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.

 

Pentecost: Vision Restored

Isn’t it amazing that, except when Jesus came to them in the upper room, the disciples were unable to recognize Jesus after his Resurrection?

Mary Magdalene, the first one to see him near the tomb, didn’t know him until he broke through her tears to call her name.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus walked with him, talked and listened to him, yet he remained a stranger until he stayed to eat with them. Then they realized how their hearts had burned within them to hear how he described the Messiah.

When the apostles went to the Sea of Galilee to meet the Lord as he had directed, they didn’t recognize him on the shore until he allowed them to make a miraculous catch of fish. 

Luke opens his post-Gospel Acts by telling of Jesus’ farewell. As he ascends into heaven, “a cloud took him from their sight.

In his account of the last judgment, Matthew describes Christ’s followers as unaware even of having kept his commands: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Mt. 25:37)

Veils. Clouds. Except for those visits in the upper room, the disciples’ eyes remained veiled. Their Master remained hidden by a cloud. Did they remember what their Master had told them before his arrest? That it was necessary that he leave them; that he would not leave them orphans but would send them an Advocate, a defender, a power that would enable them to spread the news of the Kingdom.

So they (and we) were given the Spirit as they crouched fearfully in that upper room. The Spirit arrived like a powerful wind, as tongues of fire, images of powerfully persuasive speech to win the hearts and minds of people the world over. 

Yet even with the Spirit as guide, God remains a mystery for the greatest of minds. Though the human intellect finds a cloud concealing his full essence, the Spirit gives us a more certain way to approach the “throne of grace.”  This is through the fire of God’s infinite love as exemplified by Christ and as we practice it today.

The saints understood why Jesus insisted on withdrawing (physically) from us: that we might understand the need to seek him, to look for Him everywhere. 

Mother Teresa saw him in the “disguise” of the poor and the dying. 

St. Francis saw him in the beauty of the natural world. 

St. Ignatius Loyola saw him in everything, even in the everyday events of life.  

The Lord answers our desire to see, but often in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Such super-vision is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift to us from the Father and the Son, and it is available to all who merely ask for it. 

I tell you, ask and you will receive… Everyone who seeks, finds. . . Who among you would hand his child a snake when he asks for a fish? . . . If you then, who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-13)

After three years of intimate friendship with Jesus, the Apostles had to bear the sorrow of his absence. For the last several weeks, complying with the rules surrounding the pandemic, we have had to bear the absence of our Sacramental Lord. Being without Communion has perhaps had the good effect of showing us how empty we are without its consoling presence.

Thus, like the Apostles, for our spirit to grow, we need to learn how to rely on the invisible Holy Spirit. Even St. Paul, blinded as he zealously sought the persecution of Jesus’ followers, — even he was changed, his life turned upside-down. He wrote to the Corinthians how the gift of the Spirit in Christ changed his life forever, and how it can change ours: 

Whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. . . All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:15b – 18)

Continually desiring and receiving the Spirit brings us closer to our divinisation, the end for which we’ve been created.

Pentecost celebrates the first arrival of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but even better — the Spirit’s unfailing presence within Christians, giving them voices of fire and passion as we also teach and model the Gospel of Christ. We ask the Spirit to come, even though through the life, death and teachings of Christ, the Spirit is already here in us. The seed is there. Through a continuing awareness of God’s presence within us, we are transformed into other Christs, present in this world and participating in his work of salvation.

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.