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”Come back! Come Back…”

May 11, 2015


We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?” – Charles Péguy

Recently  a reader sent a link to a piece by a disgruntled lapsed Catholic who was marching about fuming that no mere Pope Francis would induce him to re-join the Church. ” ‘God is love, God is love,'” he groused. That’s the namby-pamby message I hear. I want something challenging. I want to hear about sacrifice. He approvingly quoted Flannery O’Connor: “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

This guy so does not get what Flannery, with her huge sense of humor, and profound love of Christ, got from Day One: the Church IS the Cross. If you want to be challenged (and ridiculed, and marginalized, and scorned), do major penance and sacrifice, and die to every idea you’ve ever had about who you are, who God is, and what religion is, become a member of the Catholic church.

“When you finally discover that you are just one of the little people, don’t conclude that this makes you special,” observed French eccentric/lay comic-mystic/lover of the poor Madeleine Delbrêl.

The idea isn’t to demand that the Church make herself worthy of usThe idea is to realize that in spite of our unworthiness, we – miracle upon grace upon wonder upon mystery – have been deemed worthy of the Church. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” we pray, just before receiving the Eucharist. The Eucharist! The Body and Blood of the Savior of the World. I mean this joker thinks Christ is not worthy of him?!

Here’s the Cross of the Church: It’s not just for us. It’s for everybody. Thus, we don’t get to have homilies tailor-made for us, although in another way a homily always is tailor-made, usually in the last way we would have chosen. The priest has to meet the tentative searcher; the elderly man who has tottered in, aching in every bone in his body, to give thanks; the pregnant teenager; the wife of the CEO whose son is a crackhead dying out on the streets; the crackhead; the guy who’s cheating on his wife; the wife; the vet suffering from PTSD; the general who’s ordered the killing; the nurse trying to figure out whether to quit her job because her hospital is performing abortions.

He has to meet the one who thinks the Church is too hard and the one who thinks the Church is too soft, the one who is rejoicing and the one who is mourning, the one who is pissed at God and the one who is falling madly in love with God. He has to meet the eight-year-old and the eighty-year-old. He also has to meet the blowhard, the Pharisee, the one who thinks only she is up to being challenged, only she suffers, only she gets it and for God’s sake can’t we get some decent music. All in six minutes.

The priest has to do that while performing baptisms, weddings, funerals; while overseeing the fundraising fall festival; while settling parish conflicts; while blessing homes, cars, and candles. He has to do this, day after day, often many times a day, while exhausted, understaffed, impatient, critical and doubtful (i.e. human) himself. He doesn’t get to have it his way, all the time, any more than any of us do.

It is one of the glories and gifts of the Church that we don’t encourage priests who are “personalities.” We don’t encourage flamboyancy. We encourage humility, plodding perseverance, and service. So perhaps the priest can be forgiven for resorting to saying that God is love, not least of all because God IS love–just not the love, ever, that we think. Actually, in seventeen years in the Church, I have never once heard a priest say “God is love.” I’ve heard priests say our job is to serve the poor, examine our faults, love God. I’ve heard a steady stream of Gospel-based homilies that, if not individually wildly compelling, have consistently, slowly, quietly, inexorably led me closer to Christ.

In seventeen years, I can also count on one hand the number of times a priest, while celebrating Mass, has appeared surly, bored, condescending, or irreverent. This quiet, faithful carrying out of the duties of the office, no matter how disordered the priest may be personally, has set me free to ponder the great mystery and sacrifice of the Mass, to penetrate beneath the surface, to realize that, as Flannery O’Connor observed, the Mass could be celebrated out of a suitcase in a furnace room and it would still be the Mass: the most shocking, scandalous, cataclysmic, glorious, horrifying, sublime act the world ever has or ever could know. After awhile I realized, Let me bring my burning heart. Let me make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Instead of sitting around complaining and carping, maybe I could think about what I could contribute to the Church.

People erroneously think the Church is confining, but the Church gives us the framework of prayer, the Gospels, the Catechism, the community, and the Sacraments and then you are more or less on your own, man. You will be surprised to find that the Church trusts that–given your intelligence, good will, and humble, contrite heart – you will be able to connect the dots. And the dots are these: You don’t get to have someone hold your hand and guide you along the perilous, excruciatingly lonely path to Christ. You don’t get to have someone applaud or even notice your hidden life of sacrifice and penance. You don’t get to be understood, validated, and comforted every other minute. While you’re being nailed to your own Cross, you get to do those things for someone else.

You’ll find that if you truly want to be challenged, you will regard the abysmal ways you’ve fallen short in this vale of tears, and you will look at Baptism and the confessional and the Eucharist and Holy Orders and marriage and the last rites and you will see, in fear and trembling and dawning, crazy praise, This is the last thing I would have wanted and it is the only thing I have ever wanted. You will realize This is the only thing that could have pruned, in the gentlest possible way, my craving for attention, my impatience, my uber-criticism, my hyper-judgment, and that could simultaneously, while always calling me higher, have assuaged my guilt, bound up my narcissistic wounds, and invited me to overcome my seemingly bottomless cowardice and fear. Above all, this is the only thing that could fulfill my heart that, in spite of my myriad faults, overflows with love.

You will see that the Church is both the lightest yoke and the heaviest cross imaginable. You will begin to understand the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. You will see that the biggest electric blanket of all is the desire for spiritual excellence, an Ivy League college, a high-end gym with a personal trainer; for others to view our journey to God as interesting, as special, as just a bit of a cut above the ordinary.  

The follower of Christ doesn’t strive. The follower of Christ surrenders. Not to mediocrity, but to love–and if ever for one second we presume to think that the love of Christ isn’t sufficiently “challenging,” we have only to look above the altar: to Christ, lacerated, bleeding, alone, nailed to the Cross. That is the love the priest is pointing to when he says  “God is love.” That is the death Christ was facing when, over the Last Supper, he told the disciples,  “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the love upon which Flannery O’Connor’s heart, mind, intellect and soul were focused, as she suffered from lupus, was conscripted into celibacy, wrote to a public that didn’t understand her, watched her beauty, ability to walk, and life ebb away, and died at the tragically young age of 39, all without a single word of complaint, anger, or self-pity.

If we want to repent of our sins, if we want to do penance, have at it. The Catholic church is certainly not going to stop us. But here’s the thing we will learn as we undergo our own Passion: the theater of Catholicism is the Mass, not us. We’re not the star; Christ is. “He must increase, I must decrease.” He who loses his life for my sake will find it. Some who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Go to your room and pray in secret and your Father will see you in secret and reward you. 

Christ isn’t kidding. Those are not metaphors. It is just in the putting up with the thousand day-to-day petty annoyances that sanctity consists. It is just in casting our lot with other extremely unpromising, lackluster, humdrum people that we come to see how terribly unpromising, lackluster and humdrum we are. It’s just in accepting that things are never the way we want them, that we will not get the spiritual validation or guidance or friends or adulation we’ve imagined that we start to be saints. It is in offering ourselves up for God to do with what He wills (as opposed to what we think will make us look good) that – with multiple psycho-spiritual crises and usually over a long, LONG period of time – we are transformed.

This is a nada, an emptiness, a via negativa that is not for the faint of heart. Ask St. John of the Cross. Ask Maximilian Kolbe. Ask Dorothy Day. Ask Franz Jägerstätter.

It’s worth reflecting upon that it wan’t “outsiders” who crucified Christ. Backed with the might and brutality of the State, he was killed by the members – or those whom, to the depths of his child-like heart he must have longed would become members – of his own church. As a sober drunk, I often reflect upon the way, nailed in agony to the Cross,Christ refused the sour wine mingled with myrrh, the crude narcotic offered by his executioners [Mark 15:23]. To the last drop, he suffered without anesthesia.

To the last drop of blood, he suffered us.

The reader thought I might want to plead with the guy to come back.

I replied, “No, I’m not interested in trying to change his mind. If you know yourself as a sinner, as I did and do, you will meet the Christ of the Gospels in the confessional and the Eucharist and you will repent, do penance, etc. with or without being told to. If he’s lucky, he’ll finally figure out there’s nowhere else to go but the Church and fall to his knees in gratitude that She let him in.”

Then I realized I’m at least the biggest Pharisee on earth.

So I wrote this.