Monday, February 25, 2008

Catholicism: A Theology of Staying

By Aimee Milburn

Marie at the blog View from the Pews alerted me to a post she just wrote, “Why I Stayed – A Catholic Conversion,” which is just breathtaking. In it she says,

God is a dangerous Lover, He seduces the soul until we can no longer be satiated by the trivialities of the world. It is a thirst that only The Divine can quench yet we are still like deer that panteth after the water.

What I went through, scorched away my own superficiality in that I did not have to face those who opposed me, I instead faced my own weakness and fears.

I found myself in the Fire of God's Divine Love, but God's love does not destroy us. It instead refines and strengthens that which is weakest in our frail human nature.

Where I was weak God steeled me to remain where He wished me to be. When I suffered hurt God helped me realise that it was my Ego that was paining and not the inner sanctum of my soul. When I vaccilated, God helped me realise who was I following Him or people? When I wished to flee God helped me understand to whom was I running from, people or God Himself?
I finally understood that to follow Christ comes at a price. We are not meant to be safe or comfortable or look for safe havens. The only way to Christ is through the Cross.

Brought tears to my eyes. And that, too, is why I also am a Catholic.

Which makes me think of something else: in certain respects it is easier to be a Protestant (or almost anything but a Catholic), because Protestants (and people in general) can sort themselves out into more or less like-minded congregations, switch churches if they don’t like the one they’re in, or even start their own if they can’t find one they like.

In the Catholic world there is a certain amount of parish-hopping as people look for parishes they like, but it is still the same Church, all one Body, with the same teaching and leadership – which means we must really learn to love our sometimes very difficult neighbors in the pews, bear with what sometimes are very difficult faults, and carry sometimes very heavy burdens. We are confronted with warts and wrinkles and sometimes very overt sins, and weakness and failures in leadership.

And yet we must stay. And in staying, and learning to love anyway, we grow in holiness and real selflessness and real, unshakeable faith – for we truly are staying at the foot of the cross with Christ, who had been so disfigured as to become unrecognizable. And sometimes the Church is so disfigured by the sins of her members, including of her leaders, that she, too, is unrecognizable as the Bride of Christ, and as Christ Himself. But she is Christ – and loving her, even in her disfigurement, is truly to love Christ on the Cross. To wash her with your tears is truly to wash Christ with the perfume of your love.I don’t mean to make it sound like the Catholic world is all ugliness and suffering. It’s not – there’s plenty of beauty and joy here, even if sometimes well-hidden from the world. Just come to mass at the Cathedral here with me sometime, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. But I have been far more challenged to grow in holiness, and to learn what real love is, which is costly, steadfast and enduring and forgiving even in difficulty, than I ever was in the Protestant world – and I was in a very good church there. Even there, when a scandal came and engulfed the pastor and the going got rough, large numbers left and went elsewhere – and some tried to get me to leave, too, and go to a “better” church, though that is the exact opposite of what scripture tells us to do (just ponder the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Mt 13:24-30, and study the second epistle of Peter, to get an idea of how to behave when scandal comes). It caused me to think of Protestantism almost as a “theology of leaving,” and since becoming Catholic to think of Catholicism as a “theology of staying.”

Well, I’m staying, warts and all. I love Catholicism, and the Church, and the people, even the nasty ones. I love them. They’re members of my own body, part and parcel of Christ who loves me. And considering what my life has been, and the fact that Christ loves me anyway, how could I not but love them, too? If I didn’t, then I truly would be like the debtor whose debt was forgiven – but refused to forgive those in debt to me:

“’You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:32-34)

That is an outcome I for one do not want. No, we must forgive, and love, and stay put – even if it means staying at the foot of the cross.

The Church: Head and Heart of Christ

By Aimee Milburn

I was finishing up morning prayer this morning using the Liturgy of the Hours, when a series of images and reflections passed through my mind. They were triggered by this line from the Intercessions:

Teach us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Church.

And the thought crossed my mind: in the Church we are in the Body of Christ – which struck me as a little odd, because we usually speak of how we are members of the Body of Christ. But the image that passed through my mind was of the church itself, the cathedral where I presently worship, which is a traditional cathedral, and it seemed to me that when we are inside it we are actually inside Christ’s own body.

I saw the shape of the floor plan, and remembered something I learned in my degree program: the traditional church floor plan, with baptismal font at the rear, the altar in front, and behind the altar the tabernacle, with a side table for the unconsecrated bread and wine, is based directly on the architecture of the Temple at Jerusalem, which is revealed architecture, God’s architecture, His own design for His place of worship, which He directly gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Since Christ dwells in the tabernacle in the Eucharist, and He is our Head, the Head of the Body, it makes sense to me that the tabernacle should be at the head of the church, behind the altar, which is the traditional location of the tabernacle. To move it elsewhere to me is to dislocate the Head.

But I had not thought of the rest of the church, the traditional design, as representing His body, and that we are in His body when we are in it. And all of the sudden something else flashed through my mind: the confessionals traditionally are located to one side of the church.
One side. The side of Christ, pierced by the lance, from which blood and water, mercy and grace, flowed forth. In the confessional, the blood of Christ and water of the Holy Spirit, mercy and grace, flow forth in forgiveness and absolution of sin.

And I saw: if the Church is the Body, and the tabernacle is the Head, then the confessional is the Heart. When we go into the confessional, we are going into the Heart of Christ, to be forgiven and washed clean of sin.

I love confession; I’ve been meaning, when I have a little more time and a clear head unpreoccupied with other things, to write a long post on the beauty of confession, what it has come to mean to me. One thing is clear: confession is not for the purpose of making us feel guilty. It is for the purpose of freeing us from guilt. When I go to confession, I feel like I am stretching my soul wide, like a sheet, and Christ Himself is reaching in and scrubbing it out, over time removing more and more deep stains of sin. And the more I am opened up and cleansed, the more prepared and open I am to receive Him in the Eucharist – and the more freely and deeply He can enter into me in the Eucharist.

Tabernacle and confessional. Head and Heart. Eucharist and forgiveness. The Body and Blood of Christ, operating in the Church, of which we are not only members, but which we are actually in.

And I remembered one other thing: when visiting a traditional chapel recently at the seminary here, it was explained to me by a seminarian that the architectural design of the sanctuary around the altar actually represents the arms of Christ, reaching out to wrap around and embrace the congregation. And I had an image: Christ gazing tenderly at us from His Head, embracing us with His arms, holding us close to His Heart.

These images flashed through my mind in only a moment, after I closed my prayer book – but they have changed forever, I believe, how I will think of the space inside the church when I go there. I will forever see it as the space inside Christ’s body, close to His Heart, where He tenderly feeds us with His own life, and continues to pour streams of mercy and grace upon us from His Heart, torn open on the Cross, remaining open in the Church, forever.