Saturday, August 30, 2008

What I heard in the Catholic Church this summer

“The Holy Spirit would not let his Church go astray,” my seminarian friend repeated as we arrived in front of the Cathedral and tried to wrap up our conversation about Apostolic Succession, infallibility and the Catechism. “Yes, I know that no one has to look far to find examples of sin among the leaders of the Church. But ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church. He would not let the Bride of Christ as a whole be destroyed by the sin among individual members.”

Though I had been employing my usual degree of skeptical interrogation throughout most of our walk to town from Latin class, I was silenced at this point. I looked at his piercing eyes and gut-wrenchingly beautiful confidence, and I slowly realized something.

I didn’t believe what he was saying.

For the first time in my 25 years as a Christian, I realized that I did not believe in the power of God over human frailty. Instead, I believed that a God stronger than Satan and the powers of evil would ultimately be bested by mere weakness, by well-meaning but incompetent Christians who misinterpret him. Of course this had be true; my own life had already demonstrated the point many times.

“Wow…” I began, but found myself too tongue-tied to come up with one of my trademark smart-remarks. “That… that must be a great thing to believe.”

His eyes sparked as my attempt at sarcasm gave way to self-revelation. “It is,” he nodded emphatically. “Em, this is the Bride of Christ being led by the Holy Spirit; it is not a rag-tag gang of fumbling bunglers. And there are terrible sinners, but there are also Saints—real Saints, Em!—who are being made in the image of God, who have guided and continue to guide the Church. This is not a groundless place to put ones confidence.”

Our conversation had come to an impasse, and halfway through my time in Cork I finally realized where the fundamental difference between me (and for now I’ll just call it “me” rather than Protestants in general) and my Catholic friends lay. When the voice of the Holy Spirit collides with human frailty, they believed that the Holy Spirit would win out, hands-down, each time. I believed that human frailty could fumble and thwart any voice of the Holy Spirit, no matter how strong; God’s trump card in the end would be his ability to turn our fumblings into redemption, making the Holy Spirit’s work right now seem a bit superfluous.

The belief that God is stronger than we are frail… well, it sounds downright Christian. I imagine I’d be a happier person if I believed it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Along the Kerry Way

Within the freshness of its weariness
The land is written with green pen that’s read
Before the fisherman is out of bed
And wet—he says—forever, more or less.
The sun—he says—shines green, and if you press
Them rocks will cry green tears, for they are fed
By prison bars of rain that he is led
To hate just as he loves its fruitfulness.
If one must be a nomad, may as well
Be here; and if a life is simple, may
As well be simply green and have the smell
Of rain on midgy mountains pushed away
To Cork, and drink in instant coffee with
The morning dew in all its splendid pith.

Drinking rain and coffee

‘How are you?’ the fisherman shyly asked as he returned to his car right as I walked by. A greeting was to be expected as we were the only people visible at 7am in the Irish mountains.

‘I’m doing well; how ‘bout you?’ I answered in what I knew as a glaringly American accent.

As I had grown accustomed to over the summer, a passing greeting sparked curiosity the second I opened my mouth. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked from his double-take.

‘North Carolina,’ I answered, not even bothering to give the country.

The fisherman’s face grew puzzled as he tried to place it. ‘I think I’ve heard of it…’ he struggled.

‘No,’ I smiled. ‘You’re thinking of California. They’re very different… they’re like Ireland and England.’ My analogy served to give us a point of connection, and he relaxed from formal conversation by leaning against his car and looking down the hill toward the river where he had been fishing. I stood and took in the mountain landscape in the early-morning cold, happy to be out of the dripping tent that was now on my back, breathing in the wet air after a night of being soaked on the mountainside.

‘And what do you think of this weather we got here now?’ he asked. The question had become to me almost as universal a greeting as how-are-you, the Irish way of welcoming me to their country by complaining about it: apologizing, bragging and relaxing in the same sentence.

‘I’m actually glad of it,’ I confessed to his obvious shock, not wanting to complain about someone else’s country. ‘Back home we’ve just had a year of drought and I’m sure a summer of 35-degree-days, and I’m glad to be away from the heat.’

‘Why did you leave?’ he asked in obvious amazement. ‘The weather is disgusting [sounds like ‘disgoostin’], the worst summer we’ve had in 75 years. Why would you spend your summer in Ireland of all places? A hell of a place to visit!’

Even though his complaints gave me permission to complain, I was not about to criticize Ireland to an Irishman alone in the wilderness. ‘But it’s a beautiful country,’ I observed, surrounded by a landscape that demonstrated the point.

‘Oh, that it is!’ he exclaimed as his face transformed. One would imagine he was suddenly talking about a different country. ‘No question about that; it’s like nowhere else in the world.’

‘Your green is amazing,’ I added.

‘Oh, this is a special place. I’ve never been anywhere else, but you come out on a morning like this and you can just tell that there is something special about this country.’

Rain, evidently.

He breathed in the wet air a bit longer over, and suddenly his earlier expression returned. ‘Disgoostin morning. I don’t know how we survive this every year. Would you like some coffee?’

As I allowed the instant coffee from his thermos to warm my wet body, I wondered if we would do well to love one another like he loves his disgoostinly special country.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death!

I don’t know if this is true of all Catholics or just those who become priests, but my experience this summer gives me the impression that Catholics are always asking for prayer.

“I’ll be praying for you,” my seminarian friend told me the afternoon of my second day of class; “will you please pray for me?”

Lest I should think it was his particular quirk, the next night when we were leaving my pub his friend said the same: “Will you pray for us?” he asked as we parted. I gave him the Protestant response of “How can I be praying for you?” and he thought I was being sassy. Evidently, Catholics pray for people without asking for specific details.

In case I might be tempted to imagine it was something they had picked up in their country of origin, the Irish priest I had lunch with the next week said goodbye in the same way: “I will pray for you; please pray for me.”

And before I could assume that in all three cases it was just a component of my particular situation as a Protestant visiting the Catholic Church, I wandered into mass early one day and an old collared Irishman hobbled over to me and whispered in my ear, “Let me make a deal. How ‘bout I pray for you, and you pray for me?”

By that point I was starting to realize how little I actually pray for people other than myself. Maybe some of it is a component of my seminarian-friend’s observation that each Protestant has the responsibility to be his own personal pope, and I can’t take the mental pressure of knowing what to pray for each friend I might pray for. But the people mentioned above did not seem to expect that of me; no matter who I might be, it couldn’t hurt to have me mentioning them to God. It couldn’t hurt me either.

So I did. Two or three weeks into my trip, I took to making prayer for people part of my regular rhythm of life. And with Latin having turned my brain to mush I couldn’t put much thought into the prayer. For now, all my mental exhaustion could handle is a simple, “Dear God, I pray for Mom… and Dad… and my brother…” During my 20-minute walk to class every day, I list the names of members of my family, friends back home, people I’ve met in Ireland, friends long-gone… whoever comes to mind. I don’t have to know what to say for them; for now, the discipline is just stand before my God and love them.

To my family and friends out there, I’ve been praying for you a lot this summer. Please pray for me.