Yesterday I wrote a few thoughts in which I used a church as a point of comparison with a human body and soul. It was far from perfect and deserved to have had me spend more time deliberating over the subject before I pressed the omnipresent “Publish” button on WordPress, but there it is.
There will be no Friday Five today. Instead I’m going to expand upon a thread I pulled on yesterday by using the words of Heather King to weave together more of the tapestry. This will not be short but will contain much food for thought. It will also contain an announcement. I invite you to stay with me.
Yesterday Heather wrote about something written by a disgruntled Catholic sent to her by one of her readers. This man was ranting about various things, among them Pope Francis pointing to love, and quotes Flannery O’Connor out of context. Heather responds with one of the most beautiful responses about the Church ever written. Just as a man-made building does not make you a Christian but elevates your mind and spirit while pointing you to Christ, the very Body of Christ itself, the Church, will do the same.
This guy so does not get what Flannery, with her huge sense of humor, and profound love of Christ, got from Day One: the Church IS the Cross. If you want to be challenged (and ridiculed, and marginalized, and scorned), do major penance and sacrifice, and die to every idea you’ve ever had about who you are, who God is, and what religion is, become a member of the Catholic church.
You think she’s kidding? I had no idea when I joined the Church over twenty years ago that I would have to develop such thick skin. It’s never the overt slander and discrimination that wears me down; it’s the soft, subtle, nod-and-a-wink kind. Whether by friends or co-workers who do not know that I’m Catholic. You learn a lot about people, some of which is ugly and the kind of information you wish you didn’t know. You learn the real meaning of tolerance while trying in vain to explain that same definition to them but some prejudices are too much to overcome. Ironically it is those who fancy themselves the most tolerant who are the most prejudiced.
“Enemies of the human race?” Puh-leeze. Hyperbole much?
The idea isn’t to demand that the Church make herself worthy of us. The idea is to realize that in spite of our unworthiness, we–miracle upon grace upon wonder upon mystery–have been deemed worthy of the Church. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” we pray, just before receiving the Eucharist. The Eucharist! The Body and Blood of the Savior of the World. I mean this joker thinks Christ is not worthy of him?!
This is another mistake people make: attempting to remake things instituted by Christ in our own image. Whether it’s something he said, or did, or ordained, for two thousand plus years we have attempted to put our own face upon the face of Christ. Stomping your feet while screaming until blue in the face that the Church (and therefore Christ) is outdated and needs to get with the times doesn’t make it true.
Here’s the Cross of the Church: It’s not just for us. It’s for everybody. Thus, we don’t get to have homilies tailor-made for us, although in another way a homily always is tailor-made, usually in the last way we would have chosen. The priest has to meet the tentative searcher; the elderly man who has tottered in, aching in every bone in his body, to give thanks; the pregnant teenager; the wife of the CEO whose son is a crackhead dying out on the streets; the crackhead; the guy who’s cheating on his wife; the wife; the vet suffering from PTSD; the general who’s ordered the killing; the nurse trying to figure out whether to quit her job because her hospital is performing abortions.
He has to meet the one who thinks the Church is too hard and the one who thinks the Church is too soft, the one who is rejoicing and the one who is mourning, the one who is pissed at God and the one who is falling madly in love with God. He has to meet the eight-year-old and the eighty-year-old. He also has to meet the blowhard, the Pharisee, the one who thinks only she is up to being challenged, only she suffers, only she gets it and for God’s sake can’t we get some decent music. All in six minutes.
This is why I moan every time I hear someone attempt to paint the Catholic Church with the broad brush of American political jargon and stereotype. “The Church is conservative.” “The Church is liberal.” No, the Church is Catholic. Catholic means “universal”. Some of its positions when looked at through the narrow lens of politics is liberal and some of it may be construed as conservative. But where those teachings land on the spectrum is indicative of those positions in relation to our stance as an individual, not the Church. If I identify myself as a liberal and I look at the Church’s unwavering stance with regards to the sanctity of life with regards to abortion and compare it to my political stance I will of course claim the Church is conservative. And in the next breath when I see that that same Church holds to the sanctity of life with regards to the death penalty I will praise it for being so liberal. There are many “issues” for which this holds true and watching people twist themselves in knots depending upon how the political wind is blowing is an amazing thing to behold. Not having to moisten my finger, lift it into the air and get a sense of what I believe each day due to the shifting political winds is called “non-thinking” by some and “rigid” by others. That presumption erroneously suggests that there is no internal struggling or thinking that goes on with regards to issues. For example, I used to be pro-choice with regards to abortion and pro-death penalty. After studying what the Church has taught for centuries, rooted in Christ, and then doing mental gymnastics with both issues that involved a lot of thought and prayer, I changed my stance on abortion and after further educating myself adopted a position against the death penalty, though I am still working my way through the maze of that issue. If only everything could be resolved in a ten-second sound-byte on the news or witty rejoinder in the comboxes of life.
People erroneously think the Church is confining, but the Church gives us the framework of prayer, the Gospels, the Catechism, the community, and the Sacraments and then you are more or less on your own, man. You will be surprised to find that the Church trusts that–given your intelligence, good will, and humble, contrite heart–you will be able to connect the dots. And the dots are these: You don’t get to have someone hold your hand and guide you along the perilous, excruciatingly lonely path to Christ. You don’t get to have someone applaud or even notice your hidden life of sacrifice and penance. You don’t get to be understood, validated, and comforted every other minute. While you’re being nailed to your own Cross, you get to do those things for someone else.
Humility, in other words.
You’ll find that if you truly want to be challenged, you will regard the abysmal ways you’ve fallen short in this vale of tears, and you will look at Baptism and the confessional and the Eucharist and Holy Orders and marriage and the last rites and you will see, in fear and trembling and dawning, crazy praise, This is the last thing I would have wanted and it is the only thing I have ever wanted. You will realize This is the only thing that could have pruned, in the gentlest possible way, my craving for attention, my impatience, my uber-criticism, my hyper-judgment, and that could simultaneously, while always calling me higher, have assuaged my guilt, bound up my narcissistic wounds, and invited me to overcome my seemingly bottomless cowardice and fear. Above all, this is the only thing that could fulfill my heart that, in spite of my myriad faults, overflows with love.
This is the last thing I would have wanted and it is the only thing I have ever wanted. Yes. How much do I want it? Stay tuned.
The follower of Christ doesn’t strive. The follower of Christ surrenders. Not to mediocrity, but to love–and if ever for one second we presume to think that the love of Christ isn’t sufficiently “challenging,” we have only to look above the altar: to Christ, lacerated, bleeding, alone, nailed to the Cross. That is the love the priest is pointing to when he says “God is love.” That is the death Christ was facing when, over the Last Supper, he told the disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the love upon which Flannery O’Connor’s heart, mind, intellect and soul were focused, as she suffered from lupus, was conscripted into celibacy, wrote to a public that didn’t understand her, watched her beauty, ability to walk, and life ebb away, and died at the tragically young age of 39, all without a single word of complaint, anger, or self-pity.
If we want to repent of our sins, if we want to do penance, have at it. The Catholic church is certainly not going to stop us. But here’s the thing we will learn as we undergo our own Passion: the theater of Catholicism is the Mass, not us. We’re not the star; Christ is. “He must increase, I must decrease.” He who loses his life for my sake will find it. Some who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Go to your room and pray in secret and your Father will see you in secret and reward you.
And here’s the hardest part. We have to take our eyes off of ourselves and see Christ in everything and in everyone: the Wall Street trader, the politician, the single mom with crying kids in line ahead of us, the flustered clerk trying to keep the line moving, the guy who cuts us off in traffic, the bully and the bullied. We must be counter-cultural to a world that preaches to us that to be significant we must command the attention and eyeballs of the world to be upon us and our actions, whether at work, in the home, or on social media. We must fight the urge to place ourselves in the center of our universe where Christ is meant to be. In twenty years everything I have learned within the Catholic Church does that specific thing: point me to Christ while teaching me that I “must decrease.” I need to get out of my own way, in other words.
Christ isn’t kidding. Those are not metaphors. It is just in the putting up with the thousand day-to-day petty annoyances that sanctity consists. It is just in casting our lot with other extremely unpromising, lackluster, humdrum people that we come to see how terribly unpromising, lackluster and humdrum we are. It’s just in accepting that things are never the way we want them, that we will not get the spiritual validation or guidance or friends or adulation we’ve imagined that we start to be saints. It is in offering ourselves up for God to do with what He wills (as opposed to what we think will make us look good) that–with multiple psycho-spiritual crises and usually over a long, LONG period of time–we are transformed.
Heather’s not kidding either. This process takes a long, long time. But I am not the man I was, and in five years I will not be the man I am today. And thank God for that!
I mentioned an announcement earlier. Basically it’s that while the autumn and winter months are when I get inspired to do what I feel is my best and most prolific blogging, I am going to be cutting WAY back this year. I’m doing so in order to focus on the reading, research and writing that I am doing offline. Recently I’ve purchased my fall/winter reading books and they are stacked bedside and ready for me to begin once I finish Kristin Lavransdatter mid-November. These are classics in Western (and even Eastern) spirituality and I’ve long wanted to get to them. They include The Way of the Pilgrim, This Tremendous Lover, The Soul of the Apostolate, and I Believe in God: A Meditation on the Apostles’ Creed. I am also getting started on my extensive research into the parables of Christ. If I do any blogging in the coming months it will likely be related to my research and things I’m discovering that I want to share, and BELIEVE me I am finding so much that I want to share. Will my research become a book? A series of blogs? Or will it remain written in my own hand and hidden in the obscure journals I have in my home?
At this point I can’t say. It’s up to God, really. And there’s so much more to tell you but I’ve already gone on for quite long enough. For the first time in my life, after a “long, LONG period of time” I understand what Jesus meant when He said “Come, follow me.”
Some will say my vision is too narrow and closed. On the contrary, my eyes are wide open and see the Big Country expanding before me. For the first time in my life I know where I am going.
PS: I am also prayerfully discerning entering into the Third Order of Carmelites or the Third Order of Dominicans. I humbly ask for your prayers as I discern which order, if any, are in my future. The next several months are going to be an interesting and exciting time.