Monday, October 17, 2005

Reverse triumphalism

So a few weeks ago, I go into confession with Fr. John. I'm kneeling and he's donning his vestments before approaching the confessional. At the same time, he tells me the following anecdote: one time a woman came in for confession, knelt at the divider and proceeded to confess... while Fr. John was still getting ready in the back room. Hearing a voice, he entered, unnoticed, allowed her to continue, unawares, and then absolved her. Realize, I hear this hilarious little tale only moments before I'm about to confess my sins to Almighty God... and I couldn't help but laugh. I simply shook with muffled laughter! It was such a bizarre and wondrous scene: I entered contrite, then found myself chuckling at the kneeler and then resumed contrition, to find myself, grace of graces, absolved by the Almighty. It was all so quirky, so human, and yet so powerfully holy – as such, it was a quintessentially Catholic moment.

Later toward the very end of the same Mass, Mark is doing announcements, while his six-year-old pistol of a daughter is rocking back and forth with her spindly arms on the front-pew divider. All of a sudden, with Mark forming a sentence into the mike, she pulls herself forward into a complete head-over-heels flip and crashes down under the first pew. We all jumped and stared, jaws gaping. Not hearing any crying or groans, Mark glared, actually quite benignly (perhaps not the first time...?), and his little firecracker stood to brush her hair out of her face, which now wore a dazed, calculating look over its previous jocularity. For better or for worse, another Catholic moment.

Finally, in the foyer downstairs after this same mad-cap Mass, we're all mingling eating Moon Festival pizza. Fr. John decides to tell me one more little tale: years ago, maybe in Vietnam, his home, or in Taiwan, or the USA, I'm not sure, he saw a young girl enter the church and stand in line before the confessional. He knew she wasn't baptized and her family wasn't even Catholic, so he asked her, "Why are you waiting? This is for grown-up Catholics."

"I'm waiting," she said, "for the toilet too."

Cue once again the indefatigable humanness of life in the Catholic Church.

Oddly enough, the next day or so my dad emails me with his own crazy Catholic tale from the same weekend: a burly man in dark baggy clothes barges into the chapel, surges up to the altar, slams his fists on the table, and then hurries straight back to the confessional, booze and sweat trailing him, where he readies himself to hear confessions.

Impious? Unsettling? Inappropriate? Distracting? You bet, all of them. But, as I say, part of my joy as a Catholic is knowing, in remarkably vivid anecdotes like these, that I have found a home as rumpled and as erratic as I am, a home as vastly idiosyncratic and unpredictable as the species it was established to seek and save. Call it reverse triumphalism. May I boast not only in my weaknesses in Christ, but also in the weaknesses of my fellow Catholics. For in our weaknesses, God's grace is made complete. The devotional high point of the Mass for me comes with these words: "Look not on my sins, O Lord, but on the faith of Your Church." In a similar way, the existential high point of being Catholic reduces, for me, to these words: "Look not on my crippling strengths, O Lord, but on the weaknesses of Your Church." I am cracked; hence, I need a cracked Church; for it is through the cracks that grace soaks in and seeps out.

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