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Monday, March 11, 2013

Believing is Seeing (2) - the dark night of a liturgical soul

Though the Church has a spotty record with regard to science at least since the Enlightenment, I think that it's fair to say that through most of the history of the West in the last 2000 years the Church has influenced civilization generally for the better, along a track that reverenced knowledge and art as divine gifts to be reconciled with the patrimony of the gospel. Note the Facebook meme of late that pictures a scientist, for instance, LeMaitre, with the question, "Oh, so you like the big bang theory? Thank a Catholic priest." Baptizing the philosophy of Aristotle as Christianity swept across the Mediterranean, the church has clung, if tenuously at times and inconsistently, to reason and experience as the building blocks of truth, and at our best have not seen contradictions when science has challenged the assumptions of faith, but struggled to reconcile the new empirical data with the paradoxes of things held to be true from antiquity. Far from retreating into itself, the Church has produced some of the great minds in every era, using the gift of reason to wrestle with the mysteries of the known universe and reconciling new discoveries with faith and tradition. 

The downside of all this thinking might be that we came to believe, since the Enlightenment, that faith is something that we do in our heads. Whereas the biblical concept of faith is that we love God "with our heart, mind, soul, strength" (and by strength, the Hebrew scriptures effectively meant "influence" or "wealth"), we tend to think of faith as what we think to be the way God is, and how we think we ought to respond to him. But even in its etymological roots in the Old English, the word believe is not related to verbs about thought or creed, but is related to the word for "love". The word "creed" itself is from the Latin "credo", which is a portmanteau or elision of earlier Latin phonemes "cor" and "do", which mean, "I give (my) heart". Put another way by the great Jesuit activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan,  “Your faith is rarely where your head is at, just as rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Where are you living? What are you doing? These things—our actions, our charity, our morality—are what determine whether we believe or not.”

Believing is seeing. I have heard so many times through the years, at funerals and other gatherings where memories are shared, a spouse of fifty or sixty years or more say things like, "she's as beautiful as the day I first met her." Fairy tales like "Beauty and the Beast" contain within them archetypal truths that teach us at a young age that our seeing of another person is shaped by our love, and that ultimately love transforms our idea of beauty. The very un-Disney animated movie Shrek and its sequel take the idea a step further, in an attempt to show that beauty, power, and riches are ultimately empty and corrupt, and that love transforms our vision so that we see them for what they are, and see the genuine, the beloved, as beautiful. Everyone lives "ugly" and happily ever after. 

This is what the cross does to the sight of the Christian. Beauty, truth, power, and ultimately the human understanding of God are smashed and recreated in the image of Jesus Christ crucified. In Christ we have, says St. Paul, the image of the invisible God. We are taught to see God differently, not as perfection of form, overwhelming power, the accumulation of all wealth, the ultimate emperor-warlord, but a tortured man, condemned as a criminal, hanging nailed to a tree. "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart." God is love, and "love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams" (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov). God is love, the perfect and complete outpouring of Self for Other. This love calls to us for a response, and transforms our vision in the process. Learning to love, we come to believe. 

In a sense, God's belief in humanity, God's utterly committed love, is what we understand as the incarnation. Jesus's belief in the Father, as not only his Father but the Father of all human persons, led him to reject everything that kept anyone in thrall or debt to anyone else, reject the boundaries between "good" and "bad" people, between friend and stranger, between "in" groups and "out" groups. The day of jubilee, Jesus told the incredulous synagogue at Nazareth, is now. "Today, this (Isaiah 61) is fulfilled in your hearing." This rejection of the judgment of the powers of the world led to his condemnation, and ultimately led to cross. God, of course, is life, and rejected the victory of death over Jesus, raising him to life, and transforming the cross itself, theretofore a sign of shame and horror, into a sign of life and hope. 

It is in this cross that the elect were signed as catechumens. They wear the cross today as a reminder that all of their senses, their whole being, head to toe, was claimed for Christ by the Church. And in last Sunday's gospel (in scrutiny communities), we have an example of someone whose vision was shaped by love. Born blind, he is miraculously cured by a stranger on the Sabbath. Interrogated by religious leaders, put at a distance by his parents, interrogated again and bodily expelled from the Temple, he will not deny his experience: "I know this: I was blind before, but now I can see." He only knows that this was the work of "the man they call Jesus." Cast aside by all, he comes to speak to Jesus, who acknowledges that he was the one who healed the man, and the man falls down in worship. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, sighted from birth, blessed with all the benefits and perquisites of status in the community, cannot get past the narrowness of their legalism to acknowledge the extraordinary healing that has taken place. They cannot see, even though they are sighted, the Light of the World. 

The newly-sighted blind man believes, loves, sees as God sees; the "godly" men, trapped in the morass of their own legalism, are blind. Their belief isn't in the living God, the God who heals and gives life and creates anew; their belief is an idolatry of law. With prototypical Johannine irony, they cannot even see their own blindness. 

This is where I live, as a liturgy director. I have to struggle with this week after week, Mass after Mass, trying both to stay inside the lines of the law, which I believe in as a good, and also to be open to the porousness and even artificiality of those boundaries when they seem to encroach on bigger issues of reconciliation and healing. Intercommunion is a biggie. The involvement of non-Catholics in the sacramental roles at weddings and funerals. These roles mean something, but so do hospitality and healing. How do we weigh these things? There's no rule book. Or, there is one, but it's constantly being called into question, even by the priests. 

I think, in general, that rubrics are good, that they protect the integrity of the gospel tradition. But good men, good priests, play fast and loose with rubrics, run roughshod over the liturgy, as though it were theirs to manipulate. It's hard for me to accept that, but I think that they, in general, are better "lovers" than I am. In general, I've been trying to focus on the kenosis of Jesus: if, as Paul says in Philippians, he did not deem equality with God something to be clung to, then exactly what kind of correctness do I need to cling to? Is it best just to get down in the trenches with people, and not care if you're "right" or not, according to the books? 

I tell you, this is very hard for me, because my whole life I have been trained to seek the right answer, to do the right thing, and trained by the Church itself to be wary of heterodoxy and error. But again, if being God wasn't worth holding onto when in love the logos became a human being, then exactly what is it that am so worried about clinging to? The clinging feels like some kind of idolatry, but letting go sometimes feels a betrayal of everything I've been trained to do, of rationality itself, the way that I've been taught to act and react, from my earliest years in school. 

So, believing is seeing. Love shapes our perception of things. Maybe if I am given the gift of love, a bigger heart, this will all seem silly to me. I want to be a good lover. That's how I want to be remembered, a believer, someone who loved really well, not just as a rule-keeper. I guess I'm out of practice. Less than three weeks of Lent left. I'd better get busy.

(Other posts on Lent 3/4/5 Year A and the scrutinies here.)


  1. I wish that these posts had their own "like" button!

    1. You're so kind! Thanks, Fran. Happy Monday. (?)

  2. So well written Rory. Thanks for the insight & wisdom for today!

    1. Thanks, Mike. If it's wisdom, it's from seeing my own bad behavior held up in a mirror to me lots of times over the years. Not always by well-wishers. But the effect was the same. :)

  3. I've come to believe that at our own judgments, Jesus will simply ask, "How well did you love?" Thanks, Ror!