Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, departs from the normal prayer structure for the Exercises-equivalent of Holy Saturday. Rather than pray four or five times as usual, he recommends praying the Passion once at midnight, again on rising, and then spending the rest of the day pondering Christ’s actual death, as well as imagining the loneliness felt by Mary and the disciples.
At first blush, it’s a sensible suggestion: take time to let Jesus’s death sink in. But at second blush, it is striking that Ignatius recommends, in effect, that we not even try to pray — not formally at least — but that we ponder and reflect instead.
Of course, if you’ve spent a week imaginatively meditating on the Passion, trying to stay alongside Jesus in his suffering, then his death does interrupt everything. With Jesus dead, Christian prayer doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Praying to the Father through the Son in the Spirit doesn’t work — unless you anticipate the resurrection.
Just as most of the Church does not celebrate the Eucharist on this day, so it is no surprise that Ignatius counsels against praying on this day. Instead, Ignatius suggests that we let the bottom fall out of our world too, just as it would have done for Mary, for the other faithful women, and for the apostles. He wants us to experience Jesus’s death without anticipating the resurrection. True, he is setting the stage for the next day’s prayer, when we ask to share in Jesus’s own joy at his resurrection, but the reality of Jesus’s death has to be plumbed first to make space for his own exquisite joy.
Some people might not appreciate such a suspension of the truth (of the resurrection) as a spiritual good. How could good come out of pretending not to believe something that you do actually believe? How do you even do that psychologically? But Ignatius is simply asking us to attend to the story as it unfolds, even if the story is familiar. And attending to Jesus’s all too real death is something many of us need to work at, not least to get over our inability to let Jesus be truly human, let alone truly dead. Unless we let him die, we lose out on Jesus’s own joy, his own gratitude, his own amazement, his desire to share his joy.
So if you’re wondering what to do this Holy Saturday, why not spend the whole day imagining that Jesus is dead. Go through the day, doing whatever it is that one does on a Saturday, but do so as if he has not been resurrected. Forget about the ‘not yet’. Go through the day as if his death had been the end of the story. Imagine everything Jesus said and did, imagine the promise of it all, but then also imagine that he was killed for it. But don’t anticipate. Ignore the speculative metaphysics of souls, and let him be utterly dead.
If you must sneak a prayer in, pray to God for some measure of desolation; pray for a real sense of spiritual numbness and darkness; pray for a sense of infinite grief; pray to experience the loss of any ground to prayer — pray even to be unable to pray. And then wait … for the darkness of the Vigil.