Tonight I will take my seat in the choir loft of my Catholic church and look down from the rear of the nave on a glorious sight. Compared with my church today, the image at left is like cave art beside a Michelangelo. This is the altar in the Episcopal Church where I once served as an acolyte. Stripped but tasteful, this church was also the site of my most vivid early religious memory.
It happened on Maundy Thursday—Holy Thursday to you. Maundy is an Anglican term, through and through, and I always loved it, just as I love anything Old Englishy. I once read Beowulf to my older daughter while she was in the womb, lying with my head on my wife’s growing belly and intoning the translation.
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Fortunately, my beloved older daughter survived this early verbal abuse.
Maundy: Most scholars agree that Maundy is derived through Middle English and Old French from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”) (John 13:34) by which Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet.
With the choir I will be singing a version of this Mandatum this evening while my pastor washes the feet of twelve parishioners. It seems to me that the Episcopalians I churched with as a child were too buttoned-down to let the rector touch their toes. They kept their stockings on. Yet I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be a Catholic today if not for them and their spare, clean church with no corpus on the cross, no statues against the stone.
I sat with my parents on the right side of the nave where, in this Episcopal Church, there are large windows looking out on a garden and beyond that, today, a graveyard where my father is buried. In my memory of Maundy Thursday, he is still by my side. Night has fallen, and the windows to my right reflect back the dim glow from the altar candles. The organ—always a presence in that church—is playing music for the preparation, and I am meditating on the Last Supper, dreamily, the way a thirteen-year-old will do.
Something pierces me at this moment. If it is a sword, it is warm to the touch. There is a certainty here in the cold air between stone walls, a clarity of faith that registers in even my dull boy’s heart. In this moment I conceive the idea of becoming an Episcopal clergyman, a dream that will die quietly in the fervent agnosticism of my late adolescence. But the warmth will remain.
Even today, when I read the word Maundy, and hear its old-timey resonance in my mind, I think of that church and my father and the Lord’s sacrifice, and I think, yes. For this also, I am a Catholic today.
This is what I will see tonight.