Simplicity

Last weekend on Saturday we attended the wedding of Allison and Henry; we’ve known Allison since she became our youngest daughter Meg’s friend in the second grade.  Twenty odd years later, both Meg and Allison are professionals with letters after their names and married.  Both have now been in each other’s wedding parties; Allie was a bridesmaid in Meg’s wedding in August.  Allie’s wedding was in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul near downtown Providence, the main building completed in 1889 on the site of a former, smaller church, built on “Christian Hill” in 1832.  The structure is magnificent and is a sign of the majesty of God, constructed by the faith of its builders and thousands of worshippers who have assembled there for over a century.

For Allie and Henry’s wedding, the ceiling height pipe organ filled the space with classic music, including Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D as the beautiful bride processed into the church and later Shubert’s Ave Maria.  During the wedding Mass, the priest told a story of the late actress Helen Hayes, a lifelong Catholic and one of only eleven people to ever win an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy.  She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Reagan.  Her first stage role was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she was five, and her last was as Agatha Christie’s character Miss Marple when she was eighty five.

When Helen was first married to her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, they had little money.  On their first anniversary he gave her a paper bag full of peanuts and told her he wished it could be a velvet bag full of emeralds.  After nearly thirty years in a loving marriage, Charles was diagnosed with terminal cancer; Helen was fifty six.  On their final anniversary together, he gave her a velvet bag full of emeralds.  Her response was to tell him she wished it was a bag of peanuts, and they could do it all over again.  As he finished the story, Rita and I reached over to grasp hands as both of us were filled with gratitude for our forty five years together.

After the homily, the priest joined the young couple before the altar and guided them through the marriage vows.  He left the microphone off, and in such a large church, only those witnesses right near the bride and groom could hear them.  It wasn’t necessary to hear. As they exchanged rings, everyone present could see and knew their love and sincere intent to “have and to hold” for the rest of their lives.  To me, it was entirely appropriate that their vows and love were for them alone – simple, in complete focus one to one, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul.

“The spirit’s foe in man has not been simplicity, but sophistication.”  George Santayana

Last Sunday, in lieu of our regular parish, we went to Mass at St. Patrick’s on Smith Hill in Providence, an inner city, poor, bilingual church – poor in money and accoutrement, rich in Spirit and Love.  The church building had long ago been declared structurally unsound and demolished, but the parishioners converted their school auditorium into a church and persisted with both school and church.  St. Pats hosts a soup kitchen on Mondays and has for over thirty years.  The school evolved three years ago into St. Patrick’s Academy, a small high school staffed by both professionals and dedicated volunteer mentors. Next year will see its first graduating seniors.  The contrast to the soaring cathedral could not have been more striking.  The music was guitars and a piano, not a large pipe organ; the pews were filled with all manner of folk, color and age – teenagers, children, the elderly, families, the halt and the lame. The sound of children, silent or rare in many churches, was beautiful.

We were a bit disappointed that her pastor, Father James, wasn’t presiding over the Mass, and an older priest was there in his stead.  Father James’ homilies are always to the heart, his humility genuine and immediately apparent to all who are fortunate enough to pass his way.  Since he is fluent in Spanish, he must have been the celebrant last weekend at the Masses in that tongue.  He has done such things as live anonymously on the street as a homeless person to more fully understand the poorest of the poor in our city.  Father James is a gifted listener and counselor.

“I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions, and when the answer is simple then God is answering.” Albert Einstein

Our disappointment was short lived as we heard the lovely Irish lilt, saw the impish warm smile, intelligence and wisdom of this priest we had never met.  Reminiscent of the many Irish priests of my youth, he was simultaneously loving, witty and direct.  His homily about the gospel reading reminded us that complaining about “not getting anything out of Mass attendance” quite misses the point. “Since when did we become the center of the universe?” he asked.  Worship is not another entertainment we think should have to compete in a world of feel-good distractions, to be judged and participated in based on the liveliness or ‘relevance’ of the music or the emotions and passion of the preaching.  We come for the Eucharist and the Word, to give thanks, to gather together as Christians have gathered for two millennia.  Being a “good person doing our best with good works” is an inadequate response in and of itself to the transcendent Gift which bridged the gap between the eternal and the ephemeral, the mortal and that which never dies – the soul and the Creator.

The music was occasionally ragged, the voices in harmony, but untrained, some of them in their teen years, some of them in their sixties.  Nothing was diminished by the imperfections; the spirit was authentic.  Everyone sang.

“Being with someone, listening without a clock and without anticipation of results, teaches us about love. The success of love is in the loving — it is not in the result of loving. ”
A Simple Path – Mother Teresa

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Simplicity

  1. Greg

    Nice message Jack, I haven’t been able to embrace the love you have for the Church, I must have missed that boat or perhaps I saw it and chose not to board, not certain about that. You are truly blessed for 45 years together. Keep it up!

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    • Related reflections while riding out a super storm:

      While I’m not among those bemoaning the passing of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and do welcome the “opening of the windows” and renewal of the Holy Spirit in so many ways of the Church during our lifetimes, there are, it seems to me, some innovations that lost some of the sense of awe and one that forfeited an element of necessary messiness. I’m not a High Church/Low Church snob. Rita and I have discussed these many times.

      In an effort to make possible a more intimate “Jesus”, in some respects we invented a “warm and fuzzy” good guy not unlike so much of what pabulum passes for the spiritual in an “I’m OK, you’re OK” indulgence – a cotton candy confection, Buddha like wise man, who asks little of us but tolerance and ill defined, undemanding “kindness”. Unfortunately for those who would prefer a “Hey, I’m a pretty good guy who, after all, hardly ever advocates genocide, rape, murder and pit bull fighting, and that’s all that’s really necessary” worldview, even a cursory reading of the gospels depicts quite another tale indeed.

      The real Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John spoke to us as much about hell as He did about love– making it quite clear that a response more challenging than wearing a sappy smiley face is indispensable to our eternal outcome. We seem to have neglected talking about the “four last things”: death, judgment, hell and heaven, because they are uncomfortable subjects, and we don’t want to alienate anyone for crying out loud. We cowardly neglect these admonitions and reminders at our peril and to the peril of our children. Like gravity, whether we believe in it or understand it matters not if we fall into its grip. If we had even a modicum of perspective about the absolute “otherness”, mystery and awesomeness of God, we would enter our churches on our knees. Long memo to follow. Someday.

      The innovation that strikes us as unheedingly detrimental is the “cry room”. I suppose it was intended to allow the grownups to enjoy meditative silence and listen to the homily unimpeded by disruption, but, it seems to this curmudgeon only to segregate from the community that necessary messiness contributed by children. An occasional wailing infant, a dropped toy or two, a loud question or complaint from a toddler can be distracting, but only momentarily so. Withdrawing the children to a separate room during the homily to make clear the readings of the day in a way that can be more easily understood by a child is a different matter, and one that enhances the Mass for them (and us). To isolate all children saps life from the liturgy and institutionalizes unintended consequences of separating precious members of the Church (and at least one parent) from the rest of us, consigned to watching through glass and listening through speakers. May as well watch it at home like a pious, but disconnected, television show. How do young children learn to incorporate their behavior into the life of the worshipping Church, if they are separated out? “Nobody asked, just my opinion.”

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  2. Rita

    I think it is very challenging today to be open to the quiet beauty of the Mass. The Eucharist and the Word are the center of the celebration and sometimes it is easy to miss that unless you take the time to educate yourself about the beauty of the meaning of this most amazing sacrament. In our secular culture we are surrounded by noise… We’re always “plugged in” and so we think that everything we go to should entertain us. Mass is not celebrated for entertainment. It’s celebrated so we can come closer to God and develop a deeper understanding of God’s word and hopefully grow in virtue. That doesn’t mean you have to be a saint to go to Mass; far from it. The prayers of the Mass are the perfect vessel of peace for sinners. That’s all of us.

    We have seen a lax, even reluctant attitude in the Catholic Church over the past forty years about educating our youth in the beauty of the Church’s teachings and God’s Word and love for us. This has resulted in a denigration of the culture as more people become secularized and think they can live without God and choose to live lives that once were considered immoral. It’s resulted in increased divorce rates, the abortion of tens of millions of unborn human beings, and a sex saturated culture that leaves our youth at risk for disease, death and emotional turmoil.

    But God doesn’t change and the Catholic Church has had times like this in the past two thousand years and has come out of it stronger. God allows us to experience the consequences of our sin in that He never strong arms us into doing anything as He has given us free will. We were made in the image of God and so we would never be treated like puppets. We can and do make choices about our lives that we have to live with. But God is rich in mercy and ready to forgive and welcome us back.

    I encourage people who were raised Catholic and even non-Catholics to get a copy of Fr. Robert Barron’s DVD set called “Catholicism – The Journey of a Lifetime”. It’s a very beautiful production and explanation of how the Catholic Church came to be and explains the sacraments and issues like our veneration of Mary and the Saints. The presentations were taped all over the world and show the rich diversity of the Catholic Church and its universality, which is, of course, the meaning of the word “catholic”. Christianity was the foundation of Western Civilization, and we are watching the wreckage of Western Civilization before our eyes. However, the long history of Christianity has long confirmed the promise of its founder that the “gates of hell will not prevail” against His Church. It will rise up in another part of the world, as it always has. Right now there is a very vibrant Catholic community in Africa. We may see African priests and sisters as missionaries to America and Europe. Hopefully it’s not too late to pull Western Civilization back from the abyss.

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