Some years ago a wonderful Dominican nun gave me a one-liner that I’ve cherished ever since. She said that the reason there was a big Bible and a big Altar in the church is because there is a small Bible and a small Altar in our very hearts and in our lives. They are two complimentary ways of knowing God that have to do with formation and information. To define terms; formation has to do with listening to the story that God is telling us in the events and occurrences, praise and desolation, history and hope, prophesy and poetry of our own life as the context and the text where God tells out the Good News of our creation, of our participation in God’s creation, in the world where God is meeting us, every day in every way, moments ripening into sacraments, visible signs of the invisible gift of God, gifts given to us in every place and every moment of time.
This is not to deny the crucial importance of the church or the religious tradition and sacramental system in which we stand. That’s the big information we need! The Bible and the Altar in the centre are here so that we know who and whose we are in a world where so many voices are yelling and telling us that we are only what we eat or what we buy or who we dominate. And we’re built for a bigger truth than that! We need to know the face, the voice, the song of the one who creates, loves, and breathes us, who breathes the whole world we live in. So we need to know our Scripture, our tradition, the stories and the saints, of the family in which we stand, in the company where we are gathered. Because they all point to the formation of God in our own lives. Listen to Jeremiah:“Before you were born I knew you.” Listen to the Psalm we just read: “Oh Lord you are my hope, my trust, oh Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have learned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.”
In Zen Buddhism they talk about “coming to know the face you had before you were born.” We come to church, we come to soak ourselves in the Gospel truth and tradition of this place, so that we might know the face of Christ, which is our true face and that of our neighbor and maybe our enemy and the stranger as well. We come together so we might become the body of Christ, which is our true body.
Two writers gave me early glimpses of how this might be true in my own formation. Does anybody still remember an English writer named Elizabeth Goudge? I recall seeing her books; “Pilgrims Inn” and “Green Dolphin Street,” in my grandparents bookcase before I could read, and sitting on the floor looking at the inside cover sketches of the main characters, the Elliot family. When I was 14 or 15 I read “Pilgrims Inn” for the first time. A family in the trauma of post-World War II England, moving to a an old house in on the English coast and finding themselves recipients of grace, unsought for favor, the gift of God. the surprise of love. And it is the mother and wife of the family, Nadine Elliott, on a walk in the woods who has a realization of the connectedness of life and the compassion it calls for. Goudge writes this:
“Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, “We don’t need each other”
J. D. Salinger, who died this week at the age of 92, was another whose words formed me as a young man. His “Catcher in the Rye” was rich reading for a teenager, but his second or third book, “Franny and Zooey,” touched me deeply when I was 19. A young acting student returns to her parents New York apartment home to have a religious breakdown or breakthrough. Her brother Zooey accuses her of being a spiritual phony snob because she withdraws from the family structure to pray. At one point he says, and I paraphrase, “How can you claim to be a pilgrim, to follow holiness, then turn down a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup we have in this house?” How can you seek holy information out there and ignore the holy formation you have in your own home?
Franny no longer want to be an actress because it seems to be ambitious, egocentric, self obsessed. Her brothers interupts: “The only thing you can do now,” he says, “the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God's actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?
And then he tells her something, something their older brother told him when they were leaving to appear on a radio show together; something that the people in our Gospel reading, in that home-town synagogue in Nazareth, would never see, something, that goes back to Sr. Mary Neill and the altar and the Bible in the world and the heart of who we are.
Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door... I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what... he was talking about, but... I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don't know. Anyway, it seemed... clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense. [And Zooey goes on]...
I'll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady.... There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that... secret yet? And don't you know — listen to me, now — don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself...
Two modern authors with the same point: To see God present in the very midst of who and where we are. We are called here to be the family and friends of Christ, to not overlook him in our midst or even in ourselves; like Mother Teresa of Calcutta who saw Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” and like Thomas Merton writing: “In becoming man, God became not only Jesus Christ but also potentially every man and woman that ever existed. In Christ, God became not only “this” man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, “every man [every person].”
St Augustine, writing around 400AD, brings us home with this prayer:
Oh God, To turn from you is to fall, to turn to you is to rise, and to stand in you is to live forever; Grant us your help in all that we do, in all our perplexities give us your guidance, in all our dangers give us your protection, and in all our sorrows give us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, our body and our blood, our life and our nourishment, Amen.