Being an ecclesiologist these days is a difficult gig. Hours after the flurry of recent activity involving the American and universal church, I had to stand in front of a graduate class to introduce a semester-long study of a course subtitled “The Church and its Mission.” It was, and is, important to make clear that I do not see my role in this enterprise as defending the model of the institutional church against all comers foreign and domestic, and even less as the surgeon charged with excising “gangrenous” members of the community. The apostles welcomed Thomas the week after the shock of all shocks, despite his doubting protestations that they were lying about their encounter with the Risen Lord.
He did not say to them, “This is nonsense. I want nothing to do with all of you!” and they did not say to him “If you don’t believe us, you’re no longer welcome in our midst!” He was there with them the following weekend, to be the first to cry out, “My Lord and my God,” despite his absence at that initial moment, and his unwillingness to come to terms with what had happened. That always seemed to me a testimony to faith at the margins, which lives commingled with doubt, as the weeds and the wheat which grow together in our own souls until the Last Day.
But I readily admit that emotion overtook me at Sunday Mass this week, as I profoundly love the community of the People of God, and these trying times are to me incredibly disheartening. But, then again, for those of us who believe in the message of Christ to which we can arrive only through a process of handing on and receiving that saving message from others, (canon law prohibits one from baptizing oneself, as a simple but enlightening example) as the weekend’s Gospel made clear: “To whom else shall we go?” (Jn 6:68).
It was comforting to me that these trials unfolded amidst one of my favorite weeks of the year, when the church honors Saint Monica and Saint Augustine on back-to-back feast days. As an only child with a special relationship with my mother, I have had a longstanding devotion to the former. We all know well the words with which Ambrose consoled Monica grieving over her son’s prolonged and debilitating shortcomings: “A child of so many tears will never be lost.” I hope that today we can hear an echo of that sentiment in our approach to the church, which the early patristic fathers said could be called the mysterium lunae, “the mystery of the moon,” whose desolate and barren surface does not illuminate itself, but always reflects the light and warmth coming from a greater Sun.
The great mystics in the church — Augustine and Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola and countless others — almost without exception underwent conversion experiences, which our community of disciples desperately needs in these times – not “them,” or “him,” but “us.” Nonetheless, the Caravaggio paintings of these moments — where Paul is thrust from the horse in a blinding light — do not tell the whole story. These “turnings around” are not found in an instant, but unfold over a lifetime.
The conversion doesn’t end as if we have achieved on this side of eternity the state of perfect discipleship. We are never the believer, or the follower, or the partner, or the friend, or the teacher, or (God knows!) the writer, that we are ultimately called to be. Our lives are endless conversion experiences, like the asymptotic graph where the arc ever approaches, but never reaches the terminal point.
It’s not to say that we are not ultimately moving toward a goal, but rather that we are never quite “there.” It’s like quantum physics in a way: just when you think you’ve pinned the quark down where it should be, you find it almost inevitably somewhere else. That’s why Nuestra Señora de la Estrada, Our Lady of the Way, (or Madonna della strada, in Italian, “of the highways” — which is the parish church of Loyola University Chicago) can be invoked as a particularly powerful image of the entire Christian community in these days, the pilgrim people of God journeying together through history.
Let us commit ourselves to the necessary if unsettling change of familiarity that is to come, to doing more than “business as usual,” to setting out together as a People, to being inspired to convert once more, and to rejecting the despondence of Elijah sleeping under the broom tree. For the angel said unto him: “Rise now, for the road ahead is long and the distance to travel, far.”
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.