Tuesday, August 8, 2017

More Vivid in Venice?

Our experience is often affected by the reception we receive. That was true on July 12, 2017, the day I visited the Basilica of Saints John and Paul in Venice, Italy. With GPS in hand, our son Jeremy guided my wife Judi and me through the corridors of Venice toward Piazza San Marco to visit St. Mark’s Cathedral. It’s an inevitable destination for tourists. On our way, we broke out into a square where I saw another church. “Let’s quickly stop here!” I blurted.

When I entered, I was welcomed by a magnificent display of religious art—architecture, sculpture and paintings. The guard, housed in his glass enclosure, also welcomed me. It wasn’t a backslapping, used car salesman, kind of welcome. It was a quiet but genuine expression of hospitality. Later when I thanked him for his warmth, he remarked that most Venetians are tired of tourists. He wants visitors to feel glad they’ve come. He went on to express a genuine affection for this sacred space.

As we conversed, I asked if there are books written in English that describe and illustrate this basilica. He showed me two, briefly detailing their strengths. He also pointed out that visitors are not allowed to take pictures. When I asked why, he explained that this is a house of worship: picture-taking would mar the experience for those who come for that purpose  The ban also keeps tourists from posting photos on the Internet, thus guarding the integrity of the art. I mentally flipped a coin and bought the larger of the two books.

The gatekeeper also urged me to look around before I bought a ticket (€3.50). He even offered to waive the ticket price because I had bought the book. He also encouraged Jeremy and Judi to look around. As we began to explore, I found Jeremy in a side-chapel called Chapel of Our Lady of Peace. He was fascinated by a painting and an icon there. So we had a short conversation about the meaning and significance of both works.

Not wanting to outstay our welcome, I went back to the guard and explained that we were on our way to St. Mark’s. At that, his demeanor conveyed deep disappointment. When I asked why, he expressed that, in his mind, this basilica is superior to St. Mark’s. After a brief explanation, he said, “Go and explore St. Mark’s for yourself. Then come back and tell me which one you think is better.” I assured him that I would return.

So, the three of us resumed our trek toward St. Mark’s Square. When we arrived, the line to enter the Cathedral was long: I estimated it would take an hour or more to get in. I wanted to enjoy the basilica we had just left rather than wait in line here.

As we started back, Jeremy had trouble finding basilica on his GPS. I felt a sense of loss: We had stumbled onto the Holy Grail; what if we couldn’t find it again! But we did. And by that time we were tired and hot from all the walking. So Jeremy and Judi found a nearby cafe with WiFi. They would hang out there until I was ready for lunch. After an hour or so in the church, I joined them in the cafe for some food and a respite. After lunch, I returned to the house of worship to continue basking in beauty.

I believe my first impression of this basilica—its beauty and the guard’s hospitality—was God’s invitation to come and enjoy, to rest. My soul was experiencing its own version of Psalm 84: “How lovely your dwelling, O Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lᴏʀᴅ.

I began to use the book I had purchased to match the photographs with “reality.” It was obvious that even professional photos pale in comparison with the fairness of this place. Just as pictures are mere facsimiles of art, art itself only suggests ʀᴇᴀʟɪᴛʏ. C. S. Lewis expressed it well in The Great Divorce: Heaven (God’s presence) is more real than our world.

Having encountered such elegance, I decide to spend time in the smaller world of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary where the loveliness is more manageable. The book explains the charred odor I notice as I enter: “On the night of 15-16 August 1876, a serious fire destroyed the chapel…. On October 1959 the restored chapel was solemnly reopened.”

One of the reasons I feel so at home here in the Basilica of Saints John and Paul is that it isn’t crowded. Everyone, it seems, is at St. Mark’s. I relish this intimacy with God, which reminds me of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at my home parish on Friday mornings. This is a perfect place to adore our Lᴏʀᴅ. Surely Christ’s presence is even more vivid here than in that simple chapel with inexpensive icons back home: Sanctuary lamps convey Christ’s presence in the tabernacle. Priceless paintings such as “The Assumption,”  “Adoration of the Pastors,” and “Annunciation” by Paolo Veronese adorn the ceiling. Other canvases such as “St. Michael Vanquishes Lucifer,” “Last Supper,” “Jesus Meeting Veronica,” and “Dead Christ” by various artists are closer to eye level. Low reliefs like “Annunciation” and “Jesus Disputing with the Doctors of the Law in the Temple” are on the walls near the altar. Smooth, beautifully varnished, wooden benches and kneelers and marble floors complete the elegant atmosphere.

As I settle in, I decide not to focus on the art. The book will help me recall the images and the intimacy when I get home. Instead, I’m attentive to the palpable presence of Christ. I truly feel at home: “My home is by your altars, Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts, my king and my God! Blessed are those who dwell in your house! They never cease to praise you” (Psalm 48:4-5).

But is Christ really more vivid in Venice? When I return home and resume Eucharistic adoration in our modest chapel in South Hadley, I realize that Christ seems as close here as he did in Venice. Perhaps my respite in the basilica has enhanced my awareness of Christ wherever I may be.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Beautiful Home-Going

I entered my patient’s room for a vigil on a cool May afternoon unaware that I would participate in that person’s beautiful end-of-life experience.

The woman was alone, so I walked to her side and spoke quietly, reciting words from the Scriptures and praying while gently massaging her forehead. After a few minutes, several others entered the room: the woman’s daughter and son-in-law, and her priest and hospice chaplain. A hospice nurse was also present. I retreated to the foot of the bed and joined the semicircle that formed.

The priest approached the patient and explained that he would administer the sacraments of healing. All was quiet as he took a moment to prepare. As he proceeded, we readily participated in the ritual, making the sign of the cross and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Most memorable to me, though, were the words expressed by the priest to the patient: “I absolve you of all sin.” That affirmation prompted a silent collective sigh. All was in order.

Within a short time (was it one minute or two?), the patient took her last breath. We stood in wonder that the inevitable had happened. Death is always a surprise. Yet the priest conveyed contentment, for his prayers had been answered. And chaplain Cary Quigley expressed that the sacraments had given the patient tacit permission to slip away.

Most gratifying to me was the daughter’s amazement and joy over the sequence of events. I’m sure she was grieving, but at that moment she seemed jubilant. It was as though someone had beautifully designed her mother’s home-going, but the coordinator remained concealed. All the daughter could do in the moment was express gratitude.

And I silently relished my sense of joy that I could participate in this momentous moment.

© Stan Bohall, Hospice Volunteer

June 5, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wrestling with the Reformation

As many Protestants prepare to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this October 31, I am conflicted about that development in church history.

As a Baptist pastor, I thoroughly identified with the Reformation. I relished Luther’s chutzpah that sparked the movement. I honored Luther for translating the Bible into the language of the German people. I was grateful that Luther and others articulated and promoted the three solas: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone.[1] I tried to turn the attention of folks away from Halloween and toward the celebration of Luther posting his ninety-five theses. On Reformation Sunday, we would sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and read Psalm 46.

Now as a Catholic, my appreciation of the Reformation is muted. Discourse, most often by theologians, historians and clergy rather than from lay people, is typically critical. They sometimes refer to it as a rebellion.[2] While they admit that the Church needed a course correction, they consider many of the beliefs of the reformers to be out of bounds. Yet, last year Pope Francis participated in a prayer service at a Lutheran cathedral in Sweden to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. He expressed that Lutherans and Catholics “should mend past errors and seek mutual forgiveness.”[3]

So I wrestle with the positives and negatives of the Reformation. I believe that the Lord God inspired Luther and others to challenge the Church for the integrity of the Gospel. At the same time, I believe God wants all followers of Jesus to be united—to be “perfectly one.” Unity reveals God’s love for us, which matches His love for our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:20-23). As the song from the ‘60s goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But what would complete unity look like? Would the division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which began in 1054, be settled? Would the disconnect between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and further lack of harmony within the Protestant branch of Christianity, be resolved? It’s true that perfect unity will happen in the heavenly realms. But can we achieve it here on earth? If so, how will it take place?

It will arrive as we realize that all branches and sub-branches of Christianity believe and teach that our salvation, our forgiveness and ultimate freedom from sin and friendship with God, comes from “conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.”[4] Unity will arrive as we speak respectfully about the nuances the branches and sub-branches emphasize. Unity will flourish as we recognize that disagreement among Christians largely has to do with the mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our essential relationship with our Lord. Engaging in worship with other traditions is a good way to appreciate their beliefs and practices. For example, in June of 2013 Judi and I spent several days at New Skete Monasteries in Upstate New York basking in the beauty of Eastern Orthodoxy.[5]

While evangelicals and Roman Catholics agree that our faith is all about having “a personal relationship” with God the Father through Jesus Christ, Catholics don’t typically use that phrase. So I take note when Catholics express their faith that way.

For example, the priest at the parish I attend recently gave this illustration during two separate homilies. He recalled attending a funeral at an evangelical church where the pastor was an outspoken critic of Catholicism. The pastor said something like this to the assembled congregation that apparently included Catholics: “If you think your rosary beads will get you to heaven, you are in for a rude awakening!” and “If you think your novenas will assure your salvation, you are mistaken!” Fr. Michael said that the pastor’s words were so annoying that he wanted to take his rosary beads and throw them at the pastor such that the crucifix would make a permanent impression on the speaker’s forehead. “But there was just one problem,” our priest said, “That pastor was right! Our rosary beads won’t get us to heaven. Our novenas aren’t the way to God. Jesus is the only way. It is only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that we will arrive in heaven. Our rosary beads and our novenas are simply some of the means we use to connect with our Lord.”

And H. James Towey, in his contribution to Paul D. Scalia’s book That Nothing May Be lost, writes, “Any book on the Christian life is only of value if it facilitates or nurtures an encounter with Jesus—not the concept of Jesus or the legend of Jesus, but the Person of Jesus.”[6] He also quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more.”[7] Towey proceeds to tell his own conversion story. It’s worth the price of the book.[8]

I hasten to note that Catholics and evangelicals, and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition, have much more in common than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here is a short list of beliefs revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church long before the Schism of 1054 and the Reformation of 1517.

       There is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
       God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelled among us. He is one person with two natures, divine and human;
       Sacred Scripture (God’s Word) is authoritative for faith and life;
       Our Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again to accomplish our salvation;
       We are justified by grace through faith because of Christ;[9]
       Those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ;[10]
       We look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will take us to heaven to worship God for all eternity.[11]

There are clusters of Christians from contrasting traditions that work harmoniously without diluting the tenets of their faith. A short list includes those aligned with Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ETC),[12] members of “That They May Be One” Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue,[13] and those who write for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. I’ll focus on Touchstone because it is the one I know best. This publication, which has nourished me for fifteen years, has a clear mission statement:

Touchstone is a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom— Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. It provides a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church. To the confusion of voices in the world on matters of order in religious, social, and cultural life, it speaks with a unified voice of that which, manifest in creation and divine revelation, flows from the life of God himself.[14]

It’s a pleasure to read Touchstone for several reasons: the writing is superb; each issue features a wide range of topics; and the authors express their convictions in a positive and constructive manner. Above all, its members seek to bring healing to our wounded society. Theological disagreement among, for example, a Southern Baptist (Russell D. Moore), a Roman Catholic (Anthony Esolen) and a member of the Eastern Orthodox community (Patrick Henry Reardon) is never on display. Their unity is palpable.

Such consensus is an example for my wife, Judi, and me as we enjoy our respective traditions. I like to say that we have our own chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. We remain united when we recall that we are followers of Jesus by virtue of our conversion to God in Christ. We remain united when we speak respectfully about our contrasting customs. We remain united when we affirm that differences in our traditions have to do largely with mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our relationship with God. We remain united when we recall that first and foremost we are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Writing this helps clarify how I feel about the Reformation. Division, prompted by sinful attitudes and practices, still abounds. Yet, positive points of emphasis and nuances embodied by various traditions continue to nourish the body of Christ. C. S. Lewis observed that in heaven, “. . . each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.”[15] That sort of praise of God does happen in this valley of tears, but it is often tainted by sin.

Thus, I celebrate this momentous anniversary, in advance, by writing this essay. I’m sure I’ll observe the day in some special way. Until then, I’ll read and support Touchstone magazine even more faithfully; and I’ll begin reaching out to evangelicals in our community to promote meaningful communication. Perhaps, by God’s grace, Judi and I will expand our chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

© Stan Bohall
June 12, 2017
Word count: 1517

[1] I have since discovered two more: through Christ alone, and glory to God alone.
[2] http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/01/the-reformation-the-mother-of-all-revolutions.html.
[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-sweden-idUSKBN12V005?il=0.
[4] Cf. “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (https://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/05/evangelicals-catholics-together-the-christian-mission-in-the-third-millennium), the penultimate paragraph of the section titled We Witness Together, 19 of 24. Not all groups that claim to be Christian are within the fold. The article “We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denomination” (http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations) by Scott Eric Alt makes this clear.
[5] Cf. https://www.newskete.org.
[6] Rev. Paul D. Scalia, That Nothing May Be Lost (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 19.
[7] Ibid. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 21, 2009, quoted in “Pope Encourages Personal Relationship with Christ: Points to Example of St. Bernard of Clairvaux” https://zenit.org/articles/pope-encourages-personal-relationship-with-christ/.
[8] Ibid. 20-22.
[9] “Evangelicals & Catholics Together . . . .”, 4 of 24.
[10] Ibid.
[11] There are groups that claim to be Christian that do not espouse one or more of these beliefs. Scott Eric Alt makes this point in his article, “We Need to Stop Saying That There are 33,000 Protestant Denominations” http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations.
[12] https://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/05/evangelicals-catholics-together-the-christian-mission-in-the-third-millennium.
[13] https://www.the-highway.com/ECT_Armstrong.html.
[14] Reproduced from the magazine’s masthead. A summary of that statement is the subtitle of Touchstone’s parent organization, The Fellowship of St. James, For Christ, Creed & Culture.
[15] Clive Staples Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 154.