Yesterday I took two Kentucky friends to our cathedral. Neither of them Catholic, I was anxious to see their reactions and hear their responses to this diamond in the rough. The arches and domes, covered in mosaics of thousands of colors and millions of tiles draw the eyes ever upward, perhaps the intent of the designers to command from those who enter a similar reaction to those in deep prayer. We were drawn to the sanctuary, where the near-incandescent white of Christ's crucified body acts as a stark centering and quieting to the vaulting splendor around the scene of salvation.
I was distracted, looking at some arch or nook. When I turned back, I noticed my friend was in tears and her husband holding close. I asked why this reaction. "I don't know."
Later that night, at the tail-end of a party, another friend spontaneously erupted in tears over the recent loss of her brother. It was a long road, his, and his death removed a kind of suffering but left a gaping hole which those who feel his absence still try to explore. People keep telling me he's in a better place, she managed through her tears, but somehow this doesn't help.
I remember once, ten years ago, on a snow-covered retreat an old monk stood in front of a fireplace and said some words about his life and how faith had defined it. I remember thinking there that something in me had irrevocably changed, some element within had come alive. He would finish his remarks and simply walk out of the room, not waiting for accolades or requests for guidance or further explanation. He came to speak his piece and walked away. I've spent the subsequent years trying to find out what grip this experience has on me, drifting around from one level of zeal to another, all the while unconvinced I am hitting the mark for which I was made.
After our tour of the cathedral I took these friends to the school where I teach. I was proud to show them the place, and the boys warming up for a soccer game. I was proud to be some small part of it, some passing pilgrim in a community that has gone on long before I arrived and will continue long after I leave. Some guard of mine must have been let down when one friend remarked that it was obvious I belonged there.
We played bocce after the sun sank and the warmth remained. Laughter and conversation provided the retinue for our playing, and we lost by a miserable measure. But I stood there and got to know my teammate a bit better - a parent of some of our schoolboys - and we let go some wild laughter of our own. It was good in that moment, in those hours, and somehow the splendor of the cathedral wafted through my mind and connected itself to the joy of being with such a host of wonderful and varied people.
I cannot give an adequate account for this faith. I wrestle against it, deny it at times in Petrine fashion and nevertheless stand before classes of students teaching why it's worthwhile at all. It's rare that it becomes so incarnational. Ten years ago in a bitter winter I experienced this in the walking away of an old monk and was reordered by it. Then yesterday, perhaps, I came across it again: that all of life, our laughter and tears and shared memories and relationships exist and go on in the nave of the church, in the navus, the ship that carries us through the torrent.
The tips of trees begin to burst in colors that demand reminiscence. The gilded and blood-red leaves draw the eyes ever upward.