Culture at the Crossroads
This past weekend my older daughter Grace gave up going to her basketball game—her favorite activity—to attend the memorial mass of a classmate's sister. The child had been born premature and lived a very short time, though long enough to have been baptized by her uncle, a priest, and welcomed into a beautiful, loving family.
My wife, Sue, and I commented on how this celebration was a greater lesson in life, love, family, death, resurrection, community, and liturgy than any number of months in religious education classes. (And Sue, by the way, is head of a religious education program at our parish.) Grace understood at a basic level that her presence at this mass was necessary. It was important for her to be there for her classmate. And because of that basic sense of the logic of friendship, Grace took part in an act of worship that was a microcosm of the Christian way.
That way is, following the title of a book by Robert Barron, "the strangest way." What might a stranger to the Catholic Church make of the church he entered, of a congregation moved as they were at the death of a child only thirty weeks old? How would he understand the proclamation of ancient texts, the recitation of prayers, the sharing of bread and wine? How could he grasp the expressions of hope of resurrection, the desire of the family to be reunited with their daughter, sister, and niece?
Ours is indeed a strange way, but only because the world we live in is strange. The core of our way has changed very little over the centuries, a calm center around which spins a world out of control. As I write this there are stealth bombers over Libya; there are political battles in several nations that might erupt in bloodshed; there are deep divides between East and West. In our part of the world, there are powerful people trying to win hearts and minds with false and corrosive messages: poor people deserve what they get; happiness can be bought; sex is a consequence-free recreation; the economy is a zero-sum game, and you must compete to win; it's only a clump of tissue; your human worth is your social capital; man created God. The Christian way, in such a world, looks backward.
So be it. Sanity appears to be insanity to the insane. We who dwell within this way understand at a deep level—a level unknown to others, but obvious to us when we go there in prayer every day—that the reality of love is so powerful, so overwhelming, that it shapes every conscious and even unconscious decision.
Some may tell us that a baby will not live to full term, and that it may be easier to abort it and save the trauma of a stillbirth. Our strange way, though, reminds us that to imagine God lovingly knitting every child together in a mother's womb is to treat every child with awe, wonder, and profound love. Our strange way leads parents to elect to deliver a premature child, that they might hold her, name her, bless her, and baptize her, sacramentally joining her to the rest of this strange community that loves her as an icon of God, in the way that we see every human being.
What Grace saw at that memorial service was a family who lost a beloved member, who was loved for only thirty weeks but who was loved no less than any other member. She saw a family whose love does not have an expiration date, and who, because of that love, know that there is a life beyond life, where the fruit of that love will continue to be enjoyed. Grace sensed, I think, on some level, that in the face of that kind of love we can only speak in mysterious and poetic ways, ratifying the insights of our ancestors in faith who named the mystery and passed their words down as sacred texts. She joined in the ritual actions of worship that seek to give not only language (weak as it is) to that mystery, but also music and movement and memory. She partook in the celebration of the Eucharist, that simple sharing of a meal by which the God-man Jesus invited us to taste the promise of life beyond life, life beyond this vale of tears. For even our strange way, which gazes toward heaven, is still rooted in an earth where we find so many obstacles to our gaze.
Ours is indeed a strange way. But it is the way of love, which is always refreshing in its strangeness. For we are creatures who are terrified of love, as it always demands abandoning ourselves to that which is necessarily beyond us. It is not we who love; it is God who loves through us when we give him permission and set up no obstacles. And it changes everything.