For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever.”
You better come on in this house, cause it’s gonna rain. Rain down, Zion, it’s gonna rain.
-“Sunday Candy”, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
I don’t listen to rap often, but when I do, I prefer for it to be imbued with tones of Eucharistic self-gift. This may seem like a tall order, but it’s exactly what the listener encounters in the song “Sunday Candy,” featuring a joy-filled gospel choir, the rhymes of Chance the Rapper, the vocals of Jamila Woods, and some tremendously triumphant trumpeting. When Woods begins her hook, the trumpets pause and a church organ reverberates under her words: “You gotta move it slowly/ Take and eat my body like it’s holy”. Chance joins Woods as she repeats this gentle hook a second time, and as their voices meld together in a duet, a theme begins to emerge: one of right-ordered sexuality, the kind that calls us home to what it means to be human. The very title of the song speaks of a call to express our human sexuality in a way that encompasses not only the sweetness and playfulness of candy but also the reverently respected sacredness of a Sunday.
Chance and Jamila are singing for joy: and it’s the sweetness of a relationship in which there is holiness of waiting (“I’ve been waiting for you”) and praying (I’ve been praying for you”), and honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun. In Chance’s words we might even uncover something of the beauty of a relationship in which two draw each other closer to God: “You’re my dreamcatcher, dream team, team captain/ Matter fact, I ain’t seen you in a minute let me take my butt to church”. The desire to see and spend time with his beloved spurs him to church- and rightly so, for as we might add, it is in loving one another well that we enter into the dwelling place of the Lord, who is Love Itself. This notion of the way we love and the way we dwell with God being intertwined comes up again when Chance describes the one he loves in the second verse: ” You sound like why the gospel choir got so tired/ Singin’ his praise on daily basis so I gotta try it”. In other words, the way that she loves sounds like the praise of a gospel choir, a choir that gives fully and to the end, each day. In Chance’s words, a very Christian truth shines through: in the way that we love, we give praise to the Lord, and we come to dwell with Him daily.
Thus, in this song we catch a glimmer of what it means to be truly human: to give of ourselves lovingly and dwell joyfully in the place of the Lord. It means, as the song puts it, to “come on in this house,” into shelter from the rain and into the holy house of Zion. Our call to dwell in this holy place is a call to respond to God’s abundant gift of Himself in the Eucharist by becoming abundant gifts ourselves. Perhaps “Sunday Candy” can be for us a small example of the way that we sing to God with joy through the ways we express our sexuality, a most sweet and sacred thing. It can be reminder of the beauty of relationships in which dwelling with each other leads us to dwell with God. Where Chance speaks of dinner rolls on his plate at Christmas dinner, we can speak of the Eucharist, and of the shelter we find as we allow the Bread we take and eat to form the pattern in which we share ourselves in relationship. We can trust that in the patience and the prayerfulness of this sort of sharing, there is also such great sweetness.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
I have only been able to find two radio stations so far in St. Louis. The first is a 1970s rock station – certainly filled with talented musicians, but not my scene. So instead, I spend most days driving to and from work listening to the pop music station. One song has been played over and over in the past few days, written by “up and coming” artist Hailiee Steinfeld, and it is particularly disturbing to me – both in its content and in its indication of the attitude prevalent among young adults and those on college campuses.
The song is called “Love Myself.” Every time it comes on the radio, there’s a blurb by the artist telling listeners that she just wants them to know that they can do whatever they’re doing on their own – they don’t need anyone else to tell them they can. The song itself consists of Ms. Steinfeld proclaiming that, any time, she is just going to love herself, and she doesn’t need anyone else. Perhaps the most startling lyric: “I’m gonna put my body first/ And love me so hard til it hurts.”
Now, don’t get me wrong – the idea of self love and self worth is not only beautiful and important, but extremely Catholic. In order to truly worship God and submit to the truth of His works, one must recognize him or herself as the Lord’s creation and see the inherent beauty in that. While difficult, this is an entirely necessary step for anyone expecting to love creation and others. However, this true, humble, loving of oneself is entirely different than that which is espoused in the aforementioned song.
The loving of oneself in the Christian tradition is inherently communal – the love of self, rooted in the acceptance of Christ’s redemption of all humanity and humankind’s adoptive sonship with God, compels the believer to recognize that same beauty, that same divine sonship, in those around him or her. Self-love, and Christianity in general, are inherently other-centric.
This song proclaims entirely the opposite. Steinfeld confuses the purpose and nature of loving oneself, proclaiming that her love of self is not only separate from the other, but that this self-love in fact leads to separation. Perhaps even more fearful is her assertion in her “introduction” of the song, which suggests that correction and suggestion, two concepts rooted in the Catholic tradition in the love of the other and the desire to see the other at his or her best, are detrimental to one’s love of self and should be brushed off. This attitude is one I have seen on a broader level in the secular world, both within my campuses and in adults. We shrug off the obligation that comes with the Catholic idea of love of self – after all, that’s too hard. It precludes me from my ability to judge others and to do what I want, when I want. It makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the immediate satisfaction of desires that has become so common, so advertised, and so valued. Instead, we would rather define self-love as the complete and total acceptance of how we are and how we act based entirely upon ourselves, our relative idea of truth, and what is easier in the short term. Quite frankly, it’s a tempting and glamorous view of life.
However, this is a view of life and of love with perilous consequences for the soul. When I hear the lyrics of this song, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of Hell in The Great Divorce – I hear this young singer shrug off any responsibility other than her own, and I see the Hell-dwellers who became so stubborn, so set in their own ways and their own versions of the truth, that they couldn’t break out of themselves long enough to see the beauty that awaited them. This self-centric view of love and life leads to isolation, to judgment, and to a long-term lack of fulfillment.
This attitude is one that is incredibly hard to crack, but one that we must commit ourselves to resisting – after all, our souls, and those of the rest of the world, are at stake. In the Eucharist, we are reminded over and over again of the true meaning of Love, a Love that draws us in and raises us up, one that compels us to go forth and serve the whole world. This dangerous mindset, one which will certainly be present with me for the rest of my life, is one that can only be conquered by participating in that living and eternal sacrifice.
Many young Catholics today seem to exhibit a strong tendency toward what one might term “perpetual discernment syndrome.” I am certainly not an exception to this category, and it was in noticing such a tendency in some of my own decision-making processes that led me to recognition of it in others. There have been times, for example, when ‘let me pray on it’ or ‘I need to discern God’s will’ were simply an excuse to put off committing to a decision.
This tendency to over-discern every decision and every situation ad nauseam could be traced to any number of causes, and at times can even simply be a mask for a deeper fear of commitment (alluded to above). But it seems to me that it can also derive from an underlying assumption that God has a very specific and meticulous plan and purpose for one’s life, and that every step, every moment, every decision is assigned a very specific place within that plan. With this assumption firmly in place, each decision in our lives becomes an occasion for renewed anxiety and fear of “messing up.” When presented with two doors, we cannot bring ourselves to enter Door A out of a fear that God has planned for us to choose Door B. Unsure of which is the correct path, which one is truly a part of the plan, we find ourselves ‘paralyzed by the possible’ (to borrow a phrase from Samuel Bellafiore’s September blog post); we stare blankly at both doors, telling ourselves and those around us that we cannot choose either because we need to “discern.” “Discernment,” in cases such as these, seems to be more aptly labeled “indecision.”Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to engaging in healthy prayer and discernment, especially when it comes to big decisions in one’s life (one might even call this being “responsible”). I am not an advocate (my girlfriend can attest) of rushing headlong through life’s many doors, without taking an appropriate amount of time to prayerfully consider the options in order to hear God’s voice. I do believe that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and I do believe that each one of us has a vocation that the Lord is calling us to.
Nevertheless, there can also be a danger in the mentality that assumes every step and every moment of our lives to have been plotted, and the only thing left for us to do is keep our eyes on the road beneath us, taking care to step in the footprints that have already been perfectly laid out. Or, to use a more seasonally appropriate analogy, it can even be tempting to think of vocation as a kind of giant Easter Egg Hunt, with God’s will being contained in very small and limited objects hidden in the various brush and shrubbery that are the decisions we face throughout our lives. We have only to uncover the egg, and inside will be God’s specific and precise directive for that moment. It is this mentality that I want to challenge.
Perhaps this reflection from Hans Urs Von Balthasar (written in 1927 during a retreat before his entry into the Jesuit novitiate) can offer a way forward for us, then:
Even today, thirty years later, I could trace my steps back to that remote path in the Black Forest, not too far from Basel, and rediscover the tree under which I was struck, as if by lightning … and what suddenly entered my mind then was neither theology, nor the priesthood. It was simply this: you do not have to choose anything, you have been called! You will not serve, you will be taken into service. You do not have to make plans of any sort, you are only a pebble in a mosaic prepared long before. All that I had to do was simply leave everything behind and follow, without making plans, without desires or particular intuitions. I had only to remain there to see how I could be useful.
Sometimes I wonder if Christ knew the specifics of His mission. Did He ever concern Himself by worrying about Gethsemane, Jerusalem, the cross, the crown of thorns, Judas, or Pontius Pilate? Did he know that He was to be betrayed by Judas, crucified on a cross, between two criminals, on a Friday afternoon? Did he pause at every juncture, afraid to move forward from fear that his action will fail to realize the Father’s specific plan for His life? It is possible that He did. It is also possible, however, that His forty days in the desert, the forty days that we commemorated and participated in with our own practices this past Lent, were spent in preparation for a mission the specifics of which He knew not.
Perhaps Von Balthasar is in some ways urging us to cultivate a life that is grounded in the Incarnation, oriented toward Heaven, and attuned to His will. Within this framework, discerning God’s will becomes first and foremost a state, rather than an action. If we realize, as Von Balthasar did, that we have simply to “leave everything behind and follow, without making plans,” then perhaps we will shed the timidity and insecurity that tends to characterize a perpetually discerning mentality, and instead blaze a trail with confidence, zeal and hope into the true heart of God’s will.
So far my favorite class this semester has been a seminar on Teresa of Ávila. It’s been a great blessing for someone with interests in theology and spirituality to have the opportunity to read and discuss the writings of such a beautiful saint. This week, we are reading the first part of The Interior Castle, what the scholar and translator Kieran Kavanaugh calls her “spiritual masterpiece.” We’ve read through quite a bit of her writing so far so I was somewhat taken aback–but mostly really really excited–when I saw this in his introduction. I mean, everything so far in the course has been great, and a person who has devoted his life’s work to studying St. Teresa thinks this is the best? Bring it on.
Even though this reading is for a class and has an academic grounding, it would be pretty hard not to involve myself personally in the text. Teresa wasn’t writing treatises or grand comprehensive theologies. She was writing to the sisters under her direction who were pursuing a life of holiness. They wanted to know how best to serve God and in what ways this should be desired and lived out in their vocation as Carmelite nuns. As someone whose prayer life is in constant need of improvement, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the places Teresa’s writing was speaking directly to where I need to grow. Her books are practically bursting with how important humility is to the spiritual life and developing this virtue is the foundation upon which everything else stands.
Immediately prior to the passage quoted below, which is taken from Dwelling Place 3, Chapter 1, Teresa describes how important it is not to jealously desire spiritual favors (e.g. contemplation) from God. These favors are given to some and not others according to God’s will. It does not indicate a lacking or inferiority in one’s soul to never be granted these gifts. This life of prayer and devotion to God is never complete or fulfilled but rather necessitates constant attention and effort, so even the person who has received great favors still has much room for growth. We the reader must always desire that God lead us closer to Him. The Sisters in particular cannot assume this work is done once they renounce all possessions and things of this world. They must persevere in desiring more and more intimate union with God, always seeking greater conformity with His will. Then came the passage that really jumped off the page for me.
“This perseverance includes the condition…that you consider yourselves useless servants…and believe that you have not put our Lord under any obligation to grant you these kinds of favors. Rather, as one who has received more, you are more indebted.”
For a moment I wondered whether this last line meant this perseverance was only important for Sisters who had “received more.” It is what follows this line, however, that absolutely drove the message home and showed me how central this point is to all of us.
“What can we do for a God so generous that he died for us, created us, and gives us being? Shouldn’t we consider ourselves lucky to be able to repay something of what we owe Him for His service toward us? I say these words ‘His service toward us’ unwillingly; but the fact is that He did nothing else but serve us all the time He lived in this world. And yet we ask Him again for favors and gifts.” (Interior Castle III:1.8)
I’m well aware that too much of my prayer is focused on myself. So much of the time I spend with God is devoted to what I need or what I’m stressed about. But here Teresa takes it a step further and asks if, in the times we think we are being the most humble or selfless, we are in fact acting for our own gain. It is well attested in the Christian tradition, and more that most in Teresa’s own life, that God grants great favors to those who serve Him. But when I do pray for others or serve them as my neighbor, it shouldn’t be so that I too can experience contemplation or receive a greater reward in heaven. We are called to serve because we must, because of the sheer immensity of God’s generosity. When we do not appreciate simply how amazing the gift of our salvation truly is we demand more from Him and, in doing so, fail to realize we are actually asking for less.
Its not that we’re wrong in desiring to receive something, its that we’re not recognizing that we’ve already been given more than we could ever think to ask for. Because of this, we ask even more of an already prodigal God. “We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross” (III:1.9). This is where I think this passage is particularly fitting for reflection during the season of Lent. How often do we look at Lent as a time of earning our salvation? It’s already been given! We can’t earn what we don’t deserve! Don’t think of this as cause for inactivity, but rather a demand that we commit our entire lives to serving God and rejoice in the opportunity “to repay something,” no matter how insignificant that may seem. Exactly how amazing and unbelievable the Paschal Mystery is, which is too often lost because of how familiar and mundane it has become to our consciousness, is precisely what Teresa is trying to remind us of. Even if God never gives us anything else as spiritual nourishment, let what we have received be enough.
“Be convinced that where humility is truly present God will give a peace and conformity – even though He may never give consolations – by which one will walk with greater contentment than will others with their consolations. For often, as you have read, the divine Majesty gives these consolations to the weaker souls; although I think we would not exchange these consolations for the fortitude of those who walk in dryness. We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross. Test us, Lord – for You know the truth – so that we may know ourselves.” (III:1.9)
Catholics do a lot of weird things at Mass. We sit, we stand, we sit again, we stand again, we sit again, we stand again, we kneel, we stand again, we shake hands with people, we kneel again, we walk up to the front, we walk back to our seats, we sit again, we stand again, and we leave. Seems like a lot of work. But, maybe we’re just over-achievers, because we always insist upon making an already demanding task that much harder by throwing in added challenges. Where are we going to sit? Front? Don’t want to seem too eager. Back? Don’t want to be stuck with the crying babies. We settle into a pew and then squeeze as much conversation out of the next 5 minutes as we possibly can, assuming we’re not late as usual. We sit and silently criticize the music, the readers, the altar servers. The homily is either too long or too bland or too preachy. We all add in a multitude of additional challenges throughout the Mass—everyone’s got their own specialties.
Once we get to the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, a cold sweat spreads throughout the congregation like a plague. Slowly, one by one, everyone realizes we’re getting close to the big one, the one you spend days beforehand worrying over and weeks afterward reliving (at least some of us do). The sign of peace is nearly upon us. While everything leading up to that moment is centered upon the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, almost inevitably, even if it’s just for a moment, sometime between the Sanctus and the Great Amen, the thought crosses your mind of who is around you and where you’ll go first for the sign of peace.
At first glace it seems completely disconnected from the other Mass parts surrounding it. We’re praying, singing, praying the Our Father (sometimes holding hands), then suddenly shaking hands and hugging, and back to singing. I want to look experientially at how we do the sign of peace as a way of showing how we often miss the beautiful liturgical significance in this moment. I’ll start with the basic structure of events for anyone unfamiliar with the Catholic liturgy and then highlight two major variations that are the most revelatory.
The Standard Model for the sign of peace: shake hands with/hug family and those in the rest of your pew, and if there’s time the pews in front and behind. Crushing handshakes are reserved for siblings. Moving more than a step from your spot is excessive, unless Grandma is there. Always move down the pew to hug Grandma.
Variation #1, a favorite of the older crowds (see any daily Mass): quickly turn, nod to everyone around you, maybe wave or throw up a couple peace signs. If it takes more than 30 seconds you’re doing it wrong. In general, speed tends to be the name of the game for daily Mass, which isn’t terrible. Those who attend daily Mass are often people on a tight schedule or lunch break. However, the sign of peace is not something than can be reduced to near non-existence without somehow changing our participation in the Eucharist. Contrary to what I said above about the sign of peace as a random event in the Mass, we don’t change gears in the sign of peace, but rather are literally enacting our prayer. We’re proclaiming our love of God through love of neighbor, extending to them the same blessing and hope for peace the newly risen Christ offered the 11 gathered in the locked, upper room. Even more directly, we just asked God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us using the same standard by which we forgive others. Personally, I hope God is far more forgiving than I have been with those who have injured me. Still, upon making this prayer to God, we then immediately get a chance to put our prayer into action by extending peace to our parents, siblings, friends, and all of those around us who have almost certainly trespassed against us. Peace. Not just forgiveness, not just a clean slate, but peace in our community. If we don’t actively extend this before receiving the Eucharist, how can we make it manifest in our world as the Body of Christ when we leave the church?
Variation #2 tends to be a favorite of young crowds (college dorm Masses are special offenders): empty the pews, form an inner and outer circle rotating in opposite directions, and proceed to bro hug everyone in the congregation. The reality of this situation is that, while it is an impressive display of love and community, we have to ask why this is really happening. In offering us peace, the priest is standing in the place of Christ in His sacrifice and extending love to us. By encouraging us to offer one another the sign of Christ’s peace, we’re sharing the love we have received from Him with one another. It is an expression of an immense filial love that shows we’re coming as a community to the feast. The problem arises when this love, brotherly love, is celebrated for its own sake and takes away our focus from the Eucharist, which is sitting consecrated on the altar waiting for the hugs and inevitable conversation to stop.
It’s as if an astronaut, after devoting so much energy and focus to training and preparation, climbed out of the cockpit with 30 seconds left on the countdown and said, “Wow, that was really something!” We’d say, but with all the effort you’ve put in, you’re supposed to go to the moon! Meanwhile, we have been prepared by the entire liturgy for so much more than the sign of peace! We have been called to the feast, to receive Christ in the Eucharist, and yet suddenly we decide we’re satisfied with just being part of the community. Yes, the sign of peace is an expression of love, but it’s not perfect or complete. It has to remain a means to the end that is communion in Christ. This in no way diminishes filial love, but rather elevates it. The best part of all this is that, by expressing our desire for peace and then participating in God’s agapic love, we’re equipped with the filial love we need to actually make this peace manifest in the world. We don’t merely leave the sign of peace behind because the Eucharist is better, the Eucharist completes the sign of peace by so uniting us with Christ and filling us with love that we are now able to live peace.
We’re talking about real peace, peace that is intimately tied to love. It isn’t peace for its own sake, it’s peace as the by-product of divine love. This is the peace we’re called to offer one another at Mass and receive in the Eucharist. It’s a strong and firm peace, not something wishy-washy. It’s beating your swords into plowshares not because we have collectively agreed to stop fighting, but rather because we love one another so completely that we no longer even recognize their previous purpose. It is easy to simply say the Eucharist is important and that we should more fully incorporate love and peace into our relationships. The thing that is hard and that is so absolutely fundamental is that we celebrate the liturgy and receive the Eucharist, not for a functional end, but out of love for God and a desire for relationship with Him and with each other in this unity. A life of love and a life of peace, a complete embodiment of the liturgy in our daily life, is the shared vocation of all humanity. Call it altruistic, call it unrealistic, call it whatever you like, because that’s exactly what God’s calling you to.
Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross
Infants and young children are quite clear about their needs. A baby cries, a mother feeds the child, the baby’s tears cease. A child falls down and cuts his knee, his father hugs him, gives him a kiss, washes out the wound, affixes a Band-Aid, and the child resumes his play. A young girl approaches a family friend at a party, asking them to read her a story, and the family friend (unless they are a horrible person, incapable of love), of course, does. There is such confidence in these requests, particularly in a loving family, because the child knows that most of these simple intercessions will be fulfilled. The need, the petition, and the fulfilled request are virtually simultaneous moments in the life of the child.
Yet, as we grow older, we lose some of this confidence. Perhaps, it is because we have learned that our parents cannot grant all of our desires. They cannot take away from us the disappointment of being turned down for a first job, or the sorrow at watching a relationship—once so full of promise—come to an end. They cannot ensure that we will get into the college of our dreams, or that once we’re there that we’ll succeed. They, and no creature for that matter, can answer for us those “depth” questions that arise in the human heart as we grow: “What is the purpose of life?” “Why is there death in the world?” “Is moral uprightness really worth it, when injustice seems to be rewarded more often than not?”
A similar dynamic, dear friends, is often at work in our formation into intercessory prayer. When we are young, we have confidence that God will answer our most simple requests quickly and with ease. Yet, as we grow older, more attentive to the ways that our prayers seem to be unfulfilled, we may give up intercessory prayer except in the most extreme moments of life. We have cried out that our friend may not die, and yet we have not been heard. We have asked God that our poverty might be relieved, and yet we have not been heard. We have sought God’s voice in helping us choose a path, and yet we have not been heard. For most of us, the answer to this silence is not giving up faith in God but readjusting our expectations of what God can provide us in the first place. We ask for less and not more. We hope God has a plan, but when we’re asked to articulate it, we’re less than clear what such a plan might be.
The General Intercessions on Good Friday are an antidote to this subjugation of intercessory prayer. Having heard Christ’s passion, we respond in trust with a barrage of intercessions for the salvation of the world: that God will guide the Church, increase its faith, and make it effective sacrament of love; that the Pope might be strengthened in his role as servant of Christians; that all ministers, all lay people might reveal this faith in the world; that the catechumens might receive an increase in faith and understanding in preparation for their baptism; that Christians everywhere might be one in the fullness of faith; that the Jewish people might participate in the fullness of redemption, perhaps in a way that we cannot yet imagine (see, Paul’s reflection upon this in Romans); that those who do not believe in Christ may walk nonetheless in sincerity of heart, becoming perfect witnesses of God’s love in the world; that those who do not believe in God may perceive in Christians lives of love and mercy, attracting them to God; that God might lead those in public office to work for freedom, security, and peace; and, that the sick, the dying, the traveler, the captive, the oppressed, the hungry, and the diseased might be strengthened by God, and the source of their suffering blotted from the earth. We pray this while standing and kneeling, taking time to allow the words of the prayers to become our prayer.
Yet, how can we trust that these prayers may be answered? Indeed, on Good Friday, we are reminded that it is not we as individuals who prayer these prayers; we do not stand as those alone, isolated monads expressing wishes that remain unfulfilled. Rather, our voice is Christ’s voice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this quite beautifully:
Jesus also prays for us—in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, and in his Resurrection, heard by the Father. This is why he never ceases to intercede for us with the Father. If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit itself, who contains all gifts (no. 2741).
So, the General Intercessions that we pray on Good Friday are kind of extensive elaborations upon Christ’s own prayer, bestowed at the Last Supper:
that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:20-23).
It is the gift of love, of unity that seek. Of course, this does not take away the painfulness of our often unanswered prayers any more than the mystery of the Resurrection erased Christ’s wounds. His anguish echoes through the ages (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) (Ps. 22:1). Thus, when we ask for something that we do not get, including very good things (the health of a loved one, the gift of a child, a job to care for our family), our prayer is not just heard but it becomes Christ’s prayer—his cry upon the cross. It becomes the prayer of the saints, who have joined their prayers with Christ’s, who know our sorrow yet rejoice God’s glory. And the sacramental nature of this prayer means that the sorrow that we feel in uttering seemingly unanswered words can be transformed (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) into a longing for divine life, into a sincere hope for perfect salvation. So, on Good Friday, let us ask God’s intercession as a child does, confident that they will be heard. And let our hearts be opened to the surprising way that God hears these prayers. A savior on a cross. A king made subject. The Word of God made flesh, becoming a lamb led to the slaughter. A world transformed by a preacher from Nazareth. For, it we become used to God’s surprising way of love, his prayer of being “God with us,” then we may begin to hear his voice anew: in the cries of the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the lonely, those who know Christ’s cross all too well.
In the past, while praying the Invitatory Psalm (Ps. 95) for the Roman Rite’s Liturgy of the Hours, I have often found myself unconsciously troubled. The psalm extols the wonder of the Creator, exhorts Israel (and now the Church) to “bow down and worship” before the divine shepherd, and warns the reader of the psalm to listen to the voice of the Lord (unlike our ancestors at Meriba and Massah, who challenged the commitment of a God who dared to enter into history in the freedom of love).
Thus far, a perfect morning psalm, one that elicits worship and praise for the beginning of a new day. The Christian in praying the psalm is brought into the presence of the living God, entering the temple, and offering the sacrifice of praise appropriate to the Christian life. Yet, the psalm text (not counting the final doxology) concludes not with the same divine praise with which it began but a rather dire stanza:
Forty years I endured that generation./I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways.’/So I swore in my anger, ‘They shall never enter into my rest’.
Just like that, the psalm closes. No further promise of redemption but a stern warning, chilling to the one that takes such prayer seriously. In fact, the latter portion of the psalm is full of the darkness of human sin, of the hardness of the human heart even as Israel professes its desire to worship the Creator. The English translation of the psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours does not adequately capture the Scriptural memory of “hardness of heart” (the official translation declaring, “do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness”; the Latin is hodie si vocem eius audieritis nolite indurare corda vestra). The hardness of heart, which seized Pharaoh in his refusal to allow Israel to worship their God, his reduction of the people of Israel to servants rather than God’s own people; the hardness of heart that led to Israel’s forgetfulness to worship the LORD in the desert, to obey his commandments, including the commitment to remember the suffering of the widow and the orphan. The hardness of heart of Israel’s kings, of a nation looking to seize power and control at all costs—Solomon’s use of the Temple not simply for divine worship but as a way of entering into political alliances. And of course, the hardness of heart of all of humanity–responsible for the crucifixion of the God-man. An act of violence that is now perpetuated throughout the world as human society, including at times the Church itself, has too often imagined that violence and intrigue and secrecy are politically expedient ways to operate. Do not harden your heart.
By recalling such hardness, the present day worshipper is invited to a process of self-examination, whereby we come face-to-face with our own hardness of heart. The historical context of the psalm, most likely, is a processional psalm for ancient worshippers, singing a hymn of praise on the way to the temple. Commenting on the conclusion of this psalm, W.O.E. Oesterley writes, “The abrupt ending of the psalm with the words, so that I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter into my rest’, sets in relief the stern warning directed, by implication, against those who were now standing at the entrance of the temple” (The Psalms, 421).
Those who participate in the divine worship of the Church today are implicated by this stern warning. The mere practice of participating in worship, of praying the Hours, of attending daily Eucharist, is not enough. Attendance at worship is not a moment of magic, one that absolves us of “hardness of heart”. Rather, the one who prays this psalm before the Office of Readings or Lauds, makes a dangerous commitment to cultivate a suppleness of heart, one that the Christian calls caritas.
Therefore, the one who prays this psalm each day should (together with the entire Church) feel troubled. We should know that the prayer that we offer in the morning commits us to listen to the voice of the Lord—a voice that comes to us in the often invisible poverty of the neighbor in need. It is a commitment to submit our bodies, our entire existence, as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rm. 12:1)—an ethics of praise intrinsic to Christian prayer. This psalm that begins in praise, in worship, is ultimately (like the entire Psalter in the early Church) an invitation to a process of self-examination of our hearts, a promise to surrender the entirety of ourselves to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ.
The consequences for ignoring this fact are, according to the psalmist, dire: we will be cut off from divine rest. Inevitably, each of us will discover, perhaps more often that not, that our once supple hearts (or at least hearts that we thought were supple) have been hardened by sin. We know that God again and again invited Israel to enter into rest, rescued Israel from captivity, and in the fullness of time revealed the mystery of human possibility in the God-man, Jesus Christ. God never gave up on humanity. Likewise, the fact that this psalm begins the Liturgy of the Hours as an exhortation to be aware of our hardness of heart is a matter of hope. For the Christian who prays the Office dares to enter into the liturgical prayer of the Church with hope that the hardness of heart will be healed, softened through the tears of repentance, through the affective transformation of praise, through joining our voices to the Christ’s priestly voice of praise.
In conclusion, the Christian who prays the Invitatory Psalm of the Liturgy of the Hours is making a dangerous commitment to the fullness of Christian charity. But, we are making a commitment, which we alone are not capable of achieving. Instead, we know that the priesthood of Christ can heal us of our hardness of heart, slowly attuning us to hear the voice of the Lord in the worship that we enact, in the neighbor in need. Entering into the healing gift of the psalms in the hours, we join with Augustine in his Confessions:
Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run toward this voice and seize hold of you (I.5.5).
Ultimately, perhaps this is what makes praying the Invitatory Psalm so dangerous. Not simply that we are committing ourselves to offer our lives to the living God, but rather that in praying this psalm, we are opening ourselves to receive the very Spirit that will heal our hardness of heart. After all, inviting God to work on us, to reconfigure us into the image and likeness of God, is always a dangerous commitment indeed.
When I was a summer intern at a nearby Christian non-profit organization, I spent a week watching all the school-aged kids who lived at the shelter. We needed to fill up our time together, so we chose a story from the children’s Bible, created costumes and assigned roles, and acted it out for all the families at the end of the week: the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:40-56).
Later that day, I pulled out my video camera and asked one of the little girls what she learned from the story. She responded, “God always has time for us!”
Today, I’m a full time case worker at the largest shelter in town. I took the job eight months ago as a recent graduate of a professional lay ministry program who wanted to serve God’s vulnerable people and proclaim the good news to the poor. And now…I am tired. Yesterday I accidently worked an eighteen hour day, an experience that helped me appreciate all you parents out there, on call twenty-four hours—hats off to you.
I arrived at work at 5:45 AM for a building-wide drug test, which means several staff members watch hundreds of people pee in cups. All morning I was convinced my hands smelled like pee. At one point during the tests I stuck my head out of the bathroom and shouted, “Who’s next!?”, to which one of my clients responded, “Good morning to you too!” Ooops, good morning—sorry for waking you up at 6 AM to question whether you are actually drug free… I suppose I wouldn’t love that either. Then there was the kicking people out for their drug use, watching guests cry and look defeated, and learning so much as I watched my boss hug one of the culprits and tell her to remember not to stop moving forward because we are still here for her.
I drove another mom to work after we told her she’d have to take the drug test when she got home, which would be an exception for her. I spent the rest of the morning in meetings learning about local mental health resources, contacting Child Protective Services slightly frantically, visiting with children’s services folks who decided one of the mothers needed to be asked to leave, meeting with guests one-on-one, and helping set up for a ladies’ party, where my first ‘meal’ of the day was a well-rounded dinner of crackers, cheese, and accidentally-diet root beer. The party ended at 10 PM, and it startled me, in a refreshing sort of way, to be thanked by a few of the ladies as I stood in the cafeteria chatting with a guest.
It was 10:30 PM when I collapsed in my boss’s office just to find out that the working mom from this morning would also be kicked out because she had not taken the test at all that night, but had left town for ‘a family emergency’ that would last a couple days. My wise, kind, and confident boss looked at me with such telling eyes when I responded: “Well, she could be telling the truth!” I just wanted to call the mom and tell her how much I love her.
I drove home that night through the snowy streets of my little town at 11:45 PM feeling numb but satisfied by a hard day’s work. I ran around all day (quite literally, because I walk so quickly at work that it looks like running), and still I was stopped every twenty feet and had to shout, “I’m in the middle of something!” In those moments I get frustrated thinking no one respects my time, but later when I’m alone in my office working and a homeless mother wanders in just to say hi, telling me I seem so busy lately, I blush—am I really in this job to “get things done”? What was the point of all that rushing around—it seemed so important at the time. But didn’t I take this job to be in relationship with the poor? When did my job switch from relationship building to crisis management? Is that why I’m here?
When Jesus is on his way to heal a frantic Jairus’ only daughter, he stops by a woman of faith who so longed for healing she just wanted to touch Jesus’ tassel, and he says, “Daughter, your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Lk 8:48). The crowds think his stopping to help this poor woman has ruined everything—he was on his way to save someone important’s little girl, how could he dream of stopping for anyone else? But Jesus knows better: “Do not be afraid, just have faith and she will be saved” (Lk 8:50). Everyone thinks he is crazy: he is not being practical with his time!
I see myself so clearly in those crowds, in the people who are frustrated by another woman’s need, who believe that everything else to be done must be so much more important. After all, I need to organize all my files for an audit, and call about that parenting class, and attack bed bugs with my bare hands, and contact that lawyer, and help my exhausted co-worker, and investigate new resources for a mother’s unique needs. These are all good things, aren’t they? Why do people keep knocking on my door with more and more needs? Why do people need so much?
But we all know that our first and foremost role as Christians is to love as Christ loved: radically. We’re surrounded by people and a culture that tells us how important it is to be “successful,” to accomplish as much as possible with all our gifts. Meanwhile, right in front of us stands God’s creation, asking for our help, for a few minutes of our attention, for a smile.
Sometimes after work I go home and just really want someone to listen to me talk about the intensity of my day, the heartbreak and the joy. And my roommates look up from their books and listen. It would be ridiculous for me not to offer this to the folks at our shelter, some of whom haven’t been hugged in years, who just want someone to look them right in the eye with the silent recognition that they do have dignity.
“I believe in the communion of saints.” According to Jesuit theologian George Maloney, this statement of faith is “the one least understood among Christians and therefore the one that has least importance for practical Christian living.”
In issuing a “universal call of holiness” (Lumen Gentium,Chapter 5), the Second Vatican Council clearly intended to foreground this dogma, to render it understood and practical in the modern world, and to place it at the heart of the Church’s self-understanding. The communion of saints constitutes the Church in its very sociology. To be a member of the Church is simply to be called to sanctity — called by Christ and called by the saints. What does “the communion of saints” mean and how is it important for our lives? The creed does not declare our belief simply in the existence of saints, but in the communion of saints, in their vital connection with each other.
St. Paul’s great realization was that the saints are the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, united in the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father” (Eph 4:5). By this definition, the “communion of saints” is the very life of Christ, which binds Christians together. Sharing the Scriptures, the teachings, charitable works, the joys and sorrows of Christian living, and the sacraments — above all, the Eucharist, which is Christ Himself, the food of martyrs — they live out and actually increase the communion of saints.
This mysterious bond in Christ is so deep, so real, that each one’s prayers, good works, suffering, and striving for sanctity affect the others. This holds true not only of Christians in direct contact with other — who see each other, work together, belong to the same family or parish. No, the communion of saints affects a spiritual connection between persons that overcomes the limits of time and space.
In Christ, what I do and offer in charity makes a difference in the lives of others — no matter in what hidden corner I stand. The Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968) taught his followers this motto: “I sanctify myself for others.” What I eat at my table affects the hungry. What money I spend affects the poor. What and how I pray affect the prayers of others.
Belief in the communion of saints calls us to a deep responsibility for each other here and now. It also gives us hope, knowing that the saints who have preceded us on the earthly journey continue to intercede for us in Christ. As J. P. Kirsch explains, “The departed saints … are concerned about those still struggling.” The saints in heaven care for those on earth.
Because the saints in heaven are united with God, each Christian’s union with God on earth is also a communion with them. To live out of the truth of this communion, to realize its potential, is to crack open what is for many an unbreakable barrier, to achieve a vital communication between heaven and earth, between those living in time and those living in eternity. Our God is “the God of the living, not the dead” (Mt 22:32).
Whereas the Feast of All Saints invites the whole Church to look upward to the saints in glory, the Second Vatican Council gives us the same vision from the opposite direction. It invites us to see the Church on earth as the saints in heaven see it and call it to holiness. What unites the two perspectives is the faith of Christians, ancient and ever new, in the communion of saints.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life