Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hard Sayings, Part I: What Is Man That You Should Remember Him?

"For if any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceiveth himself."
                                                                                                           --Galatians 6:3

As I mentioned in the last post, I'll be trotting out some experiences from my past that vindicated some of the more difficult and implausible aspects of our faith.  These experiences have led me to love that "Old Time Religion" (as the Protestant tune has it), that strangely wonderful, ancient and deep faith of the saints.  Since these experiences were of a supernatural order, I think it's best to say a few things about such encounters.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, is that God often gives such graces to the wretched--precisely because they need them!  These often occur at the beginning of a poor sinner's conversion, and then taper off and even end as the person's soul turns more and more to Christ.  In our own times, many conversions have happened this way: including Roy Schoeman, Marino Restrepo, Dawn Eden, David Moss, Terry Nelson, Sally Read, Roger Dubin, Joseph Sciambra, John Carmichael, Fr. Calloway MIC.  [It seems like God is creating a small brigade for our difficult times!]  The other point is that God bestows these graces because the poor sinner needs them in order to pursue the specific tasks that God has fore-ordained.  Every Christian is called to play a crucial part in the vast plan of salvation, though some need a little more help to get the job done.

The next point is that these graces are understood as graces because they strike the mind as uniquely true and real.  I wrote about this in the last part of my conversion story here.  On the other hand, sometimes God gives us supernatural experiences that are less certain (like the experiences I wrote about here last week), and sometimes they are even the product of demons (which characteristically produce anxiety and confusion).  In any event, there is always something to be gleaned from such experiences--even if it's just a better understanding of how demons interact with us.

Finally, in past eras of the Church where the culture was thoroughly leavened by the faith, it was sometimes customary to keep these experiences private--especially in monasteries and convents.  Since we no longer live in anything remotely like a rich Christian culture, and since many of these truths are only half-believed, I've decided to share them.  These Hard Sayings have always been a part of the faith, and Christ always (and especially!) points back to them in trying times.

Our Wedding Day

The first experience occurred 6 1/2 years ago on our wedding day.  Amidst all of the photo-taking, conversations and last minute details, I was very keen to keep my mind directed to God.  He had the place of honor in my heart--especially since I would have been too stupid to marry my dear wife without the gift of conversion.  The wedding sacrament was full of tears and we trembled with joy before the altar as we exchanged rings.  Then the holy sacrifice was offered and we received communion.

Upon receiving the host I began to feel an inkling of the immensity of God.  I knelt at a prie-dieu next to my wife and looked up at a statue of Mary.  I immediately felt her tangible presence, like the quick embrace of a friend.  Then I looked up at the broad, muscular crucifix that hung overhead.  As I looked upon the image of Christ, the immense presence of God began to well-up from the consumed host, gathering force like a carefully controlled hurricane.  It began in my soul and then reverberated out into my body.  I lowered my head to grit my teeth, bracing my body against the ever-expanding presence of God.  It was not comfortable; it was not leavened with divine love and sweet consolations.  It was simply a tiny glimpse, or a tiny blast of God's raw being.  I began to hope for the experience to end--how much more could I take? Just as my soul and body felt ready to burst, the divine hurricane began to recede and finally vanish.  I was grateful to return my gaze to my wife, basking in thanksgiving and hope for the future.

When I reflected on the episode later, I was immediately struck by the contrast between the modest presence of Mary and the unfathomably massive being of God.  Even the Queen of Angels is nothing compared to her son!  Then I marveled that God had "interrupted" my wedding day to teach me a lesson, an uncomfortable truth.  While I was grateful for a sign of God's presence on my wedding day (and through the awesome reality of the eucharist), the real lesson was the inconceivable magnitude of God and the tiny reality of us, his beloved creatures. While the sheer enormity of God should feed our hope for the grandeur and perfection of Heaven, it should also serve as a needle to prick our inflated sense of self.  We are often so protective of our own prerogatives and desires, secretly sure that we matter more than our brothers and sisters.  At least that's how we often keep our own counsel as we go about the day. By contrast, the great saints put no store by themselves and we're happy to say they were of no account.

St. Margaret of Cortona was once a high-flying beauty

This experience was particularly telling, because in our day weddings have become tainted by a sense of individualism and self-assertion.  Recall the familiar phrase of brides: "This is MY day", and it's not just "bridezillas" who adopt this mindset.  When I was younger, I tended bar for at least a hundred weddings, and I would watch the bride and her retinue inspect the grounds as we set-up the reception.  I could take a fair guess at which marriages would endure based on what I saw behind closed-doors.  Priests have their own stories to tell if you like black humor.  Even in their relationship, the couples propel forward through a shared narcissism, a shared hedonism that lasts as long as the pleasures continue to flow.  God responds to all of this with a bucket of cold water, "It's not about you!  You hardly even know who and what you are, so small and so wretched."  God is neither nice nor polite (read how often Jesus rebuked the apostles).  Imagine if an attendee at the wedding had the gall to point out such things?  By our lights, God is impudent, but the truth is he loves us too much to respect our comfort zones.

We Come As Penitents

A few months back I approached the altar rail for communion, and knelt, waiting for the good Dominican friars of Holy Rosary Priory to pass by with the sacred hosts.  By a grace, I was aware of the utter transcendence and perfection of God.  Christ's sacrifice for us struck me as so singular, so incomprehensible that I would never understand it this side of Heaven.  At the same time, I saw myself approaching the sacrificial banquet as a penitent, so lowly and needful. Afterwards I took a step back from things, including this blog for a couple months.  After all, what was there to say?

If we come to God as anything other than life-long penitents, than we are deceived.  While God wants to give us everything (by giving us himself), we can only claim our divine inheritance by being willing to lose everything.  God has sent us many recent witnesses to this fact: Padre Pio, Brother Andre, St. Sharbel, Fr. Solanus Casey, Mother Theresa, and our own patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  Happily, several prominent cardinals and bishops have begun calling for a return to the Church's ascetic or penitential traditions, and we continue to say at every mass (and three times in the old mass):

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, 
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, a penitential season of the Church that has been described as a "mini-Lent".  If you're unsure of what a penitential spirit is, then watch one of my favorite movies, The Island.  It's about a cowardly sailor who becomes a penitent at a Russian Orthodox monastery.  The man clings to his penance even while God showers him with supernatural gifts.  The once-cowardly man reluctantly becomes another Padre Pio or Brother Andre.

The monk from the film was holy because he was a penitent

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