Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pope John Paul the Great: We Remember...

It was just a year ago that our beloved John Paul the Great (I said it, so there!) crossed the earthly finish line and bounded toward the gates of heaven.

A year later, it still hurts a little.

My kids never got to meet the Holy Father, but if you show them his picture, they will tell you without hesitation that he is "The Holy Father in heaven." One of the most challenging aspects of parenting, I've found, is knowing when to jump on a particular teachable moment.

The only true "Father in Heaven," of course, is the first Person of the Blessed Trinity, Who is God alone. As he stands before the Almighty (assuming that he is in fact in heaven, which I personally believe is the case but leave it to greater minds than mine to pronounce it absolutely), Karol Wojtyla is no more "Father," but beloved son. Also, he is no holier than the myriad of souls who surround him: Clad in the light of heaven, where is no trace of earthly soil, his spotless garments have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and ironed in the fires of purgatory (both those of his earthly life and those that comprised his final steps toward heaven).

And yet, in another sense, John Paul II is every bit as much the father -- even more so, in fact -- as he was here on earth. He is praying for us. And he is watching over us, knowing that he did his very best to show us the path to God.

I recently read an article on Catholic Exchange in which the writer (who by all accounts is a knowledgeble Catholic) criticized those who in his estimation were premature in their proclamation of "John Paul the Great" or "St. John Paul II." The second title, I'll grant, is premature -- only the Church can declare someone a saint.

But who is better able to assess the greatness of a man or his message: those who knew him personally, or those rendered "objective" by the inevitable distance of the passing years?

We consider the apostles (who knew Him personally) the most authoritative representatives of the Lord, the ones best able to communicate His message and His life with accuracy. Why should the life and words of His representative on earth be assessed any differently?

It is one thing to judge the goings-on in heaven, which we cannot see. It is quite another matter to acknowledge what we have seen with our own eyes and touched with our own hands: In the man of John Paul II, we were touched for a time with true greatness.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Church Girl Runs Home

As a young girl, I was taught that there are certain places good Christian girls do not belong: sitting with a boyfriend in the backseat of a Firebird, frequenting movie theaters or karaoke bars, or venturing within fifty miles of Hollywood or Las Vegas, cities so inherently sinful that God must one day destroy them in a torrent of hellfire, or dig up both Sodom and Gomorrah to apologize.

Yet there I was, well within the L.A. “strike zone,” wandering the streets and wondering just how I had gone so far off track. I had spent most of my life in one Christian church or another – playing the piano or teaching a Sunday school class. During Bible school, I had even taught at a Christian academy in Dakar, Senegal. A few years later, I spent a summer leading a Christian outreach team in southern Poland. Yet somehow along the way, I lost my faith.

I’ll never forget those awful months when I realized what had happened. My prayers bounced off the ceiling. My family was thousands of miles away. My college friends had moved out of the area, and the small church I had attended was in a state of upheaval: the pastor had resigned because he sensed God was leading him to, of all things, become Catholic. Later, over lunch, I couldn’t help but notice that, for a man who had just lost his livelihood and the support of his friends and family, he seemed awfully upbeat.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. The outreach had ended badly, the team split between the charismatic Poles and the conservative Americans. We had spent the last two weeks of the tour in eastern Germany, living out of our bus because the organizer had not arranged accommodation for us. I could not understand why God had led us there, only to be stranded in the middle of the German countryside. My questions deepened when I returned home to find that my father had suffered a collapse.

Going to church was the worst. After my experience in the previous church, I switched to a non-denominational “megachurch,” hoping to find a sense of peace in the beautiful music and the eloquent sermons. Instead I felt like a child with my nose pressed up against the glass of a candy store, hungry but unable to reach what I wanted most. God, where are You? All my life I have tried to love and serve you. Your Word promises that You will never leave me. So why do I feel so alone?

In the early morning hours, I would get up and put on my headset, and stroll the neighborhood past the old mission-style church on the corner. One morning I listened to a tape my pastor friend had given me on the Eucharist. “When God came, He did not send a book. He did not send another prophet. He came Himself. God with us, in the person of His Son. ‘Take this… This is my body broken for you… Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you have no life within you….”

No life within you… That, I understood at the very core of my being. “Lord, I need your life in me. Show me how to find it.” As that thought went through my head, I found myself on the steps of that old church. A strange fear gripped me; surely God would not be there, in such a “dead” and solemn place. I needed the joy of the Lord, not more rules and regulations…

For a week I walked past that church, arguing with myself about the futility of darkening the doors of yet another church. I told myself that I just needed to pray more, read more, spend more time alone with God. And yet, something drew me unmistakably toward that place, and I finally went inside.

Unlike the church I normally attended, this one was dark and quiet, with soft strains of organ music in the background. At the front was an ornate altar, with a large golden box off to one side, where someone had once told me the Eucharist was kept between services. Torn between wanting to get a closer look and not wanting to draw attention to myself, I slipped into one of the back pews.

On the other side of the aisle, a Hispanic laborer knelt in prayer, his stained fingers clasped on the back of the pew. In front of him, a genteel elderly matron fingered her rosary, her mouth moving soundlessly. As the pews began to fill up, I marveled at the cross-section of humanity represented here . . . the very old and very young, rich and poor, cultured and rough, devout and indifferent.

A woman a few years older than me tapped me on the shoulder and asked if she could sit with me; she showed me how to use the missal, and during the service explained in low tones what was going to happen.

As I listened to the Scripture readings, I began to relax. The familiar story of Jesus welcoming the children made me smile. In that moment, I was feeling very much like a child. I did not know the prayers everyone else recited by heart. I had to watch carefully to be sure I didn’t sit or stand at the wrong time. And when the others went forward to receive the Eucharist, I held back, unsure of whether it was OK to go.

“Go on,” the woman coaxed me. “Just cross your arms like this, and the priest will bless you.” So I got up and walked toward him, as he held a little round wafer aloft for a moment before giving it to each person in line. “The Body of Christ,” he intoned. “The Body of Christ.” He smiled at me reassuringly as I clutched my hands in front of me, then he traced the sign of the cross on my forehead. It was the first time anyone had ever done that to me, and I remember feeling lighter inside as I returned to my seat.

Over the next few weeks I went back several times, and finally (not realizing it was inappropriate for me to do so) I went up and received Eucharist. At that moment, two thoughts came to me: First, I needed to talk with someone about what was happening to me. Second, my sense of isolation was gone, wrapped in the ancient embrace of something much bigger and more permanent than myself.

It was the difference between a teenage crush and a marriage: With puppy love, the pair wants to be only with each other, just as for many years I went through life supposing “Jesus and me” was enough. Marriage is very different: through this sacrament, a couple is given a context of love – sharing generations of their families, their friends, and (in time) their own children. In the same way, I discovered a deposit of faith safeguarded since the time of the apostles through the writings of the Church Fathers and other holy men and women who knew God as intimately as I wanted to.

While I had known God all my life, the conversion process was more painful for me than it is for some. For years I had labored under the delusion that I was the final authority on truth, if only for myself. In reality, my faith was rather superficial and highly subjective, based on what I believed the Scriptures said, what I felt God was saying to me. If I didn’t agree with the pastor or teacher, I simply found another church.

Now God was showing me plainly that this was not the way of transformation. Those weeks of isolation and depression revealed the truth: I am really just a child in desperate need of healing, and I must trust the Great Physician even when I do not understand what He is doing to me.
This sense of inner transformation, or conversion, caught me by surprise. I had believed in Jesus and gone to church all my life. And yet, God had to take me outside my comfort zone so I could hear Him clearly. I was a little surprised to experience God’s presence so powerfully in the stillness of an ancient liturgy. But then I remembered the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19), when the prophet encountered the Almighty. He was not in the great wind, or in the earthquake or fire that followed, but in the still, small voice after the tumult.

In my frenetic religious activity, I became too “busy” to become quiet and listen for the beloved voice of my Father. It wasn’t until I became like a kid again that I rediscovered it, not in the rush – but in the silence.

Heidi Hess Saxton is a freelance writer and editor. She and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children.