Lenten reflection on The Call of Levi: the weak spots

As I write this it is Saturday, March 4, 2017; the Saturday after Ash Wednesday.  The Gospel   Reading for today is the story of Levi the tax collector from Luke 5:27-32:  The Call of Levi, as it is sometimes called.  The narrative is a familiar one.  Jesus calls over the tax collector, Levi.  Like all tax collectors of this time they are a reviled lot, but Jesus says to him, “Follow me.”  What ensues after is left to the imagination, but we are told that, later, Jesus dines with him and other tax collectors.  The Pharisees then reproached Jesus for associating with sinners, after which Jesus responds with the oft cited retort, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  In common parlance this is the old problem of not “preaching to the converted.”

That narrative is certainly at play, but I think there is more going on here.  After my reading of this passage I engaged in an Ignatian meditation, the kind where one imaginatively places themselves in the scene.  The details of my meditation are unimportant, but I would like to share a few things.  At the banquet, Jesus, Levi, and the other tax collectors and sinners all share a meal, conversation, and laughter.  They are there, plainly, in their humanity.  They are there in their simplicity and even vulnerability.

I was then immediately reminded of something I had experienced or felt when I was  in my very early twenties on a few but poignant instances.  At that time I had drifted away from the Church, but looking back now I can see that I had had experiences for years that, I believe, can only be identified as spiritual, perhaps calling me back or even keeping me connected.  These particular experiences in my early twenties, in their seeming banality, all went something like this: I would be at the local mall having a bite in the dining area.  There would always be someone else eating alone as I was.  I couldn’t help but watch them, the way they were just there chowing down, in, what I can only describe, their simple humanity.  Some of these souls I saw were tough looking guys.  Others looked as lonely there and then as I imagined them as being through much of their life.  Some were beautiful or handsome.  Some very plain and a bit gawky.  But the thing that united these occurrences – and I stress there were only a handful – was the phenomenon I observed that I can only call “the tender act of satiation,” and the accompanying feeling I had each time, which was that I was witness to, and perhaps even enjoining, human weakness.  This is very hard to explain without sounding sentimental, but I truly believe there was more going on here than some projecting of my own sentimentality as a flaneur of regular people doing an ordinary act.  There was in all those episodes, as it were, something else speaking to me, and whatever that was, was brought out vividly through today’s Gospel reading.  The tender act of satiation, the feeding of a hunger, is in many respects the dissipating of an ongoing or repeated weakness.

Our hungers and fragility are universal.  We often attempt to cover them over with veneers of toughness, or we try to escape them in all kinds of unfortunate ways. But then, when we are just ourselves, simply and plainly, we remedy this hunger.

Sometimes at Mass or during holy hour I have a similar experience to those I had in the concessions area at the Mall.  I see ordinary people doing an ordinary thing, which is truly extraordinary.  They are feeding their spiritual hunger.

What was Levi hungry for?  I’d like to believe that when he dined with Jesus he needed and was given more than the food served.  And how much more rich and meaningful the laughter and companionship must have been that evening.  The Pharisees only saw a scoundrel in Levi; Christ saw someone vulnerable and lovable despite, or even because of, their sins.

Reflections on Some Dimensions of Adoration, Part 1 of 2

Last year in my Comparative Religions class while on the topic of Christianity I mentioned adoration in the context of Catholic practices.  A young student in the front looked puzzled and exclaimed, “I’m Catholic.  I’ve been a Catholic all of my life and I have never heard of this.”  I was not the least bit surprised.  Her story is mine, too.  A cradle Catholic surrounded largely by pre-conciliar family members we practiced an old-school style of our faith, which entailed the family matriarchs keeping everyone on point the best they could.  My grandmother and my great aunts were the ones who went frequently to Mass, who sat quietly in the corner chair praying the rosary, who would slip off in the evening to do who-knows-what at the parish.  Perhaps they did a holy hour, but I can’t be sure, as that was never mentioned.  And that I, like my student, never heard of adoration or a holy hour throughout adolescence and into young adulthood suggests that my other Catholic friends didn’t know much about it either.  Granted, the parish where I grew up was very small and I still don’t know if there was an adoration chapel anywhere nearby.  And while my mom took me to Mass I was not, despite having attended “Catholic Camp” as a kid, very well catechized.  So, to briefly segue, I don’t think that my story is all that unique for my generation, hence neither do I think that men and women of my generation had a strong enough engagement in their parish and Catholic life generally to really impart a substantial Catholicism to their children to keep them in the Church.  There is an obvious generation gap in my current parish consisting of teens through early thirty-somethings.  I don’t think this is unique.  But that is all for another discussion, and one, too, that Bishop Robert Barron has covered very well.

Adoration: Time spent before the Blessed Sacrament

An hour spent in adoration is a devotion par excellence.  I will not spend time explaining the roots of this practice, nor anything approximating a detailed description thereof.  For those interested you can read more about it here.  My aim is mostly to discuss, extemporaneously and personally, the value of this devotion and what I see as several dimensions thereof.

If you are fortunate to live near an adoration chapel with either perpetual (around the clock) or, like the one near me, hours from morning to evening, I recommend working this into a routine.  On the one hand it is a very good complement to the Holy Mass.  But it is also something that works very well in keeping an active and consistent spiritual life.  In my last blog on creating a rule of life I explain this. ( The Value and Formation of ‘A Rule of Life’)

Dimensions and reflections on the act of adoration.

Trying to explain the practice of adoration to the uninitiated is often, I have found, met with puzzlement. Not long ago I was chatting with a friend who was raised in a Presbyterian family.  He asked me what the building was that sits in front of the school that is connected to my parish.  “It’s an adoration chapel.”  “What’s that?” he replied.  I described it and the practice of adoring and holy hour. “So you sit and look at bread?”  Reduced to its simplest form it may seem so, but then so too can many the most meaningful activities of life appear absurd when leveled out to their simplest elements and acts.  Looking at a Monet is, we should all agree, much more than looking at fabric smeared with paint, and soccer is more than kicking a ball.  Unfortunately, however, ignoring the metaphysical while focusing on the material has become quite a theme in our culture, most affecting those areas of life we have hitherto identified as the sacred.  But equally troubling is what seems to be the infection of this leveling attitude among those ostensibly practicing their faith.  This is what Bishop Robert Barron meant in part by a “beige Catholic”: one who goes through the motions but is not fully engaged in the transcendent or spiritual, or perhaps more precisely, one who does not attempt to engage fully.

All that being said, I offer below reflections on some core dimensions of adoration: the aesthetic, solitude in communion, the meditative, and the active and contemplative.

The aesthetic dimension

Contra to Platonism proper, some forms of Eastern or New Age spiritualism, and debased Christianity, Catholic Christianity is an incarnate spirituality, which is to say human, creaturely experience is embodied as much as it is transcendent.  Material creation is good and abounds with God’s presence in its dynamism, beauty, awe and wonder, grandeur, sweetness, sublimity, and even the fearsome.  It is, moreover, an entry into the sacred.  In fact, it may be more correct to say, along with the Jesuits, that God is in all things.  And yet we can, at the same time, make the claim that there are spaces and places separated in intent and presence that we identify as sacred. The sacred space is designated as such by act of consecration, designation, or through a supernatural act of being present.  The cathedral, basilica, church, and chapel hold all three of these inasmuch as they are designated places of holiness, consecrated by a vicar of Christ, and hold the true presence of our Lord in the Eucharist within the tabernacle or monstrance.  Christian architecture is designed around this presence holding, as it does, the central position.  An encounter with the sacred is cognizant of these designations in their richness in splendor.  To this extent, the aesthetic encounter of the sacred is an exchange: it is receiving through an act of openness and reverence; one gives oneself over to receive what is offered.  Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment suggests something similar in that the aesthetic is both objective and subjective, participating in both the imaginative and the understanding.

There is something different about entering the adoration chapel that moves one from the secular and into the sacred.  The monstrance, holding the Blessed Sacrament, organizes the entire space as the center of a circle organizes all points around it.  We behave thusly when entering.  We further organize all other objects, art, and sacramentals present in the chapel around the radiant monstrance.  The more sensitive we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the keen our understanding of real presence, the more we participate in the radiance extended outward.

Is this to suggest that every visit to adoration, every encounter with the Blessed Sacrament, will be an intense spiritual and aesthetic experience?  No, and for reasons both obvious and metaphysical.  Without going into the latter, which relates to our ontological composition as both material individuality and spiritual personality, we simply are often swayed by psycho-physical matters such as disposition, mood, and well-being.  Nevertheless, we might consider our Lord as the constant while we are the variable, open as we are, to influence.

Setting aside the more philosophical ruminations, I’d like to end this section with a few remarks about beauty.  Spending time in adoration is a beautiful experience and an experience of beauty.  I have never come away from spending time in adoration feeling less than edified.  There are many reasons for this, the most important of which I will hit upon in the discussion of the other dimensions to follow.  Further, this is not to suggest that our own edification is the function of adoration.  But yet I think it quite correct to say that our love and desire directed toward our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament becomes a momentarily filled intention, which is but one aspect of the encounter with beauty.  But even more basic is the very space that is the chapel itself.  Again, as a religion of incarnation we take beauty in art and architecture to be a very important element of our faith.  I always found the simple beauty of the chapel I visit to be quite edifying in its own right.  I often think of that Hemingway story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, where the protagonist finds respite and meaning in his frequent visits to a humble but clean and well lit cafe.  Again, this speaks to our need for the sacred in our life; a place separated from the secular and the mundane.

This ends Part I.  In Part II I will continue the discussion through exploring the remaining dimension I mentioned above.  I predict these will augment and clarify some of ideas mentioned in the section above.