February 14, 2012 / Praxis
In this essay, Ryan Davis wrestles with God’s goodness and Scriptural promises in the face of profound physical suffering.
March 30, 2018
I see the crumbs as I’m awkwardly getting down on the carpet: knees first, then hands. Oh no, I think as I slide my hands along the carpet away from my body, should I have bowed first? But why? I’m preparing to lie prostrate in front of the altar on Good Friday—bowing would be superfluous.
I guess that it’s been a week since this floor was vacuumed. The crumbs must be left over from last night’s Maundy Thursday communion. I try not to lie with my face in the crumbs.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
On Good Friday, we remember Christ on the cross. The only music in our service at Saint David’s Episcopal Church is an acapella soloist at the end. Otherwise, the service begins and ends in solemn silence. There are readings and a sermon and lots of prayer, but there’s no communion—some churches serve communion from the reserve this day but not at Saint David’s. It’s a day without.
My forehead and nose are touching the carpet. I picture the indentations that are forming there, indentations that will last for most of the service. But carpet lines would be better than bread crumbs.
Last night we also had a foot washing. Parishioners might have stood in this very spot, their bare feet pressing into the carpet threads. What if one of those parishioners had a mild case of athlete’s foot? I read somewhere that athlete’s foot is a form of leprosy. What if I am getting leprosy on my face right now because we had a foot washing last night and someone stepped here?
I know a priest named Fred who scrubbed the stone floor of the church where he was ordained prior to the service because he was going to lie prostrate. And Fred’s ordination service didn’t follow a foot washing. Do leprosy germs linger on carpet?
Jesus, I am so sorry that I am thinking about leprosy on Good Friday when I am supposed to be contemplating your sacrifice.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Unlike Fred, I wasn’t prostrate for either of my ordinations, to the diaconate or to the priesthood. The deacon ordination was in a group, and we decided together to kneel at that point in the liturgy. I was the only candidate at my ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, and there I also opted to kneel, though that went a bit awkwardly for me. All the priests who were present at my priestly ordination were invited to lay hands on me, and this resulted in enough pressure to push me forward. Please don’t let me crash into the bishop, I prayed as I pressed back against all those hands, immediately regretting the absurdity of my prayer in such a transcendent transitional moment.
I did not crash into the bishop, and afterward I was relieved that I would never again be asked to lie prostrate on the floor. A few months after my ordination, however, when discussing my first Good Friday as clergy, the rector at our church (i.e., our senior pastor) told me that we would lie prostrate on the floor after entering the nave on Good Friday.
“What? No. I’m not a prostrate kind of priest. I’m not getting on the floor,” I said.
“Yes, you are. You’re getting on the floor.”
I knew that he was right. During my ordination I had just vowed to obey all those in authority over me, all those like Father Bob. “How long do we have to stay down there?” I asked.
“As long as it takes to recite Psalm 22 in your head.”
I knew how Psalm 22 started—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me—but I didn’t know the rest. “So I’ll just get up when you do,” I said.
He smiled and told me a story about when he was a new priest on the floor on Good Friday. His cell phone was in a pocket underneath his black cassock, and it went off during the service. “I had it on vibrate,” he said, “but it was really loud, vibrating against the stone floor during the solemn period of silence.”
The solemn period of silence. The prayer book doesn’t tell us to lie on the floor during this silence. Instead, the prayer book rubrics indicate that “On this day the ministers enter in silence. All then kneel for silent prayer, after which the Celebrant stands and begins the liturgy with the Collect of the Day.”1 It said right there that we should kneel, but Father Bob was committed to prostration.
I couldn’t recall ever seeing a priest lie prostrate on Good Friday when I attended Good Friday services as a layperson. If I had, I suspect that it would have struck me as annoyingly dramatic. But now that I’m the rector of a church and I don’t have to do what Bob says, I still go down on the floor every Good Friday. This has been a surprise.
So here I am, ten years into ordination, face in the carpet and I still have not memorized Psalm 22. Jesus prayed the first line of this psalm on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? If that was good enough for Jesus, why should I recite the whole thing in my head? Instead, I just pray that line over and over and over, as I lie here trying not to breathe in crumbs and leprosy.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?
Every year I tell myself I will memorize the whole thing by the next Good Friday, but then, as I lie with my nose pressed against the carpet, I remember that I forgot. I pray the snatches that I know: I am a worm and no man. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
I worry that I have not stayed down long enough to recite the whole thing. I try to pray.
I lead two Good Friday services a year at Saint David’s. We aren’t supposed to do this—Episcopalians can offer Easter services Saturday night after sunset and all Sunday long, but on Good Friday, the custom is to offer a single service. But I don’t want to have to pick between the people who don’t drive at night and the people who work during the day, so I offer Good Friday services at both noon and at seven o’clock at night. This isn’t technically a rubric violation, but still, don’t tell my bishop.
I feel foolish up here, on the floor. No one else is on the floor. They are all kneeling. Like the rubrics dictate. All makes it sound like a full service, but there are fewer than twenty of us here; Good Friday doesn’t get the same crowds as the Easter service two days later.
Deacon Bill was also on the floor during the first year that we worked together, but now he’s eighty, and he kneels on one side of the altar rail. We remove the red kneelers every year after we strip the altar following the Maundy Thursday service. This year, for the first time, Deacon Bill didn’t argue with me when I put one kneeler back out for him. Maybe we can get a less obvious kneeler for next year. Maybe one that’s gray.
There was one year that I didn’t go prostrate on the evening Good Friday service. My father was dying that year, and I wasn’t set to fly out to see him until the day after Easter. He had insisted that I spend Holy Week with my church, and the hospice nurses didn’t expect him to die right away, but I felt guilty not being with him. I resented every minute of that Holy Week, and as I walked down the aisle that Good Friday evening, it struck me as deeply disrespectful to Jesus and my congregation to get on the floor when I felt angry about being there.
Someone asked me afterwards why I didn’t get on the floor. “That moves me so much every year,” she said. I haven’t skipped since she said that, regardless of how I’m feeling. Even if I am not praying, like now. Pray. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Focus. You’re a priest.
I’m not exactly sure why I lie on the floor like this. Yes, it’s how I was taught, but I’ve adapted and rejected other lessons.
I suppose that one reason is that on the floor, I’m not blocking the cross. On Good Friday, the service starts in silent prayer, contemplating the empty cross—two perpendicular wooden beams lying against an altar that has been stripped of its coverings. Well, the rubrics don’t explicitly instruct us to “contemplate the cross,” but I want my congregation to see the cross and contemplate it. If I’m kneeling there, I block their view. So I lie on the floor.
I hope Bill remembers not to lift up the cross this year. He did it once about three years ago. At the end of the service, as we kneel before the cross, someone sings an acapella solo of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” before we depart in silence. That year, Bill felt so moved by the song—or so wounded by the long periods of kneeling—that he stood and slowly lifted the cross so that people could see it. This wooden cross is old and lives outside the rest of the year; it had experienced some rot. As Bill dramatically lifted the cross, the crossbeam fell and bounced once on the floor, narrowly missed hitting me in the face.
I consider encouraging Bill to wear knee pads under his cassock next year, but that feels like cheating. Is that why I’m down here—to cheat? Because it’s easier on my knees?
There aren’t many people here this year. I wonder if they stay away because it irritates them to see me on the floor. I can’t believe that my mind is wandering so much and that I am trying to make Good Friday about me. Stop it.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
If I actually knew the psalm, it would be over by now. I slowly rise, open the prayer book, and face them. “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family.”
Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and is pursuing an MFA in writing at Spalding University. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Modern Loss, the Grief Diaries, and River City Poets Anthology, and her sermons are available on stdavidsrva.org. She tweets @bizfel.