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”

I Climbed Mountains

I Climbed Mountains

I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities.  When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education.  Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.

On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.”  (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.)  The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.

“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”

At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down.  So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship.  While some say community cannot be built, I disagree.  I believe community must be built.  While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.

This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy.  The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro.  Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick.  Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.

A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.”  I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source.  The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion.  Communion with God and with others.  The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history.  St. Francis and St. Clare.  St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.  St. Louis and St. Zelie.  St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The list could go on and on.  St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II?  Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another.  They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”

Sorrow and Joy

Sorrow and Joy

Yesterday, I stood on a busy street holding a sign.

It was Respect Life Sunday and my town has an annual Life Chain that stretches alongside the busiest road in the state.  While I don’t participate absolutely every year, I try to go when I am able.  Nothing about the situation was new.

Except my response.

In college, I spent many hours in front of an abortion clinic an hour from my school.  The experiences there shaped my heart and the way I approach being pro-life.  Some of the most difficult moments, the ones of heart-wrenching, soul-crushing sorrow, were on Highland Avenue.  An intersection in town where it always felt a bit chillier than anywhere else.  When I think about hardcore pro-life activism, I place myself back on the frontlines, where life and death literally hung in the balance.

On that busy street yesterday, it was not like my experiences in college.  The sun came out and warmed my face.  As a whole, the reactions from motorists were favorable.  Many people waved, honked their horns, gave us a thumbs up, or even yelled a kind greeting to us.  Children’s faces were pressed against windows as they watched the long line of people hold signs on the sidewalk.  Overall, the experience was pleasant.

Two things stand out in my mind.  Interestingly, the emotions are interwoven, although they seem to be contradictory.  One is the image of a couple of police cars driving past our lines.  An officer in one vehicle waved at us and the other gave us a thumbs up.  For some reason, this moved my heart.  Men in uniform, charged with protecting citizens and enforcing laws, were giving us a gesture of support.  My heart filled with gratitude.  In addition to the officers, the predominantly positive response from the passers-by was a cause for rejoicing.

Yet intermingled with this thankfulness was the realization that abortion still happens.  Lives are still taken, hearts are still wounded, and skills of healing are still misused for destruction.  Surrounded by young and old alike, I was grateful for the pro-life movement.  Years ago I would have mourned for the children only.  Yesterday, I was mourning for mothers and fathers, friends and family, doctors and nurses, everyone impacted by abortion in any way.

A woman drove by and yelled at us that everyone has the right to choose.

Everyone? Continue reading “Sorrow and Joy”

When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On

When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On

Over three years ago, I filled a hiking backpack, flew to Europe, and walked El Camino de Santiago.  The first day on the Camino, though difficult, was exhilarating.  We walked from the beautiful little town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and into Roncesvalles in Spain.  The newness of the adventure combined with spectacular views made me excited nearly every step of the way.

The next morning, we were tired and sore, but eager to continue this 500-mile trek.  So we set out again, walking for hours, taking in gorgeous scenery, and dining at little cafes or from our packed lunches.

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Then we did that again.  And again.

Sleep, rise, walk, eat, walk, Mass, eat, sleep.  Repeat.

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The tiredness soon was eclipsed by pain.  My feet ached in a way they never had before.  Blisters developed in tender places.  The beginning of the day meant pressing my feet into my shoes and then starting the delicate process of walking.  After a while, the pain dulled and seemed to fade into my subconscious.  However, if we ever paused, my feet gave a fiery reminder to sit down or keep walking.

Yet even these blisters didn’t completely dampen my spirits.  I knew they could happen and it was, in a way, part of the Camino adventure.  Each day, I offered up my pain for different intentions and this made the journey a pilgrimage instead of a hiking trip.

One day, I no longer wanted to walk.  

The intense desires to sleep in, be in the same place for more than 15 hours, or watch a movie were things I hadn’t anticipated when I started walking.  There was a definite shift from “This is fun!” to “This is a pilgrimage.”  Internally resistant to another day of plodding along, I realized that this adventure would require work and an embracing of the daily struggle.

And then I realized, this is a lot like life. Continue reading “When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On”