Working in expectation on Holy Saturday

Categories:People, Story, Theology
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Holy Saturday began as most of my Saturdays have begun since January: waking up early and driving into the country out west of town to help care for Moon, a blind horse owned by my new friend Carol. This work is part of a three-way barter, in which I obtained an icon of Christ Teacher for Rob’s thirtieth birthday and the artist gifted my time to Carol. I didn’t shower or change out of my work clothes when I returned home in the new light of the unseasonably warm day. Rather, I enjoyed a cup of coffee and then Rob and I headed over to Huss School to try to finish some tasks and find time for reflection before the afternoon’s predicted rain.
One of our first objectives was simply to walk the back property–about three acres behind the school–and imagine where things could go and what they might look like in the future, including the community garden that our friends Brenda and Julianna have in the works. Our current plan is to mark off areas of the massive lawn that we will not mow, in order to save time and fuel and to create a more welcoming habitat for the many creatures who forage on the property when humans aren’t around. From an upstairs window, I could see a flock of birds, several squirrels and a woodchuck happily searching for food, with the calls of sand hill cranes in the distance. We want to be friendly to them, but also to our neighbors, which is why we’ll strive to make the wildness look lovely and communicate our intentions via letters, signage and clean edges.
While we were walking out curved lines around the trees, we heard another familiar call in the distance: our friend Jo Ann. She’s been an ally in righteous trouble making for several years now, which is why I took notice when she expressed her vision for a part of the property I’d initially considered rather useless: a paved area on the side of the newer part of the building conveniently hidden by a six-foot fence where locals had gotten into all manner of trouble smashing glass and spray painting. Being right off the gym kitchenette, however, and under the shade of the neighbor’s trees, Jo Ann saw a perfect party patio. Yes! Seeing the space through new eyes opened up a whole world of possibility.
After Jo Ann left, we proceeded with the next agenda item: measuring an upstairs classroom and brainstorming possible arrangements for second floor living space. Then, it was on to finishing the weeding of one of the front flowerbeds. And finally, we set to work clearing the aforementioned patio area of leaves, sticks and the debris from cleaning the roof during the spring break trip. The supreme find of that work was some completely composted leaf mould that was loaded with worms! I scooped up as much as I could and, with apologies to the worms, relocated them to the front flower beds to continue their good work there.
By 12:30 pm, the rain was coming down pretty good and turning much of what we were trying to move into mud. Remembering the spring break trip rule that had been so life-giving of stopping our tasks at 12:30 for lunch, we decided it was quittin’ time and headed home to dry out and eat. We’ll finish the patio another day, but it already looks much better than it did.
The afternoon was filled with chatting and waiting until Terry arrived. Terry’s a new acquaintance whose name first popped up during our initial campaign to purchase Huss School, though he’d been a classmate of my parents’ in high school. He was passing through and wanted to take the opportunity to see the school. It was wonderful to show him around–another set of new eyes.
But his wouldn’t be the last tour of the day. Around 3:30, student friends from Grand Rapids started to arrive for a simple dinner to mark the end of Lent, followed by participation in the annual Easter vigil at St. Gregory’s Abbey. We were absolutely delighted that the interest of a few in coming down for the vigil had turned into a caravan of eight. I made a triple batch of Zero Soup from one of my Moosewood cookbooks with a bunch of vegetables we’d frozen last summer, along with whole wheat rosemary focaccia. It was joined by Natalie’s delicious french bread and one of the biggest, most beautiful fruit salads I’ve ever seen.
Before dinner, we headed to the school. One of the students who came down had been part of the spring break trip, but the others had never seen the building before. It was so refreshing to walk through accompanied by their questions and ideas and laughter. At the end of our tour and from an upstairs window again, I noticed another critter in the yard–this time of the young human variety carrying some sort of gun and beckoning to his friends. Back at the patio for the second time that day, I caught the three of them and introduced myself. I don’t think I was too intimidating, but poor Isaiah could barely spit out his name. Brandon and Ryan were a little more relaxed, though still very talkative about all of the troublemakers they’d seen around the school. I learned about the guy who spray painted “I love Chelsea” on the brick and about the kids who party in the back courtyard when we leave. It was a very non-linear conversation, but I did manage to tell them a few things about what we hope to do at the building and to invite their help in watching over it (albeit without pointing their “toy” guns at anyone). I’m looking forward to being able to greet them by name and meet their parents, who have wisely taught them not to run around with their guns loaded and to always point them at the ground.
Back at our apartment, ten of us gathered around the table and read Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Psalm 90, a poignant reminder of how brief our lives are in the history of the world and in the context of eternity. But it finishes with a prayer for gratitude and purpose:

Teach us how short our time is;
Let us know it in the depth of our souls.
Fill us in the morning with your wisdom;
Shine through us all our lives.
Let our hearts soon grow transparent in the radiance of your love.
Show us how precious each day is; teach us to be fully here.
And let the work of our hands prosper, for our little while.

And then we ate our humble feast, and then we headed out toward the Abbey.
The Abbey’s Easter vigil begins at 11:00 pm on Holy Saturday with the lighting and blessing of a new fire and the lighting of the Paschal candle. Then we process into the church for the reading of key stories from the Hebrew Bible, all building toward the transition of midnight. At precisely the right time, the bells ring and the room is illuminated and we remember our baptisms and we sing and we commune. And then we party, resurrection style. Brother Abraham made some delicious snacks, graciously considering the vegans and vegetarians among us, to accompany the wine. I enjoyed good conversation with the Abbot and with our friend Margaret, who was home from college on spring break. And finally, I thanked Brother Abraham for the hospitality of the Abbey, with a promise to continue our conversation about potential points of connection between the Abbey and the Huss School project. At 2:30 a.m., Rob and I finally collapsed into bed, full of surrender and hope.
I’m never quite sure what to make of days like this and I think that’s a good thing. Like the mysteries of the Easter vigil, a highly liturgical ritual from a tradition I’m just beginning to know, the patterns of my life lately are filled to the brim with mysteries. How and why were we able to raise the money for *cino to purchase Huss School? Why are these college students, who have so many amazing gifts and ways of seeing the world, interested in visiting our humble little town? Why are friends of my parents from several states away popping up into the story? What’s going to grow in that little flower bed in front of the school this summer, much less on several acres ten years from now? How will our connections to Brandon and Ryan and Isaiah develop over the next few years as their neighbors? Some days can be such inscrutable gifts, when I can hardly keep up with all of the ways the past, present and future are mingling together into an epic story in which we, ephemeral candleflames and dust and grass that we are, have roles to play.

Let us proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

And we do proclaim it over and over again, don’t we? Not just in the words of an Easter vigil or of a communion liturgy, but in longing and gratitude, we seek to do so every day, and in all things.
When I’m at the Abbey, I don’t understand why we kneel when we do or when to bow or what tune to sing or even when I should add my female voice to the lower intonations of the monks. And when I’m at Huss School, I feel equally in the dark, but the smell of damp leaves and the feel of cool cinderblocks and the sounds of sand hill cranes remind me: I am here. I am here for my little while and I have good work to do. I am here, where many others have been and will be in the presence of One who sustains us all. “Behold I am doing a new thing,” says the book held by Christ the Teacher in the icon painting that sits in our living room. “Now it shall spring forth.”

Author:
Kirstin is a member of the *culture is not optional core community and is the Head Caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center.