No doubt you’ve heard some variation on the religious saying that goes like this: Storms, wild winds, and waves may rage above. But deep down below the sea, grass sways slowly, calm, and undisturbed.
The message is clear: A powerful inner life can sustain and give solace despite turmoil all around. That’s the hope, at least.
I’ve been reminded of that hope these past few weeks during Pope Francis’ visit here and again now during the synod on the family. Crux and the religious press are filled with speculation: Will Francis allow the divorced and remarried to take Communion? What about couples living in “sin”? And gays? And Vatican intrigue? Are leftie cardinals plotting against conservatives? Or vice versa? Is a schism just around the corner?
Here’s something I’ve learned in the year since I began writing about Catholic spirituality for Crux: To many faithful Catholics I’ve met and sat beside in faith-sharing and prayer groups, these issues matter. This pope matters plenty. If they are social liberals like me, they’d like some change. But if no change arrives, their faith won’t be shattered or even diminished. Their faith is not about the Vatican or divisions in the Church. It moves on a deeper level, like that sea grass on the ocean floor.
At a prayer meeting last week with Catholic teachers, lawyers, retirees, salesmen, volunteers in prison ministry, and homeless ministry, the synod didn’t even come up.
The main topic for 90 minutes: Learning to love as Jesus loved, accepting all, excluding none. Learning to be loved by Jesus in return.
This weekend, I heard an impossibly enthusiastic guy with a lovely Southern drawl talk for two hours — lunch in between — about mystical spirituality and monks Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt, Syria, and Israel.
Later, somebody mentioned prolific writer Joan Chittister’s new book on the desert monks. Chittister, a nun, features the story about some old monks complaining to Abba Poemen that fellow monks doze off too much during the sacred office. What should be done about this outrage? “Should we pinch them,” the monks ask, “so they will stay awake?” Replied Abba Poemen, “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.”
During that lunch break we talked about work, kids, spouses, Chittister, retreats, parish volunteering, and how pleased we were when the pope singled out Dorothy Day during his visit here. Day took such a long, long walk on the wild side.
Again, the synod didn’t come up.
I am fascinated by how people pray. The week the pope was here, I asked a devout Catholic about her prayer life. She told me she’s struggled with eating disorders and tried a million weight loss programs. Nothing worked. Then she joined Overeaters Anonymous and discovered The Third Step Prayer from The Big Book of AA.
God, I offer myself to Thee to build with me and to do with me as Thou will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will.
She repeats a variation of this prayer over and over all day long. She has lost her excess weight. She has grown ever closer, she said, to God.
Asked about his prayer life, her co-worker showed me his dog-eared, pocket edition of the poems of Emily Dickinson, “one of the greatest religious poets, barring none,” he said. Though the reclusive Dickinson rarely left her home or went to church, her so-called gospel poems are often ranked with the poems of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.
This man showed me the rosary he carries in his pocket and the St. Jerome medal he wears around his neck. Then he recited some Dickinson by heart, including the beginning of “I dwell in Possibility.”
I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —
Both of these Catholics were very disappointed, but not surprised, when Pope Francis failed to make the sexual abuse crisis more central to his US visit. Yet neither of them counts on the Vatican for faith-enlarging inspiration either. Like so many Catholics I’ve come to know this year, their faith is more grown-up, not the shallow, childish faith of many of us who, basically, stop learning and inquiring after first Communion or confirmation. They can quote not just Scripture, but Augustine, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, on and on. They know that way back when, Catherine of Siena fought tirelessly against a corrupt clergy and critiqued the Vatican in a non-stop letter writing campaign. But neither rebellion prevented her from becoming a Doctor of the Church or, better yet, consummating what she called her “mystical” marriage with Christ.
To me, this disconnect between faith life and rules-of-Rome life is wonderfully heartening. That’s partly, to be honest, because it’s where I am, too. But that’s also because it reveals Catholicism as so much deeper than these never-ending, embarrassing debates about so-called pelvic issues. It makes faith life primary, not secondary, to what often seems like some Machiavellian political game.
Just before the pope’s visit to America, Alexander Stille reported in The New Yorker about Pope Francis’ struggle to reform a stubborn and entrenched Curia.
“It is the particular genius of Catholicism that it continues to change while insisting that it has never changed,” wrote Stille, taking a line from Cardinal John Henry Newman, then adding that he “thought of this ever-changing, never-changing Church as I visited an elderly cardinal in his palatial apartment near the Vatican …
“In the entryway, there was a life-size, full-length portrait of him. Then, I noticed another large painted portrait of him a few feet away. He led me into the living room, where there were at least seven other portraits of him, a few of them large, life-size paintings,” Stille wrote. “He did not display any awareness that a ferocious tongue-lashing that Francis gave the cardinals last Christmas about the narcissistic and vain nature of the Roman Curia might apply to him.”
Stories such as this upset those, like me, who fear similarly egomaniacal cardinals uniting to thwart our big-hearted, reform-minded pope. If so, the synod will end with a thud. But I feel better knowing how far better Catholics than me stopped heeding such cardinals years ago. And sometimes when I sit with such Catholics, I can feel the power of their faith just fill up the room.