Expanding and deepening the Vision of Christ is a challenge in the modern world where the usual vestiges of His presence are nowhere to be found.
I am writing this while sitting at a desk in the beautiful Italian town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place! The houses are built into a hillside facing the Mediterranean Sea. The town is like a huge amphitheater facing the Mediterranean. Every window in its steep expanse has a view of the water. At night, the lights of the city look like a giant Christmas tree with the narrow part at the base and its branches getting wider the higher you go. It is magnificent!
At the very center of the town is a beautiful Basilica dedicated to Our Lady. The architecture itself and the placement of the Church says, “Faith is the center of our lives!”
When you contrast this to any new development of housing here in the United States and elsewhere, we immediately notice that it is made primarily for cars and not pedestrians. The Church, when there is one, is on the outskirts surrounded by a large parking lot. Compared to Positano and the centrality of the Church to the community, the suburban town, in regards to the location of the Church says, “Our faith is on the outskirts of our lives, where you have to search for it!”
Our own Church of the Immaculate Conception is in the old model: it stands at the very center, at the very crossroads of Astoria. While there are other Catholic Parishes in Astoria, everyone has seen the tall tower of Immaculate Conception that says to everyone, “The Catholic Church is here!”
This said, it may seem that I will contradict myself in what I am about to say. As you get deeper into our Catholic Faith and see its centrality, you are then liberated to perceive that the Divine is not kept within the Church. A truly spiritual vision of our Catholicity sees the presence of Christ everywhere. It is too confining to board up the Eternal God and Creator of the Universe in a small church or a holy place or among Catholics. God is at work loving and saving everywhere and it is through Christ our Lord that He is doing it. Yes, all over the world, God can be found! The Spirit of Jesus is the only way to the Father and He is doing it in “ten thousand places lovely in limbs not his through the features of men’s faces” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Gerard Manley Hopkins). These last lines are of the poet Hopkins who tried to show in poetic form that the redemption by Christ cannot be held hostage by limiting categories. What is great about Christianity is that we perceive this truth in all its radical implications. As the most incarnational of all faiths, we see that in the Word of God becoming flesh, He has transformed all of reality, even in areas that seemingly are against Him!
So on the one hand, as I get older, I want what is the best and most beautiful of experiences: that of prayer and the experience of the Holy, echoing St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8-9). Yet on the other hand, while I am inspired by a beautiful Church and a serene monastery, I also see Christ in the city and in the subway and in the ordinary. Everything speaks to me of my Beloved. Even when I see evil and sin, I am reminded of the wonderful alternative: goodness and love of God; and I have nothing but pity for the sinner lost in the false joys and corrupt pleasures of evil and sin.
The Saints even urge compassion for the demons and the devil since they live lives of terrible suffering, trapped in their pride and arrogance. Like the great image of the three headed Lucifer (a mocking of the Trinity) in a lake of ice from Dante’s Inferno, who beats his vast wings so fast and hard, energized by his pride, that he continually freezes the water he is embedded in, thus never able to truly break free! If he only stopped and became humble, admitting the greatness of God and his own sin, his wings would stop beating, the water would melt and he would be able to fly into the arms of God his Father!
We are our own enemies! God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves. What we need is for the Lord, as he did so many times in the Gospel, to touch our blindness and give us spiritual sight that we may see the wonder and the goodness and the love of God all around us. Once seen, how can we prefer the darkness of sin?