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?

Continue reading “Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven”

Advent: What Lies Ahead

Advent: What Lies Ahead

In our culture’s mad rush to start the Christmas season, I am left feeling a bit Scrooge-like.  I like Advent.  The anticipation that gradually builds as candle after candle are lit on the Advent wreath adds to the beauty of Christmas when it finally arrives.  If we jump headlong into Christmas right after Thanksgiving, I believe we miss part of the joy of the season.  Waiting has a sweet longing to it and I want that sweetness for as long as I can have it.

As a child, I remember the eagerness as I would watch the presents beneath the tree grow as time passed.  My younger sister and I would check to find the ones with our names and then try to analyze what was inside.  It was tempting to tear the wrapping off, but we didn’t.  The soft, foldable presents were obviously clothes.  Yet the ones in boxes?  Those were unidentifiable.  We would give them a light shake and then simply wonder about what lay nestled inside for us to discover.  The waiting was half the fun.  Even if I wanted to figure out what the present was before Christmas (my competitive nature desired to win), I also wanted to be surprised.

I won’t argue that I’m extremely patient, however I appreciate waiting for something good.  When I get my mail, I am excited if I find a letter from a friend or a package that I ordered.  Yet I generally open the less fun things first, allowing the excitement and longing for the most desired thing to build.  After trick-or-treating at Halloween when I was a kid, I tried to eat my least favorite candies first, saving the best for last.  Even now, I often find myself saving a bite of the best part of the meal for the end, as if to end the meal on a good note.  Waiting doesn’t change the contents of the letter or the taste of the food, but it seems to add a bit of sweetness as I anticipate what is to come. Continue reading “Advent: What Lies Ahead”

Tangible

Tangible

The Lord understands the need we have for the tangible.

We have a soul gifted with intellect and free will.  In this way, we share in the likeness of God.  Yet we also have bodies and this is no small part of who we are.  We are not to have a Puritanical mindset that declares the body is bad.  Our bodies matter.  This physical world matters.  And God reaches out to us in the midst of what we know and understand.

Over the past few days, I have soaked in the beauty of the tangible in the Catholic faith.  On Ash Wednesday, we have a cross of ashes inscribed on our foreheads.  We hear, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Remember, remember the brevity of life.  It is hard to miss the symbolism–our bodies will return to dust, like the dust from which Adam was formed.  Our life is fleeting and we do not hold within ourselves the meaning for our own existence.  Civilizations and generations will return to nothing.  We are called to remember that our treasure should rest in something other than these earthen vessels, something that will survive time.

Even as we are told to look beyond the physical, the very means of this heavenly gaze is found in the physically tangible.  The black ashes that seal your forehead.  The words we hear that speak of the end for our physical bodies.  Physical signs point to spiritual realities and truths.

That evening I went to a funeral home for my uncle’s wake.  My four year old nephew wanted to touch my ashes and so I tried to keep him at an arm’s length.  When he saw me the next day at the funeral, he noted that the thing on my forehead was gone.  Sometimes kids have the appropriate response.  Familiarity leads adults to see the ashes as commonplace, but my nephew was intrigued by the smudge on my face.  In a way, he saw that the ashes said something significant.

At the funeral there were numerous tangible elements.  The body is reverenced in a way that might surprise us if we pause to think about it.  No longer is this the person we knew, but yet we bring the body into the church.  The casket enclosing the body is nearest the altar, as we hope that this person is nearest the throne of God, participating in the eternal Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.  We cover the casket with a white cloth, remembering their baptism into the death of Christ and into His everlasting life.  The pallbearers, an honor given to a few friends or relatives of the deceased, carry or follow the body from the church to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave site.  This isn’t a task relegated to people paid to help with the funeral, but rather is seen as an honor.  The importance of the body causes us to have a committal ceremony where we place the body into the ground.  We mark it and return to visit this place even though the body will return to dust and the person as we knew them does not remain.

Our physical body matters.  The physical world matters.  The Catholic Church has a beautiful tradition of keeping this in mind.  Whether it is investing in beautiful basilicas or commissioning great works of art, the Church sees the beauty in calling to mind the spiritual through the physical.  Other churches see it, too, but I would say the Church has a deeper understanding.  Weekly, we come together to be nourish by the Bread of Life, by the Body of Christ.  We enter a room or a box and we hear the words that declare that our sins are forgiven.  In entering the the mystical Body of Christ, we are plunged into water as a sign of the cleansing of our soul.

The Catholic Church is all about the incarnational.  Jesus Christ entered into the physical and the tangible.  Of course, we can say that God would completely understand human nature even if He never took it on because He is all-knowing.  But it adds a depth when we acknowledge that He chose to take on human nature so that His knowledge would be experiential and His experience salvific.  

By doing this, He shows us that holiness is pursued through the physical and the spiritual realms.  It isn’t only about the soul and deep meditative prayer.  It isn’t necessary to retire to a desert cave to live on little food and spend days in ecstasy, although He does call some to that life.  The Church has the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy.  It is not enough to admonish the sinner, we must also give drink to the thirsty.  It is insufficient to teach/instruct the ignorant (although important and, technically, my job) but we must also bury the dead.  In the Catholic tradition, we have the great both/and.  We are called to pursue the delicate balance of body and soul, both seen as important aspects of who we are as human beings.

At times, we want to accuse God of being silent or distant.  We ask Him why He does not reveal more of Himself to us or why He requires such faith to believe in Him.  Yet He gives us many signs of His presence with us.  The sanctuary candle that burns in every Catholic church, indicating that the King of Kings is present.  A hand raised in absolution also involves a voice audibly telling you that all is forgiven.  The nearly scandalous declaration of love and sacrifice found in each depiction of the crucifixion.  We belong to a church that firmly declares that Christ walked with us yesterday and still walks with us today in a very concrete way.

God knows what we need.  We have one foot on earth and one in heaven.  And He meets us in both ways.  He is a God who is tangibly with us.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  Our foreheads have been sealed with ashes where we declare that we have sinned and that we are destined to return to dust.  He encounters us, mercifully, in that declaration.  We seek Christ in this desert walk, in these forty days of sacrifice.  How will we tangibly encounter Him?  How will our body and soul be in the union they were created to live in?  

A Moment of Encounter

Yesterday, I got out of school and brushed the half foot of snow off my car.  I went home and helped my housemate finish up shoveling the driveway and sidewalk.  Last night, after taking out the trash, I paused under the awning and took in the winter portrait that was painted before me.  It was cool, but without our customary wind, it was nice out.  An icy finger had touched the world, leaving trees outlined in silver and the streets glistening with custom-designed flakes.

Winter, I thought, is quite beautiful.

Then I took a few steps and entered my house, where I could view the frozen art from the ease of a comfortable chair.  In those few steps, though, a thought came to me.

It doesn’t feel that cold because I have a home, right here, that I can step into.  I don’t mind the cold today because I’ve spent very little time in it.  If I were homeless, that wouldn’t be the case.

For yet another time in the past week, I considered again difficulties of homelessness.

Homelessness is never something I have seriously feared.  In fact, it was within the past couple years that I realized that I’ve never even considered it to be a fear I could have.  I live in a rented house shared with other young women and I have a job that pays the bills and loans I’ve accumulated.  Yet I’ve always known that even if I lost everything I own, I could always move back home.  Through the years, as my siblings and I have grown up, we have found it necessary or best to sometimes move home for a while.  We’ve all taken advantage of it, for varying lengths of time.  So if I got sick, lost my job, was in an accident, or something devastating happened, I know I would be able to seek the refuge of my parents’ house.

At the time that I was having this not-profound realization, I thought about how others don’t have that support system.  What if I was all I truly had?  What if I didn’t have parents that were able or willing to help me through rough times?  What if I had no siblings or extended family that would let me crash on their couch or put me up for a while as I sorted through my life?  The result of these thoughts was immediate anxiety and fear.

In the summer of 2014, I walked the Camino de Santiago.  It was 500 miles across northern Spain and I carried all my possessions on my back for just over a month.  While it was a beautiful experience, I was sometimes frustrated to always be packing up my things and moving to some place new.  I didn’t have a home and I found myself wanting to spend two nights in the same place.  Over half way through the walk, it happened when we stayed at a Benedictine pilgrim house.  What a joy it was to leave our packs in our room and roam the town, knowing we would be sleeping in the same place that night and didn’t have to carry our packs that day.

Homelessness is not like that experience.  It often doesn’t include a bed or a mat to sleep on.  You aren’t stopping for a mid-morning cafe con leche or a sit-down lunch on a leisurely day.  There is no communal cooking with lots of wine flowing into the evening.  There isn’t the knowledge that if something goes wrong, you can use your VISA or ATM card to pull you through the dilemma.

In a minuscule way, I understood the struggle of not having a place of one’s own.  I felt a desire to have roots, to remain in one place with a familiar system and order.  I understood not having the luxury of a car and using only my feet to get everywhere, even after a long day of walking.

But, in all reality, I have no idea what it would mean to be homeless.

Last week, I went to help decorate a homeless shelter.  I had little concerns and fears as I walked in, but mostly I found myself frustrated for feeling so awkward.  It is far easier to write a check and donate to an organization rather than to encounter the homeless in the flesh.

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.”     -Pope Francis

I was embarrassed to feel out of sorts and out of place.  Instead, I wanted to just interact with the guests as though they were ordinary people.  Mentally, I couldn’t help but note the disparity between our lives.  My inconvenience of a cool basement bedroom was utterly ridiculous in the face of the cold outdoors as a bedroom.

And I did a laughably small thing: I decorated the kitchen and helped bend the branches of a fake Christmas tree.

There was a man washing dishes in the kitchen.  He noticed my arrival and would look over at me every now and then, making a little small talk as I worked.  Internally, I was kicking myself for not being able to think of any good questions to ask him.  I would comment on how many trips he made to get dirty soup bowls and he would comment on me struggling to, once again, find the end of the roll of tape.

Finally, I was stringing up the last bit of garland and he said, “You should have brought your boyfriend to help you.”  I laughed, probably blushed a bit, and said, “Well, if I had one, I would have brought him.”  He said he was surprised “a pretty girl like you” didn’t have a boyfriend.  I laughed and said, “I’m still young, though, right?”  (My one semi-consolation.)  He said I was, but that he was alone, too.

Then, he did it.  He opened a bit of his heart up to me, someone he didn’t even know.

“My wife died.  It was three years ago.  She died three days after Christmas.”

And, suddenly, this wasn’t a man doing dishes at a homeless shelter, but he was a man with real struggles and pain.  He wasn’t looking for sympathy and he didn’t elaborate with a story.  I didn’t ask him to, either.  Instead, I told him I was sorry and said it must be very difficult.  In a warm kitchen with crumbs on the counters and the heavy aroma of chili, I met a stranger concretely in a brief sharing of the heart.

After leaving the kitchen, I went to the entry way to help finish setting up the trees.  Guests from the shelter kept walking by and I wanted to be certain to greet them with a smile, if I could.  Because it would have been too easy to just ignore their presence.  Excuse me, please.  Carry along.  We are setting up these trees for you, but we don’t want to actually interact with you.  So I would smile as they walked past or move out of the way if they were trying to pass by.  In many ways, it was easier to focus on the task at hand (setting up Christmas decorations) than to remember the underlying reason for all of it (the homeless who would be staying there).  I tried to force myself to remember this central reason, rather than obsess over the exact angle of the ribbon on the tree.

Once again, I felt a smallness.  Yet, once again, I felt a desire to do more.  What if I did more than set up a tree?  What if I volunteered far more of my time?  Not to the idealized homeless person in my mind, but to the actual homeless people that I would encounter.  In the midst of their hardship, I want to bestow upon them all kinds of virtues that aren’t necessarily there.  I expect gratitude and humility and kindness.  But why would I expect it more from them than from my students or co-workers?  Rather than set them on a pedestal, I want to concretely encounter them.  In the midst of their brokenness, their chaos, their efforts, and their failures.  Because that is humanity.  They have stories and lives and I choose not to romanticize them because they are real people.

I don’t know how these desires will be lived out, but I want to pursue them.  It is not enough to feel sorry for the idea or concept of homelessness.  Each of these people staying at the shelter and each person I encounter daily, has the face of Christ, if I have the grace to see it.  We are all on the quest for a true home, walking toward the Heavenly kingdom much like I made the trek to Santiago de Compostela: day by day, carrying only what is necessary, walking even if we don’t want to, and journeying to a place that will justify all our suffering and wipe away every tear.

What other homeless pilgrim will you meet on the way today?  Whose face will they have?