Wednesday, August 18, 2010


One challenge of Christianity has always consisted in looking around and resisting the impulse to fall into despair at (depending upon the era and your own personal gripes) the priests, parishioners, liturgy, hierarchy,  music, architecture, literature, emphasis on social justice, emphasis on contemplation, failure to be sufficiently conservative, failure to be sufficiently liberal.  The impulse is to believe people will improve if we point out their faults to them.  The impulse is to exhort. But to think that the Church will improve if OTHER people act better is like making your life's work exhorting that Marriage is imperfect! Or People aren't kind! Or You live and then you die! We know that.  "Where are the courageous ones?" the indignant voice perpetually asks. "Where are the saints, the heroes, the martyrs? Where is the real follower of Christ?" At some point you realize: Oh. I'm supposed to try to be that person myself.

"Christianity has not been tried and been found wanting," observed G.K. Chesterton. "It has been tried and found difficult." Narrow is the gate, Christ said, and you can rig little cardboard fake dioramas on either side to make it look wider, but it is still going to be narrow. To be a follower of Christ means being certain that we are to love each other as he loved us, and being very uncertain about what that means in any given situation. It means being certain that the light will prevail, and then consenting to walk in almost complete darkness. It means being certain about Christ, and very, very uncertain about ourselves. “The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.” 

Fourteen years ago today I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood.  I never thought the Church planned to solicit my vote to see how it should be run. I never thought the Church was going to be one bit more perfect than I was which, to put it mildly, was not very. I read the news. I go to Mass, often daily. I see what is wrong with the world, with the Church. I have musical sensibilities, aesthetic tastes, homiletic preferences that over the years have been crushed, again and again, to the ground. But my experience has also been this: There has never not been a church, a copy of the Gospels, a breviary, an altar, a place to kneel, a cross with a body on it, a priest to say Mass and hear my Confession. I have never once been encouraged to not die to myself, not serve the poor, not quest, seek, pray, lay down my life. I have never been invited to hold myself to anything less than the very highest standard.

I can't think of a more appropriate place to have been confirmed than in the middle of Hollywood. For religion is not separate from life. It IS life: our heart, our pain, our divided selves, our shattered dreams, our longing for the infinite.We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the way life was created to be and is not,” observed Frederick Buechner, and no-one felt that gap more keenly than Christ. “O Jerusalem,” he wept before going to his Crucifixion. “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” After Mass, when ved uccessful" follower of Christ is the one who dies. aying Marrts to them. ks fo Jesus statue found in Elvis's bedroom: everyone leaves and the lights are turned off, there Christ still hangs, broken and bleeding, alone, above the altar. 

Out on Sunset Boulevard, sirens blare, traffic races, signs pulsate:  Ro-Ro's Chicken, Crossroads of the World, Crazy Girls!! I think of St. Maria Goretti (stabbed to death rather than yield her virginity), St. Agatha (breasts chopped off rather than deny the faith); St. Rose of Lima (rubbed pepper on her face so as not to tempt with her beauty, then died serving the street people of Peru). I think of how the mark of the saint is a capacity for love so extreme that the world sees it as insane. I think that, after 14 years of toil, sweat, pondering, loneliness, and often seemingly barren prayer, I still don't much focus on what's wrong with the Church. I focus on the miracle that She took in a wretch like me.  


The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never. 
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow,
my ransomed soul he leadeth;                               
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

--Henry Baker, 1868



  1. I'm so grateful for this post, which I badly needed after reading Colm Toibin's brilliant (but troubling) review of Angelo Quattrochi's book.

    I have to work daily at not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Especially when the baby is the Christ Child.

  2. Yes, and only with Christ can we find it in ourselves to examine own sexual wounds and to try as best we can to heal them, and to consider the ways we may have inflicted them, intentionally or not, on others...our hearts break for the abused children, for the priests, for the people who covered up, but they have to also break for ourselves...that's the only way we can develop any kind of compassion for and perspective upon all involved...

  3. Excellent post Heather. I too joined the Church, not to reform Her, but to be reformed.



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