Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The unexpected messenger

I've been thinking a lot recently about the Church. My thoughts weren't engendered by the media-fanned abuse scandal that flared up just before Holy Week, but those events played into my train of thought.

I wasn't thinking about the Church as an institution, or as a social phenomenon, or even as a spiritual entity. We take the Church for granted, assuming its presence and going on from there. But my recent Scripture study and meditation have had me considering the question at a more fundamental level: specifically, why would God entrust such a vital thing as His entire plan of salvation to such frail and untrustworthy messengers? Why did He involve the Church at all? From a purely practical standpoint, wouldn't angels have been at least more reliable messengers?

To the modern skeptic, and certain Christians, the answer seems obvious: God didn't. The Church is a man-made institution, constructed to exert political power and best understood when viewed through that lens. Many interpretations of history presume that understanding. But over against that are Jesus' words: "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10:16), or "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matt 28:19,20a) The connection between the Lord's message and the messengers is clear, firm, and even frightening.

To those with a more modern humanist outlook, the answer also seems obvious: we're such Wonderful People, why wouldn't God choose us? But all anyone has to do is look at themselves realistically to see the folly of this. We may bear the image of God even after the Fall, and still be loved by Him, but that's despite what we are, not because of it. Sober self-examination of our own behaviour, especially under difficult life circumstances, betrays the truth: within each of us lies the potential to do horrible, despicable things, and usually it doesn't take much to bring that part of us to the surface. We don't have to go reaching for tyrants or sadists to use as examples. An honest evaluation of our own hearts will reveal that we are the most faulty and unreliable of materials for anyone to build with.

That being the case, why would God choose to build His Church with us? With salvation and damnation of eternal souls at stake, one would think He'd want a more secure foundation. Yet He does choose us, and the more I ponder it the more mysterious it seems. I know there are plenty of glib answers to this, and all of them contain some truth, but to me it seems a deep mystery.

One aspect I'm pondering that I've never considered before: I wonder if part of this has to do with humility? Pride is our deepest sin, our greatest enemy, and the surest path to hell - and we've all got far too much of it. I can't help but wonder if having salvation ministered to us by means of other weak, sinful humans isn't the first dose of the "humility prescription" which we all need. After all, wouldn't it be a nice salve to our vanity if we were all knocked to the ground, Damascus-road style? Or at least had the message of salvation delivered by a noble and impressive messenger? (It's worth noting that two of the most prominent and dangerous heresies of our time, Mormonism and Islam, were both started by men who claimed to receive revelation directly from angels.)

I know this urge from my own experience. I know of two parishes: at one, the pastor is devout, inspiring, liturgically careful, and even funny. I love going to his Masses, because I feel uplifted and blessed. At the other parish, one of the assistant priests is rambling, repetitive, sloppy with the liturgy, and forgetful. I tend to heave a little sigh when I see him processing in as celebrant. I'd much rather be ministered to by the first priest. I feel like I deserve better than what the assistant priest provides - and therein lie the problem.

What I deserve from God is damnation. That's what my actions and attitudes have earned me. His saving grace is a free gift, and I should be thankful to get it on any terms. If I have even a shred of humility, I'll thank God for the gift of Himself which comes through the hands of that assistant priest. If I have more, I'll pray for him. A bit more humility, and I'll be rejoicing in that servant of God and appreciating him, quirks and all.

I know someone who is filled with sputtering indignation at the Church, dogmatically proclaiming that the bishops forfeited all claim to moral authority when any of them allowed any sexual abuse to continue under their leadership. Leaving aside sacramental theology of how it's always Christ who administers grace, or the question of balancing the good done by Church members against the evil done by them, the thing that strikes me most about this person's blanket indictment of the Church is the inherent pride. What he is saying is: "I will not be served by such as those! I deserve better!" And though it's sure that all of us who minister in Christ's name should seek to live in such a way to bring honor to the noble message we bear, it's also certain that being who we are, we will fail in that trust at some point. I wonder what this person would say if the Lord were to reply to him, "Those are the ministers I have sent to you. You take My saving grace from them, or from nobody." Would he be too proud to accept it?

And, perhaps, might that be the very strategy?

Monday, April 12, 2010

No going back

Well, our good old house on Scott Avenue was finally demolished. It happened on Holy Thursday - April 1st, 2010. The poor place had been empty since we moved out on December 19th, 2009, and had been looking more and more derelict with each passing week. First the scavengers hit it for what they could, and then the state-contracted salvage crews moved in and took everything of value. We'd drive by it once in a while, maybe every couple of weeks, just to have a look and see if there was any progress. I knew the end was near when I saw the windows had been removed (only the newer vinyl ones, though) - that was always a sign that the cranes would be moving in any day.

The last time I drove by, when I saw the windows were out, I stopped and walked around the old place one last time. The siding had been stripped, leaving the charcoal gray asphalt shingles that had lay under the siding. The rooms were open to the elements, window frames gaping holes and the back door missing. Even the lovely deck had been sawn off and taken away. I resisted the temptation to walk up the outside steps and enter by the upper back door for a last walk-through, reasoning that it might be unsafe with the house in the condition it was in. I did peek in one of the ground floor windows into what had once been a bedroom, in which the kids had slept and played, and the ordinary days of ordinary life had unfolded in that good old house. I felt a pang of loss then, a bit of the nostalgia that I'd been expecting much more of much sooner.

Perhaps expectably, along with it came flitting through my head something that hadn't even enough coherence to be called a thought -- an imaginative impulse, if you will. It cried as it passed, "Wait! We could still do something! We could... we could make some arrangements with the state, and get the house back, and fix all this up, and move back in, and live here again! This could be home once more!" The impulse turned my head, but only for a moment, before I shook myself and turned away, returning to the car to drive back to the lovely new home which was a gift from God and our children. But I thought as I drove, and I've been thinking ever since: from what part of me did that impulse come, and what does it say about me?

Needless to say, such an impulse hadn't the slightest connection to any kind of reality, but it's easy to understand why it would occur. After all, the house had been our home for over two decades, and we'd lived a lot of life within those walls. It's only reasonable to expect an emotional tie to the place, and the accompanying urges to preserve it, no matter how irrational. But the extremity of the circumstances, and resulting absurdity of the impulse, got me wondering: are there other things in this life which I cling to long after I should be letting them go?

One of the clearest things Jesus has to say is that this life is transient, full of temporary goods, and we shouldn't let things here distract us from the greater and more permanent goods of heaven. In a way, our lives on this earth, in which we invest so much, are like our family's last months on Scott Avenue: we knew we were moving, we even knew where we'd be going, we knew the old place would be coming down, that not only our days there but the days of its very existence were numbered. There was nothing further for us there, it wasn't even worth fixing the dripping faucets, it was time to move on to a better, more suitable house. Yet if I can feel an urge to try to cling to something like the old house, in the teeth of all reason, what other earthly things might I be holding on to long past the time God would have me move on from them? If my instincts to cling to the the passing good can make themselves heard even under such extreme circumstances, where else might they be governing my thoughts without my even knowing?

My spiritual reading lately has been an excellent book* summarizing and distilling the teachings of great saints like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. One common thread in all their teachings is that the things of this world, even the very good things like familial love, pale in comparison to the goods which God offers us when we devote our entire life to Him. The writings of these spiritual giants makes me long for these great spiritual goods - or at least to long to long for them. Perhaps little incidents like the irrational impulse to try to resuscitate the stripped hulk of an old house to try to make it a home again are reminders to me of just how attached I am to worldly goods, and how far I have to go to attain true detachment.

I don't know - perhaps the days are coming when I'll be asked to give up all earthly goods to gain heavenly ones. Perhaps those days are sooner than I think. Perhaps I'm just being offered an opportunity for a little warm-up.

* The Fulfilment of All Desire, by Ralph Martin