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A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

4 Sep


“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….”
~ Georges Bernanos

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Fuel for the Fire: St. Sebald and Eucharistic Transformation

19 Aug

“To nourish ourselves with him and abide in him through Holy Communion transforms our life into a gift to God and to our brothers.”
~ Pope Francis

Today’s Gospel couldn’t be plainer: Eat Jesus and become Jesus. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” says the Lord. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6.55-56).

It’s what happens every Sunday – for some folks, every day – if we’re properly disposed and we present ourselves for Holy Communion. The priest holds up the consecrated host and states simply, “The Body of Christ.” If we bow and say “Amen,” then we’re affirming that spectacular claim, and if we go further and actually dare to receive him – to consume him, to appropriate all that Christ is to ourselves, and, in so doing, to be totally appropriated to him – then we tacitly agree to do our best to act as his emissaries in the world. We accept the charge to become extensions of his divine person here and now, and we look forward to the Cross in the form of all kinds of crosses – from minor hassles to martyrdom – as we go about living and loving as Christ did.

But that Eucharistic transformation isn’t a static one. It’s not magic, and it’s certainly not an assembly line. If we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, and then do nothing to flesh out in our words and actions whom we’ve received, then the efficacy of the sacrament is muted to the point of silence. “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us,” the Catechism insists, “we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (CCC 1397, emphasis added). And, if there were any question as to what that implies, the Catechism goes on to quote St. John Chrysostom: “You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.”

In other words, our worthy reception of Christ in the Eucharist requires that we then strive to become more Christlike, and to become more Christlike is to strive for ever greater charity toward the poor – and everybody. In the course of the Mass, the bread and wine on the altar really does become the Body and Blood of Christ, no question. But if that sacramental reality is to change us into Christ, then we have to intentionally and repeatedly subject our entire selves to it – what we do, what we desire, what we will.

An apt metaphor for this metamorphic sacramental relationship is the connection between fuel and flame. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” reads the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127). When we receive Holy Communion, it’s as if we allow ourselves to be changed into combustible Christs, but only if we’re serious about being set aflame in a world in need of his light and warmth. St. Angela of Foligno, writing in the late Middle Ages, made a similar point: “If we but paused for a moment to consider attentively what takes place in this Sacrament, I am sure that the thought of Christ’s love for us would transform the coldness of our hearts into a fire of love and gratitude.”

Yet, we often hold back – at least I do. And it’s often due to the severity of that coldness St. Angela mentioned – the icy selfishness in my heart, the frozen motivation to become a saint. I receive Jesus in the Eucharist, yet I’m not all that convinced that I’m truly flammable material, and so the divine love that ought to be bursting forth smolders instead.

For help with this, it’s worth turning to St. Sebald of Nuremberg, an 8th-century hermit whose feast day is ordinarily celebrated today (August 19). Although the hagiographic record is mixed, it seems that Sebald was a Danish prince who experienced a conversion, abandoned a royal romance, and embraced a life of penance and prayer. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, sought and received the Pope’s approbation for his new way of life, and then associated himself with the saintly brothers Willibald and Winibald, along with their sister, Walburga, in their efforts to evangelize the German people.

Eventually he took up a solitary life in the Bavarian wilderness (around present-day Nuremberg) where he developed a reputation for sanctity and wonderworking. After his death around the year 770, a local cult of devotion grew up, and the people built a shrine in honor of their hometown holy man. This was the beginnings of the great parish church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg, and the city in time adopted the humble hermit as its patron saint.

St. Sebald is also known as the patron saint of those suffering from cold weather, and the reason for this is curious – and relevant to today’s Eucharistic Gospel theme. According to legend, it appears that one cold, snowy night, Sebald took shelter with an impoverished peasant who couldn’t locate any firewood nor afford to buy any. The poor man’s hut was not much warmer than it was outside, and his family, along with his saintly guest, felt it keenly. “So Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of the long icicles hanging from the eaves,” writes Rev. Alban Butler. “This she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”

A couple things to consider in this little vignette. First, the icicles didn’t miraculously turn into wood before the saint tossed them into the hearth. Instead, it seems that the icicles morphed into fuel at the very moment they were burned up. This is similar to the story of the ten lepers who approached Jesus for healing. Certainly he could have snapped his fingers and cured them on the spot, but what he actually did was send them, still leprous, to the priest, “and as they went they were cleansed” (Lk 17.14). That is, the healing and the deed facilitated by the healing were simultaneous.

I think this is how Eucharistic grace operates in our lives. We can’t sit back and wait for sanctification to happen after we receive Holy Communion. To the degree that we’re able, we’re called on to draw on that sanctifying grace by extending, stretching ourselves in our efforts to be Christ for others. It happens incrementally and over time, which is why the Church urges us to receive the Eucharist frequently. But every time we do, we should be mindful that God will want to set us aflame, and there’s no sense in resisting that.

One other thought: Since we’re talking about miracles here, it’s important to note that the icicles weren’t even really required. There’s biblical precedent for flame without fuel – like the fiery pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness, for instance, and Moses’s encounter with God in a bush that was “was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex 3.2). But God doesn’t normally work that way with us. He expects us to throw caution to the wind, abandon our own priorities and stubbornness, and submit ourselves to his blazing love. Even when we’re convinced that we’re not capable of being the kind of people he wants us to be – even when we’re still wrestling with doubt and temptation, even when we’re still icy in our lack of faith – he wants us to rely on the power of the Eucharist we receive and have courage.

Go, you are sent,” we’re told at the end of every Mass after we’ve consumed our Lord. It’s the crucial moment we’re expected to follow through on what we’ve received and be consumed ourselves.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Good Fences, Closed Communion, and Reunification

21 Dec

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
~ Robert Frost

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Toting Christ

11 Dec

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“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.”
~
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

My bus ride took me west on Lawrence and then up Milwaukee Avenue to J.F. Morrow and Sons. This was some 30 years ago, and I was on a quest for a holy thing.

I’d volunteered to become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to the sick, despite being a baby Catholic convert. Frankly, I was amazed I was even eligible – I knew so little, I understood so little. But my parish, St. Thomas of Canterbury in Chicago, had many sick and home-bound members, and our lone priest couldn’t possibly visit them all. Moreover, the parish’s Uptown boundaries encompassed Weiss Memorial Hospital, so St. Tom’s was technically responsible for serving the sacramental needs of the in-patient Catholics there. My pastor needed help; I signed up.

After instructing me in how Communion visits were conducted, Father showed me where he hid the key to the Tabernacle, and then he set me up with the appropriate book of prayers and a pyx – that little gold disc of a container that priests and Communion ministers carry Jesus in. The one that my pastor gave me was standard issue – some kind of amalgam with gold plate and a bright religious design painted on the hinged cover. Probably he bought them in bulk – there were numerous ministers to the sick at St. Tom’s.

But that just didn’t set right with me. After all, I was going to be carrying around the Lord himself, and it was like we’d just met. So, I was thinking I ought to invest in a liturgical litter worthy of its occupant – or, at least, more worthy. These were my do-gooder days, and I had limited discretionary funds, but I scraped together what I could. Then, following the advice of my cradle Catholic friends, I made the trek to J.F. Morrow’s – the north side’s Catholic goods emporium.

To a neophyte, a place like Morrow’s is like an open-air bazaar in Marrakesh or Samarkand – enticing, exotic, and a sensory overload. There’s thuribles and monstrances, copes and candles, and piles of liturgical stuff that clearly had some sacred purpose – but for what? Who knows – and who cares? It was exhilarating, and my ignorance only added to the thrill. “Somehow, God is mixed up in all this,” I thought to myself. “And I’m a part of it now!”

Which is why I was there in the first place: I wanted to give back to the Church, and visiting the sick, comforting them, praying with them, bringing them the edible God, seemed like a decent place to start. The clerk directed me to the pyx bins, and I started pyx-2029597weighing my funds against my ardent desire to honor the Eucharistic Presence I’d be hauling.

Eventually, I settled on a simple 24K gold-plated design with a plain cross on the cover. It had a slight raise in the bottom, which I figured would make it easier to retrieve the consecrated hosts when administering Holy Communion. Nobody told me that I might’ve also purchased a silken burse with a loop of string to suspend the pyx from around my neck and under my clothing, close to my heart, for I would’ve without a doubt.

The pyx, though, was plenty. I approached the counter, handed over my cash, and left the store with my purchase – a mini-tabernacle – in an ordinary retail bag. For all anyone knew as I got on the bus to head back to Uptown, I could’ve been carrying greeting cards or a pocket calendar. Instead, I felt like I was carrying religious contraband – a little metal box that will soon enough contain Divinity himself. Me, a clueless convert, in possession of this exquisite, rarefied object. I could hardly contain my joy.

And that, in a sense, captured the gist of the astonishing labor I was intending to take up: Carrying the joy of the community’s Eucharistic celebration to those who were prevented from participating themselves, and then releasing it – like 10,000 balloons on a beach, like ticker tape over Broadway, but a 1,000 Broadways. There’s no hoarding involved, only transport – and then emancipation! What a privileged work – a Work of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated, and thus an endeavor surely associated with spiritual benefits…but only after we discharge our Detainee.

Now, decades later, and worlds away from my Uptown Catholic beginnings, I’m a registered nurse and a nursing instructor – and largely due to my experience with that pyx.

Every Sunday, I’d retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the church – maybe five, maybe six consecrated Hosts carefully concealed in my circular treasure box – and then, prayer book in hand, I’d trudge over to Weiss to track down the Catholics there. At the time, I was convinced I’d eventually go to seminary, yet, watching the nurses go about their duties, I remember thinking, “If I don’t become a priest, maybe I could do what they do,” for what they did seemed itself pretty priestly. The floor nurses were constantly engaged in things I associated with ordained ministry: advocating, interceding, attending, encouraging, and, most importantly, acting as instruments of healing. They themselves didn’t order the treatments and medications – the docs did that. Even so, it was the nurses who fetched the medications and brought them to the languishing and the dying and the ones who really needed them.

Eventually, I went to nursing school and found out all these things for myself, but here’s pyxisthe funny thing – and the impetus for this little remembrance.

For many years, the healthcare facilities in our area have utilized sophisticated medication management systems to help cut down on errors and tighten up inventory. There are several such systems on the market, but the one that seems to dominate in our region is called… (wait for it)… Pyxis, put out by CareFusion. I’ve been getting drugs for my patients and my students’ patients from Pyxis dispensing stations for years, but the significance of its name never struck me before – how could I miss it? I couldn’t find any evidence that the connection was intentional, and it is true that “pyx” is simply Greek for “receptacle” – so maybe that’s the only touchpoint. Still, the Pyxis, just like my golden pyx, holds the substance required for recovery and restoration, and we nurses (like Extraordinary Ministers) return time and time again to replenish our supply of balms for those in our care.

Of course, more than the healing drugs we give our patients, it’s the presence and attendance and listening and compassionate care we give them that communicates the healing Christ. In so doing, nurses can be like Mary, carrying the Savior to the bedside inside their very persons – as do we all, particularly when we receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Communicated and sent forth, we’re all Marys, we’re all pyxes, we’re all harboring heaven. All that’s left is to let him go.
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Holy Saturday: On Looking Back and Peering Ahead

2 Apr

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“Something strange is happening….”
~ Bp. Melito of Sardis

This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic – Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name – “Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas” – and then celebrate with him afterwards.

Easter VigilAnd he was hardly nervous – way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday – that life will get harder, not easier – and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed – or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.

Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia – again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts – those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings – the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.

Yet even that foolhardy conversio – that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying – is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.

For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil – to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.

He came up on the subway and sat in the way back – it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended – but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s prest. thomassence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.

The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim – “What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door – the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado – most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers – a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.

Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward – are backward glances still appropriate?

It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title – “And the Healing Has Begun” – and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.

Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove – then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing – maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.

A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait – what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”

peterAt Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in yesterday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection – returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!” – an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter – the “Rock” – who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame – wouldn’t you?

Anyway, that’s me for sure – that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better – I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still…this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.

There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

So, Easter looks forward and backward – it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future – everything in his path.

We dare not duck.
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Erring on the Side of Eucharistic Excess

15 Nov

A priest gives Holy Communion to faithful during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The soul cannot expect to be anything but lukewarm
without the grace of frequent Holy Communion.
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller, OSB

Cecilia had served the 7:00 a.m. Mass on Saturday, and I was driving her home. She’d be heading back to church at 2 p.m. that same day to serve a wedding Mass, so I attempted a clever remark. “Too bad you’re not serving the Vigil at 4:30 this afternoon – three Masses in one day would be a family record!”

“I couldn’t do it anyway,” she responded, shooting me down. “You can only receive Holy Communion twice in the same day.” It’s indeed true that the Church limits our intake of edible grace – of the Eucharistic Jesus, of the comestible God himself – to twice a day (Cn 917). And if we received him the first time outside of Mass – say, at a Communion service in a nursing home or hospital – then the second time has to take place within the context of a Mass. This is to ensure that we don’t just sit around all day and fatten ourselves on sacramental grace – to take in the divine nutrients well beyond our spiritual caloric needs. After all, Jesus himself established a standard ration of “daily bread” in the Our Father.

“Pretty impressive,” I granted my daughter. “Not many eighth-graders would know Canon Law when it comes to frequency of Communion.” I could’ve clarified that acolytes aren’t required to receive the Eucharist in order to serve at altar, but I let it go in favor of affirming her liturgical acumen. In any case, her instincts were correct: the Church has made it clear that the norm is to receive the Eucharist whenever we attend the liturgy. “It is in keeping with the very meaning of the Eucharist,” reads the Catechism, “that the faithful, if they have the required dispositions, receive communion when they participate in the Mass” (emphasis in the original).

That naturally led into a discussion of the Easter duty – the requirement that Catholics who’ve made their first Holy Communion must receive the Eucharist at least once a year, ideally during the Easter season (Cn 920). It was hard for her to grasp that such a precept was necessary. I observed that it used to be pretty widespread to rarely receive Holy Communion on account of extreme scrupulosity. Of course, one could argue that the opposite is the case these days, but I appreciated Cecilia’s response. “Even if you have doubts – even if you’re not quite sure if you should receive,” she said, “it’s better to go aheadmore communion and let Jesus figure it out.”

Allow me to interject here that I’m confident that my daughter has a good understanding of proper interior preparation with regards to the sacraments – that one must not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin before approaching the altar, in other words. As already indicated, she has a well-rounded grasp of Church teaching, and I know she’s familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (CCC 1385).

On the other hand, I like Cecilia’s gut sense that we’re not to starve ourselves either – whether from an old-fashioned Eucharistic anorexia borne of scrupulosity or, more likely today, an overreliance on substitutionary and inferior sources of pseudo-spiritual sustenance. Better to receive Holy Communion even when you’re in a crummy place with God than not to receive it at all.

Besides, the Eucharist itself forgives our minor offenses, and it helps us to avoid offending God any more in the future. “If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins,” writes St. Ambrose, “I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins.” In other words, if we wait until we’re really worthy to receive the Eucharist, we’ll never receive it – I think that’s what Cecilia was getting at. It’s like waiting until we’re ready to get married – or waiting until everything is in place to have a baby. We’ll never get to that place – we all know that, right? We’d be waiting forever.

Even so, it’s also true that the Eucharist, like any sacrament, isn’t automatic – it doesn’t work moral and spiritual wonders without our cooperation and effort. “Frequent Communion is not magic,” writes Fr. Van Zeller. “The Holy Eucharist does not, as if by a charm, bend an ill-disposed character so that, in spite of itself, the soul finds itself rising to the heights.”cms-2papalmass

Jesus is really present whether we apprehend him or not, and his grace is present in his sacraments whether we assimilate it or not. But we still have to apprehend him, and we still have to assimilate him. That is to say: we have to do our part! God could save us against our will, I suppose, but he isn’t going to do it. We’re free agents with will and intelligence. We know in our intellect that we’ve been granted the free gift of grace that can save us, and we can willfully choose to cooperate with that grace – not resist it, that is, like a child refusing the medicine that will foster healing and restore life.

“Only action is the proof of sincerity,” Fr. Anthony Paone observes, and going to Communion even when we have doubts or scruples is action that is oriented to sincere spiritual growth. Along with that, however, we must also act to align our whole selves, interiorly and exteriorly, with our desires for spiritual growth.

We can’t expect Holy Communion – or even Jesus, which amounts to the same thing – to do all the work. We’re not automatons, we’re not mindless marionettes, waiting helplessly on the Lord to save us despite ourselves. Not at all.

In fact, we’re very active sinners, in need of grace, in need of Jesus, and he expects us to approach him in Holy Communion with all manner of mixed motives and complicated aspirations – do we really want to be saints? Well, yes…and no. We show up at Mass, though, and we go forward with everybody else for Holy Communion, because…what? What do we want?

We want the Savior who spread himself around like a dissipated feast, a rolling banquet through time and space. We want to become whom we eat.
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Of Confirmation, Avignon, and Holy Hindsight

7 Oct

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It is like when you throw a stone into a pool and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end?
 ~ C.S. Lewis

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