The Feast of our Lady of the Cenacle, 30 May 2020
A couple of days ago, my Jesuit Provincial posted on Facebook a saying most of us have heard but certainly seems more relevant these days. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” It’s hard to believe that in February, just three months ago, we were living our normal, everyday lives, making our plans for meetings and projects and even holidays. Now, that old way of life seems so far away. Since March, we have found ourselves repeatedly using words we never really used before: pandemic, social distancing, self-isolation, lockdown. Even our Italian vocabulary has grown. Noi stranieri, abbiamo per forza imparato tante nuove parole in italiano questi ultimi mesi: quarantena, tampone, contagiati, mascherine, guanti, disinfezione.
Someone said that the whole world is suddenly experiencing what cancer patients go through: there are good days, there are bad days, but there is just no telling how long this will last and how things will turn out. Are things getting better or will they get worse? No “feel-good lie” or “confident prediction,” can “tame this unsettled situation.” We could take all day just listing all the questions we have about the future, our personal future, but also our collective future as fellow travelers on this fragile planet—questions touching health, the economy, governance, education, culture, international relations, family life, the Church, to name just a few areas of concern. Even Pope Francis said, in his recent interview with Austin Ivereigh, that he is “living this as a time of great uncertainty.”
One concept I have found helpful in naming our time is that of liminality. Anthropologists and spiritual writers remind us that liminality is that strange and unsettling in-between time and state, when you find yourself between what was and what is yet to be. The old world is gone, but the new one is not yet here. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes liminal time thus: “It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” It is the “space between no longer and not yet.” Surely, it is accurate to say that the entire human race is living in a liminal time during this time of pandemic. People ask when we can go “back to normal,” but it doesn’t look like we can ever go back, but only forward, but forward into what?
The Word of God today reminds us, however, that we are not the first to live in such frightening liminal times. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel addresses Israel, undergoing lockdown in a foreign land during the Babylonian exile, after they have lost their old familiar world of homeland and temple, and have no idea what the future holds for them. And in the reading from Acts, we see the friends of Jesus self-isolating in the Upper Room. Until the last moment, they seemed to have thought that Jesus was about bringing back the “good old days”. They ask Jesus: “are you NOW going to RESTORE the kingdom to Israel?” But the risen Lord tells them that there is no going back to the way things were. Jesus has ascended, and, in the upper room, the apostles are in between what was and what is to be, waiting for mysterious power from an unknown Spirit, waiting to begin an unknown way of life.
But they are not alone in the Cenacle. Mary the Mother of Jesus is with them. La Madonna del Cenacolo, Our Lady of the Cenacle, is present and teaching them how to live in liminal times. It seems she teaches them two things to get through this crazy, restless time. First, prayer—the Jerusalem Bible translations says, “continued prayer.” Prayer: not just words, but standing undefended, in total vulnerability and trust, as she did, before the faithful God whose infinite love remains rock and refuge when all the old securities vanish. The God whose love is inexhaustible creativity, able to do the hardest thing imaginable, change human hearts from stone to flesh, with a love that makes it possible then to choose love over fear, even in uncertain times.
Second, community—we are told that they do not only pray, but also pray, “with one accord,” already something of a miracle for this fractious, argumentative, competitive group of disciples. Is it too much to imagine that this uncharacteristic apostolic togetherness and mutual support during this liminal time was due to the influence of Mary of the Cenacle? Mary who always responded to her liminal moments—during the Visitation, as a refugee in Egypt, by the side of the Cross of her Son—with care for the vulnerable, with weaving together rather than ripping apart.
As the whole world lives this collective liminal time of pandemic, in which so many continue to suffer from sickness or from want, and when the noisiest voices (sometimes of world leaders) seek to blame and divide, perhaps the Lord is inviting us to enter the relative silence of the upper room, to contemplate Mary, Our Lady of the Cenacle. We might call her today our Lady of Liminality. We might ask her to teach us these two simple-sounding but truly transforming practices: prayer and community, being deeply rooted in the God of hope, and holding people together with the bonds of mutual care, while we await the unknown future and expect a new outpouring of the creating and re-creating Spirit.
Just one last word. St. Luke tells us that Mary was not alone and she had with her “some women.” You know how it is with Scripture, how you can miss certain things and then later see them, as if for the first time, even in passages you have read many times. I think I saw these words for the first time today, and immediately, I thought of you, the Religious of the Cenacle, the ladies of liminality together with our Lady of Liminality. Together I want to thank God for the gift of this special congregation, which has, like Mary, accompanied so many during their moments of being “between no longer and not yet,” and who surely have a special gift to share with the Church and the world during this liminal time. Happy feast!