“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end . . . Hope, O my soul, hope. You can know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes away quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain and turns a very short time into a long one.” — St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)
In the weeks since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation I’ve heard that the Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and that the new Holy Father would need to work hard to bring the Church up to speed with the modern world. In case you’re not clear as to what constitutes an identity crisis, it’s defined as: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.
Uncertain. . . confused . . . insecure about one’s role in society.
It would be so much easier for the world, wouldn’t it, if there really were an identity crisis, so much easier to see the Church as a toppling medieval edifice, beaten down by the blast holes of scandal and internal conflicts, visibly weakened and unable to withstand the pressures of a new world order which demands the right to live outside her shadow, indeed which often seems to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everyone if she simply ceased to exist at all.
Remembering Who’s in Charge
Without Christ, the Church can do nothing. This has been shown time and again, all too painfully, in recent years and throughout her history. However, the opposite is also true — firm rootedness in Christ in the very midst of great weakness and turmoil leads to great strength. This paradox is impossible for a secular world to understand, but it is this foundational paradox which has been illustrated so beautifully and brilliantly in recent weeks by the extreme humility of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.
In his final Wednesday audience after announcing his resignation of the papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI echoed a sentiment that has perhaps been echoed in the hearts of all of the faithful in recent years. Benedict said that during his papacy he often felt like one of the apostles in the boat with Jesus during the great storm on the Sea of Galilee: “The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light wind, days in which the catch was abundant; there have also been moments when the waters were agitated, and the wind blew contrary, as in all of the history of the Church, and the Lord appeared to be sleeping . . . But I have always known that in that boat there was the Lord and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine; it is not ours; but it is his [Christ’s]. And he does not let it sink. It is him who steers its, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because he has wanted it this way.”
When Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock on whom he would build his church, he also said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That includes the hell of our own weakness and sinfulness, as well as the the malice and hostility of statesmen, ideologies, and other entities that would seek to destroy her. Christ, and not men, control the Church. His presence is never absent, despite the obstacles our human weakness raises to His attempts to steer.
Weakness + Purification = Humility > STRENGTH
Contrary to the what the world defines as strong, useful and worthy of respect, the Church finds her strength in an acknowledgement of her weakness, her brokenness. These things lead to the necessary acceptance and admittance of the truth that those entrusted with her care and keeping — in effect, all of the faithful — are but weak, sinful, and fragile vessels capable of doing great damage when they seek success and progress apart from fidelity to Christ. In spite of this truth, or perhaps even in some way because of it, the Church stands. We, the faithful, participate in the life of the Church in some sense to the extent that we live with a deepening awareness of this truth and bind ourselves more and more strongly to Christ. To the extent that the faithful work towards living a deeper humility is the extent to which the Church is strong. Her strength is made perfect in our weakness. Its when we forget this that the threat of what the secular world terms an “identity crisis” might loom, when we forget that we are fragile vessels, desperately in need of God’s grace and help, when we think we can do it our way and do it alone.
Catholics believe in the purification that comes through confession, through open acknowledgment of sin in the sacrament of penance. The Church is being purified, no doubt about it. And this purification must go on in each of the faithful, continually, through ever deeper examination and admission of the ways in which each individual obstructs the work of God’s grace in the world and the ways in which we each turn away in infidelity. This ongoing process of purification does not mean the Church is weakening or no longer knows who or what she is. A diamond in the rough is quite ugly and is a diamond in its essence regardless of what it looks like on the outside. When refined and cut deeply and polished roughly by the master jeweler, the ugly rock takes on a lustre unknown and becomes what it was always meant to be, its essence revealed. The Church, and the faithful who comprise it, is just such a diamond. Its essence is total lustrousness, pure beauty, and absolute truth, but our human sin and weakness can block God’s work in crafting it. Sin and the admission of it opens the door for God to get in and do some intensive work on the facets that will lend even more brilliance over time. The Church has no identity crisis – we know it to be a diamond in the rough, striving for perfection in the hands of the One who is all perfection, all truth, and all beauty.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” The truth is, the Church exists and is strong and vital. The truth is the Church is being purified and refined through just discipline that will clarify and beautify her in her essence. The truth is we have a Pope and he has set an example of humility which, while it is early to speculate, seems one he intends to be a signature focus of his papacy. The truth is that Pope Francis has already declared the path he intends to follow as he leads the Church and shepherds his flock. It is the same path his namesake, St. Francis, walked hundreds of years ago in his faithful effort to rebuild a Church weakened by sin. In his letter for Lent written prior to his election to the papacy, Pope Francis wrote:
“Lent is presented us as a shout of truth and certain hope that comes us to say ‘Yes, it is possible to not slap on makeup, and not draw plastic smiles as if nothing happened.’ Yes, it is possible that all is made new and different because God remains ‘rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive’ and He encourages us to begin anew time and again.”
The path of humility, of walking humbly with God, can only lead to the Cross, which leads surely to Christ, and so also to true strength and greatness. Pope Francis shows the world that the Church is completely certain, clear, and confidant in her identity. Viva il Papa! Viva il Chiesa!
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“Each of us is loved by God with a limitless, unconditioned and unconditional love that we can never destroy or even diminish. We are loved into existence; cherished in our existence; affirmed absolutely in death and beyond. This love is independent of our merits or demerits. Nothing whatsoever can separate us from this love. For it is the breadth; it is the length; it is the height and it is the depth — there is nowhere beyond it, above or below it. It is All: the limitless ocean that encompasses our tiny, threatened, fragile yet infinitely precious self. This is not merely impersonal, protective benevolence but a love that gives self, that offers inconceivable intimacy and that seeks reciprocity. We can never define or draw a line around what God will do for each one of us. We are exposed to the infinite. Against this truth what does our sense of impotence matter? In genuine faith — which must, of course, be worked for — and in that surrender of self which is faith in act, we begin to discern that, far from our helplessness being a human misfortune, something that ought not to be, it signals a limitless calling and is the other side of a vocation that goes beyond what can be perceived by mind and sense. To accept it is to assent to our vocation, to becoming who we truly are, to being truly human. We are made for union with the divine, nothing less. We are called to share the life of God. Our restlessness, our insatiable longings, our discontent and experience of helplessness are to be traced to our divine destiny. Commitment in faith to this truth is to destroy existential anxiety. Faith alone can overcome the world and the threat the world imposes. It does not follow that we lose the feeling of anxiety and fear — we would be the poorer for that — but these now play a role that is creative not destructive. Fear can cripple, paralyze, prompt us to shirk and evade life. Faith enables us to live with reality, braving its challenge.”
— From Essence of Prayer, by Ruth Burrows OCD
I would like to consider briefly one of these helpful channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that via pulchritudinis — “the way of beauty” . . . which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning. Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another — before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music — to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter — a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds — but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul. A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors, sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, opened to a beauty and a truth beyond the everyday. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.
But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty — indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: We are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and spirit upward, while at the same time we feel small and yearn to be filled. . .
But how many times, paintings or frescoes also, which are the fruit of the artist’s faith — in their forms, in their colors, in their light — move us to turn our thoughts to God, and increase our desire to draw from the Fount of all beauty. The words of the great artists, Marc Chagall, remain profoundly true — that for centuries, painters dipped their brushes in that colored alphabet, which is the Bible. How many times, then, can artistic expression be for us an occasion that reminds us of God, that assists us in our prayer or even in the conversion of our heart! . . .
Let us hope that the Lord will help us to contemplate his beauty, both in nature as well as in works of art, so that we might be touched by the light of his face, and so be light for our neighbor.
— His Holiness Benedict XVI, from On Beauty as a Way to God: Art “Is Like a Door Opened to the Infinite,” General Audience, Castel Gandolfo, August 31. http://www.zenit.org
Seeds of contemplation on the beauty of the desert on the eve of Lent. . . .
* “I will allure her into the desert and speak to her heart.” Hosea 2:16
* “In silence and hope will your strength be.” Isaiah 30:15
* “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
* “Make of yourself a capacity and I will make of myself a torrent.” — Words of Christ to Blessed Angela of Foligno
* ” She lived in solitude, and now in solitude has built her nest; and in solitude he guides her, he alone, who also bears in solitude the wounds of love.” — St. John of the Cross
* “Solitude is not emptiness for we are walking toward an oasis where someone we love is waiting.” — St. Therese of Lisieux