Ten years ago today I quietly processed out of the sacristy of Saint Peter Basilica wearing a white alb into the southern side of the majestic church. As my classmates and I advanced toward the altar on the day of our diaconate ordination, over one thousand people gathered to be part of the momentous occasion. Bishop William Callahan, a past spiritual director of the seminary and at that time auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, ordained us by calling down the Holy Spirit upon us as he lay his hands over each of our heads.
The Basilica and the spectacular ceremony may make it challenging to recall that the life of a deacon and of a priest is one that strives to imitate the simplicity of the carpenter of Galilee who had nowhere to lay his head. The Church lives ever in a tension balancing the magnificence, wonder, and awe of an eternal and omnipotent God who is partially manifested through the grandeur and splendor of Saint Peter Basilica with the simplicity and quietness of that same God who is best seen in the poverty of Bethlehem and the ordinary hidden life of Nazareth.
The Church’s preaching, spirituality, architecture, and many other elements have been influenced by this tension throughout the centuries. At certain moments, some have been compelled to choose one over the other: simplicity at the expense of grandeur or grandeur at the expense of simplicity. If both components express different dimensions of God, why cannot both be manifested in the life of the Church? Paradox is at the heart of our Christian faith and this topic is no exception.In her Little Way, Saint Therese of Lisieux discovered that the differences found among souls may be likened to the vast diversity that exists among flowers – souls are the Lord’s living garden. “I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violent or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden.” One beautifully created flower cannot totally express the beauty of God, so He has created a vast array of flowers where each one captures a dimension of his creative work. A simple daisy reveals what an elaborate orchid cannot, and vice versa.
Drawing from Saint Therese’s observations, I believe that the grandeur and simplicity of God each reveal an aspect of God that the other is unable to do so. Both speak of who God is and how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, and focusing entirely on one at the expense of the other is always a mistake. A balance must be achieved. Choosing one over the other exclusively would be like eradicating all flowers from the earth except your favorite one – and what a loss that would be.
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