Upon reflection, I think that there’s always a bit of nervousness when we’re about to meet a bunch of new people for the first time. There’s some posturing on our part surely; standing a bit taller, straightening that wrinkle in our shirt, sucking in the gut a bit… and no doubt, there’s some sizing up of the other that tends to happen too; some measuring with the ‘measuring sticks’ of: our preconceptions, and of our misconceptions, of our pasts, and of our biases. We put on our colored-glasses, tinted by the lens of our life experiences and through those we stare out at the world around us and at our brothers and sisters. And then there’s the first exchange, usually something simple, banal even, something cursory like the weather, or traffic, or humor – small talk… the dreaded small talk. And I have never been good at, nor a fan of, small talk. Why? Because I find it in all cases unnecessary, in some cases uninteresting and in a minority of cases, disingenuous. If you really think about it honestly, small talk is usually what we share with someone when we aren’t sharing deeply enough. We’re filling in ‘dead air’. We’re ‘killing time’. We’re ‘being polite’. We might instead be saying something meaningful; offering a prayer, a blessing, a compliment a word of encouragement or thanksgiving, but instead we assume, because of the prodding of ‘polite society’ that those topics are too personal, too deep, not anyone’s business, not anyone’s care. That’s our stuff. That’s my stuff. Mine, mine, mine.
But we’re made for more than that.
Jesus says we exist for two purposes (Mt 22:37-40) to “Love God” with everything we’ve got and to “Love our Neighbor” as much as we do ourselves. That’s it. Simple. To love our neighbor, not just inform our neighbor about our feelings over inclement weather. To love him or her, not just tell him or her how exhausting the 405 was today.
How can we “love” our neighbor? By being honest with them. By giving our ‘walls’ the day off. By letting our guard down. By opening ourselves up to truly share.
This is what I experienced at St. Margaret Mary’s in Lomita, CA during an annual Christmas party for members of the community with special needs. Yes I was meeting a bunch of new people, but this was different. No small talk! Instead, No-holds-barred, 100%-from-the-heart, unadulterated love. L.O.V.E.
Exhibit A: check out my buddy Ronnie:
Now that's L.O.V.E.!
I met Ronnie less than 5 minutes before I took that picture. Ronnie is 60 years old – but he has the heart and soul of a child (Mt 18:3). We were seconds into our knowing each other and he already had his arm around me - stabilizing his difficult gait as I helped him to a chair in the hall. Just steps into our friendship and I was already hearing deeply about him; his life (Lomita native since the late 50s), his family (sister works for TSA at LAX), his passions (iced tea and airplanes!). These items weren’t rattled off as ‘facts’ but shared in a sincere desire to connect with me on those things that were in his heart. Humbling.
Meeting and spending the day helping Ronnie, and Stephanie and Jeffrey and Brian and Carlos and many other beautiful souls of all ages, races, and capabilities was awesome – in the real sense of the word: it was something that produced in me a sense of ‘awe’.
It was a privilege. A distinct honor.
And it was, above all, a great Grace from God showing me, once again, in the interactions with these brothers and sisters, that genuine love that he is calling me each day to emulate.
What I understood and knew about the sacrament of anointing of the sick was deepened dramatically by my experiences last year leading up to the death of my father. During his illness, my dad had recourse to this sacrament on many occasions and was visited by our parish priests frequently. I remember a few weeks before he died, he took my mother, my wife and I into a room and started to talk about – what I initially thought – were nonsensical things. My first inclination was a deep sadness and disorientation at the thought that my dad, who had always been sharp, lucid and clever was finally ‘losing it’ and was now talking in circles and not making sense. For a second I felt like a kid lost in a department store. My lifelong rudder was gone. The North Star had faded. My compass was off. Dad talked about things that were present as if they weren’t, and things that weren’t as if they were. He asked questions that had no relation to the topics we were discussing, he became eccentric, erratic and strange. He reminded me of moments I had experienced between sleep and wakefulness; the times I have nodded off in the middle of a conversation; sometimes waking myself up because I had tried to respond to the conversation and being embarrassed at the recognition that what I had said made no sense. Or other times when I had woken myself up because I was talking aloud (nonsensically) in a dream. But in particular I recall, in a moment of clarity during this talk, that my Dad asked us all to ensure that the “real him” as he referred to himself, would not be forgotten. He suggested that he might do strange things and not make sense, but that he wanted us to know that the “real him” was still there and never to forget it. He also asked us to help him not to give up. To pray for him. All he wanted to talk about was God. He thanked Him over and over and over again. He talked about God, or to Him, just like St. Dominic. The TV never came back on – a waste of time. Dad tied a small wood crucifix around the pull-strings of his sweatpants. He held a hand cross tightly in his fist. His eyes were heaven-ward constantly. I couldn’t help but feel like he was bracing himself. Preparing himself for a battle.
After these strange episodes I began to read more deeply about the dying process and what I found was that this “altered state” was very common. The scientific books were satisfied to explain it away as merely a chemical thing… as the body begins to shut down there is new activity in the brain that causes disorientation. That’s it. Open and shut. But I, as a Christian, had to harmonize the physical truths with the spiritual ones. We are both body and soul. And I knew that in the spiritual dimension my father was beginning to get glimpses of the other side. As the eyes of his body dimmed, he was beginning to see with the eyes of his soul. He was absolutely beginning to cross over.
It was during this time that my dad especially benefited (and sought out) the sacraments. Though he never said, I knew he was dealing with terrible pain from the cancer in his bones and lungs, discomfort from the hours upon hours of sitting and lying down, embarrassment from having his nakedness constantly wiped and cleaned. He was the most vulnerable he would ever be, the most like a child, the most weak, and it was at this moment, when he was closest to the suffering of the Cross, that the devil no doubt tried hardest to temp him; to have him lose hope, to have him get angry at his caretakers, to despise his sorry state, to hate, to demand that Jesus make things different, to go into the eternal night angry with God.
But the anointing protected him. And he knew that. The chrism oil covered him. And he was defended. He never complained. Nor did he get angry about his bed sores, or nakedness. He smiled. Sometimes coyly because he didn’t understand what we were saying. But he smiled. He thanked the priests. He kissed their hands. They kissed his. And 24 hours before he died, he received the final anointing, the last absolution… and after that he never spoke again. His battle with the enemy continued in silence but the sacrament worked in his heart. In silence. I was reading the book of Revelation to him when he died. I was sharing the passage about the white stone we will all receive in heaven, the stone that has our real names, our deepest, truest name, engraved upon it – the name that only God knows.
And moments later, seconds after I left his bedside, he was gone.
In my training, study and discernment for the diaconate I have come across many things which I now see through the eyes of service. The diaconate is above all else a vocation to serve the people of God. And the sacrament of anointing of the sick I now see too as deeply diaconal – because it is deeply about sacrificial service.
Anointing is about meeting and ministering to a brother or sister in the most difficult moments, in the most painful moments: in the final moments.
And that is the kind of thing best done… by a servant.
I just finished reading a well known Catholic author who despite his substantial education continued throughout his time to fall into a very common trap laid for the unsuspecting in the thickets of the ecclesiastical underbrush. The trap is this: that Conservative and Progressive Catholicism exist and further that these should be regarded and considered for the better understanding of the Christian faith and its history. Permit me to share why I believe this notion to be not only incorrect, but ultimately damaging and potentially dangerous.
The Catholic Church, like the Body of Christ which we proclaim her to be, is not an “either/or” proposition. The Church is not either Republican or Democrat. Male or Female. Rich or Poor. Traditional or Modern (Galatians 3:28). While these may represent the inclinations of individual Christians, they are all false dichotomies when made in reference to the Catholic Church herself. And it doesn’t matter when in the history of the Church one is attempting to apply the observation. It’s never been the case. Not during the “dark ages” or during the “enlightenment.” Not in “ancient” times or in “modern” times. To use these definitions is facile. Frankly, it’s lazy. These labels belie a fundamental understanding at what (or Who) is actually being observed. And further they attempt to collapse the universality, history, beauty and profundity of the religion that God himself founded into vacuum-packed-for-easy-consumption-but-nevertheless-vastly-imperfect monikers. Using these terms is akin to looking out at the entire universe through a tiny North American keyhole only to find an abstraction of ourselves reflected everywhere. In the end, this approach, which in my mind is likely only a stratagem introduced with glee by the enemy of our souls to drive further the wedge of confusion and division, is simply false.
Catholicism is a “both/and” proposition. In all things. The Catholic Church and the Deposit of Faith are principally about harmonics. What does this mean? It means that we should not take one word, phrase, action, event, or idea, lift it up and absolutize it in order to understand what the Church is saying or thinking.
Let me demonstrate:
Is baptism an actual regeneration brought about by washing us clean from all sin and causing us to be reborn, or is it a symbolic rite entered into and performed to announce to the local assembly the entrance of a person into a saving relationship with God? Both. Is the Eucharist the real living body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, or a memorial meal to recall the teaching, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? Both. Are the scriptures the inerrant and inspired Word of God, or are they a collection of historical, poetic and parabolic texts written by many different authors and assembled over centuries by a faith community in order to share a common tradition? Both. Does the ordination of a man actually and really change his soul and configure it in a special way to Christ, or is it a ceremonial means to set aside a person to be a leader and spiritual father to a particular congregation? Both. Is the Pope the supreme authority of the Christian faith on earth and to be afforded obedience and religious assent by all believers, or is he lowest of the low, the last, the servant of the servants of God? Both. Is direct abortion, consciously and willfully sought, always a grievous mortal sin to be combated at all costs, or is it the tragic outcome of a complex and often devastating series of circumstances in a woman’s life that need to be pastorally considered? Both. Is the death penalty different not in degree, but in kind from the sins of abortion and euthanasia, or is it an affront to the human person which in today’s modern age should never be employed? Both. Did Pope St. John XXIII in convening the Second Vatican Council want to breathe a new spirit into the pastoral practice of the Church or did he want to highlight, enforce and promulgate the timeless traditional teaching of the Church? Both. Did the Second Vatican Council introduce new discipline and pastoral perspective by observing the “signs of the times,” or did it reaffirm all previous teachings and pronouncements of the Church “by the light of the Gospel”? Both. Should we ‘meet people where they are‘ in their faith journey and lovingly embrace them, or should we always speak the truth about the grandeur of our human dignity and guide people to the fullness of the plan that God has for them? Both.
We are a Church of harmony. Because God is a God of harmony (1 Cor 14:33). That is the insight. It is the third way. The both/and. We don’t look ‘left’ or ‘right,’ we look up. That is Catholicism. That is our true theology. That is what differentiates us from every other corner of the Christian world – Catholicism harmonizes ideas, doctrines, precepts, laws, and disciplines by considering the “whole” of something; in fact the word Catholic, which most people understand to principally mean “universal” actually has a better definition, the Greek word Katholikos means “according to the whole” – and this is the meaning we don’t often regard, but one which perfectly sums up the majesty of the Church: our world-view, faith and practice as Catholics is shaped and formed not by proof texts, headlines, or individual interpretations but according to the whole of Sacred scripture, according to the whole of Sacred Tradition, according to the whole of History, according to the whole of the teaching authority of the Church.
To suggest the contrary not only threatens to lead us astray, but robs us of the genius of God in the Church and steals from us the understanding that we are not dealing only with a physical church characterized by her institutions, doctrines and disciplines but also by a supernatural reality present among us to steward us to our heavenly home like the loving and Holy Mother she is.
God is not a duality. He is a unity. He is neither an Old Testament ‘ogre’ or a New Testament ‘indulgent grandfather’ regardless of what superficial rendering of Him anyone feels compelled to conjure by virtue of how He is represented or perceived. My views of God have indeed developed over the years, not evolved, but developed. They haven’t changed from one reality into another but by His Grace, like the mustard seed into a great tree, they have grown in order that I be better able to see what He’s always been. Love. And always my Father.
I remember when I was a child, 5 or 6, living abroad, sneaking down to the refrigerator in the dark basement where the sweets were kept (against my mother’s explicit requests) and reaching into that fridge to pull something sinful out and hearing, actually hearing, a distinct and very clear voice say “No.” Perhaps I dreamt it, maybe it was my older brother hiding behind a couch in the dark, but I remember that moment. I remember the kind of fear I felt. I was scared. But it was not a servile fear. It was filial. It was the fear I sometimes had of my dad when I’d been misbehaving, or worse yet had somehow disrespected my mom, until he finally unbuckled his belt, not removing it, but just unbuckling it. A warning. I felt the same at that moment. But that feeling despite my apprehension was always… just. I wouldn’t define it that way then – I was a child. But even then my fear was underscored with a sense of something benevolent. My fear was at the service of something good. Of someone good. I was scared but ultimately safe. Over the years I have heard that voice at other times, softly, almost imperceptively, a nudge, an inclination – filtered through a growing and better formed conscience – directing me to what’s right, or in other cases directing me away from what’s wrong. But always the voice has been that of a Father.
My images of God have developed, they continue to develop, they have moved and been shaped in so far as my intellect and experience have grown in their ability to understand them – and no doubt they will continue to do so. And I pray only that He gives me the Grace to more completely understand, through this constant growth and development, the fullness of His promise to me as his son.
I’ve found in my recent travels and conversations that most of the disagreements we have with others about matters of faith, doctrine, morality or society are usually anchored in the bias toward either a phenomenological or an ontological world view. The meanings of both of these terms – varied in both degree and in number through the centuries (especially the first term which is by far the younger) – are basically what things, or beings “are perceived to be” and what things, or beings “are”. I realize that for any arm-chair (or actual) philosophers, ethicists, theoreticians, theologians or other lofty-minded folks, my reduction of these terms may seem an overly facile “boiling down”. Perhaps even an offensive one. In fact to some it may seem akin to reducing a term like “medicine” to “stuff that helps” or “mathematics” to “addin’ and subtractin'”, or “music” to “notes, sometimes with words”. For that I am sorry. But I’m not going to lose much sleep over it.
On balance, I think my use of the terms, for the purposes of this quick post, is fair.
The phenomenological world-view is one concerned principally with the world of appearances, inferences, senses, impressions and suppositions. The ontological world view is one whose principal bias is on the real, the actual, the true, the essential, in short, the is of things. A person with a phenomenological bias in walking through an apple orchard may spot a fruit dangling from a random branch and on examination notice this particular fruit looks a bit orange-ish (not red), and seems in fact more round, than apple-shaped, and upon further inspection may come to notice that the scent of the thing is perhaps even a bit “citrusy”. Given these observations the person may be tempted to conclude that the fruit is in fact an orange, or that we should be open to the possibility that it might be, or at the very least that it doesn’t really matter what the thing is, other than to say it strongly resembles an orange. To folks whose center is principally ontological – all fruit growing on an apple tree, irrespective of its individual appearance, taste, smell, shape or weight, is, in the end, always, an apple. Ultimately, what a thing appears to be or represents may or may not have any bearing whatsoever on what the thing actually is.
In apologetic circumstances, particularly those of a moral dimension, I find this duality – or perhaps dichotomy is better said – exists in abundance. The position on homosexual “marriage” as one example. That conversation typically goes something like this:
“I THINK THAT ALL PEOPLE WHO LOVE EACH OTHER SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO GET MARRIED.”
“Marriage is a relationship unique throughout all of civilization defined explicitly by the fact that it is contracted only between one man, and one woman.”
“BUT IF TWO MEN, OR TWO WOMEN REALLY LOVE ONE ANOTHER, THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO GET MARRIED AND LIVE A LOVING, HAPPY, MONOGAMOUS LIFESTYLE – THIS ENSURES A PROSPEROUS AND BALANCED SOCIETY.”
“But that relationship, no matter how loving, happy or monogamous, would not be a marriage. Marriages differ from other relationships in ‘kind’ not in ‘degree.'”
“WHY WOULD YOU CARE, AND WHO DOES IT HARM, IF A MAN GETS MARRIED TO ANOTHER MAN?”
“A relationship between two men may make me care a great deal, or not very much, it might harm many people or may not harm any, but none of that changes the fact that the relationship still could never be a marriage.”
On and on this exchange might go – around and around like a carousel… lots of motion, but no real progress. The fundamental point of disagreement lodged irrevocably (and sometimes invisibly) in the sands of phenomenological perception cantilevered against ontological reality. Our ALL CAPS friend speaks convincingly of “true love,” “monogamy” and “happiness”, he appeals to the libertarian principle of “live and let live” he even offers up rhetorical salvos about “prosperity” and “balance”. All of this is very well. Even reasonable. All the while our ontological speaker is fixated on the inevitability that all arguments designed to construe marriage in any way outside of what a marriage actually is by its very nature, are flawed. To his mind the exchange sounded something like this:
“I THINK ANY MAN WHO BELIEVES THAT HE IS A FISH, SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO BECOME A FISH, DIVE INTO THE OCEAN AND SWIM AWAY INTO THE SEA.”
“Men, by their very nature, are not fish.”
“IF A MAN REALLY LOVES FISHDOM, HE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO BECOME A FISH AND LIVE A LONG, HAPPY, PROSPEROUS FISHY EXISTENCE.”
“The man might indeed be very happy, prosper and live a long time, but he would nevertheless not be a fish.”
“WHY WOULD YOU CARE, AND WHO DOES IT HARM, IF THIS MAN LIVES AS A FISH?”
“I might care a lot, or a little, and it may harm many, or none, but that has no bearing on the fact that this man, would still never be a fish.”
You see what I mean?
So what do I take from this? I take from this that our Phenomenological speaker should understand the differences between essence and accident – the classic Aristotelian formula which classifies reality between what things are, and what things appear to be. This should be helpful to our friend, and anyone frankly, if for no other reason that it opens up a vast ocean of perception that deepens our philosophical understanding of the world around us.
Our ontological friend on the other hand can learn from this exchange that his “rightness” with respect to the question of what marriage – in this case – actually is, may get him no closer in helping someone find a deeper connection to the truth if he presents the truth in a monochromatic way. His being right about the essence of marriage, while laudable and never to be compromised, may, if not enhanced by a deeper understanding of the phenomenological world view, be limiting his quest to make a convert to his world view.
Apologetics and evangelism should seek to faithfully further the Gospel and the quest for the truth while maintaining a healthy grounding in the biases of other world views – in the end, that’s how we win souls, instead of arguments.
Ok, first, sorry for the title, but couldn’t resist the double-entendre and the 80s reference, I’m a sucker for pop nostalgia even if in this case I never actually liked the band. Disclaimer aside, what follows is actually fairly serious: the recounting of my unfortunate recent encounter with a religious sister over a question of heterodox reading material in the context of a class for Catholic clerics-in-training of which I am a part. I write this with all sincerity and humility and with no interest in committing the sin of detraction, even in the anonymous sense (since I have no plans on mentioning her name) but in a word, I was appalled by what I heard from this religious nun.
The class was focused on the subject of Bereavement and in addition to the material on the subject at hand, the class received a fairly lengthy printed excerpt from Fr. Richard McBrien’s book Catholicism, as an example of the Church’s position on Catholic spirituality. Fr. McBrien is a theology professor at Notre Dame University and has published many works on theology in addition to the aformentioned volume which is typically used in collegiate and seminary environments as an ostensibly concise explanation of the faith. The reason that coming across his name in the class was jarring for me was that I had recently been acquainted with Fr. McBrien’s position on a number of contemporary church issues and was dismayed by his assertions and contentions on a number of topics. The more I researched his positions and writings the more I was dismayed. Here is a short list of Fr. McBrien’s clashes with the Church over the last couple of decades:
So trying my best to follow the words of Christ in Mathew 18:15, I approached this nun personally during one of the breaks and simply asked if in the spirit of being fair and balanced, she planned on mentioning to this class of clerical candidates that some of the material they had just been given did not meet with the approval of the US Catholic Bishops. I thought that was pretty important given that after all, the Bishops are our fathers in the faith, they are “above us in the Lord” (1 Thes 5:12) and that we owe them deference and dare I say, obedience? Sister became incensed at the suggestion. She mentioned that Fr. McBrien had “not been given a fair hearing,” that we were “not called to obey the bishops, but to obey the ‘spirit’ of God'” and that the Bishops “had not roundly rejected McBrien’s work.” As charitably as I could, I pointed out to her that none of that was true. That without obedience to the bishops, we simply become high-church protestants, that if obeying a self-identified ‘spirit of God’ was the only requirement for Christians then any Four-Square Baptist or Pentecostal minister could warrant the same Magisterial authority as the Pope, and that the US Bishops had, in fact, rejected McBrien’s work, not once, but several times. All of this easily verifiable with any internet search on the relevant terms. The conversation was not as direct as I describe since I am collapsing things in the interest of time, it was nuanced and not angry or pointed, but I did in fact convey the points I mention. At that point, she said that it was clear to her that I just thought I “knew everything” and she walked off in a huff. Here a religious sister in the context of helping to form clerics in the faith, I among them, when approached charitably about a work of serious heterodox claims, refused any kind of correction, opinion or counterpoint. She was completely intolerant of my positions because they did not agree with hers. In effect, she was demonstrating the reasons we need a Magisterium to begin with, since without one, each of us individually becomes final arbiter of doctrinal squabbles, leading irrevocably to division.
Here’s the point. Context is everything. The issue isn’t about being “open to opposing points of view” or being sensitive to “ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue,” nor is it about the practical value of “being exposed to people with incorrect views on Church teaching” as preparation for the realities of Parish life. All of these I accept, and would welcome in the proper context. After all part of an apologist’s avocation is being in dialogue with people they don’t agree with. The issue is that the context here was teacher to student. The one forming and the one being formed. A person of some ecclesiastic position and authority and those under that same authority. It was a class of formation for clerical life. In that context the material, without a suitable disclaimer, was simply wrong to share as a matter of course.
No doubt Sister was just following her conscience. And yet we are not called to merely follow our conscience, but our well-formed conscience. And how do you form your conscience well? By reflecting, praying and meditating on what the Church has taught and affirmed in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, through the Magisterium, for 2000 years.
Some reference links for your own perusal:
Apologetics can never be an end unto itself. The essence must always be about the Gospel; the good news that God has made us in His image and that He loves us, and that this love exists most perfectly in the person of His Son whom He sent to us in order that we might be saved from our sins (John 3:16-17). Apologetics can be many things; a profession, a passion, an avocation, a deep desire, a meaningful hobby or activity, even a general bias of style or tone in communication depending on the skill, experience and intent of the apologist – yet like any other vehicle or medium whether music, or writing or art, it can never be the essence of what (or who!) it communicates. The container can never be the content.
I have been thinking a lot about this in particular within the context of Pope Francis’ papacy. The Holy Father has placed such a heavy emphasis on the purity of the Gospel message. His point, simply put, is that the Gospel is so attractive, so compelling and magnetic (which of course it is!) that by its very existence and by its sharing, those within the Church and those without it are called to a deeper relationship with her Spouse. In effect, he is reminding us, in a substantive way, that the Word of God is not a book, but a Person, and that He is who we are all ultimately searching for. His Holiness has ever so gently, but firmly, tilted the many-faceted jewel that is the Church to the gleam from a facet called Evangelical Joy. He does this not to suggest that the other facets of evangelization vanish, since we know that the Church has many members, and many gifts and that the charism of one particular Christian is not necessarily applicable to another (1 Cor 12: 4-31), but instead he does this to amplify the need for a real assent to, and focus on, the spirits of Joy and Mission so fundamentally necessary at this moment in our journey as a “pilgrim people” (Lumen Gentium, Ch 7).
It is true that Christian apologetics seeks to explain and defend the faith, but why does the faith need explanation or defense? By definition, true apologetics is conditional on an environment of ignorance and/or attack, an environment where explanation and defense are necessary… but that defense and explanation are individually and must collectively be oriented to the goal of sharing the Gospel. And in our apologetics, whether amateur or professional, whether in length or in brief, whether in person or via media, we must actually share the Gospel! I have experienced in myself and witnessed at times in others a proclivity of stopping short of that reality; we see a need, we take action, we explain, we defend, we rebut, and God-willing, we even resolve whatever issue may have been in question, but we don’t always follow the dynamic all the way through. It’s about winning souls, not debates or arguments, no matter how important and necessary those debates and arguments might be in clearing the way for the transmission of reason and faith.
I am certain that many of those whose digital or analog pages I frequent, came to this realization many moons ago, but for me it has been something a bit new. A new emphasis! One which I am trying now to consistently apply!
I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal today before a flight to Chicago. I haven’t purchased a newspaper in years, and I am not generally a fan of news content, but years ago, when I was a different person, I cared about the news of the secular world and would devote time to it much more than I do now – and at that time I was a huge fan of the WSJ. So it was perhaps a nod to nostalgia – despite the fact that I am actually not nostalgic for that time! Who knows, but I bought the paper (and incidentally was shocked to see it cost $2 – the last time I paid attention, I think I paid 75 cents!). But before checking out, I walked the aisles of the store and what I found, for the most part, was aisle upon aisle neatly arranged in honor to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called the “Dictatorship of Relativism” (Homily, 2005)… a veritable gallery of products dedicated to the oppression of superficiality. Magazines promoting thinner bodies, sexier this or that, money making schemes, how to have more, keep more, make more all while spending less and less time doing any one particular thing. Saving time. Doing more in less time. Collapsing time. I saw Altars to efficiency and solvency. Sacrifices to exercise and sex. Devotionals to material. A new world chapel. Nothing of the eternal was anywhere to be found in this store. No item or product to make you more apt to help your brother in need, nothing to make you more interested in looking up, instead of constantly looking at.
It reminded me of an estate sale I had gone to a couple months before in a relatively affluent neighborhood. The home, I would find out, had belonged to an older man who had recently passed away. An estate sale company was managing the flogging of every item in the home. Judging by how packed the house was with items and how undisturbed things looked, it appeared to me that no one had even walked in to claim items of sentimental value – it looked as if the owner had died and the next of kin had simply called the estate sale company, handed them the keys and now was somewhere else waiting for the proceeds. As I walked around the home of this recently-deceased person, it struck me that everything seemed so sad. The décor was decades old – the echoes of an era long gone could still be heard as I walked the hallways – A healthy layer of dust had settled on all the items in the house and there were mountains of brick-a-brack everywhere… boxes of items unopened, magazines that had never been read, popular books on meaningless topics lined the bookshelves, bottles of wine uncorked, pallets full of tools everywhere, appliances… this person may not have been a “hoarder” but the amount of “stuff” was very significant, and yet had someone handed me a bag and said “go through and take anything you like” I would have probably walked out empty handed. The things in the house were simply sad. And as I stayed longer, I started to understand why: the most notable characteristic of this home was that there was not a single religious item anywhere in the house. Nothing of the transcendent. Not a crucifix, or mantra or painting, not a Bible or single book anywhere on a topic of the eternal, or even on philosophy, or metaphysics or spirituality. Not a single picture of a family member on the walls. The home was as dead as its previous owner. Why was that the case? Even the most recalcitrant skeptic longs for something greater than themselves – they may call it the “Greater Good” or “Friends & Family” or a “Higher Order” but it leads them to value things of a transcendent nature. But not here it seemed. Why? That is when I made a discovery that saddened me further and yet answered my questions. In one corner of the house was a small room, too big to be a closet, too small to be guest quarters, where there was a book shelf, a recliner, a large TV set and a VCR. The TV set was a decade old at least, no flat screen or light weight plasma, but a gigantic, heavy, dull box sitting on the floor. The VCR was the same vintage as the TV, and to its side sat a plastic auto-rewinder of Chinese origin in the shape of a red 1957 Chevy hardtop, the kind of thing you would have seen 15 years ago at a Spencer’s Gifts or near the check-out line at a drug store where all the other “impulse” items that no one would ever consciously leave their home specifically to buy would be merchandised.
And lining the book shelf, neatly arranged, was row after row of pornography on VHS. The titles were absurd. And grotesque.
It struck me as I looked around this little room that everything was arranged for efficiency of use. The recliner was positioned directly in front of the TV less than 3 feet from the screen of the television, the bookshelf and the tapes, could have been accessed easily from a seated position, and the ’57 Chevy was positioned directly next to the VCR for immediate rewinding. This person had designed for themselves an altar, a private corner to work in their own corruption. I would never, could never, judge that person’s soul – even the most hardened sinners have turned back to God and been forgiven – but objectively what that room represented was gravely sinful and I prayed for the man’s soul and asked God to be merciful as I quickly exited the room, and the house.
When we’re focused on the world and its allurements, distracted by temptations, God’s grace cannot truly work in our hearts or in our homes. God will never tire of giving us the grace to recognize him, to believe and to love him, but we need to cooperate with Him, to be co-workers in Christ (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1; Romans 16:3), and take action to allow his love to be efficacious in our lives. One excellent way to ensure our cooperation is by staying close to the Sacraments and to Sacred Scripture. In this way, we can be transformed from a focus on “saving time” and “solely making profits” to “profiting our souls” by “making time to be Saved”.
I stopped looking out of airplane windows some time ago. I suppose I don’t remember exactly when, but I did. When I was a kid, or even in my early adulthood, whenever I was on a plane, I would ask for the window seat. The window seat was the place where you could feel more protected, enclosed by the passenger in the middle and the side of the plane, it also allowed you a solid surface to rest your head when you wanted to sleep [nothing is as frustrating as trying to sleep and not having a place to rest your head (Luke 9:58)]. And of course, the window seat, had the window. And the window was the view to the outside: the view over mountain ranges and cities, over parks, and forests and buildings and baseball diamonds. It was the place where you could experience that extraordinary geometry which only grows more perfect the higher your vantage point climbs – an image of the Church itself: up close, as individual Christians, we are imperfect and flawed, but from higher altitudes we gradually become perfect; that spotless bride of Christ which St. Paul taught (2 Corinthians 11:2). And I would let my imagination run: I would picture walking the towns, being parachuted into the deserts, or falling into the lakes – imagined myself looking around, in the middle of nowhere, in the deep silences of beautiful expanses of unpopulation. I would also feel very close to God in those moments though at some of those times I may not have referred to them as such. Those moments looking out the window were moments of peace. And suspension of the daily, of forgetting the ordinary and diving into the spaces of the unknown.
Today, probably because I fly so often, and the novelty of those windows seats has worn away, and with it, perhaps, my imagination, it matters less where I sit. Have I lost my childhood fancy? Or is this the result of a deeper faith, a more constant connection with the Divine in the ordinary?
“God ordinarily reveals Himself in ordinary ways.” This I have come to understand as true. His miraculous nature is all around us – where there is life, there is miracle. Whether in nature or in the restless babbling of an infant, or in the smile from a stranger. There is God. He is earth shattering in his resplendence (Matthew 17:2), and he is infinitely small and quiet (1 Kings 19:11-12). He is.
Thank you Lord for window seats, and thank you Lord for the aisle too.
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