Monday, September 26, 2011

Holiness Is Not a Pose

A while back I was chatting with several kids about the sacraments and asked them how many sacraments there are in the Catholic Church. Their answers ranged from four to five. Survey says? Buzzzzz! Baltimore Catechism, here we come!

Here's a question recently posed by a visiting priest: Which two sacraments can be received again and again and again? The answer, of course, is the Eucharist and confession. Anointing of the sick can be received more than once, but not over and over and over again. I'm a bit fuzzy about Holy Orders. I believe it's a one time sacrament. If a priest becomes bishop or cardinal (a bishop with a vote) or pope (the Bishop of Rome), I think there's an anointing, but not an additional sacrament.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong!

Long digression ... I just loved Betty Duffy's piece about confession. I love the sacrament of confession. So many people find it intimidating or see it as a liturgical rap on the knuckles, but, gosh, it's just pure grace. That being said, I totally understand Betty's thoughts on long lines and frustration and a desire to confess some really crazy sin somewhere in suburban Melbourne (Australia, that is, not Florida).

I flash back to a trip to Lourdes about seventeen years ago. So many people have deep spiritual awakenings on pilgrimages. I, as a rule, do not. Lourdes is a fascinating city. For a place teeming with visitors, it's supernaturally quiet. It's a place of prayer.

On my last afternoon there, I sat in a chapel and prepared for the sacrament of reconciliation. I recall four of five confessionals in an oddly shaped chapel. Each confessional had a sign listing the languages understood by the priest. There was no rhyme or reason as to how one got out of a pew and into the confessional. I waited a l-o-n-g time for confession. One person after another cut in front of me and trotted into the confessional with the English speaking priest. As this went on and on, I gradually progressed from slightly put out to just plain livid.

Jockeying for position in the confessional line, you pious pilgrim, you! My list of sins is growing faster than the line! Thanks ever so much!

I eventually made it in and shared an ironic laugh with a kind and oh-so-patient priest.

My family attended a parish mission a few weeks back. The visiting priest left me with a dozen gems to ponder and chew on. Holiness is not a pose, he shared, folding his hands just so, donning a beatific facial expression and gazing off into space. You could almost hear the organ hit a reverent chord. The mother with nine kids shouldn't spend her days like this, he assured us. Her nine kids aren't gathered around her striking a similar pose.

The mission was inspiring, so inspiring our thirteen-year-old asked to keep going back.

The priest was offering confessions before and after the mission. One night I rounded up my youngest children and headed over to church. The line wasn't too long, but it was moving s-l-o-w-l-y. I sank into the pew and immediately noticed that pew was the word -- Ainsley needed a new diaper and fast. I left John and Kolbe and ducked into the narthex to take care of her. Five minutes later I returned with a much sweeter-smelling baby and found that my middle children had stopped just short of an all out brawl during my brief absence. I've written before about Church Ladies and Men and how you really can't get a clear reading on their reaction to children, at least the kind of children who may have a pesky tendency to be both seen and heard. 

I avoided all eye contact.

The line continued to move at a snail's pace. The little folks were restless. I can do this; it's worth the wait, I told myself. Clearly, this priest was spending quite a while with each person. I was up next. Kolbe had gone over to a different priest for confession and hadn't made it back when my turn came. What to do with a two-year-old and a four-year-old? I told John to sit in the pew, and I brought Ainsley into the confessional.

My experience was ... odd. And hurried. Almost abrupt. The priest who had spent fifteen or twenty minutes with each person couldn't get me out of there fast enough, or so it seemed to me. I asked for his opinion on something. His answer was somewhat superficial.

I left confused. Was he miffed I had brought the baby into the confessional? Had he heard the kerfuffle between my boys? I ran through a variety of thoughts he might have had. Maybe he had suddenly looked at his watch and realized he was running late? And then I made a conscious decision to dwell on the words he had actually spoken: I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The truth is that I have no idea why he seemed rushed. The truth is that these sacraments confer God's grace. That grace is present if the priest is thoughtful and compassionate and insightful; it's present if he's annoyed or rushed or distracted. It's present if we're annoyed or rushed or distracted (and I was all of the above!). Our faith is in God, not in a seamless liturgy, as uplifting as it might be. It's not in the priest, as holy as he might be. It's not in our own demeanor or comportment of even preparedness, as important as these are.

Grace is not dependant on a one of them. As the visiting priest shared, Holiness is not a pose. Not for the laity, not for the priest.

My brother-in-law is a practicing Jew who enjoys attending Catholic Mass from time to time. Occasionally he complains about lackluster homilies. Check out the Baptist Church, I once told him. The center of their service is the sermon. The center of  Catholic Mass is the Eucharist. I understand my brother-in-law's point. I love an inspiring homily. As I enter our church, I usually glance to the left to see which priest is celebrating the Mass. Over the years we've had many, many gifted homilists. We've had a few who could lull you to sleep no matter how well-caffeinated you were upon arrival.

But we are a sacramental church. The focus of the Mass is the elevation of the Eucharist and the words of the priest acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ: This is my body; this is my blood.

It's not a pose.

1 comment:

EHawk said...

totally just stumbled on your blog, and I love it!! Since you asked there are three "levels" of ordination the diaconate (deacons), the priesthood (priests), and the episcopate (bishops). Cardinals and popes are bishops so there is no additional ordination :)