The Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in Co. Limerick are captured celebrating the Holiest week for Christians by award-winning photographer Valerie O’Sullivan in this exclusive extract from her book.
Holy Week begins with the solemn commemoration of the Lord’s Passion on Palm Sunday. Weather permitting, the congregation assembles in the school atrium where, following
the blessing of the palm fronds, we move in procession to the church where the abbot
demands access by three times beating on the door with the processional cross. During Mass
the account of the Passion is proclaimed by three monks taking the roles of the narrator, the
crowd and of Christ. It is a dramatic start to the climax of the liturgical year and much of Holy
Week is spent practising and preparing for the liturgies.
The Holy Week retreat is one of the busiest periods of the year during which up to 130
resident guests join us to celebrate the Sacred Triduum. Spanning all ages and occupations and
hailing from all parts of the world, their presence is a great gift and fosters an atmosphere of
prayer and devotion. Some of the sixth-year students also volunteer to serve at the liturgy and
their contribution is likewise greatly appreciated. For some it will be their first opportunity to
see the ceremonies celebrated with full solemnity, and for many of our guests Easter at Glenstal
has become a fixture of their spiritual lives. In addition to the liturgical services, a full programme of talks and activities is also offered.
It is a particularly busy time for all involved behind the scenes: for the housekeeping staff who have to prepare accommodation; for the catering department who provide sustenance, and for the choirmaster, schola and sacristans who prepare for the liturgy and decorate the church.
The Easter Triduum opens on Holy Thursday with the solemn celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, the abbot presides and one of the most striking moments of the liturgy occurs when, in imitation of Christ’s example, he washes the feet of twelve men and women after which the choir sings the chant Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est – Where true charity is found, God is there. This model of humble service is a reminder of the task of discipleship to which all followers of Christ are called.
At the end of Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is borne in procession to the altar of repose as the community, bearing lighted candles, sing the great Eucharistic hymn of St Thomas Aquinas, Pange lingua. The altar remains a focus for prayer and adoration until midnight, while in the refectory there is a festive meal and a chance for the guests to renew acquaintances. During Compline we sing the haunting chant Christus factus est. Taken from St Paul’s Letter to the
Philippians, it expresses wonder at Christ’s humility in accepting death on the cross and awe at the Father’s raising him from death. Afterwards, the church is stripped of all ornaments and decorations in preparation for Good Friday.
The atmosphere during Good Friday is stripped back, stark and reflective. During the morning office prayer, we sing sections from the Lamentations of Jeremiah bemoaning the destructive hard-heartedness of the people of Jerusalem. The commemoration of the Lord’s Passion takes place at 3pm. The abbot and assistants enter in silence and prostrate before the altar in prayer. The account of the Passion is sung by three cantors and followed by the solemn intercessions for the needs of the church and of all humanity.
The unveiling and veneration of the Cross then follows. Made from wood grown in Glenstal, the
Cross contains a relic of the True Cross and, as the abbot gradually unveils it, he three times hails ‘the Wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the World’. When fully exposed, the community and congregation venerate it by genuflecting and kissing it as the choir sing the reproaches and other hymns and antiphons in honour of the Holy Cross. The service concludes with the reception of Holy Communion.
Paradoxically, Holy Saturday is a time of great calm and intense activity. Apart from the Divine Office, no other service takes place during the day, but much work has to be done in the sacristy and the kitchen to prepare for the coming feast of Easter.
The Easter Vigil
Under a night sky the congregation gathers in front of the abbey church. The ceremony begins
with the Lucernarium or service of light in which the Paschal Candle is lit from the newly blessed fire and carried in procession. As the flame is passed from person to person in the darkness, the church gradually fills with light, transformed into a symbol of hope and resurrection. With the singing of the Exsultet, the great, joyous proclamation of Easter all creation – from the angels to the bees – joins in hailing Christ’s victory over death.
The scripture readings that follow trace God’s saving work amongst his people and culminate in the singing of the Gloria, the pealing of the church bells and the singing of the Gospel of the Resurrection. In the baptismal liturgy that ensues, water is blessed and baptismal vows renewed.
Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to him, and all ages; to him be glory and power, through every age and for ever. Amen
On occasion, adult candidates have been baptised or confirmed at this point, providing a powerful witness for all present. The liturgy culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist in which all participate in ‘the wedding banquet of the Lamb once slain who lives for ever.’
Exclusive extract from Glenstal Abbey: Through the Seasons by Valerie O'Sullivan (Columba Books, 2019)