inspiring liturgy where we celebrated Jesus’ ultimate gift of the Eucharist, to the ritualistic washing of the feet, to the stripping of the altar cloths, when the Blessed Sacrament was reposed into a side altar for evening prayer, I felt a prelude of what was to come. After Mass, my friend invited me to join her for a local tradition of Holy Thursday “church visitation”, jokingly referred to as “church hopping”. In a small city where so many ethnic churches dotted the city landscape, it has become customary for Catholics to travel from parish to parish to “keep watch” with Jesus late into the night. To this day, Catholics in our area travel to as many as seven different churches on Holy Thursday, visiting Jesus and offering prayer until the evening ends. To be honest, I was hesitant to go; I just didn’t want to see anyone or be seen. But I felt a need to get out of my spiritual hibernation.
As soon as we stepped into the first church, I felt at ease. In the Basilica, the echo of faithful voices reciting the rosary greeted us, as the Guardians of the Eucharist, a lay group consecrated to protecting the Blessed Sacrament, stood guard. I was reminded of how Jesus asked his disciples to keep watch and how much fear had haunted them that night. There, I felt a pull to ask for strength.
At the Franciscan church, with its towering columns reminiscent of a renaissance Italian cathedral, we joined the friars as they reflected on Jesus’ agony in the garden and sung psalms. I felt a deep sense that Jesus wanted me to sit with this image of him sweating blood and pouring his heart out to the Heavenly Father for us.
We made our final stop at a modern suburban church where we were among only a few pilgrims. As my friend greeted some acquaintances of hers in the lobby, I found a seat before the Blessed Sacrament in a side chapel. In quiet solitude I felt the comforting companionship of a long lost friend, my redeemer. Shortly thereafter, my friend and the deacon arrived. We joined him in a private recitation of Night Prayer. Here, the words of Psalm 143 gave rise to the prayer of my heart which I had struggled for so long to voice:
“I stretch out my hands to you; I thirst for you like a parched land. [...] Do not hide your face from me [...] for in you I put my trust.” (Psalm 143: 6-8)
Infertility had rendered me spiritually parched, yet Jesus still accompanied me, inviting me to drink of the cup of eternal life. My difficulties, while very real and challenging, were nothing compared to the mercy he doled out on the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood, Jesus knew that his Passion would not take away our pain, our barrenness or our losses, but chose to take up the ultimate sacrifice and to suffer the weight of our tears. I felt Jesus’ presence for the first time in a long while during the quiet final hour of that Holy Thursday pilgrimage and, in a profound way, I realized he had been there with me all along. I was encouraged that my struggle had meaning and that in Jesus’ eyes my soul was worth everything he endured. How much more I had to offer on this journey of life. How much more I could give, if only I saw what Jesus saw in me.
In the midst of this crazy time we live in, if you have the means to visit churches Holy Thursday, I encourage you to go. Bring your favorite prayer, devotional, or journal. Please feel free to take a picture of your churches in a reverent way and share it with The Fruitful Hollow so that your sisters, particularly those whose churches are closed, may pilgrimage with you. What a wonderful way to enter into Holy Week together! If you are unable to attend Holy Thursday Mass or a personal visitation, make a spiritual Communion with Jesus in your home and consider traveling “virtually” through some of the links listed below. Set up a nice quiet place and imagine yourself in the church or another sacred space where you have felt God’s embrace in the past.
Reflect on Jesus’ agony in the garden, how he prayed for you and begged the Heavenly Father for another path. Recall how Jesus embraced this heavy burden, mourned for you, and chose to face the cross for you as you are, in your best moments and in your least.