Thursday, July 5, 2012

Seeing God in the Ordinary

In the bulletin for Sunday, July 8th, I write about how we are presented with an exalted vision of the Mass (It’s heaven on earth, Christ is Really Present, it is the source of every grace, etc.) and yet the Mass can seem so ordinary.

By ordinary, I mean that the Mass is celebrated by ordinary people (few of us are celebrities) with ordinary gestures and ordinary "stuff" of this world like bread and wine. We do try to dress up the Mass to signal that there is something going on that is more than ordinary: the bread usually looks like a round wafer, and the wine is not in a cup but a "chalice," and the priest is dressed in robes (vestments) one would never see outside the Mass.

Yet for all that the round wafer is still made of bread: wheat and water; the chalice is still a cup; and the priest wearing those robes is still a human being, often very ordinary himself.

What we need, as I write in my Pastor’s column, is "a new way of seeing beyond or within the ordinary things of our worship the extraordinary God who became one of us–except for sin–so that we could be lifted up higher into his love."

I go on to write: "We need to learn to see in a way captured by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In an allusion to the burning bush in which God spoke to Moses who removed his shoes in humility and worshiped (See Exodus 3:1-5), Browning remarks:

"Earth’s crammed with heaven.
 Every common bush aflame with the fire of God.
 But only those who see it take off their shoes.
 The rest sit around and pick blackberries."
I like that passage very much. It is the intuition of the Catholic vision of things: "earth’s crammed with heaven." We also call this the Catholic or Sacramental Imagination (how Catholics image God through the things and people of earth). Thus, in an interview with author George Weigel, he says:

"Why do we have ‘sacraments’? Because the world has been configured by God in a ‘sacramental’ way, i.e., the things of this ‘real world’ world can disclose the really real world of God's love and grace. The Catholic ‘sacramental imagination’ sees in the stuff of this world hints and traces of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of the world..."
So Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives an example of how "earth’s crammed with heaven" or as the Sacramental Imagination would say, "the things of earth can reveal God to us": "Every common bush aflame with the fire of God." She is, as I noted, referring to that extraordianry epiphany to Moses, when God spoke to him through a bush that was burning but not consumed by the fire. Moses removed his shoes, a gesture in his time of worship and humility.

Browning’s religious insight is that it was an ordinary bush that God used for this God-revelation; so God uses many ordianary things (and people) to reveal "the real world of God’s love and grace" (Weigel, Ibid.)

However, Browning makes an important claim: "But only those who see it take off their shoes. The rest sit around and pick blackberries." Some can see God in the ordinary and take off their shoes. Others see nothing but an ordinary bush and pick ordinary blackberries and that’s all.

How do we come to "see" God’s Presence in the ordinary? As Catholics we are introduced to such a vision from the earliest moments of our life: through the Mass and the sacraments, through "sacramentals" (Read more about sacramentals HERE) like holy water and medals and statues, through the art and decoration of the church, through the stories of our faith (Bible stories and stories of the saints).

We also need to understand what we are doing at Mass. But I shall say more about that next week.

To read more about the Catholic/sacramental imagination click HERE