Twenty years ago, at the Easter Vigil, I was baptized on the altar at Xavier.
In some ways that night felt like an arrival. I had stepped onto the road leading to that pool of water fifteen months before, when some part of me began opening to the spiritual aspects of life, and I started saying “Yes!” to the excitement and mystery that beckoned. Three months into this new experience of life, I had had a moment -- alone in my one-bedroom apartment, in the middle of the night -- when I discovered that I was Catholic. The next day I walked up the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and God introduced me to the Catholic Church with two words: universality and compassion. That spring I attended weekly inquiry classes at the Cathedral; that summer I brought Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae with me to France as I chaperoned a group of teenagers on a homestay-travel program; and that fall I entered the RCIA program here at Xavier, led by Sr. Honora Nicholson, Roseann Bonadia and Charlie Cole. 390 days after my first midnight moment, I had another midnight moment: the Easter Vigil.
I experienced my baptism as a culmination, but even more I experienced it as a beginning. I remember writing in my journal that morning before the Vigil. (I also remember that I was doing this while on an exercise bike at the gym – really?) As I wrote and pedaled, I marveled:
Once baptized, my faith would be forever mingled with the faith of all those on the planet – past, present and future – who were also Catholic. I was taking vows. The stream of my faith would flow into the waters of the universal church, and those waters would circulate through me. That made me feel at once vulnerable and comforted. And boy was I ready. It felt like I had been approaching this day for so long.
Our RCIA group -- a group of 41 including confirmation candidates, sponsors and the leadership team – were all on the altar together. Most were sitting facing the baptism pool, while the handful of us to be baptized stood facing them on the other side of the pool, our sponsors at our back, Tom Mulholland’s hand on my shoulder. I remember the sensation as I took the steps up to, and then into, the pool. From the seats filled with our RCIA group came a wave of love so powerful that it hit me as an actual sensation. Next, I remember the sensation of the water pouring over my head and covering my ears, sealing out all noise except the water itself. I felt an indescribable sensation next: what I guess I would call a pure silence opening inside of me. Next, I remember being led back to the West Room to change, and I remember standing by the door leading back into the church. I remember Roseann coming over to me. She took my hand. She was beaming. “How is it?” she asked. That pure silence was still within and around me, and I didn’t want to rupture it with words. I squeezed her hand and beamed back. Then we walked into the church, to the front edge of the altar, where we were presented to the Church, and in loud and loving applause, we were welcomed by the Xavier community.
Those first few moments of being Catholic, I had nothing to say.
That was twenty years ago. Oh my God, what these twenty years have brought! Right now, as I look back on these two decades, I am so aware of all the moments we have shared as a community. Whoever in the Xavier community reads this – I am with the moments of Eucharist we have had together. The laughter and tears, the boredom and excitement, the learning and growing, the righteous anger and unfettered joyful celebration. Daisy and Freddie’s baptisms, and Paddy and Mike’s funerals. Images come: John Bucki holding up the pascal candle at his last Vigil as Associate Pastor; Rose and Ned standing together, looking out at us all, as they gave their homily on Holy Thursday one year; Joe Costantino incensing the casket of Roseann’s mom; an LGBT anniversary Mass where the theme was “Let Nothing Separate You From the Love of God.”
Twenty years later, as we approach Holy Saturday, I have something to say.
It is a thank-you in the form of a vision: a vision of the Eucharists still ahead of us.
There is a time coming, and for some of us is now here, when we will worship in spirit and in truth. In this vision we are free from the worship habits that harden our hearts to the fullness of God’s call to us. And we are free to offer our full response.
In Lay Spirits this year, Fr. Sean Toole introduced us to various Ignatian practices. One new one for me was agere contra. The Latin term literally means to “act against.” In the words of Glenn Chun, S.J.: to practice agere contra is to act against one’s excessive tendencies. Agere contra isn’t necessarily about things in our prayer life that are bad, but about things that are habits: it is about recognizing the way we can get attached to certain habits in our faith life and lose sight of the bigger picture. The practice invites us to work against extremes which detract from seeing everything we have as gifts from God. To practice agere contra you question the tendencies that have become second nature, and then you act contrary to those spiritual habits. In other words:
Agere contra is about recognizing a habit in your prayer life and then doing the opposite in order to loosen the limiting effect the habit holds on you and your relationship with God.
In the practice of our Catholic faith we have a liturgical tendency that we have become very attached to: calling to God as our Father.
Our habit of referring to and experiencing God as male has become an extreme that detracts from our ability to receive everything as gifts from God. It has become such second nature to experience God as “He” that we forget that such assumption is not God’s true nature.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church articulates a deeper, more joyful and whole wisdom, reminding us of the bigger picture we have lost sight of:
In no way is God in man’s image. God is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God, those of a mother, and those of a father….” (The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church #370)
There it is: in no way is God in man’s image. The images of Mother God and Father God equally reflect some of God’s infinite perfection. Yet how many times during the next Mass we attend will we be asked to say and hear male pronouns and names for God? How many times during that same mass will we say and hear God called in Her female aspect?
Does this communal, vocal practice impact our internal tendencies as well? Check in with yourself on this. When was the last time you naturally referred to God as “She”? Think of any prayer that you say automatically in Mass and try substituting “She” or “Mother”. Does some part of you hesitate, or tense up, or get confused?
Our hearts become hardened by conditioning and lop-sided tendencies. In our habits of language, we close off some aspect of our natural, God-given, free-flowing and ultimately wordless connection to God.
I am concerned about how this old habit is wounding us. “Hardening Our Hearts” is an apt image for what calling God by God’s male aspect over and over and over and over does to us.
Our liturgical language is a portal we use in our communion with God. Using exclusively male language for God narrows that passageway....
As plaque in our arteries limits the ability of our heart to pump blood to the body, so insistence on male images narrows our imagination.
This habit conditions our minds on a deep level to be open to God the Father, and to reject God the Mother.
Our faith is nothing less than the mutuality of our relationship with God. We call to God and God responds; God calls to us and we respond. But have we been only half-calling out to God, since we are a two-gendered species and we only call to God in the image of one of those genders? And what about from the other side? What about how we respond when God calls us? Has She been calling to us, but we’ve missed half of it because we’ve been conditioned to listen to Him?
If today you hear God’s voice, and it sounds female, harden not your hearts.
As a church community, I suggest we practice agere contra. We need to recognize this spiritual habit, claim it as such, and then practice its opposite.
We need to be honest about the truth that exclusive sexist language for God still dominates our liturgies, and – even more pernicious – rules over our inner passageways between us and God.
Once we’ve done this, we can try calling to God our Mother as often, or more, than we call to God our Father. This practice will break the chains of habit surrounding our hearts and minds.
In this practice we will be tapping into the wisdom of our Ignatian tradition, and picking up on a theme in Pope Francis’ leadership. Our worship traditions are the foundation upon which we move forward, but there are embedded within these traditions a variety of habits which are not meant to be mistaken for ultimate truth. In Pope Francis’ words: Unhealthy dualisms have left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and have disfigured the gospel (Laudato Si #98).
And we must remember: this gospel is indeed very, very good news. Because even if our crusty He-habit is closing some part of ourselves off, God in Her mercy will never stop calling to us, will never keep Her embrace from us.
More so – if you can imagine -- than a human mother, Her love for us is unbounded, intimate, and affectionate.
"Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you." (Isaiah 49:15)
How wonderful that this is the Easter of our Year of Mercy! How wonderful that the Hebrew and Aramaic word for mercy is rachamim -- the word for “womb” in the plural! (And the same is true for the Arabic word for “mercy” in the Quran.) Every time Jesus spoke of God’s mercy, he spoke of the ‘wombs’ of God! I am reminded of someone’s God-experience that they recently shared: this person had a blissful God-moment while he was lying in a calm ocean, cloud-cover and light rain protecting him from the harshness of the sun. For me, this image conjures up the way we are all held in a cosmic womb, all birthed into the miracle of creation from which we are not separate.
There are posters everywhere in Catholic churches lately encouraging us to be “Merciful like the Father.” For Jesus and all who heard him, God was merciful like a Mother with a womb for each one of us. How can the female body’s capacity to grow, birth, and sustain human life infuse our images of God? In this Year of Mercy, how can the wombs of God hold each of us as we grow towards new birth?
I see in our collective Catholic present and future a time when our liturgies are free from the unnecessary limitations of exclusive sexist language for God. A time when we call out to God directly – God as “you” and “thou” – thus needing no gendered pronouns. A time when we listen for God’s response to our call – thus needing no words at all. A time when we are as comfortable expressing and celebrating our experience of God the Mother as we are of God the Father. A time when we can invoke the inexpressible mystery of our triune God in language that does not misdirect us with gendered words.
And as we practice agere contra, the path to this freedom in God will be revealed slowly and in time, in and through each one of our hearts and voices.