Tag Archives: salvation

The Pig Van: A Manifesto for Saints-To-Be

9 Nov

If everybody was satisfied with himself
there would be no heroes.
~ Mark Twain

For a time, my kids went to a Montessori school, and the curriculum included weekly trips to a working farm. They’d leave after lunch with their classmates, go help out with chores, and bringenrichment home vivid stories involving horses and chickens and mud – all joy and invaluable experience for my otherwise urban-bound children.

Due to work and other commitments, my wife and I were rarely able to assist with transportation on farm days, but we tried to compensate by lending the school an extra vehicle I’d picked up on the cheap. It was a rusty Plymouth Voyager that had about 240,000 miles on it, but it was roomy and it ran – and the teachers were willing to drive it. So, despite its condition and lack of A/C, that old blue van made the farm trip many times, and the students came to know its quirky personality.

And it acquired a nickname: “The Pig Van” – but not because of farm animals the students encountered on those trips. Instead, the nickname derived from a Léon Bloy quotation I’d laminated and plastered across the dashboard back when it was my primary vehicle:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

You might recognize it as an epigraph preceding John Irving’s wonderful story of sacrifice and salvation, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s certainly a provocative declaration, and for the Montessori farm-goers, it became a fruitful source of speculation, debate, and amusement: Heroes? Pigs? Christians? How are they all connected? Who was this Léon Bloy anyway, and what did he mean by his weird saying? And more to the point (here’s where the amusement came in), why did Mr. Becker glue it inside his dilapidated van?

That last question I can answer with certainty: It was originally supposed to be a punch in the gut every time I sat behind the wheel – a reminder of what I ought to be about, staring me in the face as I went about my daily routine. I’m not sure how Bloy (or Irving) meant it to be understood, but for me, that short sentence has always stuck with me as a pithy integration of Christianity’s two essentials.

The first is this: Lived Christianity is about heroism, and heroism, for leon-bloyChristians, is about aspiring to sanctity. Bloy made this point more directly in another, more famous line of his:

The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.

Sainthood, to be clear, isn’t about being a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes, pious prig. Nor is it about withdrawing from the world in order to avoid temptation. No, sainthood is about overcoming our selfish tendencies even in the midst of mixing it up with other people and the world, loving when it’s hard to love, giving when it’s easier not to, and, in general, choosing to do what holy people do, imitating their example, following their lead.

There’s no question that we can do this on our own, nor is it a question as to who is really behind it: it’s all God, all God, no question! It’s his work completely, though you wouldn’t think he’d do it so subtly – we’re barely aware of it when it happens. And when it does happen, it invariably happens on the barest margins of our interior selves – on the beaches and in the shallows that separate those parts of us wholly surrendered to him, and those parts of us still prone to slip away into moral oblivion. Are we tempted to gossip or envy? Then choosing not to indulge in them, especially when it would be easy to do so, is a triumph on our own moral margins – even if we fell prey to similar temptations later on.

This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward. When it’s all actually happening, we’re rarely conscious of it – and that’s by Design: so that we’ll be less likely to chalk it up to our own efforts.

Much safer is to follow St. Joan’s example as recorded in one of her heresy trials:

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’”

No presumption there, but instead, utter dependency. And, far from being an excuse for un-saintlike behavior, it’s a profound admission that aspiring to sanctity doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving sanctity. Let’s face it, more often than not, we fall way short. Daily even. Minute by minute. The important thing, however, is the aspiration itself, the not-giving-up. Christians have to want to be saJoan-of-arc21ints, and we must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ourselves in that regard, optimizing our availability to the saint-making influences that God brings to bear on us, and pressing ahead even after setbacks and failures.

And if we refuse? If we reject those influences and opportunities to grow in holiness? It only stalls out our progress on the heavenly trajectory, but we can expect God to hound us until we submit again. And again. And again.

One might ask, then, how we are still Christians when we’re stubbornly and persistently refusing God’s way? It’s in this regard that Bloy’s one-liner points to the second essential of the Faith, and it’s this: Not all Christians aspire to holiness all the time, but that doesn’t undo their fundamental Christian identity or destiny. Short of apostasy, when we Christians reject moral heroism and the pursuit of sanctity, we only make ourselves pig-like per Bloy’s characterization – grubbing around in the muck of sin and the world instead of holding out for more heavenly fare.

This is possible because Christian identity is only loosely associated with consistent righteous behavior – the Church is a hospital for sinners, after all, not a country club for saints. Instead of behaviors, Christian identity is more properly associated with a set of propositions, and Christians, by definition, are those who affirm that set of propositions, regardless of whether they act in line with them or not.

And what a set of propositions it is! Included are such fantastic ideas as the Incarnation (the Creator of the universe became a baby!), Good Friday (people got away with killing that incarnate God!), and the Resurrection (the dead God came back to life!). Also included are affirmations regarding the sacraments (we can eat that God-man, and share in his resurrected life!), the Church (God wants us to be part of his family, part of him!), and the communion of saints (there are all kinds of dead people in that family who are rooting for us and on our side!). This is all crazy talk, right? But one who claims allegiance to the Faith while denying these propositions can be legitimately challenged and rightly corrected.

Now, obviously, Christianity is more than simply affirming propositions, but it’s at least that, and it’s the starting point for all who wish to embrace it. Yes, we baptize babies who are in no position to affirm any propositional truths, but we o1FALOONRCIAnly do that because we as parents are, in a sense, affirming those truths on behalf of our children. And for adult converts? Affirming propositions is how we get to join the club. Remember these lines from the Easter Vigil?

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

That profession is the dividing line between not being a Catholic and being one, the set of words that we converts from other Christian traditions had to repeat in front of the whole parish – in front of the whole world really. As if to emphasize the solemnity of that moment, the profession is introduced by the presiding priest or bishop in this way:

I now invite you to come forward with your sponsors and in the presence of this community to profess the Catholic faith. In this faith you will be one with us for the first time at the eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus, the sign of the Church’s unity.

You see? The embrace and profession of a proposition precedes sacramental initiation. This is still the case for us old-timers, actually, and we face it every time we go up to receive Communion. When the priest or eucharistic minister holds up that wafer before our eyes and announces, “The Body of Christ,” we respond, “Amen” – our own acquiescence, in other words, that, yes, we believe it is God himself, right there in the minister’s hand. Remember, too, that we we are required to recite the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days – the very days that we are obligated to attend Mass.

So, we’re Christians, then, because of what we affirm and what we aspire to – not one or the other, but both. Frequently, our aspirations fall short of what we affirm, but we trust God to shepherd us back into the fold whenever we stray. And when our understanding of what we affirm itself is the problem? That, too, is matter of trust, and we have to rely on the Church to provide us with adequate catechesis and formation in order to fill the gaps.

Mostly, though, what we need is patience – patience with ourselves, first of all, and an acknowledgement that salvation is a journey that begins with baptism, but winds away from that point God knows how long. Yes, God knows, and we can bank on his giving us just enough time to make it.

st-jerome-and-lion-in-the-monastery-1509Patience extends as well to others, along with a camaraderie that is reflected in generosity and magnanimity, especially toward ones fellow believers. We Christians are all stumbling forward in our attempts to appropriate grace, aspire to sainthood, and live out what we affirm. The least we can do is shrug off the bumps and shoves that we give each other along the way.

That kind of patience takes courage – which brings me back to the Pig Van. It’s been many years since it made a farm run, and now it mainly sits idle, taking up space on the street. Since we don’t use it much any more, I tore out the Bloy quote, and pasted it inside my Honda – right above the quote from St. Jerome already on display there: “Cur timido animo Christianus es.” I know my Loeb edition translates it a bit different, but I like to read it as: “Why are you such a wimpy Christian?”

*Wham*! Another punch in the gut. Another reminder to keep going, no matter the odds, despite the obstacles and defeats, come what may.

Just like heroes do.

______________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Extra Ecclesiam, Ecclesiam

19 Oct

“All the way to heaven is heaven.”
~ Catherine of Siena

“You got any change, man?”

I’d only made it a few blocks from the Denver Sheraton, and I’d already heard that request three times. “Sorry, I’m tapped out,” I mumbled.

“That’s OK,” he replied with a smile as bright as his20060526_101616_twilight big orange Broncos sweater. Something in his tone made me think it really was OK, so I hazarded my own request. “Can you tell me how far up the Cathedral is?”

“Sure,” he said. “Just a couple blocks more, and then one block over. ‘Can’t miss it.”

I was in Denver for a conference – downtown, near Capitol Hill. The conference was well worth the trip, but the schedule was pretty packed every day, sunup to sundown. In fact, I had to duck out early from one of the Sunday morning sessions and hoof it double time to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception so I could get to Mass.

The Basilica was up a ways on Colfax at Logan, and if my trek was any indication, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much in the quarter century since I lived in Colorado. Gritty, a bit raw, the Basilica’s immediate vicinity retains a rough edge despite loads of redevelopment and rezoning. You see it in the mix of storefronts along Colfax – bars and sandwich joints mingling with upscale dining and boutiques – and you see it in the immense variety of folks on the street from all walks of life. The whole scene reminded me of 1980s NYC and Chicago; it was a homecoming in more ways than one.

I reached the Cathedral just in time for Mass and approached the west transept entrance on Logan to avoid the crowd at the main entrance on Colfax. Immediately across the street was the Fork & Spoon, and I couldn’t help pausing to admire their mural on the wall opposite the church. It was a tribute to Jack Kerouac, featuring the beat author’s profile along with a quote from a Buddhist-inspired letter he wrote his first wife, Edie Parker. “Practice kindness all day to everybody,” the quotation read, “and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

Kerouac

Was it an intentional challenge to the Cathedral across the street and its habitués? The mural’s placement could be interpreted as a rebuke, or perhaps a wake-up call to the hoodwinked faithful. Alternatively, it could be argued that Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing led him to unconsciously represent the very teaching of the Church herself. About seven years after Kerouac wrote his letter, the Council Fathers had this to say in Lumen Gentium:

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

If that’s the case, though, why go to Mass at all? And why endure the rigors of the Church’s moral requirements when you can just be nice and achieve the same result – hand out a few coins on the street, for example, and call it a day, à la Kerouac?

Why indeed.

I entered the Cathedral anyway.

People were filing in, finding their places in the pews. It was a typical Cathedralish cross section of the population: Families, individuals here and there, regulars and visitors, random groupings of people that defied easy classification. I grabbed a seat on the aisle right in front of a transept pillar – it was close by and adequately inconspicuous for a visitor. On my right was a group of folks that were apparently related – a father, it seemed, with his grand, white, Amish-like beard,  along with his clan. In front, a couple with a toddler in tow, and a young woman, stylishly attired and sitting by herself. Mass was just about to get under way…

*Whoosh!* A rolled-up newspaper flapped in front of my face. I turned in the direction of the flap, and there was a woman with multiple layers of clothing and shopping bags, clearly annoyed, waving her paper at me as she walked by. I think she was indicating that I had usurped her usual pew for Sunday Mass, but by the time I figured that out, she’d already taken a seat a couple rows ahead of me.

20120529_080154_photo3Stealing somebody’s regular pew is a major breach of Mass attendance protocol, but what could I do? Figuring I’d only make matters worse if I tried to rectify the situation, I stayed put. It was a good call for nothing else came of it, and I think she even acknowledged me at the sign of peace. In a way, by overlooking the unintended affront, she in effect became my host, and I, her guest, the recipient of her sacrificial hospitality almost like an estranged family member whom she welcomed home.

The Gospel that day reflected a similar theme. It was Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast where all the seats ended up being filled by outsiders and hoi polloi:

Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

Among other things, that image of a wedding feast and invitations assumes that God’s kingdom has boundaries and limits it’s a party, to be sure, but not a free-for-all. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus goes the ancient patristic dictum “outside the church there is no salvation.” This is still the teaching of the Church, although the Catechism frames it in a new way:

Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.

The institutional, big “C” Church is of divine origin, but it has boundaries and edges because it’s run and inhabited by finite humans. It’s like the Basilica itself, which has walls and doors; the liturgy as well, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there are rules and standards and expectations for those who wish to be a part of these things.

The small “c” church catholic, however, is a mystical body, with boundaries known to God alone. Its membership, unlike the visible Church, isn’t always clear cut. The normal way people attach to that body is through the Sacraments and practicing the Faith, but apparently there are other ways as well and that’s only God’s business.

In other words, outside the visible Church there’s likely a good deal of invisible church (or at least potential church), but we just don’t always have the eyes to see it  yet. In any case, since we can’t know who’s in the invisible church, those of us inside the visible one have a duty to welcome in everybody, no matter what. Lumen Gentium continues along these lines:

Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

womAll Christians have a hand in this to be sure, although as laity our preaching can take many forms. Primarily, we preach through our acts of charity and service, through caring for our families and neighbors, through working hard to improve our little corners of the world living our lives, that is, in a way that always invites rather than excludes. The more we do that, the more we literally extend heaven to those around us, deepening our own interior affinity for heaven in the process.

The irony, of course, is that many of those folks on the outside are already doing this very thing.

The recessional hymn concluded, and following a brief prayer of thanksgiving, I genuflected and exited my pew with a glance at my watch – just enough time to get back for the start of the next conference presentation. There was a light rain outside, and I made sure to slow down and hold onto the handrail as I descended the slippery stone staircase from the west transept door.

Right behind me was an elderly couple, and the woman was attempting the navigate the stairs with a cane. She was doing alright with her husband’s help, but I stuck around just in case – and I wasn’t the only one. An usher and another man stood at the top of the stairs watching the couple take each step. Once the woman made it to the sidewalk, the two men nodded to me as if we three had all been part of a covert stair-descent safety team, and then they re-entered the church.

Nothing particularly virtuous about our watching out for that woman pretty much any decent soul would’ve done the same. And that’s the point we’re all in this together, insiders and outsiders alike.

Jack was surely onto something.

_______________________________

A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Van Morrison Saved My Soul

18 Aug

Now there’s an inflammatory and hyperbolic title! More on that in a minute. First, drugs.

I never did drugs growing up. No weed, no acid, no coke, no nothing. There was plenty around and accessible, to be sure, but I just wasn’t interested. When my friends would offer me their latest substance of choice, I’d say, “no thanks,” and that I just preferred reality—wjefferson_airplane_980hy distort it? It was definitely a fork in the road: They couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.

At least, I couldn’t understand their desire to trip out, but I think I have an inkling of what tripping out was like for them thanks to Jefferson Airplane and their song White Rabbit. It came on the radio as I was driving home the other day, and immediately I was pulled into Grace Slick’s hallucinatory riff on the children’s classic.

It’s an effectively suggestive song, even to the point of being trite or corny. There are references to hookah pipes and mushrooms, and the twangy guitar combined with the psychedelic paraphrasing of Lewis Carroll couldn’t be more reminiscent of those groovy times. The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds does the same, as do any number of songs by Jimi Hendrix or the Doors. In all, songs like these conjure up an experience I’ve never had, but through them I can sample that experience, at least as an observer and outsider, and even if it’s only for a couple minutes.

The music of Van Morrison did something similar for me, but with reference to mystical union with God. I started listening to Morrison right around the time of my flirtation with Catholicism, and his blend of Celtic melodies and images along with pop undercurrents and poetic streams of consciousness became like a soundtrack for my spiritual pilgrimage. Album after album—Common One (1980); No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986); Enlightenment (1990); Hymns to the Silence (1991)Morrison’s songs seemed to give voice to my own searching and yearning, and I listened to them over and over.

A good example is Coney Island, Morrison’s haunting meditation from the album Avalon Sunset (1989). It’s not sung, but instead it’s a spokVan-Morrisonen narrative about a visit to the seaside with friends. Intensely evocative, the song seems to draw the listener into the scene—to join in the ambling and conversation, to feel the warm sunshine, to share in the placid joy the companions have discovered. It’s a little taste of heaven.

So, fine, I like Van Morrison. Does that justify the hyperbolic blog post title? Why the heresy?

Admittedly, it was a hook to get you to read on, but not only that.

In fact, properly understood, I do think it’s a true statement, and not heterodox at all. A helpful parallel, I think, is Cyrus of Persia—savior of the Jews! Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century B.C. ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, was a pagan. Nevertheless, he is celebrated in the Old Testament as God’s instrument in restoring the Jewish people to Palestine and rebuilding the Temple. Isaiah even referred to him as “shepherd” and “anointed” (or, “messiah”), although Isaiah and the Jews certainly weren’t confused about Who was the power behind Cyrus’ throne.

Same with Van and my spiritual renewal. It was as if Morrison’s music was a Cyrus for me—an instrument used by God to restore and rebuild. And, like Cyrus, it makes no difference what particular creed Van adheres to, for God was able to use him and his music regardless.

Tomáš Halík, in his description of second-wind faith that often follows initial conversion and subsequent disillusionment, says this:

Maybe we won’t encounter Christ where people tend to seek him first, but instead he will come to us like he did to the travelers on the road to Emmaus: as a stranger, an unknown fellow traveler. And then we will have to let him retell the “great narrative” of the Bible to us.

Van Morrison’s music mediated Christ to me in a fresh, unprecedented manner. For me, it was, and still is, an Emmaus encounter, recapitulating an overly familiar Gospel, and compelling me to meet Him afresh.

Make no mistake: I know Who is really saving my soul. I catch a glimpse of Christ and his grace in Morrison’s music, but I encounter them directly through the Church and the Sacraments. Even so, I return to Van Morrison regularly, on bad days and good, to conjure up those images of peace and paradise, and to help me re-set my sights on heaven. “And all the time going to Coney Island, I’m thinking,” Morrison intones in Coney Island. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

Yes, great indeed. Let it be so.

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