Flesh and blood, scars and blemishes

Another guest post from Mr. 52godpickup.

Noon Sunday Mass, Holy Name Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

When I’m backed into a corner and forced to say that I live in Birmingham, I sometimes add, in a weak joke, “in the poor part of Birmingham.” In my working-class Irish family we were taught by example to never let them think you’re putting on airs and never, ever let them guess what’s in your bank book.

Holy Name is most definitely in the part of Birmingham where the third generation of immigrants are lawyers and doctors and auto company executives, and where I hope at least one of my children will someday own a house with a little apartment above the garage where mom and dad can spend their old age gardening and volunteering.

My wife, knowing and probably despairing of my working-class sentimentality, had first steered me to the other Catholic churches nearby, but I was attracted to Holy Name’s Mass at the civilized hour of high noon. I ventured, and was glad of it.

To start with, the sanctuary is beautiful and the building bursts with meeting rooms, offices and conference rooms. I could easily picture a national brokerage or a marketing team taking over the place for the week.

In the lobby I saw more signs of success — posters and placards recognizing this year’s confirmation class of 124 eighth-graders. Yes, Holy Name has a school, but even so, 124 eighth-graders are practically a regiment of soldiers for Christ.

In the pews, I counted at least 200 worshipers, including a smattering of elderly gentlemen, white-haired but bursting with vitality, as if they had breakfasted on oatmeal and cantaloupe and then dashed off a few sets of tennis before going to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

More signs of vitality in the missal, which had three pages of local business advertising — and not just plumbers and roofers but also Realtors, financial advisors and orthodontists.

Then the Mass unrolled with its timeless comfort of ritual, familiarity and mystery. Even the new responses seem familiar by now. I had lapsed as a Catholic years ago, when I was a new father and I was frustrated by the Church’s near-criminal fumbling of the sex-abuse cases. (I remember a respected great-uncle snarling, “The bishops couldn’t manage a corner grocery.”) I was reminded today that home is always home. The Catholic Church will always take me back, should I choose to return.

And then the Rev. Msgr. John Zenz delivered a wonderful homily on Luke 24, in which the Risen Lord appears to His disciples and invites them to inspect the wounds in His hands and feet to see that He was indeed real. And then He said He was hungry and asked for a piece of fish to eat.

“Matter Matters” was Zenz’s title and his point: The risen Christ was not an apparition or an abstraction. Easter is not a metaphor, a celebration of new life blooming in spring, like crocuses bringing forth new flowers. Easter is a celebration of Jesus Christ rising from the dead as a physical body. And eating fish.

So we should remember that our outward glowing signs are not the whole story. We too are flesh and blood, scars and blemishes, wounded in all kinds of physical and psychological ways.

And it is our scars that are our bridge to Christ. He suffered; we will suffer. He rose; we will be resurrected.

Wonderful to hear that message insisted upon.

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Awe and shock

I was having coffee with a dear friend when the subject of my journey — the one chronicled here — came up. I might have brought it up.

I wanted to talk about a sermon that I had found unsatisfactory. Not “unsatisfactory” as in “D-minus work,” but as in “I came to drink deeply and was left thirsty.” Too much of it had seemed too focused on the little “I” and its ego, and not enough on God.

“I wanted awe,” I said.

“More awe,” she said.

Yes, more awe. But what could that mean? How would it look? And would I want it if I found it?

A book I finished recently comes to mind. “An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order” — who needs a summary when you have a subtitle like that — by Nancy Klein Maguire (Public Affairs, 2006) tells of, well, five young men who entered an English monastery of the Catholic Carthusian order in 1960 for a five-year novitiate. Only one stayed. That tells you a lot.

Why are the Carthusians the “most austere”? Not necessarily because they deny themselves food, though they fast, impressively. Not necessarily because they deny themselves material comfort, though they do. (They even wear hair shirts.)

They’re austere because they deprive themselves of companionship, and in a particularly challenging way. Each monk lives alone in a small house with a small garden, connected to a cloister that leads to the church and other common areas. A monk will spend most of his day alone in his house cell, but will join the other monks for worship and some meals. So he is not precisely a hermit.

But, for the most part, he will converse with the other monks only once a week, on a walk in the country. The rest of the time, no conversation, no greetings, not even eye contact during many hours of communal worship and chanting. The monk is surrounded by people yet alone.

Do you expect me to say, “Isn’t this true of all of us? Are we not each of us essentially alone? Is this not man’s tragedy?” Or maybe point out that the Carthusians seek solitude so that they can focus on prayer and on God? But you guessed as much. Why else?

Why else? I’d read the book because my husband had. He’d come to the end of it a little wistful. The life sounded peaceful, he said, and valuable. “If God exists,” one of the novices says, “then being a Carthusian makes sense, is rigorously coherent.” My husband appreciated that.

What I said:  “It would be nice to know what to do each day.”

What I didn’t say: “If God were to appear to me while I was in prayer in a small, cold, dark house in deep winter, I’d … I’d … I’d … I can’t imagine that.”

A failure of imagination?

Alas, I think it is a failure of awe.

Going home by another way

10 a.m. Mass, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, Beverly Hills, Michigan.

So today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the week in which the promise of Jesus’ birth first becomes clear to the larger world. Also, the week in the year we sing “We Three Kings,” one of my favorite carols. Such a Catholic holiday called for a visit to a Catholic parish, so I chose Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, which would be my home parish if I were to join one.

The readings today were from Isaiah 60, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (leaving aside whether he actually wrote it) and, of course, Matthew 2:1-12, the made-for-cinema story of the wise men. The astrologers come to Jerusalem and start asking everyone where the newborn king of the Jews might be found. Cut to King Herod — give him a pointy black beard — gnawing his be-ringed knuckles in distress. “All of Jerusalem,” so we hear, joins him in distress. Because there could be a new king? Or because there might not be a new king soon enough? Call that foreshadowing.

Herod brings the wise men to him “secretly” (let him believe that) and insists the magi return to him ASAP with a report on the child’s location, so that he, too, might pay the child homage. (Dum -dum-DUM goes the soundtrack. Not even the preschoolers believe Herod.) It’s hard to imagine this scene without some tasty bribes gifts being pressed upon the visitors from the East. The wise men leave, find the Child and then, warned in a dream, go home by another way. Thus proof that they are, indeed, wise men.

What sent them another way? The messengers of God, yes, but as our pastor said, the true pointer came from their encounter with God in the Christ child, after which their lives could not continue on the same road. So should we open ourselves to the presence of God in the Eucharist, which, too, will set our lives on a new, better path. That was the homily.

A journey out and then a different return home. That seems to me much like my endeavor here, my mid-life seeking after … God, I suppose. Maybe through fellowship with God’s people, the other travelers. I took one path to this point in my life, but I doubt the answers can be found by doubling back.

And so I ask: Which leg of the magi’s journey was the more important?