by Fr. David May.
The old man peered from behind the curtain of the iconostasis. "Sign!" he yelled. "Sign! Why aren’t you signing?!"
That elderly gesticulating gentlemen was Archbishop Joseph Raya. He was, at the time, concelebrating at the Byzantine liturgy in Madonna House. (He was no longer well enough to preside.)
He had seated himself in the corner of the sanctuary next to the south entrance where he could peek out and see how people were praying.
He was trying to persuade the mostly Latin Rite congregation to make more Signs of the Cross at the appropriate moments (such as when singing Kyrie eleison during the litanies).
"Don’t be afraid to bow," the woman said to us. "Why are you all so self-conscious around here? Pray with your body, and your soul will be uplifted. Bow before God and you will have more room in your hearts for one another. Of course you don’t have to bow, but if you do, you might find it helpful. Think about it!"
That woman was Catherine Doherty speaking to Madonna House staff and guests in the 1970s.
Like Archbishop Joseph, she was trying to teach us something about the connection between body and soul, between the material and the spiritual. Occasionally, she would demonstrate what she meant as part of her teaching. That, of course, made the lessons all the more unforgettable.
At this time we are in the midst of the Lenten season. It is a time of the liturgical year when we are more aware of the connection between the physical and the spiritual.
If we are serious about the Lenten practices, we are denying ourselves food or drink or some other pleasure. We are praying more, doing Stations of the Cross, kneeling, prostrating, bowing, signing, singing, sighing out our prayers with greater intensity.
All of this brings us smack up against a tremendous mystery: we are saved by a God who lived and died and rose again in the flesh.
Our holy Catholic Faith is insistent on this point above all others: the eternal Son of God became flesh and blood, lived as all human beings live except for sin, suffered his passion in the body, died, and rose again, body and soul, the same body and soul, only glorified through the Resurrection.
Good spiritual ideas were not enough to save us. Emptiness of mind and soul were insufficient. Extended meditation techniques did not liberate us. Rituals of great complexity and beauty fell short. Only the Divine One taking up our flesh could meet us, flesh and blood and spirit that we are, and in that meeting, apply the Remedy.
When I pray and fast and give alms, I don’t apply the Remedy, but I dispose myself a little bit more to receive it.
What is that Remedy? It is the mercy of God lavished upon sinners. I pray—that I might receive this mercy. I fast—that I might be emptied of self to beg anew for this mercy. I give alms—that mercy might move through my charitable deeds and change my heart even as it becomes an offering of mercy to others.
The Lenten journey is a "success" to the extent that it leads flesh and blood to become a cry for salvation.
That is why something as concrete as the Sign of the Cross or kneeling or prostrating or bowing is so vital. These can awaken the soul to the truth of its status before God: "Lord, have mercy! I need you so. Save me because of your love!"
This saving grace is given flesh to flesh, his to mine. Jesus doesn’t come to us as a divine Idea but as a divine incarnate Person.
Because he is Person, he speaks words, illuminating a passage of Sacred Scripture by the breath of his Spirit. Because he is God in the flesh, he gives me his body and blood in the Eucharist, and these embrace me like fire that both soothes and warms.
Because I am broken in my fleshly weakness, He envelops me with his understanding, like arms of strength that hold me close to his heart until the impossible burden falls away, consumed in the abyss of his love for me.
Because in my sinful weakness I resist him and fight him and reject him, he receives the blows in meekness, and in the strength of his infinite love does not reject me but remains by my side until I come again to my senses.
Because I am worried and anxious about many things, he comes as presence of stillness, where all becomes calm again as a glassy sea on a perfect summer day.
Because I am in agony over the fate of those I love, he shares with me his own confident prayer in the Father’s all-encompassing providence overriding the mere evidence of human perception.
In all this, he meets me flesh to flesh, where I live and breathe, where I stumble, where I fall, to raise me up by his mercy to his side. This is called the way of salvation.
It is also known as divinization, as he breathes a new Spirit into me in each of these areas of my need for him.
"Sign!" "Bow!" Do you see how these little gestures of devotion, repeated over and over, with no seeming great effect at the time, slowly open a door through which grace might enter in?
Salvation is all God’s gift, but it is as near as the Sign of the Cross and as close as a gesture of humility before him.
Flesh to flesh, we are healed and saved. Flesh to flesh, we are renewed and divinized. Flesh to flesh, in the nitty-gritty matrix of everyday life, we are recipients of a merciful love that alone satisfies the longing of our hearts.
In this consists the radiant heart of the Lenten journey, the bright promise of an eternal Spring, the gift flowing from Christ’s side on the Cross to all who are moved, flesh and spirit, to come and drink.
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