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The Pulse and the Ache of God

April 1, 2021


This week, I have been thinking about the power of a pulse—how it assists the beating heart, moving a constant surge of blood throughout the body. The strong pulse helps to cleanse and oxygenate every portion of the body. A weak pulse, on the other hand, makes the body sluggish, like a stagnant pond, until edema sets in—water overwhelming oxygen—and one’s organs and tissue literally become swamped, suffocated, and no longer able to support life.

The strength of one’s pulse, in this passed year of frazzled triage, masks, and so many uncertainties, can sometimes dictate whether one will be treated or left to perish.

I’ve been thinking about pulses because every Triduum brings to my memory a particular Tuesday before Holy Week spent in New York City, where I had been asked to speak to a small group. On my way back home, I’d moved through an impossibly crowded Penn Station and experienced something I have never been able to explain beyond the notion of a pulse. But a big one. Huge. As though it belonged to God himself.

An avid people-watcher, I had not minded a delay in my train’s schedule and settled myself at a bar that provided an Irish stout, a peek of the scheduling boards, a full view of the escalators pulling people off the streets, and a cross-section of folks coming and going. I had barely touched my beer, and was vaguely agreeing with someone that Talking Heads was a great eighties band, when, for the merest moment, something happened.

For just the briefest instant, it seemed to me as though everything simply stopped; a full-on freeze-frame of humanity.

The people walking by, the escalators full of people floating up or down, the groups gathering by the schedule board, the music and conversation around me—it all just stopped.

And in the space of a pulse—with the same fleeting pound of affirmation and ongoing life that characterizes a pulse—I understood something in an instinctive and internal way that I cannot perfectly, or even adequately, describe.

I wouldn’t presume to say that anything was being communicated to me, but I nevertheless had a glimpse—or an overwhelming “sense”—of something. In that brief flash I knew that hovering over us, near us, within us, all about us, was an awful, unstoppable ache of love and sadness; a sense of: Oh, my people! “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34).

An ache of longing, reaching out; of be-longing unanswered, unfulfilled. A God-ache.

It lasted the merest second, and then all was normal; everyone was moving again; the radio was blaring. But the experience left me weepy and restless all that week and has colored every Holy Week since then.

This had not been Thomas Merton’s wonderful, joy-filled sense of people gadding about, shining like the sun. This felt more like a gloaming; like the space between dark and light that, during an ordinary twilight vespers, can bring such a sense of comfort and completion. And yet this moment contained a note of what I can only characterize as desolation. Unfulfilled be-longing. Oh, my people . . .

There is a story that Pope St. John Paul II was once discovered in his private chapel with his arms about the tabernacle, crooning a song in Polish, as a mother might croon to a child. He looked up to his visitors with a distraught expression and said, “I don’t know how to comfort him!”

That is precisely what it felt like to me—as though I had one of my children in my arms, and he was inconsolable, begging to be heard and understood, instant by instant, pulsebeat by pulsebeat.

These liturgies of the Triduum, too, come at us like strong pulsebeats from God himself, who is working on us, trying to bring our mortality, our distracted minds, our often-neglected souls more into line with his immortality, his steadfast attention, God’s action meant to turn us, turn us, toward him that we may find a way of being that fulfills us, becalms us, keeps our fearful tremblings and weary, soul-hurt doubts from drawing us too far away from the All-in-All. And too near the all-nothing—the elaborate fun-house mirror that distorts everything and pulls us, pulls us, away and away.

The Triduum is a pulse of promise amid all that destroys.

Pulse: The Mass of the Last Supper, with its feet-washing call to serve others before ourselves, to make ourselves conduits of grace as Christ was—as we recall within the plaintive and haunting chant of the Pange, lingua. 

Pulse: The drama, grief, and reverence of Good Friday. “Behold, behold, the wood of the cross, on which is hung our salvation.”

Flatline: Holy Saturday. The merest taste of a world without Christ; no Mass, empty tabernacles, no holy water, no living water. And we thirst. We know we will die without intervention, without something to restore movement to our blood, and breath to our bodies. And then . . .

PULSE: The giant, atomic surge of God’s love, God’s energy, God’s self brings the life, empties the tomb, defeats death forever beyond the material.

And we are saved.

This Holy Thursday finds some of us still in self-imposed quarantines for one reason or another, still prisoners to a pandemic and unable to physically and presently participate in these powerful liturgies, and we feel that loss. If we do attend Mass, we feel it in the emptier pews all around us, spaced by social distancing. We hate conceding to receiving these holy days in a way that feels passive rather than participatory, and a little lonely-for-the-others, to boot.

Even so, we should participate as much as we can—especially those who are still getting their spiritual sustenance live-by-satellite, or at drive-in liturgies—because this is where God has permitted us to be in this moment in time, and therefore there must be a purpose to all of it.

There must be a reason why the Lord allows a circumstance that seems so cruel to so many: a Triduum, an Easter celebration, a rising, and Communion delivered to us not by human hands but sent forth via cameras, over the air, through the endless inexhaustible pulse of electricity.

Perhaps “over the air” and via that God-created electrical pulse is how these days are meant to be delivered, because that is where so many are being made ill: over the teeming, whirling currents enjoyed by the prince of the air.

It’s one of the most difficult things to learn—to take to heart, and to affirm—yet it is the teaching of the crucifix, of Mary’s faithfulness, and of pretty much all the saints too, including St. Philip Neri, who articulated it so well: “All of God’s purposes are to the good; although we may not always understand this, we can trust in it.”

Neri’s words—the instruction of the crucifix—they teach us a hard, hard lesson. And yet, I believe the lesson. I trust in it, particularly with a prompt from Scripture: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. . . . But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:1-2, 4-5).

Therefore, what God has permitted, I will not disallow. Rather, I will content myself to wonder about it all, and be opened to finding meaning where I can. I will let my iffy spiritual pulsebeats be fortified by God’s own defibrillation through these liturgies.

I hope you, too, will open yourself to it, whether in person or via the odd means the Lord has allowed in his year, 2021.