I Will Go to the Altar . . .

On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!

In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.

Remember  the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.

I will go to the altar of my laptop
As I compose this prayer.

I will go to the altar of my piano,
Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.

I will go to the altar of the sidewalk
That leads me to my neighbor.

I will go to the altar of my phone
As I call or respond to a friend.

I will go to the altar in my kitchen,
As I prepare what God provides.

I will go to the altar of my appliances
That make light work of my chores.

I will go to the altar of my books
That bring food to my spirit.

I will go to the altar in my prayer corner
Where I find the grace to surrender …
To love.

 

The Heart of Christianity

About six years ago, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York, soaking in music, books, and religious thought — a spiritually inebriating experience indeed. I laugh to myself at that choice of adjective, “inebriating,” since Chautauqua, at its founding, was a very dry community, established to offer spiritual and intellectual riches to Sunday-School teachers during their summer vacation.

This was not my first stay at this mind-enriching, auto-free community on Lake Chautauqua. In the decades between this and my first stay, the place had grown in popularity and had even been cloned elsewhere in the country. It still remains an educational gem, but happily has become more ecumenical in its offerings of spiritual thought and practices from all religions, branching out from the standard Protestant fare at its inception. For example, celebration of the weekend Catholic Mass is no longer relegated to the movie theater, but has been promoted to the Hall of Philosophy.

Checking over the schedule after my arrival there, I was interested to find a lecture/discussion on the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I picked it up on a Wednesday afternoon when Christianity was the subject.

Handouts from the presenter summarized the major tenets of these three religions. The page on Christianity featured the Nicene Creed, first composed in the 4th century to settle a variety of heresies.*

Being a Catholic for most of my life, I thought I knew what Christianity was. Perhaps naively, I didn’t realize that people of other religions considered that the Creed was what made us what we are. So I raised my hand and stood up, a pale version of St. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens.

“The Creed,” I said, “is not what Christianity is about. It’s about the teachings of Christ, which is why it’s called Christianity! At the heart of this religion is Christ’s Gospel of the Kingdom and his command to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves — finally, in fact, to love one another as he loved us. The Gospels detail how we are to do this. Important as the Creed may have been at the time it was written, it makes no mention of the Gospel. Therefore, I would suggest that the Creed is not what makes us truly Christians.”

My experience in that Chautauqua classroom was my first realization of the great disconnect between faith as a triumph over reason and the intellect, and Faith as a reliance on the teachings of Christ. Prior to that day of epiphany, much time had passed since my childhood Catechism classes, my empty status as a lapsed Catholic, and my return to Christ and the Gospel as the central truth of my religion. In short, my faith had simply matured.

I confess that before this epiphany, I had been troubled by certain articles of faith found in the Creed, certainly because they are difficult to understand. Because of the way most of us have been raised, failure to accept an article of faith is to risk our very salvation. But just as we can’t wrap our head around these doctrines, we can’t wrap our heart around them either.

This was a troubling state of affairs, to say the least. Now that I’m back (I thought), what was happening to my faith?

Eventually, I found the filter through which I passed any questions or doubts. I looked for Christ not in the icy Creed but in the heart-warming attraction of the Gospel. There I found all I truly needed.

It is the person of Jesus Christ that continues to draw me to the practice of my faith. It is the beauty of his teachings, the appeal of his goodness, the intoxicating addiction to a holiness that I can no longer live without. In the Gospel . . .

I see Jesus pardoning the woman caught in adultery.
I hear Jesus teaching the Beatitudes to the throngs on the hillside.
I shudder to see Jesus touching lepers to heal them.
I am among the sinners dining with Jesus.
I listen to Jesus’ parables about the kingdom: the forgiving father, the compassionate Samaritan.

Little by little, I find that my efforts to follow Christ bring about a different kind of understanding. In those difficult acts of forgiving, of making peace, of encouraging the sad, of uplifting the sorrowful, — these grace-filled efforts to live by the Gospel shed a kind of illumination upon the Creed which now falls way behind the Gospel in importance. Rational understanding and acceptance don’t seem so important. The brilliance of the Gospel and the attraction of Jesus Christ have somehow introduced a different kind of light into my life that has totally overcome the coldness of the Creed and my difficulty in understanding it.

The more I’ve tried to live the Gospel, the less important has been my need to understand the tenets of the Creed. It seems that a different kind of understanding is being given to me, a more perfect understanding from the heart, in a heart-to-heart relationship with Christ.

Of course I still stumble through difficulties common to us all: people who rub us the wrong way, disagreements within a family, financial problems, etc, etc. ad nauseam. It’s not the Creed that helps me through these situations. It’s Christ in the Gospel who is with me, steering me onto the right path by his side, and showing me how to endure and grow.

+  + +

For more on this topic, check Fr. Richard Rohr’s meditation at https://cac.org/the-creeds-2019-01-23/

*For the complete Creed, see the USCCB website, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/ Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed.”

What Is “the Church”?

The current state of the Church is, to put it mildly, troubling. The realization of how sin is possible for even the most devout, has led me to ponder and to examine what is my personal attitude toward what we call “Church.”

For me, answers about the nature of Church have come mostly through the writings of St. Paul. I lean on him since he is responsible for the initial conversion of thousands of gentiles, now grown to billions, as he taught about Jesus and Jesus’ message. He most often refers to him not as “Jesus of Nazareth,” but as the Christ. Surely this is because “Jesus of Nazareth” associates him with only one small community, whereas Christ signifies the one anointed to teach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all people everywhere.

“Church” might be thought of as a building or parish as, for example, “I attend St. Mary’s Church.” Or it might be a kind of organization or institution as, for example, “the Pope is the head of the Church.” I believe these narrow meanings are far from St. Paul’s. He plunges us into his mystical understanding of the word “church” as nothing less than “the body of Christ.” He details this concept especially in his letters quoted below, where we learn that the Church has these spiritual characteristics:

  1. It is one: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. (1 Cor. 12:13)
  2. It is diverse but egalitarian: Whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, … we were all given to drink of one Spirit.
    Unity does not mean conformity!

    Diversity is necessary to serve a variety of needs, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry  for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God. . . so that living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ. (Ephesians 4:16)
  3. Christ is the head of the Church and our model. His teachings must be at the root of our actions. All authority is his. The rest of us (even the least, even the self-proclaimed greatest) must be servants to one another, and through this service, we “grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.”
  4. Since St. Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, we know it is neither an institution nor an exclusive organization. We fall in love with a Person, not an institution. The Body, the Person is Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who brought hope to the oppressed and an open invitation to sinners of all stripes; who invited all of us to share a heavenly feast.
  5. Just as a body is a living organism, the Church is a growing entity, changing and developing as the current age needs and understands. It grows and is built up by love. The proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.
  6. Individual responsibility. The Church is made up of individuals with unique gifts for evangelization. Christ is in each of us. Each of us is, in a way, the Church.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body . . . the church, of which I (individually) am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. . . it is Christ in you. (Colossians 1:24-27)

The Church, Christ’s Body, is composed of individuals. Each of us, no matter what our position or “title,” has a unique responsibility to bring Christ to both believers and non-believers.  I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. We who have been given to know Christ must bring Christ to all. In fact, we must be Christ to all. Each of us claiming to be Christian is uniquely responsible for living the commands of the Kingdom, not just for our own salvation but also for the sake of others.

Just as St. Paul imitated the life of Christ, including his afflictions, so  are we called to do the same. Because Christ lives in us, he is seen through us, and every generation of disciples must re-experience in some way the afflictions of Christ.  

Christ invites us to show others how our life is the continuation of Christ on this earth. He is visible to others only through what our life reveals. This is the mystery of Christ in us as we offer the world its hope for glory.

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Jesus has been baptized and has recruited the first of his Apostles. They are with Mary at a wedding feast.

Isn’t it puzzling that none of the other Evangelists even mention this miracle at Cana? Yet John’s Gospel places it right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Compared with later miracles — healing a leper or a man born blind, or even resurrecting a dead person — this seems a rather trifling matter. Jesus himself felt that the time was not right. It was only a private party, after all, and the many signs that came later not only demonstrated his compassion, but also boosted his credibility. Even turning stones into loaves of bread after forty days of hunger in the desert seems much more relevant.

Is it possible that John, the most mystical of the Evangelists, has presented this narrative as a brilliant overture introducing (allegorically?) Jesus’ mission to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom? Let us explore the riches of the Cana event.

The Wedding Feast
Jesus repeatedly used the image of feast to represent the Kingdom of God, now readily at hand for all who wanted it. The wedding feast especially was the most joyful kind and lasted several days. It celebrated the union of disparate parts: union of a loving couple, union of their family and friends — perhaps much more important back then than now.

The Guests
Among others not named are Jesus himself, his mother, and his new disciples.

Wine
A metaphor for holiness and joy, it’s at low ebb in a world of strife and materialism. It also represents the Redeemer’s sacred blood, shed that all may find fulfillment in God, freed from the old law with its scrupulosity and fear of punishment.

“They have no wine.”
The old law is insufficient to feed the deep and thirst of God’s people. Jesus has come to renew the “wine of gladness.” He has come to fulfill, not destroy the law with its over-emphasis on externals. Jesus taught that the heart of the law was God’s love for us and ours for God and one another.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13)
This is the wine of spiritual inebriation.

The Request
How delicately made! This scene is not without humor. Leave it to a woman to notice a potential social disaster: running out of wine, a staple for a successful party! Mary merely brings it to her son’s attention, since he and “the guys” are clueless. Jesus doesn’t even want to get involved. This is not in his Plan, the time isn’t right, it’s a private party, etc., etc.
What a message for us when we think our wants — or even our needs — are not worthwhile for presenting to the Lord.  But God is always ready to hear our prayers. Every contact with God is important.

Role of the Servants
Many of Jesus’ miracles took place with the help of friends or even strangers, such as the group who opened a space in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend into Jesus’ presence. Or the anonymous members of the crowd who encouraged the blind man to approach Jesus. At this wedding party, the servants play an important role, just as we do as disciples/servants of the Kingdom. This is an essential part of Christ’s teaching:  giving help freely to others, even strangers.
Mary gives them a gentle order: Do whatever he tells you. In other words, You may not see the sense of accepting his will, but you’ll see how it will all work together  unto good.

The Jars of Water
These serve a mundane but necessary purpose for “Jewish ceremonial washing.” We are reminded of St. Paul’s words: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.  (2 Corinthians 4:7) Whatever good we do comes from collaboration with God himself. Neither we nor our deeds need be extraordinary. The lowly — and even sinners (which we all are) — can become precious channels of grace for others.

New Wine, Transformed
Finally, we arrive at the fruitful completion of the miracle. The water destined for ceremonial washing is our Baptismal water, cleansing us to make us ready for an outpouring of spiritual wealth given us through Christ. John the Baptist humbly downgrades his ministry and tells his questioners (John 1:26) that what he has done is nothing compared to what “another” will do. John’s baptism is merely with water,  nothing compared to Jesus’ baptism of the spirit. Through this, we are born again, transformed into true children of our Heavenly Father. Moreover, John the Evangelist writes:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1 John 3:2)

 

Resolutions

For the past several years, I’ve made a point of fixing on a resolution or two (never more than three) at the start of the New Year. These have been worthwhile exercises such as: “Improve my practice of mindfulness,” and others that seemed valuable and needed at that time.

So far, (it’s December 29th as I write this), I haven’t come up with anything, so I look at my journal entry for January 1, 2018, for inspiration.

Zero.
Nada.

Instead, I filled two pages with mostly questions including, for example, “What is my hope for the new year? What am I to do with this existence of mine? What will give purpose to my life? I cannot have a life that’s half dedicated. What does God want for me? All these years and I still don’t know!”

I see that I ended up making no resolutions last year. Maybe that’s why I’m coming up dry for 2019?

The possibility dawns on me that Resolution has a rather egotistical ring to it, something really notable for me to share on my shaky-legged blog, giving the illusion of a strong-minded woman, strong enough to imagine a worthy goal accompanied by a resolute heart and mind.

“Tout est grâce,”  says Thérèse of Lisieux in probably the most important spiritual lesson we can ever learn.

Emptiness is Grace.
Fullness is Grace.
Failure is Grace.
Success is Grace.
Strength is Grace.
Weakness is Grace.

Whatever “happens” to us is not a chance occurrence but a purposeful gift to us from a loving Divinity, a gift designed to be tailored precisely to our need at this moment in our life.

For me at this point, making a resolution is to walk headlong into the illusion that I can actually know what I need to become the person I was created to be! A Resolution is my futile homemade recipe to become a person I have yet to know.

But our gracious Creator-Father generously gifts us with a certainty (our only certainty!) that all is indeed Grace, grace that will shape us into the person he wants us to be. That is, if we respond willingly and generously to these events and circumstances

This year, I’m going to skip the Resolution business and simply take things as they come. Instead of Resolution, I may use the concept of Desire, or maybe Acceptance. Even better yet, I think Gratitude is a good place to be. Maybe even the best.

Happy New Year!