The Condescension of His Love

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My family and I were spread out in our living room, surrounded by that comfortable assortment of semi-clutter that makes a house a home, poised to embark on our nightly rosary . . . when the phone rang. (Of course.)

My brother answered with that classic, teen-aged, almost military style in which his tone conveyed absolutely nothing to the rest of us eager eavesdroppers. A minute elapsed, brimming with such descriptive words as: “Okay . . . okay. Okay. All right. Yeah, you too. Yes. Right. Bye.”

At last my brother hung up. “There’s going to be a Low Mass tomorrow morning at the chapel,” he announced.

“What time?” we chorused.

“Seven.”

Immediately we all began making mental calculations, in which the spirit was quite willing but the flesh was, predictably, weak. Of course, seven in the morning isn’t at all horrendous . . . but for us, it requires getting up at 5:30 in order to get up, yawn eighty times, get dressed and arrive at the chapel with enough time to snatch a few quick prayers before Mass began. And, for us, 5:30 a.m. is . . . well, mildly horrendous. Be that as it may, it was still too tantalizing to pass up. Aside from First Saturday Masses, this would be the first morning weekday Latin Mass we’d had the privilege of attending so far. (Here’s to milestones!)

I went to bed marking my missal, filled with grateful, youthful zeal. Interiorly, I was so eager to go and to assist at a Low Mass in such a special and intimate setting. Having read historical biographies of aristocrats with private chapels on their estates where the Latin Mass was offered daily (sigh…) had only stoked my desire to be blessed with at least a slightly similar experience. (Even if I don’t have that aristocratic air.) What would it be like? So early, and with (most likely) only my family, our two friends, and the good priest all in one tiny chapel?

Anyway, it was this same type of zeal which dragged my mother, siblings and myself out of bed in the 5 o’clock hour the next morning, and thus we left for the Mass in the golden, spilling light of dawn as my faithful father left for work. (Early morning brings out the poetic in me . . . which is probably why I’ve written so little poetry lately. Early morning and I are slowly getting back on respectable terms.) We yawned through our fervent declarations of how excited we were. I drank in the almost stunning vividness of color that morning light reveals.

Once we arrived at the chapel grounds, the five of us unloaded from the car and wandered around for a bit before we located the right door (most likely due to my somewhat misguided directions). Outside, the early July morning was warm, humid and still. I could feel my skin going prickly and my un-showered hair becoming a puff ball . . . but that’s what mantillas are for. As this chapel door was still locked, we stood outside and conversed with our two friends; we were all, most likely, privately sniggering at how sleep-deprived some of us looked. (Or at least I was.)

The good priest arrived shortly afterwards, and we all filed inside the tiny, hushed chapel where Heaven was shortly to meet earth in the beautiful form of the Latin liturgy, with just the eight of us there to adore.

I stepped into the dimness (lit only by the sanctuary lamp), blessed myself, found a seat as quietly as I could, and knelt. Immediately I was impressed by how the smallness of the chapel, with only twelve seats and accompanying kneelers, made everything feel incredibly . . . well, close.

As I knelt, praying and blinking sleepily before the tabernacle, warm light shifted and fell through the stained glass windows, washing my missal pages with the colors of the Sacred Heart. Thank You, thank You, my heart prayed in quiet rhythm. And yet while I was smiling (in a very prayerful, pious, saintly way, of course) with excitement and gratitude to be able to attend this rare weekday Latin Mass, at the same time, I started feeling as if my smallest noises (especially swallowing; there’s something annoying-sounding about swallowing on an empty stomach) were almost embarrassingly loud.

But never mind! The Mass began, and as the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar commenced, my ears and mind were flooded with the priest’s voice, with his unique enunciation of the Latin (each priest’s enunciation is slightly, fascinatingly different!), and with the server’s steady responses; with the sounds of their vestments rustling, with the color of the priest’s stiff, blood-red Roman chasuble, in honor of St. Pantaleon. But most of all, they were flooded with the creaking of the kneeler beneath my knees; with the rustling of my missal pages; with, essentially, me.

Most weekday mornings, my family and I stream Mass live out of Sarasota, FL, thanks to the FSSP’s wonderful apostolate LiveMass.net. Praying along with the Mass every morning, even though it’s across a distance, is a tremendous blessing . . . but there is still the inevitable separation of my physical presence from the Mass‘ physical location, to where I’m not “conscious” of my own presence at the Mass, so to speak. In a similar way, at our nearly 100-year-old parish where Latin Mass is offered every Sunday, we have a spacious nave, beautiful side-altars along the transept, and a majestically domed sanctuary; thus, a person can easily feel diminished and obscured by the sacred loftiness of the Church, and the beauty and wonder of the Mass being offered there. Self-consciousness is almost nonexistent.

But . . . this chapel was different.

Although I couldn’t fully articulate it to myself then, I was, frankly, humbled and flooded with the sense of my own humanity, the priest’s humanity, the server’s humanity–the humanity of the eight of us. We were there, at the sublime sacrifice of the Mass, in the midst of a host of invisible angels and saints, in the glory of God preparing to come down upon the altar. I was there, with my frizzy hair, my feet itching from mosquito bites after a barefoot volleyball game the week before (the things I do to keep up with my friends. . .); with my hungry stomach, my suddenly loud breaths. How to describe it other than this? I was there. Or, perhaps better put, I was allowed to be there. Even though my heart was so grateful for that moment, and I united myself as best I could to the Mass, I nevertheless felt clumsy, thick-minded and unable to comprehend what was happening. My fantasized dreams of being able to attend a morning Low Mass in a setting such as this had seemingly forgotten the reality of me, and how the Mass does not erase the sometimes awkward quirkiness of my humanity.

And yet . . . the Mass was happening, all the same. In fact, it was happening because the consecrated priest, in all his humanity–the same as mine–was there, offering it.

The Latin Mass first captured my heart with its ancient beauty, with its clear and vibrant witness to the Truth through the form of its sacred liturgy. I truly was awed; and I was humbled, because it proclaimed to me how great God Is and how much reverential adoration He Is due. It taught me to forget myself during the liturgy and simply to adore God and to surrender my heart to Him.

But there, in that small chapel, I began to also realize the unspeakably condescending love of God towards me–towards all of us–in the Mass. I began to see how God explicitly deigned to take His Holy Mass–the highest prayer and greatest miracle–and to attach it and to wrap it up in the physical actions of simple, faulty human beings.

Somehow, I don’t think I’d ever really contemplated that before.

The Mass is sublime, because it comes from God; it gives us God, and gives us to God. And yet, it will always involve our humanity, require our humanity, for the simple reason that He fashioned it that way.

The Mass’ existence ultimately relies on the divinely ordained priest, who swallows, breathes, shifts, rustles, sniffs, coughs, and is susceptible to making mistakes, as we all are. And while the Sacrifice of the Mass certainly does not rely on the laity in the same way, it is nevertheless ordered, in its very nature, to receive us and require us to give all that we are, body and soul, to God.

The Mass embraces our physical presences, our coughs, our sneezes, our wandering minds, our growling stomachs. The very fact that God–surrounded by His Angels of fathomless beauty, radiance and grace, and by the glorified souls of His Saints–desires to be surrounded by His often awkward, clumsy human creatures (including me) in this Most Holy Sacrifice, to the point where the Mass cannot be offered and the Eucharist cannot be confected but for the ministration of a human being, of the priest in persona Christi . . . this is dumbfounding.

This is Love.

So in that tiny chapel, the Mass progressed; I received Our Lord in Holy Communion along with my family and our friends; I stood for the reverent proclamation of the Last Gospel; and soon enough, I was kneeling in quiet again. The peace “which passeth all understanding,” that only comes from the Eucharist, seeped into my soul, even as I contemplated and wondered at all these new realizations and questions that I would work to articulate later in this over-written, over-edited blog post.

Faintly, birds chirped out beyond the stained glass windows; small animals shuffled through the outdoor mulch. Eventually we all filed out of the chapel; the good priest hurried on his way to his next destination, and our friends left for work. My family and I headed back home to the rousing tunes of Switchfoot (we still had a little waking up to do, after all) and with a quick stop for breakfast. (The best biscuit and gravy I’d had in a very long time, I must say. With Sprite. Mmm.)

But the Mass had happened, just like that, with me and for me. For all of us. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it had been different from my romantic daydreams of an early morning Mass . . . and yet, of course, it had been better. It had shown me a tiny, clearer glimpse of the beautiful, infinite condescension of Our Lord’s divine love towards me–body and soul–in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I pray I will never again forget it.

I will go in unto the altar of God; to God, Who giveth joy to my youth!

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My Favorite Spiritual Weapons for the Catholic Home

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I know . . . I already quoted this fabulous excerpt from The Screwtape Letters last year, but . . . it’s just too rich not to dive into again 🙂 Here’s the context I gave back then, followed by the quote itself:

The scenario? His nephew Wormwood’s “patient” has recently fallen in love with a young lady; Screwtape is so demonically disgusted and repelled by her that one can only begin to guess at her virtue.

And then, as if proclaiming his hatred of her to Wormwood were not enough, he goes on to describe her home with equal, and surprising, loathing:

“Then, of course, he [the patient] gets to know this woman’s family and whole circle. Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered? The whole place reeks of that deadly odour. The very gardener, though he has only been there five years, is beginning to acquire it. Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them. The dog and the cat are tainted with it. And a house full of the impenetrable mystery. We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others–but we can’t find out how. They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind this pretence of disinterested love. The whole house and garden is one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven: ‘the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence.’”

In that post, I excitedly went on about how this was the perfect description of a Catholic home, particularly in terms of war and battleground:

Family life, by itself, is hard; family life that strives for holiness is even harder. It requires a deeply Sacramental way of living; it needs constant cooperation with God’s grace; it requires starting over every morning, family prayer, mutual charity and unfailing forgiveness, sacrifice, respect, authentic chastity and openness to life, and a real, unbending secession from the perversions in our society. As difficult as these things are, they are precisely what make the Catholic home the last battleground, the final stand in the war between Heaven and Hell–they are precisely what will help to win it for Christ the King.

And later on that year, I wrote an article about how to make your own little sanctuary, which worked nicely (I thought, anyway) with the analogy of the Catholic home being a church in miniature.

But in terms of the Catholic home being a battleground? Recently I’ve been mulling over a list of my favorite spiritual weapons inside the Catholic home–and why they’re my favorites.

But first, why all this talk of spiritual weapons? Because the Catholic family, along with the entire Church, is at war: war against the pervasive spirit of the world . . .  war against the flesh and our concupiscence and all our fallen tendencies . . . and war against the devil, who prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. It’s a threefold war and the direst we’ll ever be in.

However, the interesting thing is that our particular battlefield in the home is usually littered with shoes, dirty clothes, toys, sibling arguments, and drinking straws that weren’t thrown away. Which can be slightly annoying, enlightening, distracting, or exhausting, depending on the day. (Or maybe all of these are present every day. You decide which.)

And while all these home-y paraphernalia can be avenues for grace, especially in how one deals with them (yes, even the drinking straws) . . . it’s really good to have reminders of the actual transcendent nature of the supernatural battle we’re fighting as Catholic families on our battlefield of a few hundred or few thousand square feet of carpet and matchbox cars. (And matchbox cars are just not transcendent . . . I’m sorry.)

Many of these “reminders” are sacramentals . . . and they are truly necessary for the Catholic home, as both reminders and weapons in this battle!

Permit me to tell a story before I go any further . . .

Once upon a time, a young person visiting our old house commented to me and my sister (I could only have been about thirteen), “Um, you know, it would be kind of hard for you if you decided to change your faith while living here.”

While he was most likely left a little agnostically uncomfortable by the unabashed Catholic-ness of our home, (“My heavenly days, they’ve even got a crucifix in the guest bathroom, and a saint calendar on their pantry door”), you could easily translate his statement into, “Um, you know, it would be kind of hard for you if you decided to stop fighting the war while living here.”

After all, all this dear fellow could see was sacramentals. Ev-ery-where. However, what he didn’t realize was that he was speaking to soldiers and commenting on how, because of the presence of so many weapons, it would be hard for us to change our battle-oriented minds to any other persuasion as long as we were in our Catholic home.

And although he probably didn’t realize it, he was eloquently witnessing to a very important truth. Whether you look at the Catholic home as a church in miniature, or as a battleground, the appearance of your home has to witness to who you are. This is where sacramentals, along with our orthodox lifestyles, can come into very effective play.

Now . . . before I continue gushing on about my favorite sacramentals, in the context of spiritual battle in the Catholic family, I think should clearly define what a sacramental is. To this end, I shall resort to the ever-helpful Fish Eaters:

{A} sacramental is a sacred sign that signifies effects obtained through the Church’s intercession. While all of the seven Sacraments are Christ-instituted and always do exactly what they signify ex opere operato (“from the deed done”), sacramentals are usually Church-instituted (though some are Christ-instituted). They work through the power and prayers of the Church (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae) and, subjectively, ex opere operantis, that is, through the pious disposition of the one using them. Sacramentals drive away evil spirit, and when piously used, remit venial sin and prepare the soul for grace.

Sacramentals can be material things (blessed objects, such as scapulars, Rosaries, Crucifxes, medals,  Holy Water, etc.) or actions (the Sign of the Cross, genuflection, prayers, the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, etc.). Note that only a priest has the power to bless an object and make it a sacramental. Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, even using the prayers priests use — and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing meals, blessing Advent wreaths or Mary Gardens, etc. — but our blessings act as “mere” pleas to God. Priests alone have been given the power to bless with a guarantee, as it were, and it is they and they alone who can take a new Crucifix or Rosary and turn them into sacramentals with the power and prayers of the entire Church behind them.

Now, without further ado, here are my five personal favorite spiritual weapons/sacramentals for the Catholic home:

  1. Blessed Crucifixes ~ The Sign of the Cross

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To be even more precise, a crucifix above each doorway, or in every room . . . don’t hold back!

I joined the crucifix and the Sign of the Cross together for my first item, because looking on the crucifix should always inspire us to make the Sign of the Cross . . . often!

The need for multiple crucifixes in the Catholic home, and the need for making the Sign of the Cross frequently, really needs no explanation . . . but I’ll leave it to St. Jean Marie Vianney to explain anyway 🙂

“The Sign of the Cross is the most terrible weapon against the devil. For this reason, the Church displays images of the cross so that we can have it continually in front of our minds to recall to us just what our souls are worth and what they cost Jesus Christ. For the same reason, the Church wants us to make the Sign of the Cross ourselves at every  juncture of the day: when we go to bed, when we awaken during the night, when we get up, when we begin any action, and above all when we’re tempted . . . .

“Fill your children, my dear brethren, with the greatest respect for the Cross, and always have a blessed cross on yourselves. Respect for the Cross will protect you against the Devil, from the vengeance of heaven, and from all danger.”

-from his Sermons

As Catholic families, we need to have the Cross fixed in front of our eyes every day. The Crucifix unfailingly reminds us that, in our daily battles, It is our only hope, our only victory.

2. Blessed Images of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts.

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The blessed images of the King and Queen of the Universe strengthen the combating Catholic family. What soldier wouldn’t lift his head and firm up his heart at the sight of the banners of his Lord and Lady? What group of besieged fighters wouldn’t rally to their King’s and Queen’s flag?

The blessed images of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts are weapons of encouragement, strength, and morale for the Catholic family. The Two Hearts are the banners around which we gather to renew our daily strength, in good times and in bad.

They’re the emblems of our hope; they are the two Rays of light that penetrate into our vale of tears. No Catholic home should be without them!

The Church, the Spouse of Christ, is born from His broken Heart, which is the gate made in the side of the ark for the salvation of all mankind. Out of that door grace flows incessantly as from a sevenfold stream, that we may wash our soiled robes in the blood of the Lamb.

from the Hymn for the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RCDM, pg. 723)

Mary was created immaculate, and therefore the grace of God streamed into her soul without check or hindrance. Her sinlessness, her heavenly purity, directed every action, every movement to God. Her Heart was the pattern and model of all virtues, of all purity.  “Blessed are the pure in heart!”

-from the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary (RCDM, pg. 1373)

 

3. Blessed Statues

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Please tell me you’re obsessed with familiar with Lord of the Rings? 🙂

Towards the end of the film The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn (a king in exile), while riding down the River Anduin with the remaining Fellowship members, looks up and beholds the Argonath: two towering monuments carved into the shape of old kings, bordering each side of the river. They mark the entrance into the realm of his people.

Upon seeing them, involuntary awe filters across Aragorn’s face. “My kin,” he whispers. And only the next day, he fights an unexpected, brutal battle on the shores of the same river with valor and courage.

In my humble (Tolkien-infested) opinion, this is a perfect depiction of what religious statues do for the Catholic family.

Every Catholic family should keep blessed statues of the saints in their homes for veneration and contemplation. These statues are battle monuments–or, to be more correct, monuments of victory. The saints are our heroes, the soldiers who have gone before us, bravely, and who have been victors in this great spiritual battle, whether they were young or old, man or woman, priest, religious or lay person.

Being able to look on something as concrete and lifelike as a religious statue reminds us that the Blessed in Heaven were truly flesh and blood, and at the resurrection of the dead, they will be again.

Nothing says it better than the 1962 Missal:

One of the joys of eternal salvation will be the ravishing society of all the other citizens of heaven, who are now praying for us to join them.

Yet we should remember that when we beg for “some part and fellowship” with the Apostles and Martyrs, that we are accepting to share also in their labors, sufferings, and combats–in their daily offertory.

(Image from EWTN Religious Catalogue)

4. Holy Water

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Holy water is a must-have in the Catholic home. My parents bless themselves and my siblings each night with holy water (which we obtain from our parish), and although we have numerous lovely holy water fonts around our house (I think a total of four or five . . .), we try to make sure that at least the one in our living room actually has holy water in it. (I know, I know . . . a holy water font with holy water actually in it? What an idea!)

We try to remember to bless ourselves when we’re leaving home, or coming back, or when we’re in special need of grace. (Yes . . . those moments.)

St. Teresa of Avila stated emphatically:

I know by frequent experience that there is nothing that puts the demons to flight like holy water . . . As for me, my soul is conscious of a special and most distinct consolation whenever I take it. Indeed, I feel almost always a certain refreshing that I cannot describe, together with an inward joy that comforts my whole soul.

5. The Rosary

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I do hope you felt this one coming 😉

Yes, there are abundant reasons for the Catholic family to pray the rosary together . . . and so many things that make it seem almost impossible to pray together on a regular basis!

But let’s not forget . . .

The rosary is the scourge of the devil. (Pope Adrian VI)

The rosary is a treasure of graces. (Pope Paul V)

The rosary is the most powerful weapon to touch the heart of Jesus, Our Redeemer, Who so loves His Mother. (St. Louis de Montfort.)

The rosary is the weapon. (St. Padre Pio)

I think that says enough in itself 🙂 Every Catholic home should have this great prayer, this great sacramental, in its armory.

So, if as Lucia dos Santos revealed, “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family,” let’s not hesitate to secure our homes and families with these (and many other) powerful weapons, and to use them with frequency, zeal and devotion. Let’s not forget that our homes are the battlefield, and that we have an urgent mission to spread that “deadly odor” of grace near and far, until it drives all evil things away and opens the door for Love Incarnate to enter in.