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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Solitude, Order, and His Crowded House

I crave order.   Organization is an essential part of my well-being, my worldview, and even my flirtation with sanity.  There is no aspect of my life that is not subject to the natural rules of hierarchy, gravity, and orbit.  There is nothing that hasn't a place that was determined by efficacy and reason.

Order is my "Precious", and it is that which binds me in this place and time, and that which allows me make sense of all that is around me, to sort through what is important and what is not, to locate what I need and to abandon all else, to place humanity, deeds, and inventions in each's accustomed spot in what I know to be God's creation.

Thus, my concept of time prompted me to rise very early on a Saturday morning in June during a recent visit to Rome.  I had acquired a ticket to the Papal Mass for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and I feared the crowds would prevent my getting a seat.  

It had been a very interesting two weeks for me.  I had journeyed to Rome alone, ostensibly to attend a conference on Music and Liturgy, but really because I wanted to see the city again with an unhurried eye.  My last visit had been as part of a pilgrimage tour, and while it was an enjoyable experience, it had left me tired and often confused, my memories blurred and the impressions of each day overlapping the next to the point that I could not distinguish one from the other.   The lack of leisure and the sheer volume of activities had distorted the beauty of the city, much like viewing a garden in a downpour.   I was determined to see less this time, but to see it well.

I sat by the Trevi Fountain before the crowds arrived with their coins and cameras, the hour or so spent with moleskine and fountain pen recording the events of the day before, which had found me spending long moments before the paintings of Our Lady in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, which led me to a chance encounter with a French couple who had retired to the hometown of Dali in Spain.  They spoke a little English, I spoke a little Spanish, we all mimed and chortled through our attempts to discuss the beautiful art before us, and finished with a discussion of music, particularly lai and Guillaume de Machaut.  I ventured through a horrible little wax museum and visited Our Lord in countless tiny chapels as well as in the grander churches for which Rome is famed.  I ate gelato.  I prayed.  I drank prosecco and cried.  I watched the sunset over the Pantheon from a hotel rooftop, and I enjoyed my solitude.  I found the eternal in my days.

It was rather sad, actually, to give that up when the conference began.  I saw old friends, made some new ones, and quite enjoyed the learning that comes with such things, but the unhurried peace that comes with lonely beauty quite vanished.  I found myself longing again for solitude, and so I rose early, and went alone to stand in a queue, intent upon finding the eternal again, in seeing My Lord in His Accustomed Place, and resuming my observation of a world that seemed better for its not observing me.

It was not meant to be, however.  Despite my reaching St. Peter's Basilica at seven, the line was already long.  My ticket, blue with a number well over seven thousand, convinced me that I would be lucky to see His Holiness during the celebration of the Eucharist (I am quite near sighted and rather short) and, with his soft-spoken words, probably ill-fated in hearing him speak, as well.  Crowds are not known for their silence, and the shifting of seats and thousands of bodies would disrupt the sense of the sacred, or so I thought.

Our Lord, though, is gracious and kind, and He knows best what we need, no matter what our longings are.  There were three ladies ahead of me in line, obviously American and of the Southern persuasion.  The queue was long, the morning young, and a conversation quite naturally developed.  They were from Louisiana.  I knew a priest there.  They knew him, too!  They were hoping to see him that very day!  (He was currently in Rome, studying.)  A common tongue and a common friend led to them offering me an "extra" green ticket, which allowed me to sit near the altar,  close enough to see the Sacrifice, to watch the Elevation of the Host, to glimpse the beauty of the chalice, and to participate as I had always done at Mass, with wonder and awe that Our Lord should come to us again in the form of bread and wine, that He would impart His Grace here, among the ruins and the art, among the relics and the living, among the noise and, yes, the peace.

"Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi..."

Then, suddenly, there was no order. The congregation became a crowd, pressing forward from all angles toward the priests who were distributing Communion. There were no lines, no ushers directing us, nothing organized about our movements, we were all just pushed forward, sometimes stepping over those who had returned to their seats, those who remained kneeling, those who stood waiting patiently for someone to tell them what to do. The priest nearest us simply turned from one waiting tongue to the next, protected by the rotational movement as much as by his vesture, the surging crowd shifting back and forth as more and more people pressed forward to receive.

I was irritated and annoyed. This was a Papal Mass. Surely, there should be a more dignified way to do this! This was a shambles, the priests distributing remaining calm, but being buffeted a bit and often turned by the pressure of the crowd around them. Where were the ushers? Why were there no lines?

Then, a thought occurred to me as I glanced about the Church. There was a continuity here, a bond that joined us to the earliest Christians. They, too, had crowded around the Lord, buffeting and bumping Him, striving to touch Him, hoping to reach just the hem of His garment, content with the mere sight of His Face as he passed among them. We were the same crowd, pressing forward to be near Our Lord, our eagerness was the same as theirs, we wanted to receive Him, in whatever way He permits.  We wanted to touch Him as Thomas did, even if only with our tongues. We wanted to know His Mercy, His Grace, His Peace, and we were creating a different order to do that, an order which found Him at our center, the only calm in a crowded place filled with beauty and disarray, a world that only grew calm again when we had all received Him.

This was my thought as I received my Lord and my God, kneeling once more, uttering my thanks for His forgiveness and the gift of salvation, grateful for my Faith, this place, and even this age. There is no peace in the confusion of the world, there is no order that is not centered upon Him, and there is nothing that I can do that will ever pay the debt I owe for the wounds He bore for me that Thomas touched and the other Apostles witnessed, and that He shows to the Father each time I plead forgiveness for my sins, an offering made again here, before a crowd that knew nothing more than it must press toward Him to be healed.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Silent and Unwelcome Witness

"What is he doing?"

My husband asked the question as we were driving through a small college town in Pennsylvania.  We had taken a long weekend to visit a bookstore another friend had mentioned and were enjoying a beautiful late spring day, driving up and down the side streets in a lovely little community, when we saw a man on his knees on the sidewalk, back ramrod straight, concentrating on something clutched in his hands, his lips barely moving, completely oblivious to those passing by on foot or by car.  As we drew closer, I saw what he held.

"He's saying the Rosary."

There was nothing to mark the building, but the posture and the action of this man told us that this was an abortion clinic.  This was a place where a beautiful young college girl could come to receive a secular absolution for her momentary indiscretion, where she could wipe out that stain on her worldly intelligence, where she could show her professors and parents that she really could act responsibly.  She could bring a friend with her  to drive her home, someone who would munch an apple while waiting in the car.   She could make all the arrangements.  She could walk in that door and act as if this were nothing more than a routine visit to her regular doctor, and when it was over, she could console herself in all the ways she had been taught to do, but as with everything else in this life, there are some things that they don't tell you.  There are some things that you find out when it is too late to save what is really important.  That newfound knowledge was written on the faces of the girls coming out the door, some still clutching their abdomens, the hollowness reaching their eyes.

We stopped the car and parked (illegally, alas) and walked over to the sidewalk where the man knelt.  Some other women had pulled up in a van and were hauling out the usual gruesome signs that one sees in front of abortion clinics from time to time, but I was drawn to kneel with the man already there on the sidewalk.  My husband joined me and we knelt to pray for the poor girls who felt driven to this, for those who had done it before and now had the anger of the self-deluded to convince them that this one didn't matter any more than the last one did, and we prayed for those who brought them, those who sent them, and for those who weren't here by choice.  Then I couldn't pray anymore, I could only kneel and watch the quiet gentleman beside me telling his beads, joining my heart to his words, joining my pain with that of the girls within the clinic.

My husband rose to go move the car and I stayed behind to wait for him, still kneeling.  The other ladies had set up at the far end of the building, their signs and their offers of brochures meeting with little success, and quite a bit of hostility.  One man, jogging by with a large dog, began to curse them loudly as he passed, pausing by the two of us kneeling (our backs to him) long enough to set his dog to barking and growling at us.  "Get 'em, boy, get 'em!"   I prayed for him, too.   Such virile hatred for something as innocuous as prayer.

But it isn't innocuous, is it?  It is our most potent weapon here on this earth.  We beg our daily bread, we plead for forgiveness, we offer praise, all through prayer.  Those with vocations offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and call forth the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments for us.  Those cloistered bear the weight of the world,  tiny titans in wimples and hoods who lift it daily before God and remind Him that what He has created, He can destroy, but surely He will spare it  for the fifty good souls pleading for it?   Perhaps for the twenty, maybe the ten?  Or perhaps just the one kneeling before a thick white "no trespassing" line telling him he is not welcome, but who stays there anyway to pray for the children who might have been.  

He continued telling his beads even as I rose to leave, making the sign of the cross and thinking of Christ in the noonday sun, and His Holy Mother standing near His torn feet, clutching her abdomen too, feeling the loss and the hollowness that only a mother who has lost her child can feel.   She, that most silent Witness of them all, would hear the prayers uttered by those gathered before this new Golgatha and would bear them before Her Son, and plead as only a mother can do for the fate of Her children.

May God have mercy where we show none.  Amen.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Veering off the Via Media

It occurs to me that, as of this Easter, I have been a Catholic longer than I was an Anglican.

It seems incredulous to me, for these last thirteen years have flown as time does when one reaches a certain age, that point at which we lose not only the child's understanding, but that innocent connection with eternity in which a summer lasts forever and Christmas is always distant.

My faith in God was well established as a child.  There was never any question in my mind that He who created the universe had time to not only tend the lilies and sparrows, but help this little girl catch fish.  That faith never wavered.  It still hasn't, and it has brought me through much when nothing else would have helped.  It was what gave me the hope of salvation, I needed no proof of anything beyond it, it was sufficient enough for me to trust.

It is a bittersweet truth that we cannot remain as children, though.  Belief does not always require understanding, but without it, it will not survive into adulthood.  The world is full of pain, cruelty, hardship and evil that calls even the most devout to question God, sometimes even calling us to question His very existence.

Gratefully, my life is not such that I ever truly doubted, but I did ponder the whys and wherefores of the  religion into which I had married, and when my husband chose to convert, I reluctantly followed, finding, even with that reluctance, a fuller Truth, a complete Faith that never ceases to thrill me in Her day to day lessons, that explains so much and yet still holds a Mystery that compels me to attend Her repetitive rites, finding in them that which is Eternal, that which is the Same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

It is an humbling thing, this acceptance of a Sacramental God.  For the first time in my life as a Christian, it was no longer about simply believing.   There was a consummation in this Faith, much as there is in a marriage, that left me altered, much as Saul became Paul, the scales removed from his eyes by the sacramental touch of the Apostle.  In taking the Body and Blood of Christ on my tongue, I was compelled to change, to grow in this Faith that I had consciously chosen and publicly professed.

Here, before these altars, I found that there is no middle way.  There is no lingering in those things that bring me complacent comfort.  For the first time, religion became more than merely believing, more than an acknowledgement of the Eternal Truth, but the consumption of it, and in that act, that willful acceptance of Our Lord's Body, I recognized that the faith I once found sufficient was hardly enough to offer to the God who became man, who gave Himself as a Pure Victim, spotless and holy.  I needed to do more than to believe.  I needed to offer myself to God sacrificially, to immolate that which I knelt to worship and adore, that which I owed my all.  

I am glad to be a Catholic.  May I be an acceptable one to Our Lord, and may my prayer always be that He make me worthy of the perfection He has promised us in eternity, and until that moment, may He order my days, our days, in His peace.  Amen.