One recent Sunday my husband gave in to my incessant begging and accompanied me to mass. He’s very accommodating, but he does have trouble sitting patiently through the stand-ups and sit- downs and unfamiliar prayers. Afterward, I asked him the usual questions–did anything inspire you? Will you go next Sunday? Do you have any questions?
His answers were: not especially, although the homily was good; probably won’t go next Sunday–wouldn’t want it to become a habit; and also he felt pretty skeptical toward the bit about ‘the resurrection of the dead’ in the Nicene Creed. I opened my mouth to offer a sparkling bit of wisdom about that particular line–and had nothing to say. Quite suddenly, I didn’t know if I really truly believed in a rather remarkable bit of Catholic dogma: that at the end of time, the graves will open and the dead will rise again.
Now I suppose most non-neurotic, casual-minded Catholics would shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it’s a thing,” and get on with their day, not bothered by this any more than they’re bothered by their lack of belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist or that they haven’t been to confession since the Reagan presidency. Of course, I sat back and thought: Wow. All this time and I honestly can’t say I really, deeply, down-in-my-gut believe one of the oldest tenets of Christianity. I had to sit with that a while.
I’ve become fond of the all-or-nothing stance. You either believe all the Church teaches about the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, part and parcel, or you believe none of it: none of this cafeteria Catholicism for me, thank you, no pick-and-choose what goes best with your dress or what is most palatable. Whether or not you understand the teachings–well, that’s different, and can be remedied. Just pick up a book or talk to your priest (assuming you have a decent one nearby, as indeed I am lucky enough to have one).But belief has become for me a running leap into the deep end, swallow it all in one bite sort of thing. Or at least I thought it had.
This bugged me more than a little. I mentioned it to the aforementioned priest and he didn’t seem too bothered–I’m sure at any given point in his day he hears a hundred other more upsetting statements than I DON’T KNOW IF I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD PART OF THE CREED, FATHER WHAT DO I DO? He gave me a “oh you’ll work it out, I’m sure” sort of look and we went on to discuss other more important things. But I was still worried. What did it mean? If I didn’t totally buy into this opened graves thing, this George Romero-Walking Dead stuff, did it mean the rest of my faith was suspect?
It nattered at me in odd moments of the night. I prayed about it. I asked the Holy Spirit to shed some light on this reluctance of mine, this lack of faith. But seriously, I asked Him; ALL the dead? Like, everybody? Out of the ground, out of the ocean? The wind? Like, some reconstituted Visible Body from Health Class kind of thing?
Then late one afternoon I got a call from one of the sacristans: we needed a lector to read for a weekday mass. Could I help?
I loathe public speaking. I’ve done it, but I shake so badly before and afterward that I can hardly see straight. I have trouble (to my mind, anyway) modulating my voice and not vibrating completely off the podium (or ambo, in this case). I’ve taken speech classes, I’ve emceed events, and I’ve given impromptu addresses to assemblies, but I emphatically don’t enjoy it. I’d rather have a root canal without the benefit of Novocaine. Which, by the by, I’ve done: it’s like a switch flips in your head when they hit the nerve and you yell whether you want to or not. So, of course, I said ‘Yes, I’ll be lector.”
The sacristan was elated. It’s tough enough to get someone to read on Sundays, let alone mid-week when the last thing most folks think about is mass. Mid-week mass is the purview of religious vocations and elderly folks, isn’t it? She said: “Don’t worry about a thing, it’ll be fine. It’s just that Dry Bones reading from Ezekiel.”
Okay, I said, I’ll read up on it so I’m not going in blind tomorrow morning. For those of you unfamiliar–like myself–it’s Ezekiel 37:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the broad valley. It was filled with bones. 2 He made me walk among them in every direction. So many lay on the surface of the valley! How dry they were! 3 He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come back to life? “Lord God,” I answered, “you alone know that.” 4 Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life. 6 I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put breath into you so you may come to life. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.
There I am on my couch in my semi-dark living room with my mouth hanging open and an electric shock going up my spine. What was this? Knock, and it shall open? Seek, and ye shall find? I actually laughed out loud. Did I dare presume to question the Lord?
I prophesied as I had been commanded. A sound started up, as I was prophesying, rattling like thunder. The bones came together, bone joining to bone. 8 As I watched, sinews appeared on them, flesh grew over them, skin covered them on top, but there was no breath in them.9 Then he said to me: Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man! Say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.[b] 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army. 11 He said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.”12 Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord God: Look! I am going to open your graves; I will make you come up out of your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and make you come up out of them, my people! 14 I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life, and I will settle you in your land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. I have spoken; I will do it.
I couldn’t not accept the fact that my prayer had been answered–and in a most astounding way. I couldn’t ignore what was being said to me, or how my own hypocrisy and pride had muddled my brains. The next morning, I read at mass–going to the ambo as one might mount the stair to the scaffold–and read, and shook, and tried not to look like I was having a foam-flecked fit. Apparently I didn’t–although I may have delivered the line you shall know that I am the Lord! a little too much Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. I apologized to the priest afterward and said I wouldn’t make a habit of reading. He only looked at me quizzically and asked “You didn’t think it was good?”
No, no I didn’t. And I have no hesitation now when my husband asks me about any part of the Nicene Creed. I just point him toward Ezekiel and say God alone knows how.
Yesterday’s news of the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France left me in tatters. Reading online commentary did nothing for my heart, either (not that it ever does). The majority of people said things like “How terrible!”, but some few said, “All religion is evil and should be gotten rid of,” forgetting who it was who was murdered, or else they wanted to quibble over the words used in the news reports: too inflammatory, they said, too exploitative. One person said “Don’t play into their hands; they [I assume he meant ISIS, but I’m not sure now] want to spark anti-Islamic sentiment and start a religious war. Don’t give them the victory.”
Don’t give them what victory? They took their victory. Two nineteen year old men went into a Catholic church during morning Mass–during what is the holiest and most sacred moment of Catholic worship–and cut the throat of the priest at the altar, and they filmed it. What is that, if not a victory–even a limited one? What is it if we won’t name what it is?
I had to get off the internet; I had to stop reading inane comments on whether the act was actually a decapitation or simply a cut throat, or more reminders that not all Muslims are bloody murderers, or–at the other end of the spectrum, as horrible in my mind–how we should just ‘get rid of all of them’, etc. What does that even mean? Can you really even hear yourself, see the words you are typing? Does anyone even recall the saying “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind?”
Listen up: as Catholics, we are called to the cross. In the words of Archbishop Sheen, we are not called to be nice people, we are called to be new men. Does anyone think they can follow Christ and not take up the cross? What do you think that means? Separating your recycling?
I’m an American. More than that, I’m among the most stereotypical: I grew up in the West, with wide-open spaces and on a steady diet of country music and blue-collar, redneck culture. My father and my brothers (and now my husband) are military veterans. I admit a fierce reaction to injustice, to violence committed upon the innocent and unprotected, and I admit as well a fierce love for my country. My first reaction to the news in Rouen was not to turn the other cheek, or to have kind feelings at all. My first reaction is to send in the Navy SEALS, the Army Rangers, and the Marines to break stuff and blow things up. They took Normandy once; God willing, they can take it again.
But that is not and never was what Christians are called to. Do you remember the persecution of the early Church? The coliseum, the wild beasts–the martyrdom of so many, known and unknown, for their faith? Yes, we live in terrible times, but they’re not that terrible, not yet–at least not here. Ask a Syrian Christian, a Yazidi, ask the Archbishop of Mosul–I’m sure you’ll get a different answer from them.
Neither am I advocating nonviolence (in the sense of passivity), or non-action. Far from it. But we cannot live as people of the sword. We are not the people that are sending our young men and women into crowded marketplaces as suicide bombers; we are not the people that are burning young women alive or decapitating prisoners on the beach or flying jetliners full of civilians into skyscrapers full of other civilians.
We Catholics, we Christians–we are the people who follow the Man who said
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. 53“Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54“How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?”
We worship a God who died as a sacrifice–and rose again; who offered himself up so others might live. Who advocated love, and mercy, and forgiveness; who said he desired mercy, not sacrifices, who did not come to judge the world but to save it. If we become as brutal as the brutes who kill us, what are we then but dogs fighting in the street?
All this is not to say we won’t fight evil where we find it–or, as is the case more and more, where it seeks us out. However, the current stouthearts calling for a new Crusade must remember: the original Crusades were not fought in simple reaction, but in order to liberate the Holy Land. The Battle of Lepanto was not a conquest, but in defense against the Ottoman Turks. Love your enemy. Defend the innocent, give food to the hungry, bury the dead, if you have two cloaks, give one to your brother. And when they come to take your life, if all else be lost, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.
That’s the hard road we’re on. That’s what we’re called to do. Answer the killers with compassion, if it kills us. Break the heart of the world! Don’t give up. When they–whoever they are–say we must answer with equal violence, or hatred, or darkness, defy them! We can do all things through Him. We cannot avoid suffering in this life; but we can smother hatred with love. Put on the armor of God. Let a priest’s blood be the tide that lifts us out of our morass of loathing and materialism to a brighter shore.
The huge woman turned and for a moment stood, her shoulders lifted and her face frozen with frustrated rage, and stared at Julian’s mother. Then all at once she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed as he heard the woman shout, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!”
If you’ve ever taken a high-school or college literature course, I hope you’ve at least had the opportunity to read some Flannery O’Connor. She’s never simple or sweet: in Everything that Rises Must Converge, a young white man rides the bus with his bigoted elderly mother, and they both apparently receive a well-deserved comeuppance at the end, but obviously that’s not the entire story.
Julian is a twenty -something college graduate without job prospects. He lives at home and cares (rather begrudgingly) for his widowed mother. As the story opens, he’s on the bus with his mother, accompanying her to her YMCA fitness class. In a few masterful paragraphs, O’Connor sketches the mother and son so keenly, we see straight through to their hearts: the annoying son is embittered by his lot in life as a penniless pseudo-intellectual, while his mother is cheerfully, condescendingly racist in the most well-meaning of ways. She represents the nearly impenetrable, respectable charm of the Old South, while her son–disgusted with himself and his entire class, but intrinsically incapable of making any effort to change either himself or the world– represents the apathetic and self-involved youth of the time. (O’Connor wrote this in 1965, but the story is as meaningful then as it is now.) Julian and his mother snipe at each other throughout the opening. She nags him about his lack of self-respect and he spitefully demonstrates his disregard for her sense of propriety, going so far as to attempt to ingratiate himself to another passenger, a black man, who would really rather be left alone.
When a large, angry black woman and her child get off the bus with Julian and his mother, the story kicks into another gear altogether. Julian’s mother makes the mistake of offering the child a penny, which in turn sets off the black mother’s rage, and she knocks Julian’s mother to the ground, which in turn causes his mother to have what appears to be a massive stroke. Julian realizes, too late perhaps, that he loves his mother:
Stunned, he let her go and she lurched forward again, walking as if one leg were shorter than the other. A tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping her from him. “Mother!” he cried. “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, “Mamma, Mamma!” He turned her over. Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed.
Often we’re presented with the idea that spiritual grace is something beautiful and sweet, gentle –and it is. The idea that grace is everywhere and easily attained (if we only could accept it, or made an effort to be more receptive of it) is essential to Christian spirituality:
“Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall…” —from the Mass
What O’Connor drives at in this narrative is not so much that spiritual grace is difficult or frightening to come by, but that we as imperfect creatures render ourselves so inaccessible to its glorifying effect, we can only be changed by that sudden shock to the system that breaches our hull. When the angry black woman strikes Julian’s mother, she’s shaken to her core; the strike of grace, as it were, is not only metaphorical but physical, and she is forever changed. Julian, too, is changed: he transforms from indolence and self-regard to action and altruism:
“Wait here, wait here!” he cried and jumped up and began to run for help toward a cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him. “Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.
Not long ago, I re-read this story and (rather disconcertingly) for the first time found myself in both the mother and the son. The human tendency is to settle into ourselves, to be content with ourselves; we’re either sure of our own world-view, or we’re sure there’s no world-view worth having. The Divine tendency is to shake this complacency to the core, to invert our stasis, so we are never satisfied with class, or our own perceived goodness. Grace is plentiful, but it’s not cheap. It’s not so much that we should not value ourselves, but that in the light of God’s grace our own importance is not worth considering. The central driving force of grace is to transform, to eject us from ourselves, sometimes violently, toward God.
“I don’t mean to challenge your beliefs.”
“That’s totally fine. Perhaps they should be challenged.”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. Catholics have such regard for Mary, and yet…”
“Women have no positions of power within your Church.”
“That’s not entirely true, and I suppose it depends on what you mean by power. Throughout history we’ve always had strong women within the Church–even Doctors of the Church, who have added to our understanding and tradition.”
“Well, but obviously–”
“Women can’t be priests? True. But there are things men cannot be. And I find it interesting that the discussion always turns to power. Even if you’re a man and you want to become a priest, power would be the wrong reason entirely.”
“Power is the wrong word then. Influence.”
“If you think women have no influence in the Church–or haven’t had, you’re mistaken. Again, historically, it’s not true. Granted, it’s not common–and it’s not common in many world religions– but it’s not true that women have been completely ignored. There are great saints–St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegard von Bingen, for instance. St. Teresa of Avila, surely. In this past century Dorothy Day, Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. And of course, as you’ve said, there’s the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Mercy. She has the greatest influence of all.”
“It’s true in many world religions. In my own faith, Buddhism, women are believed to be less able to attain true purity of spirituality because of their gender.”
“Not so in Catholicism. Maybe a very long time ago back in the so-called Dark Ages, when it was debated whether women even had souls– not now, and not for centuries. Spiritually speaking, men and women have utter equality with Christ.”
“Then why can’t they be priests?”
“Apostolic ordination. It’s in the Creed. Christ was a man and he ordained his twelve apostles to be his alter Christus on earth. In the same way (historically) a man’s firstborn son inherits his estate or his kingdom. Women have other roles, but that of an ordained priest is reserved for men. For myself, it’s authentic and direct. It depends on what priesthood means to you–and by extension, the Eucharist. If the priesthood is merely a ministry–we’re all called to be ministers, evangelists. We’re all called to be priest-like, Christlike. But to offer Christ in the Mass–that’s different. If it’s merely a communal meal, a sharing of bread, then sure, why not. But if it’s actually the broken Body and Blood of Christ, then–no. I don’t believe a woman could or should do that.”
“That’s a very difficult concept for me to accept.”
“If you’re considering it a position of power, which in some ways I suppose it is, it seems strange to me that a woman would want to act as Christ–alter Christus, persona Christi–it is as strange as the idea of substituting the Virgin Mary for Jesus on the cross. More superficially, for me, I don’t think I could confess to another woman. That’s something I can’t explain and probably speaks to my own biases. But if it’s extremely important for you to have female priests at the altar, there’s a perfectly good Episcopalian church across town, and I mean that with all respect.”
Today is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, who died in 1231. Catholics famously consider him the patron saint of lost items; there’s a little prayer that goes St. Anthony please look around, there’s something lost that can’t be found. There are more formal prayers of course and even novenas, because St. Anthony is patron of more than just lost things. The Wikipedia article lists a dizzying variety:
“American Indians; amputees; animals; barrenness; Brazil; elderly people; faith in the Blessed Sacrament; fishermen; Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land; harvests; horses; lost articles; lower animals; mail; mariners; oppressed people; poor people; Portugal; pregnant women; seekers of lost articles; shipwrecks; starvation; sterility; swineherds; Tigua Indians; travel hostesses; travellers; Tuburan, Cebu; Watermen; runts of litters…”
Runts of litters. I admit I laughed aloud at that one. But time and again I’ve heard from people who have prayed to St. Anthony for help–usually in small ways: they lost their car keys, or something, and St. Anthony always comes through.
Non-Catholics often have difficulty with the concept of Catholic saints. I imagine that’s one of the reasons they think we’re idolaters or pagans. In the Protestant Christian world, you pray only to God and His Son and sometimes the Holy Ghost, if you’re a Trinitarian Christian. They think Catholics are praying to the saint (or worse, invoking some sort of magic spell), when as a point of fact we are asking the saint to intercede on our behalf. Of course we pray directly to God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, but sometimes–especially for things like lost car keys–sometimes then it’s beneficial to call in an intermediary. You wouldn’t phone President Obama to complain about the road work that’s taking forever on the street in front of your house.
Saints are holy souls the Church has determined without a doubt have gone to Heaven, so they’re our representatives of a sort, our special way of catching God’s attention, our ‘guys on the inside’ as it were. They are also role models, many of whom have written beautiful and piercing prayers and commentary on how to live a more Christlike life.
We may have fewer saints canonized in modern times, although we still have them–Pope St. John Paul II comes to mind–and that may be a product of our secular era, but I don’t think so. Consider this: in the early days of Christianity, during the Roman persecution, there were far fewer self proclaimed Christians than there are now, and to identify oneself as a Christian didn’t mean you’d get smirked at in line at the grocery store or that you’d have to endure stupid sitcoms poking fun at you on television–it meant death, painful and public, though we’ve recently seen this is becoming true again in Syria and Iraq. But my point is the saints of early Christendom were many, and the times no less terrible or inhospitable to the faith.
So where are our saints today? Where are our Francises, our Catherines, our Theresas? Where are our St. Anthonys, our Dominics? So we live in frightening times and an ungodly world: when has it ever been different? Where are the holy men and women of God? There are a few, for certain–St. Pio of Pietrelcina, soon Blessed Theresa of Calcutta–but where are the rest? Are they there, living holy lives of prayer and fasting and service to others, or are we so incapable of saintliness the mere idea is foreign to us?
Omnes Sancte et Sanctae Dei, interdecite pro nobis!
Today I went on a hike with a very dear friend of mine. The trail was steep and switchbacked through forest and brushy clear-cuts where sudden shocking stands of foxglove speared up through the green in mauve, white, and brilliant pink. “Did you see the news?” Of course I had; who hasn’t? “I’m scared,” my friend said. “It’s just so sad.”
The sun shone down on a heartbreaking world, a landscape right out of The Lord of The Rings: vivid green mountains and dark forests and a far blue vista of islands and salt water. Far below us our home town stretched out around a calm bay, punctuated by the point of a church steeple. We talked non-stop (or, rather, I’m afraid I did) about our lives, the ridiculous things that happened in the past week, and of our loves and our losses. Bright butter yellow-and-black tiger swallowtails fluttered through the glittering air, almost as large across as a child’s hand. A red admiral appeared briefly, and something I almost identified as a blue streak, but I’m not certain: a small pale blue butterfly that settled briefly on a muddy rut. If I were Nabokov, I’d know. Butterflies live such brief, fragile lives and bring such joy to others that they could never even guess at in their tiny insect minds. Are we the same?
I wonder aloud how anyone could ever be bored by hiking. There’s too much to see, too much to investigate, identify, and far too much beauty to revel in. “This is insane,” I say. “It’s like a movie.” We see in no particular order wild bleeding heart, salmon berries, mahonia, wild geranium, the aforementioned and astonishing foxgloves, foam flower, unripe wild raspberries. Bumblebees tumble. Towhees flit and Swainson’s thrushes pipe liquid sound out in the ravine. It’s a Beatrix Potter sort of place. Our rapture is interrupted occasionally by a mountain biker or another hiker with a dog on a leash; in the true nature of the pacific northwest, everyone is in a good mood when the sun comes out.
I think: would I want my last terrified moments to be while doing something stupid, frivolous, even capricious? I have been in nightclubs, I’ve spent time on dance floors and drinking with friends. There’s nothing better about me or different, only a veil of time and space. The wrong time, the wrong space, and I could be this person, or that person, someone never expecting that this, this, was the last time they would ever dance or cry or drink or have angry words with a friend. A priest once told me we’re all beloved children of God, even me. Even you. Even them, the dead on the dance floor, even him, the shooter.
It’s all too much, it’s all too beautiful and terrible, this falling-apart, flawed, gorgeous world. I think of all the people I know–odd, eccentric, even difficult ones, the ones that drive me up the proverbial wall, or those dear to me beyond all telling. How much less my life would be without them, any of them. How could I condemn any of them or wish them harm? What does it take in a human mind to seek the random death of other people? “Insanity,” some say, and yet the careful planning and execution do not seem to indicate disordered thought. “Religion,” some others say, and yet we are told by adherents of that same religion that this is not their belief. How terrible it would be to judge all members by the terrible acts of a few.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oilCrushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;And though the last lights off the black West wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —Because the Holy Ghost over the bentWorld broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.–Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, 1877