“Remove your sandals…” (An essay on how hard it is to know where Catholicism is and isn’t)

“Moses with the Burning Bush,” Marc Chagall

I am almost always in the middle of thinking of how to make sense of something Catholic – in general, yes, but also in terms of the context in which I live. In California, at a small Catholic liberal arts college. Like everywhere Catholicism is, there is a deep struggle to really know it. A struggle that not everyone owns, and one owned differently among those who do.

Frequently, I find myself navigating between several senses of Catholicism while simultaneously trying to confront Catholicism’s total absence. There are stressors here unique to California, but we would be lying to ourselves if we felt assured this absence is not the case elsewhere. Catholicism is always a singular form, but expressed plastically – flexibly. Often in the same place at the same time. I sometimes think of it as Catholicism’s inherent pluralism. This fundamental complexity of expression renders Catholicism’s lack similarly complex. Flexible Catholic self-expression can become half-expression, or ignorance of Catholicism outside of its bounds may yet know something intimate of the Church. If we could map these relationships, we wouldn’t end up with spiderwebs of lines so much as various likenesses that resemble one another in different ways. A shifting span of near-infinite mirrors capturing near-infinite variants of the same image.

The image (form) is Christ. The infinity is his. The near-infinity is ours.

It is not so simple as explaining Catholic things to a world that has abandoned or never known it. If we are to be serious in our claims, the world has always known something like it. This is an aspect of what it means to be universal (catholic). Community, faith, reason, self-offering: people know something like these (logos spermatikos). Existence itself is made for prayer, and our very existence is – and can be made ever more – a prayer of praise. This also means that the ways we do not know bear a relationship to what we already do. Our knowledge can quickly become a weapon against what we do not. That is, Catholics can be more difficult and stubborn than non-Catholics.

I almost prefer it when someone simply has no idea.

Because Catholicism is deeply convinced that truth is always true, it has long expressed optimism about truths known outside the direct confines of faith. Science and religion do not oppose one another. This despite the cruel caricature of Catholics and Galileo. Beneath the deformed face is a religion whose members have often led the way in scientific progress. Beneath the myths is a Church that readily appropriates non-Christian philosophical forms in order to express its Christian faith. If it is true, it is always so. It is true, it is God’s, and it speaks to us of Christ. Even if we have not yet known it.

This does not make truth Catholic quite yet. I could be uselessly clever and say that catholic truth does not yet make it Catholic – a statement only clear to you if you are already aware of what that might mean. So what I mean is this: it is not enough to be beautiful, or good, or true to be Catholic.

What is easiest to share from Catholicism is that which the Church already shares with others. The verities of life and of reason: these are treasures that it is almost simple to offer. We must serve the poor, and this is a value the Church has given to the world. Because the world knows the poor too, even if the world hasn’t always known what to do with them. Everyone is of equal dignity, and this is a truth the Church has given the world reasons for acknowledging. Because we are always someone, even if the Church herself could be as blind as the world about it. These are values and truths that the world shares thanks to Christianity, ways of living and doing possible without it. Perhaps not as coherently, but human beings don’t always worry about that.

If these are gifts the Church has offered the world, it seems absurd to ask for them back. You shall never say the word person again; find some other way to articulate the inviable uniqueness of every human being. No: to say that is to deny the universality of its truth. (Even if, as happens sometimes to me, that truth is used against the Church as if she’d never known it at all.)

The Church is entirely gift, though. What of hers, if anything, could never be carried away? Surely there is something she has or is that cannot be known without her. Or will she, like Rilke’s Orpheus, be torn and scattered to sink into the world and permeate it with the presence of her absence?

It is not quite true to say that the Church has Christ: he cannot be owned, even by his own Church. And yet we can only know him through his Body – even if in some unseen mediation – because the Word who became flesh does not un-become. We will never cease knowing the Son through his humanity, through the Spirit that overshadows his flesh. How this works, I don’t really know. I have my guesses. I know this: the Catholic Church never fails to call herself universal, and yet she only does so by relativizing herself. (I have known no other tradition that is capable of both.) That is to say, the Spirit works tirelessly to bring all to the Son for the Father and the Spirit does not need the Church. The Church knows this.

There is an old Scholastic saying: the Church is the ordinary means of salvation, but this does not prevent God from using extraordinary means.

Ah, Catholics. We are so unique. But don’t forget we’re ordinary.

Still, it is painful sometimes to experience the strange poverty of seeing the Church’s riches held in others’ hands. Where this poverty becomes harmful rather than humbling is when these blessed hands that have something Catholic call themselves Catholic for it. To be able to agree with, understand, or live a Catholic idea or a Catholic ethic is not to be Catholic.  If that’s not true for Catholics, it’s definitely not true for non-Catholics.

My poor colleagues must be so tired of certain things I always say. One is this: if I’m the only one doing it, it’s not Catholic; it’s a Catholic doing something. I often say this when we wish to tie a ribbon on something and call it Catholic by having a Catholic or two there. Frequently I am one such human ribbon. But it’s not Catholic just because I’m there. Another is this: we need to be able to see religion as more than a series of logical and ethical premises. Being able to list Catholic ideas is a way of knowing the Church; so is being able to live certain Catholic ideals. But it’s not Catholic just because it’s there.

What, then – oh, what – makes us Catholic? What gift cannot leave the Church’s hands?

Being together in holiness.

The two things I am always saying push us toward this: it’s Catholic if we do something together under the light of holiness. Not this idea or that, or some Catholic talking about whatever.

Catholics aren’t individualists. They can be, but that in them is an absence of Catholicism. Many, many aspects of Catholicism are personal, yes. But they’re not individual: separate from the others. Even when you are alone, the Church is with you, carrying you. Baptism is a baptism into the whole Church with the help of the faith of the whole Church. So, truly representing the Church means unveiling something of that togetherness.

It is a togetherness lived not just with holiness, but with holiness standing before it. If the presence of Catholicism rested on the holiness of its members… Well. The Apostles wouldn’t even pass that test. And definitely not St. Peter, who according to Catholics is the first pope.

Catholicism is defined by a specific awareness of holiness. Sometimes this is called “sacramental imagination,” but the phrase has been used so much I’m not always sure it has meaning. What it means, really, is this: all good things somehow bear the presence of God and should be treated that way. Only God is holy. So wherever God is, that place is holy with his presence. And, for Catholics, God is everywhere. God is also especially somewhere too.

This is not a generic holiness or a pan-sacred. God can be especially with a place, or a person, or even a person’s bones. This is what is so peculiar about Catholic awareness: God is everywhere, always, and especially in many places.

If we do not know why monks would bow to each and every guest… If we do not know why Christians would go on a pilgrimage somewhere… If we do not grasp why a Catholic would fall to their knees before this wine and this bread… If we fail to see the reason Moses would remove his sandals before God… Why a Catholic would bow to the poor… We have not acquired the Catholic sense of holiness. This odd universal-specificity. Most especially in the Eucharist: Christ is everywhere, but he is here.

All kinds of strange habits result. Catholics will kiss books and cloth and tombs. They do not want to leave Jesus alone in the monstrance. (He’ll be fine; they won’t be and they’ll worry.) They will try and bless anything, and cannot be convinced to stop freaking touching things.

I grow so tired of sophistications that don liturgical vestments with no one underneath. We can use all the Catholic words we want. It’s nothing if Christ isn’t there. (In this way, the Church is never in control of her own presence – and yet is.) The absence that the Church cannot live without is holiness – the holiness of the Spirit and awareness of his holiness. That’s Catholicism. I am so weary of other things. It’s not just having Catholics around, or repeating Catholic ideas, or doing something amazingly Catholic. It’s the presence of the only One who is holy. Presence in truth and goodness and beauty.

I’m never sure how to explain it, this mystery. I don’t quite know how to welcome others – even myself, sometimes – into it, but it is essential.

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