In her novel, The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart describes a particularly painful time within 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 description:
“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, it would seem, 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 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, pure and simple. 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 within their DNA no doubt pushes them in that direction, but they are waiting. However dim that awareness, they know that 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 ultimately true for everyone 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 thirty-something singles, so that we can console and sustain each other within 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 ecstacy we so painfully crave.