Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 16, 2001
Keeping vigil as we await new meaning
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In her novel, The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart describes a painful time
in the life of a woman named Sara.
Sara's life is at a crossroads. A long-standing relationship has
soured, she is unable to draw energy from much of what once gave her
meaning, and she senses that she must move on, but is unsure of where to
go and what to do. She needs something new to happen to her, some new
person or event to appear and redefine her life.
But what? Who? She doesn't know. She only knows, and very dimly, that
she is waiting, keeping vigil somehow. Here is Urquhart's poignant
"Sometime during August of 1935, the last month of the last
summer I spent at Silver Islet, Sara told me what it was like to wait. .
. . She told me that over the period of the last winter she had finally
realized that everything that she did or said - every activity - was
either a variant of, or a substitute for, waiting and therefore had no
relevance on its own."
So too within each of our lives. We are always waiting. The Eucharist
is meant to help us with that. Among other things, it is meant to be a
vigil, a coming together to wait for someone or something new to happen
to us. We meet in Eucharist to wait with each other.
The Eucharist is meant to be a vigil. As Gerhard Lofink puts it:
"The early apostolic communities cannot be understood outside of
the matrix of intense expectation. They were communities awaiting
Christ's return. They gathered in Eucharist for, among other reasons, to
foster and sustain this awareness, namely, that they were living in
wait, waiting for Christ's return."
But what does that mean exactly? How is the Eucharist a vigil, a
gathering together to wait? How, indeed, does any vigil work?
We keep vigil whenever we live our lives in the face of the fact that
we are, consciously or unconsciously, waiting for someone or something
new to come into our lives and give us a completeness that we are now
missing. For example, we speak of a funeral vigil: A loved one has died.
So we come together, usually in a chapel, to remember and celebrate the
person who has died, but also to console each other as we wait for the
sting of death to pass so the joy of life can return.
As mentioned, the sense of vigil can be conscious or unconscious. For
example, when we sit at an airport or train station, waiting for a loved
one to arrive, we are quite conscious that we are keeping vigil,
waiting. Often though, as in Urquhart's description of Sara's waiting,
we have only an inchoate sense of keeping vigil. We are doing other
things, but, underneath, we are keeping vigil.
For example, picture this: Three women, each single and in her late
thirties, meet every Friday night to digest their week, let off some
steam, and enjoy each others' friendship. What they do varies: Some
nights they share a bottle of wine and reminisce about old college days
as they watch a video, other nights they go to a movie, and sometimes
they simply go from work to a pub and make an evening of it. They do
different things, but they meet weekly, ritually.
What is happening here? A number of things:
At one level, they are simply celebrating friendship. At another
level though, like Jane Urquhart's Sara, they are keeping vigil. They
are helping to sustain each other as each of them, single and
approaching mid-life, is waiting for something or someone new to come
into her life to help redefine and reshape its next chapter. They aren't
necessarily looking for husbands or kids, though a powerful imperative
in their DNA no doubt pushes them in that direction, but they are
However dim that awareness, they know a chapter of their lives is
winding down, that things cannot stay as they are, that something or
someone new must enter and help them redefine their meaning. Their
coming together is partly to sustain each other as they wait for this
new something to appear.
What is true for these women is true for all of us. At the end of the
day, we are all, each in our own way, single, inconsummate, waiting.
None of us has the complete symphony. Ninety-nine per cent of the time
we are waiting, longing for something new to appear in our lives.
The Eucharist is a vigil, a ritual that brings us together, like
those 30-something singles, so we can console and sustain each other in
the mutual inconsummation of our lives. In the Eucharist we assure each
other that we still have each other, that we still have God, and that we
still have Christ's promise to one day wipe away our every ache and give
us the ecstasy we so painfully crave.