Sunday, July 19, 2015

the caress of God

The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si (84)

I sit in the Basilica, watching the familiar South Bend sunlight stream through the stained glass windows and hit the paintings on the wall of the East Transept, which depict the life of St. Joseph.
The mural of Our Lady of Lourdes is dark, hidden in afternoon shadow in the church, with only the glimmer of white breaking through the peaceful dark.
And the Magdalene clings to the feet of wounded Christ on the twelfth station still.
Each is more familiar than thought, like childhood's worn picture books.
This familiarity smites my heart with tenderness.
My eyes rove frantically around the church, drinking in each picture—each summoning a myriad memories—taking an inventory of all the beloved images and outcroppings, hungry to drink in each one, and conjure up the comfort they have always given me.

They have become a primer of my budding faith life. Each of them contains within it a memory or three; a lesson that they once spoke to me; a moment of encouragement, comfort, or the gentlest rebuke. To visit them is to rediscover a story: the story of how I have been so infinitely loved. Each image of beauty, each pictorial primer of my faith painted on the church inundates me in memories. Not just a wallowing of nostalgia, these memories are discovery. I discover how intensely each one has formed my budding freshman faith. These moments of formation string themselves into a narrative of salvation. Although the images depict the universal story of salvation, the narrative is a microcosmic one. It is the story of my salvation, being worked out in these pews, blessings wrestled with, and sacrifices wrangled over on these kneelers. The joy of the confessional, the pain of prayer. All these moments happened here—in this church that feels like an incubator, despite the over-zealous air-conditioning. 

The overwhelming warmth of painted angels on the vaulted ceiling, and the familiar comfort of a great cloud of jewel-toned witnesses filtering sweet light into the nave is too much for my homesick soul.

I am very homesick, and tired of adventuring.

But this little respite is a small oasis of remembrance in the vast undertaking of constantly moving forward into the certain and strange future, is a kind reminder of where I have been before. It is a quick retreat to home. For this light-studded church is home, in the deepest way a place can be. If home is an origin for us; a place where we will always count ourselves as native of, then I cannot think of a place that is more native than right here. In front of the crucifix attached to the column, the air filling with a ghostly polyphony of Palestrina's "Sicut Cervus" that exists only in the memories of myself and the silent statuary who need no tongue to sing divine praise, I am home.
Each image that meets my gaze has become a sacrament of the love story present in our lives.

This new understanding of what this Church means to me, how it has shaped me, and formed me into the soul that genuflects before its altar, is worth the pain of departure. Leaving a place where one feels at home is never enjoyable, because the experience of home sometimes only simply serves to throw the harsh foreignness of our new habitat into high relief.

But, if I had never left, I would have never discovered just how vital a role the image of Jesus reaching out his arms to me in the Fifth Station painting had ever played in shaping my heart, nor would I have known just how comforted my soul has been and always will be by the rings of light above the baptismal font, I would never have experienced the great joy of returning to the image of Mary crowned queen triumphant, and marveling at the glory God desires to grant us poor, ridiculous humans.

If I had never left, I would have never understood what a great gift it is to have a home that instructs us in beauty, that soothes our world-weary souls, and that suffuses all our suffering with a gentle, light-speckled splendor.

To leave is the only way to ever realize home.
To be plucked out of the familiar is the only way to understand the glory of the domestic.
And although to go forth may be the fate of the human, to return is divine.