Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.

On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.

A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.

Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?

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I’ll see you in the Eucharist

It was March 19th, 2004.  Emotions ran high as we prepared to watch my 19 year old sister enter a Carmelite cloister.  The morning hours were spent with the knowledge that these would be some of the last moments when we could have physical contact with her.  Postulant garb was laid out in one of the bedrooms and we helped my sister assemble her outfit.  There were no instructions and we weren’t extremely skilled in habits, but it did provide some amusement.  We gathered to take our final pictures together and we were doing so well until my emotions got in the way.  Each of my other sisters managed to smile and have beautiful pictures but with me, I just began to weep.  These emotions were re-echoed on the faces of everyone else in the room.  Even my dad returned with reddened eyes and I had only once seen him cry at this point.  Eventually I pulled it together for a terrible picture and we proceeded to the chapel. 

In the chapel we prayed a prayer together as a family.  Then we said our goodbyes and it was a funeral of sorts.  With a twinkle in her eye, joy evidenced by the peace in her countenance, my sister glanced back at us and spoke her last words to us before entering the cloister:

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

My sister was instructed to knock on the door with the strength of the banging on the door being equal to how long she desired to stay.  The door was lucky to remain unscathed.  Cloistered sisters with long veils lined the inside of the hallway once the door opened.  A small sister, the Reverend Mother, stepped forward and instructed my sister to kiss the cross and then kiss the floor.  All too soon, my sister was swept inside, the door closed, and the singing of the sisters faded and we were left only with aching hearts and wet faces. 

At that time, the words she spoke did not resonate in my heart or bring me any consolation.  Instead, I almost felt more of a sting from them.  What was that to me when what I wanted was my sister present to me in her humanity, in her voice a phone call away, in her embrace when I was crying, in her presence at Christmas?  I wanted her physical presence not simply a spiritual connection.

Over nine years have passed since this blessed day and the Lord has worked wonders in this heart of mine.  Yes, I do still desire the presence of my sister when I think of getting married or having children.  Of course I would want her to visit my house or hold my children.  But I have come to understand this mystery of the presence of the Church in the Eucharist.

This past semester I taught the New Testament and I realized the profound beauty that is found in the book of Acts.  We were covering the part where Saul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus.  Saul hears this Voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  One of my favorite lessons was talking to my students about how Christ associated Himself with His apostles and that to persecute the Church was to persecute Christ.  This lead to talking about how if the Church is the Body of Christ, then when we receive the Eucharist we receive Jesus and the universal Church.  Of course they began to wonder how we can be eating each other, but I stressed that when we receive the Eucharist we are united to the entire Church–the Church Triumphant, Suffering, and Militant.  And then I shared with them the story of my cloistered sister and how this beautiful mystery of the Eucharist is what helps me endure our separation.

The beauty of receiving the Eucharist is of course found in the reality of receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Yet I think Our Lord reveals His deep goodness in that by receiving Jesus we are intimately linked to one another.  When I receive Our Lord I am connected with my sisters in religious life, with my friends scattered across the country, with my grandparents hopefully in Heaven, and with the saints who have gone before me.  I’ve come to understand this unifying aspect of the Eucharist through my travels to Europe as I encountered the beauty of Christ in basilicas, shrines, and places of martyrdom.  I deepened this understanding as I met the Church in Honduras and realized that we are one body, that though I may never see them again we are united through Christ, but tangibly through the Eucharist.

Each Catholic has their own special devotions but mine is to Our Lord in the Eucharist.  I love priests–because of their kindness and holiness but primarily because they make Our Lord present to me.  They make tangible Christ’s love by giving me the Body of Christ.  They make tangible Christ’s forgiveness as they absolve me from my sins through the ministry of the Church.  I remember sitting in Honduras with the pyx in my hands that held Our Lord and wanting to just rest forever.  I’ve heard stories of people being martyred for the Eucharist and I desire the same.  A group of sisters came and spoke at my college one time and they said their fourth vow was defense of the Eucharist with their lives.  I found that incredibly attractive.  At times I’ve thought that my love for the Eucharist should lead to me being an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion but I nearly shake when I think of holding Jesus and giving Him to others–I’m not certain I could remain calm throughout that.

On this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I encourage you to renew again your love for Our Lord and to remember that each time you receive the Eucharist it is a personal encounter with the living God.  Yes, the consecrated host tastes the same as bread but He is truly present.  A student of mine argued with me that Jesus was spiritually present but not physically present.  Not so.  He is physically present albeit in a different way than the physical body we have.  It is a mystery of the Church.  Christ understands humanity through and through.  He knows that we need Him and that we desire a physical presence.  Deo gratias!  He gives us that presence by leaving His very self.

Wherever you are—regardless of the time difference, physical distance, or culture–we are united through the power of the Eucharist. 

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, take me into your very self and open my heart to the love that surpasses all understanding. 

Deo Gratias

“We don’t actually think you’re crazy.” 

I smiled at that as the student walked out the door.  While I wasn’t extremely worried that they thought I was, there was a moment today when I wondered if I had pushed them over the edge. 

We were finishing up a PowerPoint from yesterday about Purgatory and someone asked a question that related to saints, although I’m not quite certain what it was at the time.  The saint they used as an example was St. Anthony.  Oftentimes I don’t share personal stories with them for a few reasons but today one instantly came to mind.

“I got in a fight with St. Anthony once.”

They looked up at me, puzzlement chiseled into their features.

“When I was younger my mom always told us to pray to St. Anthony if I lost something.  So I would pray that he would help me find my overdue library book.  And he would.  One month later after I already bought the book.  So I finally got mad at him and told him I wasn’t going to pray to him anymore.  And so we didn’t talk for a while.”

“Wait…you and your mom?  Or you and St. Anthony?”

“St. Anthony.”

I looked at their faces.  They wore a bemused expression but they were all paying attention and seemed interested.

“You guys think I’m crazy.”  The entire class laughed.  I knew that telling them about a close relationship with a saint (i.e. a physically dead person) probably didn’t strike them as the most normal thing.  But the positive thing is that theology teachers can get away with crazy things and the students just chalk it up to their faith.

“Anyway, I started talking to him again and now he helps me find things all of the time.  St. Anthony is great!”

The PowerPoint presentation continued and I put the incident out of my mind.  While they are one of my favorite classes they also are often the least productive.  The interesting story of St. Anthony was replaced with a frustration that they weren’t working on their assignment but seemed to be talking about everything but theological matters.  Yet when that student told me that they didn’t really think I was crazy, the frustration melted away and I had an “I’m glad I’m a teacher” gushing of emotions.  Of course, it isn’t the easiest thing to do and sometimes I want to give up, but it does have moments of joy and gratitude.

Some of my sophomores even claim that they wish they were me.  I was rather shocked by that statement but then I realized it was induced by my close proximity to their conversation and their combined frustrations over school, tests, and homework.  “I wish I was you, Miss ——”  Instantly my weekly life flashed before my eyes and I was firmly convinced that if they knew my life, they would be immediately grateful for their own.  Late nights grading papers, frantic test-writing, suppers with the parents, euphoria over Friday nights that end in an early bedtime…yes, they would sprint back to their current lives if they knew much more.  Their claim that I didn’t have any homework to do was the added cherry to the top.  Despite my vehement internal opposition to their claims, I had to laugh at the naivete of my lovely sophomores.

I like my life.  It may appear boring or mundane to others.  But it has a fair amount of joy and blessings mixed in with the suffering and trials.  Too often we are in a state of discontent.  I want to just thank the Lord right now for this moment of contentment.  For the sunshine outside, the weekend languidly spread before me, the empty classroom that was just occupied by so many beautiful, wandering, searching young souls, the jeans of a dress down day, the love of friends and family, the imminent Sacrifice of the Mass, and the knowledge that someday all of this will end and what will replace it will be infinitely better. 

Deo gratias. 

Society’s Plague

At times I wonder how much I live in reality.  I know in theory how the world is decaying but I can say that much of my life has been fairly sheltered.  And I am not complaining.  But sometimes I want to know the secret lives of my students.  I think some of them would shock me.  My students aren’t bad but I am certain that some of them are far more worldly than I am.  While I don’t particularly desire to be worldly I think it would be good for me to know exactly what are the difficulties that my students face on a daily basis, what do they struggle with, how are they tempted.

Last week I was explaining the arguments for God’s existence as a review for our quiz.  While recapping the argument from beauty, one of my students asked if the devil created ugly things them.  I told them that the devil will twist and distort beauty.  A couple more questions and clarifications were added and as I was speaking I felt like I would be avoiding the topic if I didn’t include it.  I told them that pornography distorts beauty.  That woman has this inherent beauty and that the devil distorts that by making her purely physical or an object.  I noticed a shift in the feel of the room.  Some of the boys who previously were making pretty good eye contact were suddenly not meeting my eyes.  It wasn’t as though they all got red or gave tell-tale signs, but I noticed a shift in the atmosphere.  Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but almost a subtle admission of guilt and perhaps some curiosity about it.  And I wondered how the scourge of pornography is impacting our Catholic high schools.  I want to know how prevalent the problem is and yet I feel as though if I knew I would simply feel discouraged.  What a society they are being sent into and are a part of now.  It is difficult to try to teach them the truth when doing so means that one must speak against nearly everything found in the culture.  They begin to think that the Church is against everything instead of seeing that society is running away from God.  This is certain the time of the Church Militant.  But have no fear, the Church Triumphant and Suffering are in this with us!

Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us.