It was a typical session, filled with the usual questions: saints, purgatory and confession. Mary used her Bible to raise objections to Catholic teaching on these matters. Even though she had recently started coming back to Mass with her inquiring friend, it was clear she was still inclined to view such things as confessing to a priest and praying to saints as superstitious idolatry.
As the session drew to a close, I invited any remaining questions. Mary leaned forward and struggled for words.
“Just how powerful is … a Mass?”
I didn't understand what she meant, so her friend prompted, “Tell her what you had it said for.”
Oh, I got it. She had requested a Mass for an intention and she wanted to know if it work, to put it bluntly. Mary looked sheepish as she answered.
“I had it said so I would find a husband.”
Waddya know, Ms. Fundamentalist, I wanted to say, quite uncharitably of course look who’s superstitious now?
But of course I couldn’t, since if I’m honest, I have an entire boatload of superstitious notions I’m hauling around behind me.
They may not be of the outright, say-the-rosary-before-a-trip / panic if I don’t have a religious medal around my neck / can’t miss Mass because I’m afeard somethin’ ugly might happen to me if I don’t go variety, but they’re there, to be sure.
So what I have to do and this has been the focus of my spiritual life for years now is accept things as they are, and try to find God’s love and peace in whatever is. Of great help to me is a little book that was written a long time ago and which I first read about the same time I had this conversation with Mary.
It’s called The Sacrament of the Present Moment. It was written by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a 17th century French Jesuit, who wrote spiritual guidance for a congregation of Visitation Sisters.
To de Caussade, the essence of life is, “…the purest and simplest commitment to the will of God in whatever form it might present itself.” That is, we creatures who are made in God’s image will find peace in this life when we mold our lives to our Creator’s will. And where is the will of God revealed? In everyday life, specifically, as the title suggests, in the present moment.
“God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment. The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams, but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds.”
This isn’t an invitation to quietism or passivity. By no means. When we seek God in the present moment, we may indeed find a space where we can accept reality for what it is, but we also might find something surprising: the strength to change and a nudge telling us in what direction to go. I think peace usually evolves from a combination of both: acceptance and hope.
After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, two bystanders (angels, we presume) asked the apostles, “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” I have to ask myself the same question sometimes what am I daydreaming about? Why am I sitting around either drowning in nostalgia for the past or fantasizing about some alternate reality I’ve convinced myself is more preferable to what is? Why am I so determined to be blind to God with me, here and now?
Superstition is all about control and manipulation of reality. Superstitious religious practice doesn't respect God's sovereignty and wisdom. It's an attempt to manipulate God into giving us what we want. Faith enables us to accept what we've been given with gratitude and is lived within the context of who God is as Jean Danielou puts it, “God is, above all, the one whom I cannot make use of.” Think about it.
It's ironic that many of us who are parents spend our days denying our children what they ask for, tuning out their whines and resisting their manipulations, assuring them all the while that our response is in their best interest. “Life’s not fair, “ we snap, “Be grateful for what you have.” But then we think nothing of turning to God ourselves, full of our own demands, thinking that if we say our prayers just so, our Parent will surely cave in.
Mary's loneliness was apparent. Divorced for many years, she told me that she yearned for married life again, for companionship. Why not have a Mass said in hopes that God would hear her and give her someone to fill that void?
In pastoral moments such as these, it's advisable not to get clever and say, “Well, hey, Miss Mary, Miss I'm-Leaving-the-Church-Because-It's-Too-Superstitious. Now you come begging!”
No, we don't do that, do we?
Instead, I remembered deCaussade and the lessons I was struggling to integrate into my own life at the moment. I suggested (telling myself as much as her) that it might be more fruitful and less frustrating if she spent her prayer time examining her life before God and instead of hoping that God would change it, asking God for the grace to be able to accept it.
I assured her that God wanted her to be happy, and if she listened to Him, she might be able to figure out where the source of such happiness might be in her life right now, the way it is.
And I know I said the right thing. I said what I was supposed to say, consistent with everything a lot of wise people have taught me about the spiritual life and what I’m trying to do myself. But I still couldn't resist, as I drove home that night, whispering a little prayer of my own.
“Please God,” I prayed, “she wants it so much. Find Mary a husband.” Amen.