When I was a lad growing up in Fair Haven, I would occasionally venture beyond the boundaries of my immediate neighborhood and visit a parish church on the other side of the great divide that was Grand Avenue. Saint Rose Church on Blatchley Avenue had a unique attraction: a life-size and very realistic statue of Saint Rita of Cascia kneeling in front of a life-size and equally realistic crucifix. To my ten-year-old eyes, Saint Rita’s glass eyes looked positively alive. More than once I thought, just for a moment, that they were moist with real tears. Saint Rita’s face was turned upward to meet the gaze of the Crucified, and embedded right in the middle of her forehead was a thorn from His Crown of Thorns.
Children Need Images
First lesson: for children, images are more important than words. Children of all ages need to be surrounded with images, with holy images, with representations of the saints. If you have outgrown your need for images, you may have outgrown your capacity for wonder and your capacity for seeing the invisible. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4).
A Thorn in the Flesh
Second lesson: intimate participation in the Paschal Mystery of Christ — the very grace we ask for in today’s Collect — begins when our gaze meets the gaze of the Crucified Lord. When the encounter is real, the equivalent of a thorn from Jesus’ Crown of Thorns will be embedded, not in our foreheads, but in that secret place of weakness within us that God has destined to receive it. Saint Paul says: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor 12:7-9).
Go to the Saints
Third lesson: the saints are present to us and wait for us to approach them. Sometimes they approach us first, offering friendship, insight, and assistance. Visiting the statue of Saint Rita kneeling before her crucifix in Saint Rose Church was like visiting a favorite aunt. Go to the saints, certain of their interest in whatever interests you. You can count on their sympathy, on their readiness to listen, and on their help.
There is a cold, reasonable, and altogether too “grown-up” form of religion that fails to address the needs of the heart. Chilly and cerebral, it is foreign to the spirit of the Gospel because it is so far removed from things that children need and understand. In many places, the past fifty years saw the imposition of a new iconoclasm, an elitist religion without warmth, a religion for the brain with precious little for the heart, a religion stripped of images and devoid of the sacred signs that penetrate deeply those places in the human person where mere discourse cannot go.
The Grace of Folklore
This is the religion of barren churches, white-washed and devoid of transcendence. This is the religion of those who sniff uncomfortably at what they dismiss as folklore, forgetting that folklore is, more often than not, the expression of an ancient wisdom, piety, and fear of the Lord. This is the sterile religion of those who, in the name of “discretion and good taste” displaced tabernacles, and removed crucifixes and images of the saints. You can find them now for sale on E-bay and in trendy antique shops.
In A Single Generation
This is the religion that destroyed priceless works of art and consigned to antiquarian booksellers or, even worse, to flames, the musical heritage of 1500 years. This is the religion that, in many instances, has brought about the loss of the true faith in a single generation. This is the religion of a humanistic idealism bent on building a better world and, paradoxically, uncomfortable with bending the knees in adoration.
This is the religion that smiles condescendingly on practices dear to those dear to God: the little and the poor. This is the religion that smirks with snobbish condescension at things like blessing roses in honor of Saint Rita, or lilies in honor of Saint Anthony, or bread in honor of Saint Joseph. Those who ascribe to this religion need to hear again the timeless message of the Doctor of Grace: “The Word became flesh so that flesh might become word.”
A Fleshy Affair
Catholicism is a fleshy affair: it is the religion of thorns in the flesh and roses in the snow. It is the religion of little children making furtive neighborhood pilgrimages, weaving crowns of flowers for the Mother of God, and secretly lighting candles to the saints. It is the religion of men quietly telling their beads, interceding for their families. It is the religion of those who kneel in prayer at at the tombs of the saints and shed tears over holy relics. Catholicism is the religion of little old ladies stopping in church laden with plastic shopping bags and burdened, even more, with concern for their children and their children’s children. It is the religion of the lonely, the confused, the broken, and the wounded who know that, in spite of everything, there is no shame in going to the Crucified Jesus, for He was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3).
An Untidy Religion
Catholicism is the religion of those tormented by gnawing hungers of the heart and thirsts of the spirit who, with faith and the fear of God, approach the inexhaustible Chalice of the Holy Mysteries for healing and relief. It is the untidy religion of those who trust that God and his saints can sort out whatever mess we have made of our lives and, in the end, by grace alone set all things aright. It all makes one supremely happy, and grateful, to be Catholic.
A Messy Life
This was the religion of Saint Rita of Cascia, the wife of a husband who was murdered, the mother of two sons set on vengeance, a widow marked by emotional scars and lacerated by the cruel tongues of the pious. Finally, the doors of the cloister opened to admit her for the last stage of her life, one marked by sickness. Saint Rita’s life was messy.
The Gaze of Christ
Saint Rita lifted her eyes to meet the gaze of Christ and lived in His radiance; He blessed her with a thorn from His bloody crown and with a rose to console her in her final hour. By means of these very material signs, “the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth” (Jn 15:26) bore witness in Saint Rita’s life and in the Church to the abiding presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
Saint Rita, pray for us today, that we may not live in denial of the messiness of our lives but, rather, find comfort in the bosom of a Church warm with the intercession of the saints, a Church wide open to little children, a Church hospitable to failures and to fools, a Church who knows the value of the “little things” by which all of life can be suffused by paschal grace.