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.

Twenty Years Blessed

You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. (Jeremiah 20:7a)

 The place was Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith. It was Sunday morning. I was downtown and wanted to see the interior of the small Spanish style Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, but it was closed. . .

After a Catholic education stretching from Kindergarten through college; after youthful aspirations to be a missionary or a cloistered Carmelite; after a failed marriage and a remarriage to another “lapsed” Catholic, the time had come. In the 21st year of this second marriage outside the Church, as we struggled to adjust to the changes of retirement, I took off on a vacation visit to my daughter in the city of Holy Faith, Santa Fe.

Touring the downtown, I wanted to see the interior of the little Basilica. Finding it closed, I returned a few days later. “Aha!” I thought. “Since it’s Sunday it’ll surely be open.”

cathedral-santa-feI entered just in time for the noon Mass. And what a Mass! It was October 4, 1998 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorites) and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan diocese in New Mexico. The Mass was celebrated as only Latinos know how: with exuberant song. I was bowled over. The Lord knows us inside out, and knew I would find this passionate, musical experience totally irresistible. You seduced me, Lord!

I was lifted out of 21 years of secular existence and firmly replanted as a follower of Christ, along with the gift of determination to remain there forever.

When I got home, the biggest surprise was that my husband too had decided come back. Sponsored by my former pastor, I went through the annulment process and we were married in a quiet ceremony in our new Corning parish. The 10 years that followed were by far the happiest in an already good marriage.

I wished I could go out on street corners or in parks — like Hyde Park in London where passionate speakers used to draw crowds to hear their message. I wished I could expound on the beauty of the Gospel! Would I ever be able to do this?

I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back, I cannot!
       (Jeremiah 20:9)

Like many a new convert, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my restored faith. I volunteered as a lector and Eucharistic minister, and for other parish activities: organized the St. Pat’s celebration; revived a faded ministry to newcomers; set up ministry fairs; served as secretary to the parish council. I also started attending daily Mass.

Step by step, each attempt at outreach finally led to today’s effort to express, through this blog, what God has done for me. That there’s just a handful or possibly a crowd who read these reflections doesn’t really matter. I cannot hold back! The words I’m given do not come from my mind or mouth. Whatever they produce, whatever the result, is not my concern but the Spirit’s, the Muse who moves me to ponder and write.

Once lured back to our spiritual roots, it becomes clear that true conversion doesn’t happen just once. Rather, it leads to continuous conversion, renewed day after day from within the events specific to that day.

This is my hope, my determination and my prayer.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
(Luke 15:7)

Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.

The Church As Field Hospital

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

Some time ago, Pope Francis referred to the Church’s vocation as a field hospital. This phrase didn’t really strike me as anything more than a clever metaphor until I started viewing stories set in the battlefields of our World Wars. Then I saw what life was actually like in a field hospital.

Mansions of the wealthy were turned into wards filled with moaning, bleeding soldiers. The wounded arrived in an endless stream, with injuries from simple scrapes to life-threatening, body-altering wounds.

How can “the Church” be likened to such a place?

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

Unlike previous popes and traditional bishops, Pope Francis chose not to live in a princely residence. No red shoes for him either.

As long as “the Church” is viewed as a kind of religious country club where sinners need not apply, Francis’ metaphor makes no sense whatsoever. Is “the Church” a collection of buildings? Is “the Church” staffed by bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity, who are to act as spiritual doctors and nurses? Are there enough of them to care for long lines of the spiritually wounded or dying? Who are the “wounded”? Are some in a privileged class, and therefore treated better than others? What are their wounds? Which ones might be life-threatening? Which of the wounded do we have the right to turn away?

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

A real field hospital exists in the midst of WAR. There can be no casual approach toward the wounded in a field hospital. The field hospital staff puts itself in the same danger as the military personnel. Their burden is equal to what their patients experience. Staffing is insufficient. Virtually every situation can be described as an emergency. There is no time to waste, no time for a leisurely approach.

As an un-ordained woman, am I needed and assigned to work in this field hospital, or am I not qualified? Which instruction manual do I use, the Catechism or the Gospel?

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

Christ’s merciful attitude toward sinners was exemplified at the dinner where a woman of ill repute wept copiously and penitently at the feet of Jesus. “If this man were a prophet,” thought the Pharisee, “wouldn’t he know what kind of woman is touching him?”

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

Healing is at the core of Jesus’ ministry. For whom does the church exist? The saved, or those in need of saving? For whom did Christ shed his blood? Why do some bishops deny the Holy Sacrament to those most in need of the Lord’s intimate help? Do we refuse blood transfusions for those who are bleeding to death? Didn’t Jesus shed his blood for all sinners? Aren’t we included in that group?British surgeons and nurses prepare one of four casualties injured by gunshot wounds in Helmund Province in Afghanistan

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

This summer’s revelation of crimes committed under cover of clerical protection has now reached unspeakable depths. We’ve now come to the point where we are reduced to shame and utter disappointment as we learn of hateful evils against the innocent, hidden by cowardice and hypocrisy.

Over and over again we hear the question: how can I belong to such a church?

I suggest that the answer is simpler than we might think. Coincidentally, the answer is in Paul’s letter for today’s Mass (1 Corinthians 12). Paul refers to the diversity of gifts of those who contribute them to form the Body of Christ. You are Christ’s body, he says.

There is a beautiful unity and serenity in the picture Paul paints for us. This is the true Church where each part, no matter how insignificant, no matter how far out of the mainstream, is part of the saving Body of Christ: blood of his Blood; heart of his Heart. It is built by small deeds of love and attention we show our neighbors.

For sure, there are unending opportunities for true Christians to volunteer for service in the spiritual field hospital we call life. We are all among the wounded. We all need words of encouragement and the healing compassion of a patient listener. We all need spiritual pain-killers to soothe the hurt of anger, violence, crime and negativity that are both within and outside of us.

It is not the healthy who need a physician.

 

First Steps

This has been a year of mixed blessings for Mt. Saviour Monastery. We lost two brothers, Steven and Justin. Yet I do question words like “lost.” That word in particular expresses the opposite of a monk’s goal, which is to be found by Christ and to remain where He is.

I guess the Holy Spirit wanted to balance things for us, so I was delighted to learn that we have not one but TWO new postulants. Seeing one of them at Mass recently, I put myself in his sandals (so to speak), wondering what thoughts might be going through his mind as he takes the first steps on his journey to intimacy with Christ.

I remember how I had first felt on my return to the Church, how my new beginning revived the zeal of my youth and my desire to share my renewed joy in the Faith. Certainly Christ, like a new postulant, must also have had feelings of happy anticipation.

Jesus was not a green lad when he started his ministry, but a mature man of 30. When he plunged into the Jordan, it was as one with a crowd of converts. Converts because they were responding to John’s urgent call to change their way of life. baptism-of-jesusJesus stepped into a river muddied by the many sins that had been washed from the throng of repentant men and women. I think he must have been stunned to discover that individuals like him also experienced this strong call to holiness. He must have said to himself: I want to be a part of this transformation! Maybe even more, since what I’m hearing within me, what I’m given to understand is how truly close God is to each of us on this earth, and that He longs to accompany us on this difficult journey!

I think with wonder about those long days and nights he spent in the desert, praying and pondering what it means to be a child of God, about what is meant by the teachings of Scripture, the writings and traditions of his people. Fully human, Jesus must have been in the position of questioning what God wanted of him. Whatever it was, he desired it with all his being, both human and divine.

The temptations
If he were to leave his family, his friends, and his livelihood, what would be left? He might be like some people who considered preaching as a career that could assure him of a comfortable living. Why, given his talent with words and speaking, he would never go hungry again, accepting invitations to dine at the homes of the wealthy. As the darling of the Creator, he would be assured of protection and safety all his life. He would be admired and praised by all. His fame would spread far and wide. He might even be made King! Knowing the ill-treatment meted out to the prophets, he might have thought he’d be the exception. His teachings would be so new, so transformative, that they would be universally accepted.

Isn’t this how we’ve felt when we started out in our careers, full of enthusiasm and self-confidence?

Our new postulants at Mt. Saviour must be close to half my age but hopefully with twice the wisdom. The teachings of Christ bring us feelings alternating between child-like joy and the certain dread of hardships, followed by their actuality. Since this was the road Jesus decided to take, we can expect the same as we aspire to holiness.

First steps are so crowded with hope and fear, along with the need for support, strength, and wisdom. Fortunately, our heavenly parent knows that beginners need much encouragement, so he fills them with a grateful wonder at having been called. This confidence is too soon followed by a sense of emptiness and doubt.

Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind and tried to drag him back home. The fickle crowds wanted to make him king when he performed miracles, but scoffed at his impossible teachings: Be happy when you’re poor, when you mourn, if you’re meek. This is not what most of us want to hear. The most difficult teaching had to do with giving us his body and blood to eat and drink. “Will you also go away?” he asks his disciples. Peter gives the perfect answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Early as it was in Peter’s discipleship, he knew that there was spiritual health and salvation only in what Christ taught and modeled: total love for God and neighbor; being the servant to others, not the Master; seeking first the Kingdom of God in sincerity of heart; letting go of all that keeps us from that goal.

And so, as we welcome our new brothers to the Monastery, let us pray that the faithful and loving spirit of Christ will enter them and remain with them – and us – always. Let us provide an ongoing example to each other as true followers of the Gospel.