A Tale of Two Marys

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Discerning the voice of God is one of the toughest parts of the life of Christian discipleship. This is not because God is hard to find. Every inch of creation echoes with His calling. That, in a sense, is what makes the discernment so difficult. God speaks all the time. It is literally God’s speaking that keeps the world spinning. But the question I often ask – the question we all ask from time to time – is what is His word for me? It is a bit of a narcissistic question, but it is one that somehow seems inescapable. Yes, God has spoken through the prophets and continues to speak in the Holy Scriptures. Yes, God speaks in the Sacraments. God speaks to me there as much as He does to everyone. But that doesn’t answer the gnawing questions I have about what I ought to be doing with my life.

In my experience, there is no way to cajole God into giving you that kind of a word. You simply have to wait for it. But it helps to do that waiting in His presence. This is one of the glorious things about reserving the Blessed Sacrament. At any time, I can step into the presence of God. Of course, I am always in the presence of God in a sense, but to kneel in prayer, in silence, in the presence of His Body and Blood is different. I do not have the words to describe it. His presence radiates through me when I do this. I feel like I am home.

Today, I happened to be downtown in Philadelphia and was able to attend the midday Mass at Saint Mark’s, Locust Street. I was there quite early and so I was able to make a holy hour beforehand. There are few places as stunning as the Lady Chapel at Saint Mark’s. The altar is made of pure silver and covered in jewels. Every inch is carved into something of magnificent detail. Sunlight streams in through the stained glass and makes the whole place shine.

As I knelt there praying, I tried to focus my attention on the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but I kept finding myself pulled to notice the statues on either side of the altar instead. They are both statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, both made of silver. The Mary to the left of the altar has her eyes closed and her head bowed, obviously praying. The Mary to the right of the altar is looking out into the room in such a way that it is hard not to think she is looking directly at you. Two Marys, one contemplative and one active. They seemed to speak to me out of the silence.

mary-prayingGod does not always respond to my prayers in the way I expect. I began speaking to God, but I heard the voice of Mary answering me, speaking to me sweetly as my mother. I was a little confused at first, but came to realize that she was not speaking alone or of her own accord. It was her Son who was in her, compelling her to speak. I could almost see a line moving from the Tabernacle up through the image of the Lamb at the pinnacle of the altar, over and out into both Mary statues. What she said to me is just between us, so I will not repeat it here, but I was absolutely struck by the way in which God was at work in that moment, answering my prayers in this strange, round-about seeming way, yet so clearly and truly in them.

The two Marys are emblematic of the life of God in the Church. Both Marys represent how Christ is at work, through the Mother of God, to sanctify the world. One Mary prays. Day and night, she is before her Lord and mine, offering up the petitions of the millions who love her and call out her name. Fueling her prayer is the prayer of her Son who offers His own petition, in the form of His very own Body, on our behalf without ceasing (Hebrews 7:23-25).

But the active Mary offers a word of hope and new life that is borne out of the Resurrection of her Son. She does not give easy answers. I wanted God to speak with fatherly finitude and tell me exactly what the path ahead would look like. Instead, Mary spoke to me with motherly love, assuring me that I can take steps in faith because she will always be there to catch me, to wash my bruises and wipe away my tears. She spoke, but He was speaking in and through her, joining all three of our hearts together, and telling me, gently but firmly, to step out in faith.

lambDo you want to discern the voice of God for your life? Go before Him and wait. But do not be surprised if He speaks through an emissary, be it angel or saint, or even someone entirely unexpected. However He speaks to you, if it is truly Him, It will be a word that both holds you and bids you to act. It will be a word that challenges you and also confirms the deepest longings of your heart. It will be a word that lays out a path that is truly frightening and thoroughly glorious. It will be a word that neither takes away nor adds a single syllable to the deposit of faith, but it will bid you to trust that the whole deposit of faith has been given to you through the sacrifice of the cross. God will delight in giving this word to you. Never doubt for a second that you are beloved of God.

On the veneration of relics

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I recently spent a couple days back in New Haven where I lived a decade ago during seminary. While there, I visited Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in which the Knights of Columbus was founded back in 1882. The parish is passionate about the cause of sainthood for the Knights’ founder, Venerable Father Michael McGivney. He was buried in Waterbury in 1890 but his body was exhumed in 1982 and moved to Saint Mary’s where it remains enshrined for pilgrims to visit to this day.

I have long had mixed feelings about relics. I get the theology behind them. They are a testament to the power of the Incarnation and a reminder that holiness affects our bodies as much as our souls. If God dwells in someone and makes that person holy, then his bones are holy just as truly as his spirit is.

Still though, it’s kind of creepy, right?

When I was in seminary, the dean gathered us one day to show us some old items that the school had collected from the founding of the Episcopal Church. Among them was a lock of hair from Bishop William White, the first Bishop of Pennsylvania and the longest serving as well as the shortest serving Presiding Bishop in the church’s history (it’s true, look it up). It is hard to imagine that Bishop White himself would have been comfortable with this.

That same year, I took a class on Christian pilgrimage. In the middle ages, the desire to touch a piece of the apostles was so strong that practically every church boasted of having relics. The professor remarked one day, “If you put together all of the ‘pieces of the true cross’ floating around back then, you could rebuild Noah’s ark several times over.” It is easy to see how a climate like that made the Protestant reformers question the value of relics. There is an ever present danger with relics that what begins as pious veneration can transform into pagan superstition.

Plus, regardless of the intentions, there is something unsettling about the idea of digging someone up who has been laid to rest. Of course, if you are going to do it, exhuming the whole body is preferable. In many places in the middle ages, people went to extreme lengths to acquire pieces of the saints, the ear of this one or the femur bone of that one. Back then, giving someone the finger took on a whole different connotation than it does today.

So given these misgivings, what did I do when I approached the body of Fr. McGivney? Here’s what I did: I knelt, I made the sign of the cross, I prayed, I kissed the shrine, I asked for Fr. McGivney’s intercession, and I praised God for His glory that shows through His saints.

The thing is, no matter how creeped out I might be by the concept of relics, the actual reality of them, enshrined and displayed in a sanctified place, simply radiates with too much holiness to be denied. Rather than seeming grim, the presence of Fr. McGivney’s body was a comfort. It bore witness to the fact that the saints and heroes of the faith are not demi-gods or apparitions. They are men and women who walked the earth on two feet just like the rest of us and whose bodies were flesh and blood just like ours.

Moreover, the idea that being in the presence of a relic carries a blessing is not so strange if you have ever known someone who was truly saintly. I have been privileged to know a few undeniably holy people in my life. These were people steeped in prayer whose hearts were so filled with God that when they walked into a room you could almost feel the air change. To be near someone who is so close to God draws you closer to Him as well. Why would that stop when the person dies?

If we believe in the Resurrection, then we believe that “to thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 349). Those who were called by God to be a blessing to others when they were alive can continue to bless us after death. Because of the Resurrection, even though they die, they live. Their bodies, made holy during their lifetimes, will one day be restored and reunited to them, but in the mean time, we continue to benefit from their blessedness. We continue to feel the air change around us when we are in the room with them.