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.

Holy Thursday

A Buffalo native takes a nostalgic
Holy Thursday pilgrimage through
West Side Churches.

Beyond the somberness there was always an air of festivity. Feet shuffled, crowding bodies pushed, but with respect and forbearance. The thick atmosphere was heavy with incense, the fragrance of lilies and melting beeswax candles. Prayers whispered from the lips of black-shrouded women, their wooden beads clacking against worn pews. 

From far into the sanctuary a droning litany of male voices chanted ” ... misere Domine, … libera nos Domine … ” 

There, almost apologetically placed at the side of the nave, was the object of adoration on an altar gleaming in white draped satin with a sun-burst of gold at its center. Within the golden center, a white host.

It was always a mild evening, it seemed. Sometimes a light April rain lent a taste of spring. Our route was mostly through narrow traffic-filled West Side streets. Our pilgrimage covered the seven churches whose names sounded like the litanies chanted within: Our Lady of Loretto, Our Lady of Lourdes, Holy Cross, Holy Angels, St. Anthony’s, St. Michael’s, St. Louis.

Our favorites were the smaller, more crowded Italian churches: St. Anthony’s, Holy Cross, Our Lady of Loretto. Here the pilgrims were most alive and fervent. At Our Lady of Lourdes the spirit was nearly the same, but it seemed to be diluted the farther we were from the Italian neighborhood. By St. Louis’ the tone was definitely reserved — or perhaps it only seemed so because what fervor there was may have been dissipated in the largeness of the place, with its vaulted arches and Gothic character. Fewer votives, less light, made the air noticeably colder both physically and emotionally.

It was supposed to be a penitential time: the statues had been draped in purple; on Good Friday, the churches would be totally stripped of decoration.

But tonight, there was an inner comfort and satisfaction that grew with the outer fatigue of repeated genuflections. We even had a kind of thrill in dipping our fingers into the barren marble of holy water fonts that had been drained dry. We didn’t realize then that they were meant to symbolize the emptying of the old spirit, the dead ways, to prepare for the flooding of new life and energy that was to come on Sunday.

Holy Thursday was the last dazzling flash before death, silence, and the more serene, stable brilliance of Resurrection.

Social Distancing

I find it fascinating how a potential disaster causes the birth of new experiences, new vocabulary, new phrases. Sheltering in place is one I mentioned in my last post about saint Rosalia, in her lifetime a hermit, and whose prayers are credited with saving the city of Palermo from the plague.

Social distancing is another new phrase we now hear frequently, one that is self-contradictory because the very heart of being social or sociable is being close to one another, not distant.

These quiet days I sit by  my front window, watching parades of folks walking their dogs, and youngsters riding their bikes in company with a parent or two. Nor can I resist taking advantage of the warm weather. Closing in on a fellow walker, we laugh as we pass each other and ask, “Do you think there’s six feet between us?”

These are good days for becoming aware and thankful for what really matters. Youngsters are continuing their studies at home, maybe even speaking now and then with their parents. Getting a hamburger via McDonald’s drive-through is a major outing. Maybe families actually play games together. Friends exchange texts, checking up on one another and performing simple but appreciated acts of service for us older folks. What might be considered a limitation is transformed into an opportunity for new discoveries, even new relationships formed as we enter quietly into our room, closing the door and communing with our inner self or maybe even with God.

Mystics (i.e. people of constant prayer) such as Saints Augustine and Angela of Foligno (13th C.), typically describe feeling the pain of separation from the One they most love. But then they are given to hear Christ’s consoling words in their heart: St. Augustine discovered that God within him was “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” A thousand years later, Franciscan Saint Angela of Foligno records Christ’s message to her:  “I am deeper within your soul than your soul is to itself. I have not kept myself at a distance.”

God’s fidelity and indwelling are constant themes throughout Scripture. Here are just a few of my favorite and most consoling passages:

  • Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. (John 14:23) 
  • Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Corinthians 13:5)
  • What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35;38-39)
  • Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:20)

I suppose one could say that while social or physical distancing is necessary to prevent ill health through contagion, spiritual closeness is essential for our soul’s health. To be spiritually one with one another is to be one with God. To be one with God is to be one with others.

Good health!

 

A Saint for Our Time

The fact that my patron saint was a hermit might explain why I feel drawn to explore that way  of life. I now have another reason for praying to her — now from the voluntary quarantine, or “Shelter in Place,” necessitated by the outbreak of the infamous corona virus.

Santa Rosalia (b. 1160) came from a noble family — perhaps even descended from Charlemagne. Instead of making an equally noble marriage, she sought a cloistered life of prayer in a monastery. She later chose even greater seclusion, living in a cave on Mount Pellegrino just outside of Palermo.

It’s difficult to know exact details about her life and how she appealed to the people around Palermo, Sicily. Catholic Family News tells us this:

As happens to various saints, Rosalia – for reasons unknown – grew to be largely forgotten. Various apparitions and cures were attributed to her aid. At the end of the 1300s, having been promised that their town would be delivered from a great pestilence, the townspeople of the area built a church in Saint Rosalia’s honor and were subsequently saved. When Palermo was affected by a plague in 1474, the city senate resolved to restore the church of Monte Pellegrino, by now in ruins. Upon the church’s restoration, the plague ceased.

Since then, Saint Rosalia, nick-named La Santuzza – “dear little Saint” – by her affectionate and devoted followers, has continued to endear herself to the people of Palermo, Sicily. Many a daughter of Italian-American immigrants has been named after her.

Santuzza’s feast day is September 4.

St Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo
Artist: Anthony van Dyck, 1624