"And who did this for you?"
by Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR
It is a mystery of our spiritual lives that at times we can report with certain clarity that God is calling us, beckoning us to come, to follow more closely, to dispose ourselves to a greater level of intimacy in our prayer. We seem to know that God wants more but often we do not have an inkling as to how to go there, or what the 'there' is supposed to be or look like or feel. Some would wonder that this could be the experience of those whose lives have long been committed to the spiritual way by religious vows. Let this be evidence of that truth. I came into Holy Week with a realization of this kind, gently but persistently flowing through me like the mist that rises from the river at dawn and just as illusive.
In its most lofty aspiration, the silence and solitude afforded to nuns by contemplative monastic life is to achieve an ambient atmosphere in which liturgy, work and meditation all flow into each other under the rubric of prayer. It becomes difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. This reality is felt when a thought, an insight, an inspiration appears when and where it is least expected.
I was recently assigned the task of making a white habit for a friend of our community. Habits are usually rather simple in design but constructed in ways that include rather tricky folds, demanding yokes and hidden pockets which challenge the modern seamstress. And for this one, there was no pattern, just an old habit to go by.
During the last week of Lent, I made the paper pattern and cut out the pieces carefully marking pleats and pocket placement, the right and wrong side of the fabric observing caution every step of the way. All the while, this meditative project was progressing in tandem with Jesus’ inexorable movement to Jerusalem and his passion. Jesus was very much on my mind.
We began our Holy Week retreat the day before the Sacred Triduum. That morning, I decided to cut out the ninety-six inch long cincture that is part of the habit. I began to sew this simple piece in order to get used to the feel of the fabric and see its reaction to the sewing machine needle before tackling the more challenging garment. Once it was sewn, I thought to put it aside for the next day, but instantly changed my mind and brought it to the pressing table in our workshop. In total silence I set about the tedious work of pressing the long seams of the cincture, being sure to keep the piece equal in width throughout its length.
While my eyes were intently focused upon inch after inch of the long cincture, I suddenly thought of Jesus and asked, “And who did this for you?” Absorbed by the meticulous handling of white fabric, of preparing a garment with religious significance, I was drawn to the person of the unknown someone who must have devoted such effort and energy to Jesus. By these thoughts, I felt closer to him and more intimately related to him than before. My eyes overflowed with tears as I stood alone at the pressing table looking at the white serge in my hands as if it was for Jesus himself.
The question, that sudden flash of graced insight, flew back and forth through my mind for the rest of the day leaving more questions with each passing. Who was it who wove the threads, and sewed his clothing? Who was the one who looked after his robe and tunic during the time of his preaching when he walked the dusty roads of Galilee? Who pounded the fabric at the river’s edge to wash it clean and spread it out to be whitened by sunlight? Who knew him so intimately that she took on this task? What did it mean to him and to her that she provided his garment or saw to its care or handed it to him in loving gesture? How did his gratefulness fall upon her? And then, most heartbreaking of all, how did she survive witnessing his arrest, torture and cruel death?
Creative imaginings tumbled out so rapidly and emotional associations surfaced so readily that I was compelled to recognize the grace of the moment and allow myself time to ponder the gifts being offered. Soon I had my own question to answer. Why such strong emotional association with these mundane tasks? In quiet recollection memories slowly made their way to consciousness and I realized how integral to my life such acts had become.
I was naturally drawn by my history to the human intimacy inherent in handling, caring for and creating the clothing of another. As a youngster, I learned how to iron clothes by following my mother’s directions and doing the best I could to neatly press my father’s boxer shorts in spite of their frustrating elastic waist bands. Much later, there was the act of washing, whitening, and properly folding for maximum absorbancy seven years worth of cloth diapers. There were, extended over many years, clothing sewn or knitted; pajamas, robes, vests, Halloween costumes, and sweaters, designed to be comforting, warm, cozy or funny reminders to the recipient that the maker loved them enough to create something especially for them. And above it all was the devotion and perseverance solidly represented by incalculable loads of family laundry collected, carted, sorted, washed, put in the dryer or carried wet and soggy to the clothesline, hung out for fresh air and bleaching sunlight, all pinned to the line in calculated arrangement to maximize use of space on the line but not bring it down entirely. At the other end of a constantly repeated cycle was the folding; piles of sweet baby things, piles of little boy jeans with reinforced knees, numerous white t-shirts, mountains of socks to match in pairs and all the sheets, towels, and linen handkerchiefs that kept dear ones happy, healthy and presentable.
To make, select, handle, or care for the clothing of another are acts rooted in devoted love, a love that permeates the daily and survives it. And who, out of this brand of devotion, cared for Jesus in the weekly round of things; who met this simple elemental need; who thereby touched his life so intimately? Who did it? How did it feel in the doing? How did this loving one survive at the foot of the Cross?
These images of service, drudgery, devotion and generous labor belong largely to women and because of my own life experience as daughter, wife, and mother, they brought me to a very deep and very sensitive place. I felt the love of the maker and caretaker of Jesus' garments. I could envision the silent yet deeply felt, both given and received, expressions of service and gratitude; the unspoken bond of intimate relationship. This was a small yet clear window through which I saw the undocumented but certain reality which was translated into the language of love at the Cross.
With the help of Wendy Wright in her book, "The Rising - Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter and Pentecost" (Upper Room Books, 1994), I saw too that in recognizing the intimacy and love present in these acts I connected in an unprecedented way to the implications of Jesus' act of service at the Last Supper. He became a slave, virtually synonymous with the place of a woman in Jewish culture, by touching and washing the feet of those who considered him their leader, teacher, inspiration, and Lord. Foot washing was an endlessly repeated task, as endlessly repetitive as caring for the laundry of a family and also virtually thankless. And it is this kind of act that Jesus chooses to communicate his radical love in that teachable moment. Wright points to Jesus' role here as that of nurturer. He feeds and bathes and gives a new command. "Love a new way. Love by care taking. Love by being available to one another. Love by serving." (Wright, 90)
So in the feel of the fabric, in the tedium of pressing a cincture, in the imagining of who it was that made and cared for the clothing of Jesus, I was drawn into an experience of that new place to which I was being called, that new level or quality of relationship. The intuition that had floated in and out of my consciousness, so ephemeral and illusive, was given substance by the grace of a work in the fertility of silence.