March 24, 2010

What's At Stake: Reverence

(This is the second in a series of posts that will be an attempt to articulate how the experience of parish ministry has changed me as a theological reflector. Here is the introductory post.)

I really like the church two parishes to the south. It's dark and quiet during the day, and it reminds me a little bit of the parish church in the neighborhood where I grew up. As Thomas Merton put it, "Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence." (New Seeds of Contemplation, 83) One day I was sitting in this church in the late morning of a day off. I had offered my Midday Prayer and was just contemplating the Lord's sanctuary in peace. There were a couple of others there, and though I was only dimly aware of their presence, I prayed for them too.

Suddenly a phone rang behind me. A man's voice answered and a speakerphone conversation began. English and Spanish flowed into each other complete with foul language and vulgarities in both. A violent retaliation was being planned for an act of disrespect. Both voices were indignant and frustrated.

Needless to say, I was shocked by both the conversation itself and the sacrilege it represented. As I heard of the violence being planned for the enemy of these men, I was even frightened myself. I left. As I walked down the street to my favorite taco stand, I began to reflect on how it could be possible for someone to not only be so committed to foulness and violence, but to be indifferent to profaning the Lord's sanctuary.

That's when I had a realization. The sins of our culture, such as the tolerance of abortion, the proliferation of human trafficking, the normalization of pornography, abuse, neglect, gang violence, the tacit acceptance of the poverty and hunger of others, as well as the analogous sins and crimes particular to the Church, such as clerical abuse of power and sexual abuse by clergy and religious, and even the general lack of reverence toward the sacraments, sacramentals, and the holy in general, all proceed from a lack of due reverence for persons.

I have thus become convinced that one of our critical and primary troubles as people of our time is a lack of a metaphysical sense of who we are as persons. Though we are all aware that we have hearts and minds that reach beyond space and time in thought and love, I don't think people are aware of themselves as mysteries, spiritual realities worthy of wonder. Without any sense of transcendent personhood, people become subject to commodification, as in pornography, and ultimately even disposable, as in abortion.

Since our transcendent or spiritual personhood is our primary, analogical access to divine Mystery and the Person of deity, without it we start to lose God as well. We may still practice religion in a merely natural or even consumerist way, but we do not have real reverence and 'fear of the Lord' before the Mystery of His Person. In some ways we ministers of the Church have not helped this situation, e.g. if we plan and offer liturgy in such a way as to remove reverence and mystery, we are contributing to the problem. The faith and its celebration in liturgy starts to be about us rather than God. Hymns, postures, and lack of ceremonial reverence all illustrate the shift.

Therefore, I have begun to feel the pressure of theological anthropology. The people of our time seem to need a compelling and intelligible articulation of what it means to find oneself as this mysterious, spiritual subjectivity that we call the human person. As I have mentioned, our spiritual nature is obvious to anyone who has transcended space and time by thought or love. But we seem to have forgotten how to notice that this means that the human person is a mystery worthy of reverence.


Searching for His truth said...

Dearest Father, I have found myself dealing with these same issues. Through much prayer I have come to understand the intimacy that Jesus asks of each and every one of us. But, I also have been brought to understand the reverence that, I feel is asked of us by the Father himself, and maybe even Our Virgin Mother. I can't help but see how she followed her son quietly through his life. During lent out parish has Tuesday evening mass. It is attended by a small devoted set of parishioners. The trouble I am having is as soon as our priest says "go in peace," everyone runs to each other like it is the end of a sporting event. Loud speech, laughing etc. etc. Why does it seem that only I have a problem with this? I would go on , but I feel that my judgment of them may be a sin. Is it? Is it " they know not what they do?" Why has he placed this so firmly in my heart and no where else in my parish?
Thank you for your post. I can't wait to hear what you have to say.

Searching for His truth said...

I am sorry I called you Father, My apology, "Brother".

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, one of the biggest lessons I have learned in life is that most people (yours truly included) are indeed sheep. Many people don't bother to think rationally, because it is difficult. Instead they/we rely on the example of others or the words of a trusted figure to make up our minds for us.

Reverence is a LEARNED trait. If it is not learned, it will not come naturally, as it is not a part of our human DNA to be reverent. These men who were plotting in church may have been told to "shhhh!" or that it is irreverent to talk like that in church, but by example somewhere they may have been shown that "eh, this is more important..."

I'm saying this because in several posts (i.e. the "tall drink of water") you really do set the example. There have been a couple examples I have been in NO parishes as you describe where "Mindy" or "Skyler" were chatting either on cellphones or with others around them. In 2 cases, I knelt, turned to them and said with a slight smile, "today I'm praying for 'person X', would you please say 3 hail Mary's with me? On both occasions, neither knew they Hail Mary, but they did quiet down.

ben in denver said...

desteTimor Domini principium sapientiae.

Margaret said...

FrCharles, I am a Catholic returned home after having been absent from the Church for most of my adult life. On my initial return I found churches stripped rather lean of holy images and symbols, (they had 'modernized'?) - there seemed to be no place to rest my eyes and my soul in silence, in the Lord, or to commune with the Saints, (admittedly I am easily distracted by noise and disruption around me), and my brethren in the pews, 'pre' and post Mass were chatty and, to me, shockingly loud, as if the Mass were a 'feel good' social event. Let alone the lessening of reverence there seemed a lack of simple consideration for those who were praying. The emphasis seemed to have shifted away from a place of holiness, of place of encounter with God, to the elevation (of the self-esteem?) of the laity.

I chalked my disappointment and surprise up to a kind of culture shock on my part, having been away so long. Things had changed and I needed to get used to it.

This is not to judge, but to offer my impressions of a Church that seemed changed beyond recognition almost. A return to 'reverence', to a God-filled church, is music to my ears.

Words from Joni Mitchell song come to mind: 'You don't know what you've got till it's gone'.


paula said...

Brother Charles - is there an e-mail address where I might write you privately regarding this reflection?

Thank you for your consideration. +JMJ+

Brother Charles said...


Post another comment with an email address. I won't publish the comment, but I will write to you.


Kevin F said...

Wow, just wow. Your experience with the men in the church sounds really frightening. What is even worse, is that this kind of thing goes on non-stop everyday of the year. Your story is a real wake-up call slap of reality in the face. Wow. I'll say a prayer for you, it sounds like you're in a tough neighborhood.

I always wonder if we need to constantly turn to the way Christology is considered when thinking about the human person.

For a long time during the Nicene Creed I find myself thinking the line "...and became man." as "...became a human person." I appreciate that the full scope of being a "person" is locked in the word "man," but I need to remind myself of the deeper complexities of the mystery of the incarnation. YMMV, but for me there is a temptation to think of the incarnation as being "True God" and "human meat/flesh." I am sure there is some formal heresy involved there, but I can't think of the name. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes there is a temptation to think of the "human" part of the incarnation as merely physicial, when "true man" is so much more than that. I think that a clear articulation of Christ's personhood is necessary to address who we are people.

There is a deep, trascendent quality to the person (Aquinas and Rahner write so beautifully on this) and I completely agree with you that this reality gets lost and as result people (and subsequently God) become mere commodities or even obstacles to be overcome.

I don't know if I believe that this problem is in anyway specific to our time (and I'm not sure if that is what you meant to imply). I am reminded that some of the earliest Church law on child molestation dates back to the middle ages, and I believe that some of the earliest writings in the Church concern abortion; not to mention crusades, inquisitions, massacres, etc. Even Pilates exclaimation "ecce homo" is chilling in some of its consequences.

Your post makes me wonder if part of the religious quest isn't (and there's no right way to say this) just a quest for God, but also a quest for ourselves.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks, Kevin for your prayers.

Your post makes me wonder if part of the religious quest isn't (and there's no right way to say this) just a quest for God, but also a quest for ourselves.

I like to think of it as our effort to consent to be known to ourselves as God knows us.

for narnia said...

thanks so much for the second post in your series on "reverence." i agree with everything you speak about in this post, particularly about having reverence for one another. it says in Sacred Scripture: "Continue to love each other like brothers, and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it." ~Hebrews 13:1,2~ if we keep this in mind, it would help us to have reverence for all we encounter on our journey. PEACE! ~tara t~

Benedicta said...

Thanks for this post, this reminds me of my mother when I was growing up. In church,I am not allowed to cross my legs. She said it is very disrespectful to God. Parents should set an example to kids, and remind them if they forget. I will pray for that man, that he may realize his wrongdoing.