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.


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.