Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Road Map

Once again, I’ve run smack up against the notion, held by too many of my Protestant brethren, that somehow Catholic faith and worship either impedes—or altogether excludes—a relationship with the risen Christ. A friend and I were discussing Knowing God, by J.I. Packer, subject of a Protestant Bible study that I attend with an increasingly divided mind. One particular session involved a spirited discussion of how, at least according to Packer, the use of pictures, Christian art, and, perhaps worst of all, graven images is a diversion in worship and an affront to God. Writes Packer, “Again it is a matter of historical fact that the use of a crucifix as an aid to prayer has encouraged people to equate devotion with brooding over Christ’s bodily sufferings; it has made them morbid about the spiritual value of pain and it has kept them from knowledge of the risen Savior.” Aside from my inherent skepticism of anything touted as a “matter of historical fact” with no further elaboration, his comments betray a singular lack of understanding of the Catholic experience.

Packer’s sentiments to the contrary, the rich imagery of Catholic churches aids me in focusing on my worship. No matter where my eye wanders in my home parish, there is an image to bring me home to praying the Mass: Mary beckons me, as she always does, right back to Jesus. Saint Frances reminds me of his radical discipleship; like Christ, he held back nothing in his service of God. The Stations of the Cross remind me of the message of the Gospel. The font recalls my baptism. The candles remind me that I am to be afire, that being lukewarm will not suffice. And over it all, the larger-than-life crucifix that reminds me not only who and whose I am, but at what price I was bought.

When I tried to explain this to my friend, he responded, “But He’s not on the cross any more.” The crucifixion seems to be, in his mind at least, an historical event that is over and done with, one that happened (past tense only) once and for all. His concentration is on the Risen Christ, his crosses are empty.

That strikes me as one of the great differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs. A product of the Age of Reason, the Reformation seems to have cast aside a great deal of the mystery that, to me at least, is inherent in coming to grips with a transcendent, unknowable God. It crops up all over: how can what appears to be bread and wine really be Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity? How can the Mass be an entry into an event long since past? How can our prayers for the dead make any difference, if we pray now and they have met their Maker long before? And much of that mystery is tied up in our all too human concept of time.

A physicist friend once found a fortune cookie that defined time as “what keeps everything from happening at once.” At the time, I thought it was a cute definition of an impossible concept, but theologically speaking, the cookie may have had a point. Time exists for us as finite mortals in this life, but God is eternal. Once I began to wrap my mind around that idea in a theological sense, much of mystery began to be accessible to me, even though I don’t really understand it. I probably never will. The finite cannot really understand the infinite, and as long as I am tied to my own, finite ideas I cannot understand God. In short, if I am to enter into an understanding of of God, I need to shed my human limitations and start to look at what He is pointing me to, that which is greater than I and that which is, ultimately, Mystery.

In salvation, one thing seems to be clear to me: The empty cross may emphasize the Resurrection, but the crucifix focuses me on my Redemption.  Without Good Friday, there is no Easter; they are inextricable.  And because God is eternal, and is not limited to or by human understanding of time, both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are eternally present.  Failing to acknowledge either one leaves behind half of faith.

My experience bears this out. I found great sorrow, and ultimately great joy, in attending the weekly Stations of the Cross during Lent. Immersing myself in the Via Dolorosa meant walking those steps with Christ Himself, and what better way to come to know Him than to walk with Him?

I learned so many lessons, just by my proximity to His passion. I began to understand what self-giving love really looks like: it can be battered, and bloody, painful and often not very attractive. Because I began to understand that what we will someday do, Christ did first to show us the way, I took great comfort not only in the fact that Christ fell, but that He got up, and continued on His journey. When we came to the fifth station, I called to mind the image of Simon’s arms entwined with Christ’s as he bore the burden of the cross for and with the Savior. It helps me to put my own, sometimes overwhelming, though ultimately insignificant, burdens in perspective, for I do not bear them alone but as a member of Christ’s body. My suffering then becomes a part of His redemptive suffering, and has value, for myself and for others, through Him.

Easter came, and is with us still, and when Little Easter comes again every Sunday, I begin to understand a little more of the whole story of that cataclysmic, unprecedented event in human history, that Resurrection. As Christ rose, so may I. But I will do it only through the Crucifixion. To concentrate on the Resurrection without knowing the Way of the Cross is to miss the very path I must follow to get where I am going. It's like trying to navigate to a distant city, keeping only the city in mind and failing to look at the map that guides me there.

Years ago, when I was a young bride, I remember standing amidst my husband’s extensive collection of what I politely termed “junk” accusing him of terminal pack-ratitis. I couldn’t understand my he kept such an odd assortment of mementos: bags from a sojourn to Europe, a shoe from a Mickey Mouse doll, a burned out light bulb from the North Yorkshire coast. “It’s easy,” he explained. “I forget a lot, but if I have something in my hand, it all comes back. Think of it as tactile memory.”

Tactile Memory, the feel of holy water as I make the sign of the cross when I enter Church, the feeling of humility when I kneel in front of the image of Christ, crucified. Visual memory, the images and symbols that surround me, telling me over and over again, in a dozen different ways, the story of the Gospel in something other than words, something that is often more powerful. Olfactory memory, the smells of incense, flowers,and of wine, rich and red, that in a rush, no matter where I encounter them, will bring me in my mind’s eye and the center of my soul, right back to the Mass. Auditory memory, the familiar words of the Mass that far surpass my own ability to express my awe, my humble gratitude at being made a child of God through God’s own unlimited gift of Self. Kneeling under that crucifix, meditating on my crucified Savior, especially after having received Him in the Breaking of the Bread, brings me sharply, convincingly, totally and with all of my being, into joyful relationship with my Risen Lord.

Diversion in worship? Not at all. God gave me a body to worship Him in truth and in Spirit, and I thank Him for helping me to do so with all my senses, not just in abstraction.


  1. so true - and so beautifully expressed :-)
    I've never understood those who don't want to bother with history; these folks are doomed to repeat it; as is being shown in our nation - the world - today :-(
    The Catholics' additional stations of the cross make this aspect much more meaningful than the Anglicans' - I feel the same way with having the priest's prayer between the Lord's Prayer & the Gloria Patria rather than as the Anglicans'.
    I do not know which was original ... and wonder how the Eastern Orthodox' is ???

  2. Pardon this late comment on an old post, BHG, but it is a quiet night and I like much of your writing, almost as much as some of the books I read -- and sometimes more.
    This post on the blending of the church interior, liturgy, and even time resonates with me this day, August 15, feast of the Assumption. This morning as I focused on the mass, I often stared at the huge crucifix over the altar, but then words of Mary or a Marian hymn caused my eyes glance at her nearby statue. Her relationship to Jesus, all his life, and her relationship to me all blended together into a wonderful story of their life, and of mine. Everything fit so well together. Tears come easily for me when I realize how much God loves me, and all he has done for me. I'm glad I sit alone in the back of the church where I will distract no one, with my prayers or my blubbering.
    You describe your satisfaction with discovering the Catholic Church; words can't convey the truth.