Altar of Repose

snowdrops, strong winds, silence, haunting chants of Tenebrae looped in my mind like a continual prayer

I never understood the practice of creating a garden for an “altar of repose” for the Maundy Thursday vigil.  I served in churches where parishioners lovingly brought flowers in pots and vases, arranging them in such a way that when you sat at your “holy hour” you were surrounded by beauty.  “Can you not wait with me one hour?” Jesus asks the disciples after the Passover supper and before his arrest.  Jesus, praying from his anguish of body and soul begs the Holy One, Abba, to “remove this cup from me” knowing he will be tortured to death in a few hours.  Why flowers while commemorating such a terrible event?

Church people sign up to take “hours” of that night, to be with Jesus at Gethsemane, staying awake.  If the Lord’s Supper was instituted at the Passover, my guess is that the disciples were “heavy with sleep” because they had just consumed great quantities of wine.  I always got delightfully giddy at friends’ Passover meals, drinking the required glasses and more.  I always identified with the indolent disciples, for whom “the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak.”

I didn’t understand making a “garden” for the reserved sacrament in which to sit and watch during prayer.  Visiting the Holy Land only reinforced this prejudice.  The Mount of Olives is a dry, dusty place. Olive trees thrive in this arid environment, but “gardens,”  at least flower gardens, take water; too precious and rare and structurally complicated.   I believed my parishioners created these gardens to distract their minds from the horror at hand.   Wouldn’t simplicity, starkness more honestly evoke the prayer of Jesus? 

But recently I found this prayer by Padre Pio:

O Jesus, how many generous souls … have kept Thee company in the Garden, sharing Thy bitterness and Thy mortal anguish… How many hearts in the course of the centuries have responded generously to Thy invitation … May this multitude of souls, then, in this supreme hour, be a comfort to Thee, who, better than the disciples, share with Thee the distress of Thy heart, and cooperate with Thee for their own salvation and that of others.  And grant that I also may be of their number, that I also may offer Thee some relief.

In prayer, sometimes you come close to the boundary of the soul and the boundary of time.  I have put the energies of meditation into situations long past, particularly with sorrowful events in my children’s lives and my own.  I have re-lived past traumas in order to comfort my young self, to urge her on, and to take heart.   And so I understood Padre Pio’s prayer immediately.   I, too, can to some extent, go as far as my soul will allow, to join the witnesses surrounding Jesus in prayer in that olive garden.  Then, why not create a space here and now of beauty, not starkness, to travel through time as prayer, as offering, as comfort? 

The sisters suggested setting the garden of repose in the Great Room where I’d already made a winter garden of house plants, forced bulbs, and generously blooming geraniums.   I asked them what their tradition had been, (and, of course, why a garden of repose in the first place?)  Mother Ruth established  a tradition of a single white freesia blossom near the reserved sacrament to remind the sisters of the scent of nard with which Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus.

In addition to the existing garden and pots of herbs banished from the seed room since the pre-planting has begun, I added large vases of forced forsythia to form a garden background.  Pots of pansies, ready to go outside (they tolerate cold well) frame the center of the library table in front of the winter garden.  With the vow of poverty, we try to make do with what we have, but I did search for white freesia so that the “garden” scent would evoke prayers past for the sisters, and I could not resist a handful of white broom which flowers in the Negev desert spectacularly and might have pleased Jesus in his time, who noticed the “lilies of the field.”  I gathered some snowdrops, the only flower blooming at Bluestone Farm at the moment.  And one small bunch of daffodils from the grocery store.  I also placed a small cystal dish of nard oil next to the sacrament.  We’d used the oil at our foot washing earlier in the evening.   

And so, we each took our vigils on Thursday night in the fragrent garden by the light of the reserved sacrament candle, and the candle of Tenebrae on the fireplace mantle, while full moon-light flooded the Great Room.  I need to move much of that garden into the chapel this morning, for the great feast is at hand.  Holy Saturday – a day of emptiness, except, unlike the disciples, and Mary Magdalene and Jesus other friends, the faithful and the unfaithful, the watchful and the indolent, we know what will happen.  

And so we prepare the next space for our prayers with devoted anticiptation for a mystery of splendid beauty.  

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