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By Thine Agony and Bloody Sweat

By Thine Agony and Bloody Sweat

 

I’ve long been skeptical about the practice of taking something on for Lent vs. giving something up, but was converted to the idea last year, after taking up praying the Great Litany daily during this season. I had chosen Satan as the topic for St. David’s Lenten series three years ago, and as usual when creating my own programs, I went first to the Bible and then the Book of Common Prayer to figure out what to tell my congregation about the subject. In the prayer book, Satan and “the devil” appeared twice in the eight-page Great Litany. 

 

I detest the Great Litany. Once in seminary, some fifteen years ago, when I realized we would be praying it as part of Morning Prayer, I left before chapel started and have been afflicted with guilt ever since. When I became the rector of a church that had never used the Great Litany, I didn’t introduce it and I might have forgotten about it altogether had it not been for other Episcopal clergy on social media. I silently congratulated myself each year as I saw their photographs of processing around and around or kneeling and chanting as Lent began.

 

But when the Great Litany came up in the Satan study, my parishioners were fascinated by it. At their suggestion, we used it during evening worship before the program, both the prayer book version and the revised one from Enriching Our Worship. To my shock and discomfort, they enjoyed it. “We’ve never done this before,” they said, again and again. I felt awful for depriving them. We took selfies of “Satan-stomping shoes” and they eagerly asked when we would pray this way again.

 

So, I chose to pray the Great Litany daily as my personal Lenten discipline in 2019. Maybe I could come to detest it a little less.

 

FIRST WEEK

 

Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither reward us according to our sins. Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and by thy mercy preserve us for ever.

Spare us, good Lord.

By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,

Good Lord, deliver us.

 

This is torture. I loathe this litany. Lent is not really supposed to be about suffering, so why am I making myself suffer? Is this harder than giving something up? Why am I so unholy that I can’t pray this stupid litany? I Hate The Capitalization. “By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat.” Why capitalize those parts? Is visualizing bloody sweat supposed to be doing something for me? Was he sweating blood, or was blood mixing with sweat? Why isn’t “thine” capitalized? Was this litany written by a man? Is “bloody sweat” supposed to make Christ’s suffering more masculine? Who taught this writer how to capitalize? Why didn’t we update the litany with proper capitalization? Am I going to hell for thinking about this when I am supposed to be praying? 

Forefathers also annoys me. Why isn’t this updated to be more inclusive? It is updated in Enriching Our Worship, remember? You wanted this one because it has thees and thous and thines and more devil than the updated one. At least there is some devil in there: good for Lent. Episcopalians hate talking about the devil. 

 

SECOND WEEK

 

From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, 

Good Lord, deliver us.

 

This litany prays for us to be saved from earthquake, fire, and flood—poignant with the Nebraska flooding going on. It’s not emphasized in the news due to a New Zealand shooting and related stories about gun control. Maybe we need a new version of the litany that beseeches God about gun violence. About active shooter drills for children.

 

THIRD WEEK

 

By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,

Good Lord, deliver us.

 

“By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat” takes on some meaning after running my first 5K as part of a program at church, the “Pew to 5K,” brainchild of our fellowship chair, Caroline. Fellowship has mainly meant potlucks and food at events at St. David’s, but Caroline is a marathon runner passionate about fitness and wanted to play off of the popular Couch to 5K with Pew to 5K. Last year I thought I might have to show up because I felt sorry for her, as she was so enthusiastic and I didn’t think anyone would want to do it. Instead, we had widespread participation, over thirty people from a church of 300.  This year I trained, even though I hate sweating, and showed up on a Saturday in Lent for my first 5K, wearing leggings that said “Spiritual Gangster” and a top that my husband, a hunter, bought me that he said didn’t really look like camouflage because it was digitized. Everyone said, “Oh! Camouflage! Did Gary pick that out for you?”

 

I learned to lay out running clothes the night before the race and post a photo on social media. I ran more than I intended at first because there was such a crush of bodies. I couldn’t stop because someone might crash into me. Going around a corner felt dangerous. My goal was not to be last. After a while I noticed that a thirty-something woman in my congregation was running with me. I wondered if she was worried about me, so I kept running instead of walking, even through the agony and sweat. Eventually I walked a bit and so did she. “You don’t have to take care of me,” I told her. “I’m not,” she insisted, smiling. Somehow having someone with me made it beautiful, as did the people on the sidelines shouting to us that we were doing great.

 

Another woman from the congregation, in her 60s, passed us. I couldn’t believe how small her butt was compared to mine. We never caught up to her.

 

Running made me think of centering prayer. I detest centering prayer when I’m alone, but in a group, it’s ecstasy. Yet with this Great Litany, I have always loathed it in a group, and I loathed it the first week I prayed it alone, but now, alone, it is growing on me. 

 

FOURTH WEEK

 

From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, 

Good Lord, deliver us.

 

That it may please thee to show thy pity upon all prisoners and captives, the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed, 

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

 

One weekday this fourth week of Lent was especially busy, with a meeting in Newport News in the morning and a funeral back in Richmond in the afternoon. The meeting in Newport News was with our interim bishop. I went to talk to him about my parishioner Matthew Harper, who is incarcerated, and who was turned down a year and a half before for postulancy. I had known that getting an incarcerated person ordained was a long shot, but I became convinced of his calling, and thought the Commission on Ministry had given up too easily. They recognized he had a call but didn’t know how to help him answer it. They said they wanted to do something to acknowledge the ministry he was already doing in prison, but they didn’t follow through, and the previous bishop had stopped answering my emails or taking my phone calls.

 

The interim bishop listened to my story, and when I said carefully, “I’m a little upset,” he said, “You’re more than a little upset, Elizabeth. And I understand.” And he said he would license Matthew as a lay preacher, but not only that: he wanted to start a correspondence with him. And not only that: he would go visit him. I got more than I asked for. 

 

I cried.

 

Then I drove back to Richmond to preach and preside for a pillar of the church, who had not died “suddenly and unprepared.” I had asked her, not long before she died, “Are you afraid?”

 

She said, “Why? Why would I be afraid?”

 

 

FIFTH WEEK

 

That is may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good,

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

 

I’m overwhelmed with the approach of Holy Week, as usual, but this section of the Great Litany makes me feel heard, because of the “several callings.” Being a priest presiding at several Holy Week services is not my only calling. I am called to pray, on my own. I’m called to write. I’m called to walk my dog and eat dinner with my husband. I’m called to sleep.

 

HOLY WEEK

 

From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation,

Good Lord, deliver us.

 

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand and comfort and help the weak-hearted, to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,

We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

 

The line about stomping Satan makes me glad that I did not choose the updated Great Litany, although Satan-stomping sounds so violent. I think about it like tap dancing.

 

The crafts of the devil: crafts are like gifts. Sometimes we have gifts we don’t develop. Sometimes crafts are things we’re good at, but maybe aren’t what we were created to do. 

 

On Holy Saturday, I pray the Great Litany one more time before going to our Holy Saturday service and wonder if I will wait until next Lent to pick up this prayer again. The capitalization still frustrates me, but I love the archaic language. I muse about the Great Litany as I sit in a brown folding chair on our labyrinth, where our aspirant Sheri, who is leading the service this year, has moved the service. The phlox around the labyrinth is purple like Lent, but otherwise the day feels sneakily Easterish: breathtaking weather. Parishioners smiling at being outdoors. Windchimes jingling softly in the breeze. Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us comes into my mind as Sheri solemnly enters the labyrinth from the stone path, wearing black.

 

Elizabeth Felicetti is our book reviews editor.

 

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