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.