By Steve Rice
When you do something over and over, it sometimes requires a bit of effort to mentally engage with what you are doing. My confessor once told me to focus on the verbs in the eucharistic prayer to discipline my attention when it wandered during the Mass. I find it helpful: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” It’s been good advice. Before Mass, I’ve started to say the vesting prayers in Latin. I have tremendous interest in language but, sadly, no aptitude. Saying the prayers in Latin forces to me to slow down, meaning I must start vesting earlier. It also requires that I focus on the words. When I put the maniple on the wrist of my left arm and tie the strings, I am drawn into the prayer: Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris (May I be worthy, O Lord, to bear the maniple of tears and sorrows, that I may with joy receive the fruit of my labors).
The maniple’s origins are ancient. It was an ornamental handkerchief, used to wipe sweat from the brow. Before the maniple developed to hang from the arm, it was folded and carried as a bundle in the hand. The word reveals this origin: manus (hand) and plena (full). It’s a handful.
May I be worthy, O Lord, to bear the handful of tears and sorrows.
In reflecting on the current state of our COVID/Post-COVID parish life, I am torn. I’m beyond tired talking about it, and yet I don’t think we’ve talked about it enough. I don’t mean discussions about restrictions or modes of transmission, but rather about the spiritual pain and damage that has been done. The wounds that we bear and the wounds we, clergy and laity, must dress and address in others.
I don’t think clergy are talking to one another. I think we are afraid we will be exposed as failures. We craft our livestreams to show less of the congregation and purposely post pictures of children and families when they show up. Pre-COVID stalwarts of prayer and participation are now twice-a-month at best. Good friends have turned to ghosts. When asked about attendance, even though we know the exact number, we respond with vague generalities. PPP is now spent and on stewardship, 2023 is the Wild West.
Am I the only one? Without thinking hard, I can come up with nearly a dozen friends who have resigned from parish ministry in the past year. Friends are drinking too much. One died from the poisonous medicine prescribed by his addiction.
We have fistfuls of tears and sorrows.
When I’m to the point of being done, of checking again to see my earliest retirement date (February 2035), tired of bleeding from innumerable digs and cuts, I am both chastised and comforted before Mass when I put on the maniple. The cloth that symbolically wipes the sweat from my toil reminds me why I am a priest. I have been called to unite myself with the cross of Jesus Christ and to serve as a living sacrifice. I cannot be surprised that it is hard. I cannot be shocked that it will sometimes hurt.
An Orthodox monk once shared a story about his spiritual father, who was the subject of jealousy and slander. When the elder heard of gossip and lies spread about him, he praised God, saying those lies would lead to the sanctification of souls. Have I praised God when I’ve received hard news? Have I praised God when I heard the sting of unfair criticism or gossip? While I’ve put on the maniple, have I truly worn it?
When we tie the maniple around our wrists, we are binding our lives to the tears and sorrows of the people in our care. Their sorrows, we need to be reminded, are almost always graver than our own and represent a suffering we have not experienced and cannot imagine. Bound together, we carry our bundles of tears and sorrows to the altar, where they are joined to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul wrote to the Romans that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
The maniple is a liturgical string around our finger, an ornamental device for memory. God loves us so much that through Jesus Christ, he has turned the pain of suffering into an avenue toward hope. The maniple is only worn at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is not worn in processions, it is not worn at the Office, it is only worn by the priest (and deacon) when the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is made present under the sacramental signs.
That liturgical discipline makes a significant statement to everyone gathered at the Eucharist. Our sufferings, tears, and sorrows are properly directed to the altar and not to Twitter, not to the bottle, and to not to bitterness. Only the altar can bring us in contact with the substance of hope.
Psalm 126:6 echoes the traditional vesting prayer for the maniple. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” In Latin, qui seminant in lacrimis in exultatione metent, qui ambulans ibat et flebat portans ad seminandum sementem veniens veniet in exultatione portans manipulos suos. Instead of carrying their bundles (manipulos) of tears and sorrows, those who have united their sufferings with Christ will come home with fistfuls of joy.
I have found that I pause longer when putting on the maniple than any other vestment. I try to remember those in my care who are currently suffering. I think of my own wounds endured for sake of fidelity. When tying the maniple, I ask the Lord to untie my pride from my heart. I ask for grace to praise when I’d rather complain. It has strengthened my priesthood and brought me closer to the wounds of Christ.
The use of the maniple was never abrogated. It simply fell into disuse, along with the accompanying prayer. I encourage the restoration of both. It is a reminder that the priesthood is a labor that comes with handfuls of suffering and tears of sorrow, both our own and from those we serve. It is a reminder that we sow those sufferings in the wounds of Christ, planted in the eucharistic sacrifice. It is a reminder that all who come to Jesus Christ will never walk away empty-handed but will carry their sheaves of joy. Fistfuls.