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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mystagogy for dummies (like me) - Pentecost edition

As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ. (1 Cor 10, second reading for Pentecost)

As the Father has sent me, so I send you. (Gospel for Pentecost)

Almost no one is born loving in agape. Most of us learn the hard way, the long way. We journey through the ages of humanity, the stages of development, the path of “self-actualization.” We learn to love from eros and philia, from the thrill and pleasure of loving, from the security and acceptance and transparency of presence to one another, from the fierceness of a mother’s defensive love, a father’s laughter, the often indefatigable and unalienable devotion of brothers and sisters, or grandparents.

Somewhere along the line, if we’re lucky, it strikes us that we’re not the center of any universe but our own, and that to become part of the truth of the universe we have to turn outward toward others. We hear the obvious truth of the life of the grain of wheat. It’s not at all that there’s anything wrong with eros and philia. It’s just that they are there to lead us to the Source, the love that is pure life-giving, that is independent of feeling, reciprocation, or even belonging, because it participates in life itself, and finds the source of its joy from its dissipation on behalf of the Other.

Honestly, I’ve been so selfish for so long that I don’t even know how little I do for other people. It’s just in the last couple of years, really, that I’ve consciously stopped ignoring things I don’t do because I don’t feel like it. It’s like it dawned on me, in my late fifties, that to love other people isn’t about feeling anything, it’s about doing. It doesn’t matter what I feel, only what I do. Eventually, with some reflected living, some feelings might catch up, but if they don’t then somehow the actions themselves, if they are selfless, are part of the paschal mystery, and are life-giving in and of themselves to me as well as to whomever I might have served. It’s hard to imagine it’s taken me so long to even begin to grasp this. And don’t misunderstand me — it’s not like I’ve suddenly become Mother Teresa or Mia Farrow. Just a little bit less Falstaff, or Oscar Wilde.

It’s so obvious, but sometimes it’s just words. Like, I remember Tom Conry once laying one of his famous dictums on me, “Liturgy isn’t about making people feel good; it’s about making people feel like doing something good.” And on the level of drama alone, that’s a world of difference. It’s a movement from the self and eros toward the other, and agape. When that other moves outside the circle of friend and family, that’s the purest form of agape. It’s certainly true that true love is like the river; it doesn’t matter where you drink from, the river is the same. One can be truly, completely selfless with a lover, or with a son, or daughter, or parent, or friend. But Jesus, it seems to me, wants to make a point about this in his culture, which is already loyal to a fault to its own. In the Sermon on the Mount, making a point about loving those who love us, he tells us, “Don’t even the pagans do that?” So the real test is loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us. But try that in the "universal prayer" (the general intercessions or prayer of the faithful) some time, and see how fast the good Christians shoosh you out the door. “For the safety and well-being of al-Qaeda, let us pray to the Lord.” “For the Taliban, the Sendero Luminoso, the Crips, the Bloods, the 18th Street Gang, let us pray to the Lord.” And praying for them is hardly dying, or living, for their good.

For the believer, this relentless divine love is at work even in those who have not heard the Name of God, or who have heard it and rejected it. Every moment of longing and alienation is a doorway to the infinite. God’s life is invitation, the available experience of accepting, unconditional love. The question becomes, who will echo the path of the love which “lets the rain fall and the sun shine on good and bad alike” in the life looking for that kind of a God to believe in? Whose Church will be a safe harbor like that, whose preaching of the gospel will be the way it lives and worships and serves the neighborhood?

Maybe that’s the “so what” question that follows the proclamation that we are one body, sent by Christ on the Father's mission of reconciliation and unity. St. Paul was asking it already just twenty years or so after Jesus's death, and long before John's gospel was finally written:
...How can they call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard?

And how can they hear without someone to preach?

And how can people preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10: 14-15)
Belonging, in Christ, ultimately means being sent. Love, like God, is not satisfied with itself, it is by its nature outward bound. If this “here comes everybody” party is ever going to get underway, we’re going to have to get the word out. Into every cozy upper room, into every lakeside breakfast, into every comfortable Christian’s life from Vatican City to Lake Zurich, a little fire must fall. Love is mission. Belonging is being sent. Easter, the paschal mystery of God, is Pentecost.


  1. Thank you for this post. It spoke God's word in my life today. :)

    I've been lurking for a few weeks now, and really enjoying your blog. I'm a 'old' neophyte (initiated at Easter 2012) and been helping with RCIA this year too. It's been good to relive mystagogy again.

    (We have mutual friends, like Debbie Walsh, who introduced me to your blog).

    1. Nice to meet you, Jen! Hi to Debbie. We're all living mystagogy until we die. Probably longer. ;-)