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October 10, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic Culture: God-Spell
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Popular songs of yesteryear often contain lyrics that lift the spirit. Take for example, “You Gotta AC-CEN-tuate the Positive” and “The Story of, the Glory of Love.” The terse lyrics, “Day By Day,” from the Broadway musical, “Godspell” proclaim discipleship in Christ. With a catchy tune, they paraphrase a prayer in the Ignatian Exercises:

“Day by day, day by day

O dear Lord, three things I pray:

To see thee more clearly,

Love thee more dearly,

Follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Replacing Jesus Christ?

The 2006 Pontifical Council for Culture discussed the challenges facing the Church: neo-paganism, syncretism, and a mixture of elements from different religious traditions in addition to a secularized culture turned into secularism, disbelief, and anti-Catholicism. (“The Way of Beauty, Privileged Path for Evangelization and Dialogue”) These first few challenges are cults or cult-like.

In a piece by Fr. Richard Woods, O.P. entitled “New Age Spirituality,” we read in part: “Strongly Gnostic, new age spirituality emphasizes esoteric knowledge in attaining salvation. Today ‘new age’ includes occult beliefs and practices taken from non-Christian and mythical religions, and elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Cabalism, numerology, and spiritualism/channeling. ‘New age’ is concerned with planetary healing, holistic health, self-improvement and the rights of women, minorities, and animals … Non-conventional health care favors acupuncture, hypnosis, massage, organic gardening, and other alternative therapies using crystals, colors, aromas, etc. Psychological typologies such as astrology and the Enneagram tend to be favored over uniqueness and individuation.” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 704)

These activities would largely replace the figure of Christ as the center of Christianity claiming that a post-Christian and cosmic awareness has expanded our consciousness.

God-Spell

He has touched every age. His life has made sainted disciples, spellbound by his person and way of life. What drew them to Jesus Christ? The facts are incontrovertible.

He had a passion for people and mixed with all social types, especially the marginal, the outsider, the dregs. It made no difference what the setting was: a hillside, a townhouse, a dining hall, or a one room hovel. What mattered was the welcome he received.

For him, love was a question of how. He used his friendship to attract others who flocked to him under the pressure of his charm. He had personal appeal, the common touch, and a message of freedom. How could they resist? So people sought him in droves. And he used his friendship as a means of uplifting and transforming. It was indiscriminate in its outreach yet cut and tailored to individual needs. Status had nothing to do with it; he counted among his friends the affluent and the indigent, the upwardly mobile and the downtrodden.
God’s grace he insisted could sanctify everything, riches included, though the eye of the needle was fair enough warning. Neither wealth nor poverty was a goal. Only the kingdom.

In his new order of love, he cultivated a Lazarus and a Nicodemus, and was buried in a rich man’s tomb. But he preferred down-to-earth to over-refinement; his constant companions were fishermen. His first miracle was offering a superlative vintage to an embarrassed married couple, but he knew deep satisfaction could come from a few loaves and fish. In either case, what mattered was eating with friends. He understood misguided sexuality, for he knew what it meant to be in love with Love. He knew also how wildly one might reach for another to ease the crushing loneliness. He knew that passionate people could be redirected, but the tepid, bland personalities, never. He shunned them like the plague. Better that these types stay away, for in his presence you could not be lukewarm. You stood for or against him without margin or error.

The brash exuberance of Peter, the smoldering intensity of John, the profligate lovemaking of Magdalene, and the voluptuousness of the Samaritan woman – these were hot-blooded types who thrived on excess. Swerved by his friendship, the heat became light shining in the darkness, what the tradition later called the aura of sanctity.

What repelled him were the fakes, the sham religious types, the sanctimoniously complacent, in short, the hypocrites. He flew into a rage at whatever was pious from without but corrupt from within. Religious depth had little to do with the correct formula, proper rubric, requisite garb, time-honored ceremony; it was first and foremost an affair of the heart. Go where you will; be seen with whomever, dine on whatever – it mattered little. What was crucial was the intention: how you meant to serve by what you did, how you meant to love by where you were.

He shunned power but was the epitome of moral authority. He shunned worldly display, externalism, spiritual emptiness, hollowness, shallowness, desiccated theology remote from pastoral concerns, immoral private lives, worldly concerns, pleasure-seekers. Today he would repudiate the mediocrity, scandal, and pseudo-sophistication of clergy and religious, prayerless liturgical worship, and issues of social justice at the mercy of political views.

He told simple stories that conveyed deep messages for living.

He claimed no status, but was accorded status by his followers and his opponents.

He shunned fame but became the most famous person in the world.

There was no virtue which was not perfect in him.

He put up with people even though he knew that they would do him in.

His words and actions baffled and irritated others.

He knew what they were feeling, their sufferings and invited them to come to him, and he would console and give them rest.

He spoke of his relationship with his Father with whom he spent time in prayer – sometimes through the night. Being with his Father was sacred time.

A Leadership of Service

In the act of washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus the servant exemplifies the style of leadership he desires for his Church: “As I have done to you, so you must also do to one another.” (Jn 13:14) Peter understands that the God who is above him stoops lovingly to wash the filth from his feet; Jesus assumes the sin. The Master’s action makes Peter recoil with horror, but Jesus warns: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me.” (Jn 13:8)  His leadership style? The hallmark of his service? Service with love.

“You Have Seduced Me, O Lord ... ”

In an age that sexualizes almost everything, one of many erotic verses from the Hebrew Scriptures describes the nuptial union between the Israelites and their God and ultimately between Christ and his Church:  You have seduced me, O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.” (Jer 20:7)  This is the main theme of the DVD “Into Great Silence.” The film concerns the monks of the Carthusian Order, the most austere in the Catholic Church.  It is a film that would enrich any household.
The Twelve made the Old Testament verse their very own. Were they not first transported by what they saw, heard, and touched and by everything that Christ manifested in his very person? (1 Jn.1) Francis and Clare, Edmund Campion and John Henry Newman, Christopher Dawson and Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Day, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Madeleine Sophie Barat, Pierre Toussant, Kateri Tekawitha, Edith Stein, Mother Cabrini and Mother Teresa of Calcutta – they left all for Christ. Despite the cost of discipleship, they cared not a farthing about looking like fools.  Nothing could separate them from him – no person, thing, or cult.

Putting on Christ

St. Paul exhorts us to “put on Christ.” (Gal 3:27; Romans 13: 14) The scripture scholar, Fr. David Stanley, S.J., gives us the clue. “In every generation,” he quotes from the Haggadah, “every Jew looks upon himself as though he, personally, was among those who went forth from Egypt – not our fathers alone did the Holy One redeem from suffering, but also us and our families.” The Passover-Exodus event must happen to every Jew. One cannot claim to be a Jew without celebrating the Passover.

If we want to put on Christ, a transformation must happen to us as well. Each of us must experience the same mysteries recorded in the Gospels consisting of three chief moments:

1) The disciples’ experience of God’s working in Christ.
2)  Theological reflection on this experience.
3) The community’s formulation in writing.

For us, the reverse process happens primarily in prayer.

1) We begin with the sacred text. The story in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 4:33ff) is a perfect example.  A storm is threatening the safety of the disciples who are in a boat with Jesus; he is fast asleep. We are there with them, and with them, we are going down. All our senses are on red-alert in this dire situation, perhaps similar to what we are going through in our ordinary lives.

2) We reflect on the Gospel narrative. We see and listen to what the disciples are saying. With them, we cry out: “Lord, don’t you care about me?” Be receptive.

3) The third step is achieved through God’s action in us. This particular mystery happens to us. We experience the providential care of the Lord as he calms the sea and the waves. At the end of prayer, we emerge with greater trust in the Lord. Gradually, “putting on Christ” becomes a reality.

“O Christ, you the light and day
Which drives away the night,
The ever shining Sun of God,
And pledge of future light.”

(Hymn for Evening Prayer II, “Liturgy of the Hours,” Week III)

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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