Saturday, July 13, 2013

Splendor in the Ruins

The liturgy for the dedication of a church begins with the words, “This place is awesome (terribilis) .” Even outside the liturgical ceremony I experienced the meaning of that word. Whether standing in front of “happy” churches (in good condition), or in front of ruined churches, I have experienced in my body the awesomeness of the Church’s spiritual nature. It has shaken my whole being. At those moments I understood why the Lord calls himself the bridegroom. I can’t explain it. But I understood one glorious day that he was my bridegroom and that I was part of his people, part of his flock, part of his Mystical Body. I understood the mystical notion of the nuptials of the Christian with his God. Because I entered into this mystery of love, I entered into the mystery of the Church. I still live in this mystery.

When a person falls in love with God, then the Church becomes a reality of faith. This cannot be explained rationally. The head must enter into the heart, close its eyes, and adore a reality which can only be embraced in faith. I walked into that reality, that mystery, not knowing that I was walking in faith.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Fragments of My Life

Reflection – The reality of the Church is the reality of God dwelling among men, among human beings, in a concrete, visible, tangible way. This is the awesomeness of the Church: not the splendor of Gothic cathedrals, the pomp and ceremony of lavish liturgies, the strains of Gregorian chant or Palestrina Masses, or the wonders of institutional strength and organization.

All of that is lovely, and is meant to reflect the awesome heart of the matter. But the awesome heart is that God has chosen to dwell among men, and this dwelling place is the Church of Christ. It is this awesomeness that endures whether the Church is happy or ruined: the ruination of sins and cover-ups of sins, the ruination of ugly churches that look like movie theaters or conference halls, the ruination of ugly liturgies with banal music, the ruination of bad watered-down theology and insipid banal preaching.

While all of that is painful to various degrees, ultimately and in this deepest sense, all of that does not matter. The Church is awesome. God has chosen to make his dwelling among men, and that dwelling is the Church.

The Eucharist is the deepest and most essential sign and reality of this, the mystery out of which the whole Church is born and around which the whole Church gathers, but of course from this mystery the terribilis of the Church extends outward. It is a ‘terrible’ mystery that flows through all the institutional structures and physical habitations of the visible Church. It is a mystery that flows through all the art, literature, music that has arisen from the Church’s common life: Christian culture. It is a mystery that flows through the folk customs and private devotions that have sprung up in every land the Church has taken root in. It is a mystery, ultimately, dwelling in the heart and soul and body of every baptized person, a mystery of grace and love that dwells, and wants to dwell more firmly and totally, in your heart and mine today.

God has made his dwelling on earth, and ‘earth’ is you and me. But always this mystery flows from and flows back towards the common life of the whole, the life of the body gathered around the head, the liturgical life in which each one comes into the community to receive together from Christ the life of God in the common worship of the whole.

So this is the reality of faith that Catherine saw so very clearly and that sustained her through an awful lot of experiences of ‘ruined’ churches. And for us too—we really do experience the Church as ruined, or at least as pretty banged up much of the time. We need this deeper vision to keep us in the Church, in the Body, and receiving those graces of life and strength and beauty from Him.

God is with us. He has established a Church, and that Church is the spotless Body and Bride of Christ on earth. It does (indeed) subsist in the Roman Catholic Church, we believe, although the mystery and splendor of the Church of Christ flows through all the divided ‘churches’ of our broken world in ways we do not fully understand. And it is this mystery, this splendor, and this vision that alone can sustain us in a world increasingly filled with hatred, violence, and spiritual darkness. (But it will, indeed, sustain us, and make our lives joyful and beautiful in the midst of it all).


  1. The Church is not the spotless body of Christ. It has very little to do with Christ. You may be virtuous and see the church through the prism of your own experience. Most within religious life are not. Try to conceive what the Church must look like through the eyes of a woman denied full participation because of gender, reproductive autonomy or respite from an abusive spouse. What does the church look like to the queer boy or girl, who finds a life of celibacy impossible and dreams of matrimony, just like anyone else? Most importantly, what must the church look like to the majority of young adult Catholics who often go years with no contact with or from the Church, who see in the media, the church railing against so many things which have become the immutable facts of their lives.

    On another note, I resent your assertion that the World is increasingly filled with hatred, violence and spiritual darkness, just because your particular religion is dying. It's true that the population of humans in the World is exponentially larger than ever before and so the actual incidence of these things may be numerically greater but for a greater percentage of the population, throughout the World, living conditions, social and physical are better than they have ever been. There is also unprecedented acceptance of religious and spiritual diversity. No one denies there is plenty of room for improvement.

    Look on the bright side, you're such a gloomy Gus. The next iteration of Christianity will likely be a big improvement over yours. How could it not be!

    1. You know, Moe, your comments are increasingly just you saying to me, "I don't agree with you!" OK. Noted. God bless you. And I hope you would realize by now that I'm not exactly a dummy - of course I realize that to those who (like yourself) have very different ideas from me, the Catholic Church does not seem like anything at all to do with God or Jesus. Yes, I get this. Noted. God bless you. Is there anything new we can talk about or any direction forward in our dialogue? Because my saying what I believe and your saying 'No, it's not!!!' is kind of getting old.
      From my point of view, a world in which millions of unborn babies are slaughtered each year is a world filled with violence. And it does indeed seem to me that there is a great deal of hatred in this world.
      My Church is not dying, by the way. Really, it's not - statistically, there are more Catholics in the world today than fifty years ago. Anyhow, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, 'It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future!' In other words.... we'll see.
      I really do wish you peace and joy and goodness, you know. I hope that's clear - I just am wondering if our conversation can move ahead a bit...


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