The Romantic Ideal

For some reason (it must have been creeping boredom after eight months of social distancing), I remembered having read a striking article in our Rochester diocesan Courier. It was titled: “Romantic ideal is missing in religion.” 

You can see why I was intrigued. I remembered having copied the article — it was definitely worth saving! — and I dearly needed to re-read it. I went through the usual search process, looking in all the logical places it might have been. No luck.

Then several days later, pop! There it was in some raggedy file. The article, published in February 2004, was written by Father Ronald Rolheiser, Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. Father Rolheiser is the author of many books on prayer and the spiritual life. Their titles match the spirit and flame of this article such as The Holy Longing, Sacred Fire, Wrestling with God, and others. 

In the Courier article, Father Rolheiser was exploring why our churches were “graying and emptying.” He readily dismissed the Conservatives’ reasoning: “the intoxicating power of secularity, … a pampered culture that has lost its sense of self-sacrifice, rampant individualism, [and] the sexual revolution.” 

Liberals had other ideas on the subject. They blamed “the breakdown of the family, a church out of step with the culture, a church too rigid, too patriarchal, … too much consumed with its own agenda … etc.”

Rolheiser offered a startling alternative: “We’ve lost a romantic ideal … We’ve no idealistic fire left.” After these many months of social distancing from friends and the Sacrament, this seems particularly valid. Even so, Rolheiser shows a healthy respect for theology, knowing that sound theology provides the necessary balance to the passionate love that moves and attracts believers. And really, isn’t this what our Lord Jesus taught? 

I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17)

And how is the law to be fulfilled?

“A new command I give you: Love one another.
‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

Love.

What a different approach to worshiping God!

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Father Rolheiser boldly writes: 

What we’re lacking is fire, romance, aesthetics . . . What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination, and this is not so much the job of the theologian as it is the job of the saint and the artist. We need great saints and great artists, ideally inside the same person.

We can find these qualities in persons such as St. Francis of Assisi who drew thousands, – no, millions, to a passionate union with Christ. This was not because of a brilliant mind, but by a humble demonstration of a powerful and self-sacrificial imitation of Christ in the Gospel. 

Rebuild my church.
Francis took this command literally, but soon realized what he was really meant to accomplish. Yes, the law, the rules, are necessary as they prepare the soil to receive the holy seed. But they are not meant to override the command to love, to forgive, to accept.

Rolheiser ends his article boldly with these words:

“Without vision, the heart doesn’t know where to go; but, without romantic fire it doesn’t want to go anywhere, least of all to church.”

Yes, Mom

Posted on July 25, Feast of St. James

I can just hear Zebedee and wife in heated discussion.

Z: “Those sons of yours just took off, left me and the guys in the middle of the day. No thought of cleaning up after fishing all night (getting nothing, of course) or helping us mend the nets. Me, me, me — that’s all they think of! They won’t amount to a hill of beans!

W: “Yes, Zeb, but just think. They’re part of the group that’s following this new prophet. As one of his chosen, they’re going to be way ahead of the guys that work for you — no offense. They’re going to be like Elijah — maybe even higher.”

Z: “Sure, you’ve put all those fancy ideas in their heads, those good-for-nothings!”

But as we all know, Mother knows best. She’ll show them! She’ll go straight to the top; she knows how capable her wonderful children are and will do anything to ensure their success. Their father is never satisfied. James and John never do anything right in his eyes! And so . . .

The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine [now they’re only hers] sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” (Mt. 20:20-28)

Mark tells this same story with one major difference. It’s James and John who make the request, not their mother. (10:35) Matthew’s version is the Gospel for today’s feast of St. James.

Being a mother whose sons –and daughter– bask in the sunshine of near perfection, I prefer Matthew’s version. The typical Jewish (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc., etc.) mother knows no timidity when it comes to her children. Maybe Zeb-Wife had heard the story of how Jesus’ mother Mary had intervened at that wedding in Cana. If she hadn’t let him know about the wine running low, Jesus would have had no idea that anything was amiss. 

Jesus politely rejected the Zeb-wife-mother’s request. As usual, it provided an important teaching moment about how his followers must not strive for places of honor but for opportunities to serve.

But after all, isn’t it true that James and John did get to enjoy special stature among the twelve? Why do you think that was? They, with Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration. This same trio accompanied Jesus deep into the Garden of Olives. Of course they couldn’t give him any feeling of support, falling asleep at once after the full supper. Not a good beginning for their apostolate.

I wonder how things stood between Zebedee and Wife later on. I like to think that Wife was gracious enough not to make it an “I-told-you-so” ending, and that Zeb was gracious enough not to dwell on their sons’ martyrdom. 

The celibate mystic, Julian of Norwich radically spoke of Christ as Mother:

“So Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him–and this is the essence of motherhood! –and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Chapter 59)

I do think that parenting is best done as a duet: men’s strength balanced with tenderness; women’s unconditional love balanced with discipline.

 

Words, Words, Words

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Clearly, Hamlet found his book quite unexciting.

Being a student of language, I am naturally drawn to the beauty and power of words, a power demonstrated by God Himself, by angels and even by humans

God said . . .  and nothing became something.

There have been so many times in my spiritual life when I scramble to find the right words to use in prayer. After all, I have many people, situations and things to pray for!

Where are the words? Do I use some of the billions spoken or written by others to communicate to the Lord an urgent cry for help? Or even occasionally to express gratitude? 

Sometimes I have an almost physical sense of being blocked, muted. Using the words of others seems so unauthentic then. Whatever word-prayers Saint X composed were surely just right for him/her, but somehow they don’t fit me. My struggle is like fighting my way out of a spiritual or mental strait jacket.

Words are how we communicate to one another, right?

Well, not always. Sometimes we might be so overcome with feelings that all we can do is hug someone we love or who is bereaved. Or we might find something lovely or useful to give them, or something lovely or useful to do for them. So words are not always the answer, as Jesus knew:

When you pray, do not babble on like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

Once again, the words of St. Paul come to the rescue, convincing me that though I’m quite sure I don’t pray as I “ought,” the Holy Spirit will step in to save me by praying noiselessly within me, using not words but unutterable groanings. (Romans 8:26) Maybe it’s a sense of longing, of wonder, of delight, of admiration — or best of all, of love. Somehow, a connection is made. And no words were necessary.

Inebriate me!

This line comes from an ancient poem, Anima Christi: Soul of Christ, sanctify me. It continues,

Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.

We are celebrating the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, ironically without the ability to receive the sacrament. We are, in a way, exiled. Soon (but not soon enough) we’ll once again be permitted to enter a sacred space to receive this sacrament.

It caused something of an uproar in a huge crowd when Jesus forcefully insisted on the necessity of “eating [his] body and drinking [his]  blood” in order to find eternal life. “This is a hard saying! Who can accept it?” So said many who had been seriously considering following the teachings of this person. Now many walked away.

According to a recent survey, fewer than ten percent of people who consider themselves Catholic, believe in the real presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine, consecrated during Mass. Most see it as “symbolic.”

If it is indeed such a hard saying, how is it that the nearly 90% of self-styled Catholics still want to receive what we consider a Sacrament? On this feast, I feel compelled to ponder this conundrum.  There is something beyond symbolic here.

Even after I “left” the Church, why was the Sacrament so important to me? In the several months of going through the annulment process, why was receiving Communion again so important? Why had I felt so shut out? Well, because I had been.

Did I miss being in a building where others were able to go to the front of the altar and consume a small piece of bread with a small sip of wine? How could I be so eager for a mere symbol? 

I had been taught St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation about substance and accident, about how, after consecration, the essence or substance of that bread was no longer “breadness” but the Body of Christ; the essence of the wine was not wine-ness but the Blood of Christ. 

That theology didn’t really matter to me (even if I could understand it!). I simply knew I wanted to once again receive and embrace the friendship of Jesus Christ in a tangible way. Somehow the ancient philosophical explanation didn’t really matter. I knew – as have so many others – I knew that I would be re-connected with Christ when I would once again be allowed to receive that Bread and Wine.

I think that must be why Pope Francis said the Eucharist is not a reward, or a kind of prize that we get for good behavior. Rather, it is food for the journey. It is even more potent than the manna given to the refugees in the desert. We cannot survive, spiritually, without that intimate and real connection with Christ.

Bread: the staff of life. Impossible to survive without this humble sustenance.
Wine, satisfying our thirst for joy. Christ’s first miracle was to transform water (not even drinking water) into wine so that the feast could continue.
Inebriate me! To think that we’ve been destined for joy even during  this poor human existence. Come to me, all you who are burdened and I will refresh you!

The wine that we are offered is meant to fill us with a passionate desire for the joy of living in God’s kingdom. And not only us, but that others, seeing our joy, might be drawn to learn about, to love and to follow the Gospel.

Such were the first Christian preachers on Pentecost. Foreigners heard them in their own language and were “all astounded and bewildered, and said one to another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.” (Acts 2:12-13)

Jesus asked his friends, “Do you also want to leave?”
Peter had the right answer: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”   (John 6:35)

When Liturgy Isn’t Enough

“Normally,” (whatever that is) I live a very quiet life, not very different from the Sheltering in Place and all the other rules imposed on us over the past three months. But being required to stay away from the presence of friends, from Mass and from receiving Communion, seems more like a penalty imposed upon me, and for what, may I ask?  Yes, I know. It’s a noble purpose: to keep the virus away, to prevent its lethal spread.

But the result of obeying these rules is that it creates a sense of exile, so contrary to what humans prefer. Rules are rules. By their very definition they tell us to do what we’d rather not do. If I’d chosen them freely, I’d call them blessings.

Yes, we have the phone and Zoom and all the rest, but I know I’d prefer to see my friends without the separation created by spacial restrictions and masks.

I can’t help thinking about the lepers in the era when Jesus walked on this infected earth. They, in particular, were required to keep a safe distance from the uninfected, to make noises alerting unsuspecting passers-by.

Despite the rules, our Lord did not stay away from these people. Lepers, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the wounded,  the bleeding and the dead– these were the outcasts, the ones forbidden to mingle with the “pure.” Add to them the folks who flagrantly disobeyed the rules, like the upstart (Jesus) who cured on the Sabbath, who allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. That rule-breaker (Jesus again) broke bread with sinners such as tax collectors and women of dubious reputation. How is it he wasn’t afraid to get near to these sinners, these people worse than physically infected? 

Don’t get me wrong. I followed the rules about wearing a mask at the supermarket, about sheltering in place, about keeping friends and strangers at a safe distance, but at least connected digitally. 

And speaking of digital, here’s another confession: Mass online left much to be desired. I don’t think that liturgy on its own is what our Mass is about. Sitting alone in front of that monitor; joining dutifully in the responses; no reception of the sacrament of the Body and Blood (feast to be celebrated this Sunday, by the way) — how cold is that? How far we are from Christ when we can’t witness and join our fellow parishioners in receiving this Sacrament! What use is liturgy without communion? Why isn’t there a rule that requires Christians to reach out at least once a week to offer assistance or a kind act to another human? 

Thankfully, many people have done this on their own, and notably for the past three months –no special rule required. Real Christians mostly respect the rules Jesus gave us: love God in one another; pay attention to our neighbors’ needs.

My soul can take just so much of separation. I look at those “kinds” of people I consider to be “the infected,” the ones Christ came to save. To be a Christian I’m required to obey the same rules that Christ followed and asked us to imitate. 

Oh ugh. This would mean loving just about everybody, not just the ones I like and agree with. Jesus didn’t say, “Agree with your enemy.” Nor did he say, “like” one another. No. Just love them as they are. Forgive them. Pray for them. Pray to be able to forgive and understand them. Be with them –at least in spirit — when you come to lay your gift on the altar.

That’s true Liturgy.