“Night watches” are Triduum tradition for monastic community

This article by Kristi Anderson first appeared in “The Central Minnesota Catholic: Magazine of the Diocese of St. Cloud”

Seven times throughout the night, in the dark and quiet of Easter eve after the Service of Light and Liturgy of the Word, sisters from St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph make their way to their softly lit chapel.

Surrounded by the glow of the new Easter candle, members of the religious community and their guests keep vigil throughout the night, marking each of these seven “night watches” with song, prayer, symbolic rituals and silence.

This sacred tradition, rooted in Scripture and practiced in the early church, began at the monastery in 1983 while Benedictine Sister Theresa Schumacher served as the liturgy coordinator.

“Word and worship are at the heart of monastic life,” Sister Theresa said. “They engage us in watching and waiting for Christ’s second coming … and what is most real is the darkness into which Christ will break like a light.

“What’s really important is how vigiling comes out of the Rule of St. Benedict,” she added. “There are 13 chapters in the Rule about the Divine Office [the official prayer of the church] and five of them are on the importance of vigil — about watching, waiting, being alert.”

Sister Mary Anthony Wagner, who died in 2002, adapted the tradition in 1985 to include elements from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

“What we wanted to do was to prepare ourselves for renewing our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil,” said Sister Delores Dufner. “So we incorporated some of the prayers and themes from RCIA. We are not a parish so we never have the baptisms or celebrations that parishes might have at the Easter Vigil. It is the monastic way of renewing our baptism and of being one with the whole church.”

All the senses

The sisters engage all the senses throughout the evening. For example, the first night watch, which takes place from 10 p.m. to 11:05 p.m., focuses on the Sign of the Cross. Gathered around the Easter Candle, the sisters sign one another on their forehead, ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet.

The fourth watch, from 1:15-2:20 a.m., includes an anointing with aromatic oil. The sixth watch, from 3:25-4:25 a.m., incorporates a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, reminding each other that whenever the prayer is prayed, one is praying it as “part of the people of God, and in return they are praying it with me.”

“We are not squeezing this liturgy into our life,” Sister Delores said. “This is our life, the movement through the liturgical year, especially through the Triduum. The rest of life is built around the liturgy instead of the other way around.”

In 1994, Sister Delores, an internationally known liturgist and hymn writer, attended a workshop at the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy led by Norbertine Father Andrew Ciferni and Nathan Mitchell, two leading liturgists in the country. Sister Delores presented the sisters’ practice of Holy Saturday night watches for their critique.

“One of my tasks was to find out what they thought of this practice and whether or not it would be appropriate for us to use it,” Sister Delores explained. “They responded that, given our monastic tradition, it seemed like an ideal way to celebrate it.”

Over time, the sisters have adapted it even more. Earlier versions included more of the history of some of the rituals. According to Sister Elaine Schroeder, the current liturgy director at the monastery, they’ve tried to make it more participatory, engaging the sisters and those in attendance in the communal rituals.

Sister Elaine noted that for religious houses, the “difference” from the way a parish celebrates the vigil is in silence, contemplative prayer and the “expansion or contraction of some elements of the ritual, rather than moving an element from beginning to end.”

“In other words, sort of ‘pulling it apart’ and looking at the different parts, spending more time on one element or another,” she said. “It is important to the sisters that the Triduum is a continuous celebration beginning with the Eucharist on Holy Thursday evening and ending with Easter Evening Prayer, that it is one continuous movement. That is something you can do in a community like ours.”

As is tradition, the font is drained in preparation for the new water which is blessed at the Liturgy of the Eucharist around 6 a.m. after all the night watches are complete. Sister Elaine Schroeder said she loves the sound of the water as it fills the basin.

“It is extremely anticipatory and still,” Sister Elaine said. “We are in the chapel. The candle is there, the light is very low, just enough so that we can read. At about 3:30 in the morning one of the sisters comes in and starts the water to fill the font. I’ll go in and feel the stillness and the quiet and hear the sound of the water. It’s very peaceful.”

Sister Karen Rose entered the community in 2007 as a postulant. For her first Triduum at the monastery, she stayed awake all through the night just so she could participate in the whole experience.

“It makes the movement from the Passion, suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday to the joy and glory of the Resurrection,” Sister Rose said. “It makes a bridge between the two and makes each of them even more special.”

Stretching yourself

Mary Schaffer is a long-time friend of the Benedictine sisters and has attended the night watches for many years. She first came to know the sisters during her studies at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary. In 1996, she moved to St. Joseph and began worshiping with the sisters regularly.

“I found them to be such a source of strength, such welcoming people,” Schaffer said. “I feel these women live the Gospel and hold each other to the challenge that the Gospel calls us all to every day in so many ways.”

In years past, Schaffer has spent the entire night keeping vigil among the sisters.

“I find it very powerful. To keep that vigil and to try to stretch myself for just one night, to do it in prayer with the community I have grown to love so much, is a gift and an opportunity to call to mind our own baptism. The tradition draws heavily on what the catechumens are experiencing in their journey toward baptism and it connects us with them,” Schaffer said.

“Then after the night of stretching yourself past sleeping, when we are gathered around the baptismal font that has new water bubbling up, it really is like living water,” she said.

There, before the font on Easter morning, those gathered proclaim their faith and renew their baptismal promises.

“When we sing,  ‘We do believe!,” to me, it is the heart of the matter,” Schaffer said. “Yes, I do believe in Jesus Christ and that I am saved by his grace and that I am not saved alone. It is the part of the year I wait for.”

Schaffer appreciates the opportunity to spend this sacred night with the sisters and says the community is a place of welcome and a source of comfort for her.

“We believe that our prayer is the prayer of the church,” Sister Karen said, “that when we pray, it is for the whole world. That’s what makes it special, that’s what makes it our vocation.”

Notre Dame Cathedral in Flames

On Monday afternoon in Paris, the great spire of Notre Dame Cathedral collapsed. The roof of this iconic site for Christian pilgrimage is in flames–putting all of its spiritual and cultural history in jeopardy. Will its rose window, made of centuries-old glass, survive the heat? Will a country which so strongly affirms separation of church and state be able to garner funds to make any repairs to this world treasure–should the treasure even exist at the end of the night? Is it even right to spend millions–or billions–on resuscitating a ravaged building when refugees are dying–also in the millions?

We’ve entered Holy Week with stark news before. May we all pray for the city of Paris–for France, and for the Church throughout the world.

“That Can’t Be”

Martin Werlen OSB is the former abbot of Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. This commentary is his response to the recently released essay of Benedict XVI, “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.”

That can’t be! That was my first reaction when I read the long essay on the topic of abuse on April 11, 2019. Someone who has looked even a little bit into the tragic problem of abuse in the Church could not write this way. Therefore, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Faith and pope cannot possibly be the author.

For him it would be clear that sexual assault and cover-up did not begin after Vatican II, and that he himself had especially promoted conservative factions accused of abuse whose members had never been involved with the Cologne Declaration. Most of the assaults I’m familiar with took place in a time and by people which the author even presents as exemplary. I’ve never met a perpetrator who justified his deeds with the zeitgeist. Otherwise it wouldn’t have had to take place in secret and be covered up.

I assumed that the writer was someone who wished to harm the Church. Meanwhile I’ve been informed otherwise. The personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein confirmed that the 92-year-old former prefect of the CDF and pope wrote the essay alone. And traditionalist circles are proud of this. In fact, they celebrate the essay as an explosive missive directed at Francis.

Here, one must agree with the journalist Tilmann Kleinjung:

“After the abuse meeting in Rome in February, we reporters judged Pope Francis very harshly. Because the concrete results were rather thin, because the Catholic Church still has problems with a radical no-tolerance-policy for perpetrators and those who cover up, because everything is moving too slowly in dealing with this monstrous scandal.

“But now that we have gotten a good look into the worldview of his predecessor Benedict XVI, we must say: we did Pope Francis an injustice. At a tempo which is, in a Catholic content, very quick, he is attempting to bring about a change of consciousness in his Church. The voice of the pope emeritus comes across as an echo of a time long gone. That Joseph Ratzinger still publishes his viewpoint harms himself and his predecessor.”

Thanks be to God that the Church did not stand still with Benedict XVI. For me, his piece is an encouragement to stay the course with Pope Francis in the face of all resistance. That is a question not of church politics, but of credibility.

This article first appeared in German at the website of the Katholische Medienzentrum in Zurich kath.ch and is reprinted in translation with their kind permission.

New Contributors to Pray Tell!

Pray Tell is very happy to introduce three new contributors! We look forward to hearing their voices.

Rev. Lisa Weaver was appointed Assistant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary this past January. She has a pending Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies/Sacramental Theology at The Catholic University of America as well as an M.Div from UTS (New York), a M.Phil. from CUA, a M.A. at CUT, and a B.A. from CUNY/Bernard M. Baruch College. She was ordained by the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. in 2000 and offered pastoral service at Trinity Baptist Church (Bronx, NY) in several capacities for many years.

Rev. Dr. Anna Petrin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church as well as a scholar, having a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Early Christianity and an M.T.S. from the University of Notre Dame, an M.Div from Duke University, and two B.A.’s at North Carolina State University. Dr. Petrin’s expertise is in the history and practices of Christian worship and has spent several years teaching about liturgical history and sacramental theology.

Rev. Dr. Jill Crainshaw is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Dr. Crainshaw holds a Ph.D. from UTS, an MDiv. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a B.A. from Wake Forest. She has several published works, including her most recent work When I in Awesome Wonder: Liturgy Distilled from Everyday Life (Liturgical Press, 2017). Dr. Crainshaw places special emphasis on the religious leadership and how it is related to social justice and experiences of human life.

Welcome to Pray Tell! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and expertise with our readers!

Diocese of Rome Insists – The Paschal Triduum belongs in parishes.

On 1 March, the Diocese of Rome, clarified that the Easter Triduum, and especially the Easter Vigil, are to be celebrated in parishes; Not in chapels, oratories, or congregations of clerics and religious.

Such a rule has been in force since the time of the Consillium (apparently without much effect), but it is making a splash in Rome, nonetheless, as favorite Triduum locations are clarifying the communities will be in parishes this year.

Documents are here.

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