Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Timor et Tremor

"And when I had seen Him, I fell at His feet as one dead."
-Apocalypse 1:17

Stepping into the darkness of the ancient and venerable church, the unbeliever is confronted with an image he knows too well, the fount and end of all his fears, both the beginning of wisdom and unending despair. His eyes scour the ancient surface of the image now looming before him: an enormous, carved relief of the Last Judgment, with God and His saints surrounding the Cross of victory at the uppermost portion, the Ecclessia militans at the center, and the everlasting woe and fire unquenchable of damnation, bounded by serpents and demons and all manner of beasts at the very bottom. He is seized with wonder upon contemplating the serenity of the Divine hosts, and repulsed by the sight of the damned wallowing in their torments. Indeed, such a sight can make or break one's faith.

In fear and trembling, he examines the image now facing him. To the Christian, it is not just pious imagery that he is looking at, but also, in a mystical way, he is contemplating his own destiny. He knows very well that, at the end of this earthly life, he will either be in heaven or hell-- rejoicing forever with the angels and saints in the company of God, or condemned to suffer eternal loss, a heart that will never find rest and a soul perpetually gnawed at by the everlasting worm of regret, envy, and wrath. Scripture is quick to remind us: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

There comes a time in all our lives when we are seemingly thrust to the edge of a precipice, where everything in perspective dissolves and gravitates to a never-ending horizon, often one of uncertainty and doubt. At the bottom of this precipice await the jaws of Hell, gaping and ever gnashing its teeth, whilst on top, surrounded by a mystic haze of fog, beckon the angelic hosts, ready to snatch us away at the slightest sign of cooperation. This is the one question that has haunted the imaginations of countless men throughout the two thousand year story of the Christian religion: will I, in the end, be counted with the blessed, or be confounded for all eternity with the wicked? This fear of judgment, of one's sins being revealed to all of mankind at the end of time, has driven many of us to despair; and who would not be? Who would not be terrified at the prospect of seeing the living God in all His glory?

Our faith teaches us that salvation, though freely given by God, nevertheless remains a great mystery. Indeed, we have been taught that it is useless without our cooperation, worthless without our acceptance of this inconceivably sublime gift. Salvation, then, is not a one-time deal, but a continuous process; it comes to us with a great price and an even greater responsibility. In short, it would not be wrong to say that our salvation is not cheap. It is the history of the entire people of God, stretching all the way from the Old Testament through the Gospels, reaching even through time and space, indeed, almost as if eternity were being passed through a sieve, as a teacher of mine once put it (I still do not understand what exactly he means by this).

In the last five years, I have met all sorts of Christians, from born again Fundamentalists to ultraliberal Catholics, good ones and bad ones, all trying to vie for a front row seat to witness the glory and majesty of God first hand when the former world shall pass away, and a new one, unmarred by sin and death, shall come to be. And make no mistake; there is much pushing and shoving along the way. Too often has there been violence and bloodshed (whether literally or metaphorically), so much so that the horizon begins to be obscured by it. Perhaps this is the dark night of the soul that St. John of the Cross spoke so luminously and so eloquently of. It is not so much, I think, as sensing the absence of God in one’s life, but having an excess of it, if this were even possible (and it is not).

In this era of massive consumerism and abject pluralism, it is sometimes difficult to keep our eyes focused on the Christ. We are too distracted, and often our eyes wander to distant and exotic locations only to find emptiness and a biting coldness. After reading a few pamphlets off the internet, a formerly lukewarm, contraceptive-supporting Catholic could morph overnight into a fiery lioness, worthy of the guts of St. Barbara and the fortitude of St. Catherine of Alexandria. But this also has an adverse effect; it is all too easy as well for a lifelong Catholic to switch religions overnight after witnessing the wide-scale ‘cafeterianism’ that permeates the praxis of faith of so many people today.

We are all called to be holy, but real holiness is not bought so easily. It is earned, and ransomed with the price of our blood, sweat and tears. One may have read all the Catholic literature at TAN Books (if only that were me!) but still have no clue at all how to reverence a statue of St. Dominic. We can understand the theological problems of the Novus Ordo and condemn it as the bastardization that it is but remain utterly clueless about the ‘Tridentinist’ point of view that we so often equate with authentic, ageless Catholicism. For Christianity is structured in such a way that God is always at the head of the table, and how He intends to run the Church is not our business to whine and bitch about, but to accept, even if it grieves us. The ugly and the desolate, after all, can still communicate truths; the problem is that we never see beyond the ugliness.

I remember, as a child of ten, going to a certain church for the first time, and being struck by the beauty and majesty of this temple of God. I still remember how the light glinted off the immaculate gold candlesticks, how the Crucified Lord looked down at the faithful with His eyes full of mercy and compassion from above, how the fluttering of doves’ wings made such beautiful music in the church’s cavernous nave. Then, I remember being horrified when a large, dark man, bald and pocked by many scars, emerged from the sacristy holding a gas lamp. The man’s face looked beastly and distorted, and when he walked, he shifted in pain to the right. One woman sitting in the pew in front of me spoke loudly ‘What is this monster doing in the house of God? It’s a surprise the angels haven’t struck him dead yet.’ They were laughing to themselves privately, when some minutes later, the man emerged from the sacristy again, this time dressed in a white cassock, with a black fascia tied about his waist.

The man was a visiting priest, it turned out. He had concelebrated the Holy Mass with the parish priest, a friend of his from seminary days. Come communion time, the ladies who were laughing to themselves happened to have lined up in the visiting priest’s line. I still remember seeing their faces quivering, red faced and humiliated, after receiving the Body of Christ. They were apparently two of the most prominent hermanas in the parish, and I am told that that was their first and only time to receive communion in the hand. One would wonder what they might have thought had they seen Our Lord being carried down from the Cross, His body a weeping mass of wounds and broken, seething flesh.

It is only now that I realize how great a gift it is to see the world in all its ugliness and desolation. Doubtless, it is a repulsive sight; but it is better to see it the way it is than to pretend we are living in a world where everything is perfect. The prettiest roses, after all, are also the ones with the most thorns. Our lives are not meant to be lived according to our desires, but God’s, and God’s alone. It is not a question of why imperfection and wickedness abound in our world, but a question that asks, ‘What should be done?’ Humanity’s perennial problem has always been pride: it is then a good thing that we are humbled and thrown off our high horses that we may begin to see just how precious our lives are.

A venerable priest once preached in his sermon: You only begin to be virtuous when you no longer want to be a saint, when you feel as if the weight of the whole world were thrust down your shoulders, and when you begin to see how ugly life is for most people. Truer words have not been said: are all of our efforts at holiness, then, merely a thin veneer for simmering sanctimony? Is orthodoxy then merely a façade by which we hide to avoid the awful truth that we don’t have the faintest clue on how to be Christian? The biggest tragedy for the Christian people right now is not secularization, nor is it even pluralism and rampant atheism. The problem has been the same problem as it has been all these years: it is hubris. And it is this same hubris that deludes us into thinking ourselves the very progeny of the Doctors of Church, or on the converse side, the most sensible of Reformers. There is no bigger lie than for the Christian to claim he has the answers to everything, and no greater truth than the fact that God is infinitely beyond what we can ever hope to know.

Fear the man who would sooner die a martyr’s death than to suffer indignation; fear him who knows not how to fear. Flee from all promise of earthly and spiritual perfection, for these are too often masks under which impiety and disquiet lie. Cloud your virtue, confine it to yourself, let no one see it, save God, Who sees in secret. It is infinitely better to be fooled by the darkness than the light.


Andrew said...

There's an old woman, her back bent with age and worn out by unceasing labour. She walks the long distance from her house to the bus stop early in the morning, carrying a plastic bag containing her belongings to ride the bus down to a Church in town which employs her as a sweeper.

She sweeps and sweeps and cleans and cleans and then, after having attended the morning Mass at that Church, takes another bus down to my parish Church, and hers, for the Evening Mass. By that time, she's exhausted and often, when the homily is being delivered, she dozes off, still clutching her plastic bag.

Long after the Mass is over and long after the last of the parishioners has left, she is still there, before the Blessed Sacrament, her face bowed to the ground in prayer. After that, she can be found in front of the Shrine of Mary, mouthing Aves and letting her cares and sorrows flow out with her tears and upwards toward Heaven.

Sometimes, when I have supper late at night, I see her walking back towards her home, after a long day's work.

Her face might not be beautiful, her eyes, white with cataracts and her hands, callused and course with work. Many would not give her a second look except one of pity or scorn.

But God? What about God? The Almighty who sees through our flesh and Whose gaze pierces our thoughts through to our hearts, what does He see? Can He see her beauty? If I can nominate a living saint, she would be it. Like Lazarus whom no one gave a second thought about on earth, perhaps, should we blessed enough to enter eternal beatitude, perhaps we might find this woman seated in a place of honour at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.

I was attending a BEC (or cell group) meeting. I had just gave a reflection on the Gospel and spoke on the difference between perception and reality and between how and what we see as opposed to how God sees. And immediately after, when the people were sitting down for snacks, the very people to whom I had delivered this message starting talking about the old woman, making fun of her plastic bags and the way she dozes off during Mass and saying that since she's so tired and can't keep awake, she should just stay at home.

I was horrified and incensed at their insensitivity and their callous references to this holy woman whom they do not even know. And after what I had just shared with them. I felt sick. I'm sure they will have her forgiveness, but I could not let this pass and sternly reprimanded them.

Why did this happen? Why do we fail to see what God sees in others? Why do I fail to see God in others? Why?

I don't understand the world.

Archistrategos said...

Such is the fate of all good and virtuous men (and women), I guess. It still puzzles me how even Catholics can willfully allow themselves to engage in such pharisaical behavior. For many of us, virtue is simply equated to having the perfect life, and not much else-- a very narrow and deficient definition. I've always believed that real Christians, in the end, are the ones who look like they've been dragged to Hell and back on their faces, for they at least know what it is like to suffer with Christ.

You are very lucky to have a saint in your midst, Andrew. I am sure God will work many wonders through this woman.

reynor said...

Archistrategos, i cant find any contact info. when you can, try to email me at reynor[at]cafetheology.org

salamat and May God continue to bless you always :)