Tripping Over the Church

27 Apr

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (St. Paul).

One of my students who is interested in Catholicism asked for something on the marytownEucharist a while back. I gave her Fr. Robert Barron’s book, and recently she was telling me how much she enjoyed it. Knowing that she was from the Chicago area, I mentioned that Fr. Barron was rector of Mundelein seminary. “There’s a Catholic seminary in Mundelein?” she asked, incredulously. “Where?”

I Googled it and showed her, and then pointed out Marytown, the nearby Franciscan shrine in Libertyville. That was even a bigger surprise. Turns out, she’s been driving right past Marytown to visit her grandmother for years, and never knew it was there. That’s surprising, especially if you know Marytown at all, because it’s hard to miss. But, of course, my student had no reason to keep an eye out for Marytown, and so it’s no wonder she overlooked it.

The whole exchange called to mind my one visit to Rome so many years ago. I was there with my folks and my sister, and we lodged at an inn within walking distance of the Vatican. After we slept off the worst of our jet lag, we decided to stroll over to catch a first glimpse of St. Peter’s. After we got vague directions from the hotel staff, we wandered off and naturally got completely lost. If you’ve been to Rome, you know: The neighborhood and streets in the immediate vicinity of St. Peter’s are crowded, even claustrophobic. It’s the closer we got to the square, the more we were convinced we had made a wrong turn.

Then, we turned a corner, and there it was: That massive pile, majestic and awesome, seemingly appearing out of nowhere – no, not appearing, looming, rising up, as if alive. What a shock! It took my breath away. How could something so extraordinarily huge be so hidden? In fact, if we hadn’t been looking for it – if we hadn’t known that it was in the vicinity – we might’ve missed it altogether. Either that, or we would’ve stumbled across it like a roadside historical marker hidden by an overgrown bush.

View-of-the-dome-of-the-Vaticans-Saint-Peters-Basilica-from-Borgo-Santo-Spirito-672x372Coming into the church was like that for me. My conversion was largely by way of Dorothy Day‘s life story and my experience of the Catholic Worker movement she helped found. As I discovered the Worker and its ethos of faltering aspirations to love sacrificially, it never occurred to me that its Catholic identity was essential to it.

But then I started reading G.K. Chesterton – a contemporary of Dorothy Day, and someone whose writings were familiar to her. Day’s dedication to the poor and to peace captivated my heart; Chesterton, on the other hand, captivated my thinking, and I was hooked.

Like this for example: “The Church is much larger inside than it is outside,” Chesterton wrote in his meditation on conversion, adding elsewhere the ironic observation that the Church is “larger than anything in the world; …indeed larger than the world.” That was certainly my experience. I encountered the Church as an accident – something that was seemed to be extraneous to the Catholic Worker shtick, not strictly essential. Yet, the more I got involved – the more I lived the life of the Worker from the inside – the more I discovered that it was truly bound up with Catholic belief and practice and Sacramental life. In a sense, by God’s grace, I had stumbled across the Church through my encounter with the Worker – that is, by walking into the Catholic Worker, I tripped over something infinitely bigger.

One of the earliest lessons in nursing school concerns preventing falls – assessing for fall risks, and then acting to mitigate those risks for patients in weakened conditions as much as possible. It’s pretty straightforward, really, and common sense, but it still bears emphasis: That falls can be often prevented by eliminating obstacles on the ground that people trip over.

Ah, but in religion? Falls and stumbles can be good – as in my case, to be sure, but, in general, for all of us, as Pope Francis pointed out in his homily at the canonization today: “The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith…. They are essential for believing in God. Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness.”

Stumble on!

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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One Response to “Tripping Over the Church”

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  1. Tripping Over the Church | One Thousand Words a Week - April 27, 2014

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