A Prayer for Reason

Several years ago as a project in the Cub Scouts my son and I built a bird house together. After the joy of sharing that experience with him, we celebrated our success by hanging the little home just off our back deck. A little home, next to our big home. An opportunity for us to further appreciate and observe those creatures that share our space in the world.  We soon added several feeders and other items to make our back yard green space an open invitation to nature.

Not long thereafter a family of Cardinals nested in our back yard. How perfect I thought, as we are originally from Illinois, which carries the Cardinal as its state bird. A natural fit. It wasn’t long after taking in our “new neighbors” that I learned something I had never known about Cardinals – the males, by nature, are very territorial. When they find another male poking around the nest, they attack the other bird by charging at it.

As reckless bravery goes, what I also learned is that these birds don’t come naturally with overly developed brains either. A Cardinal need merely only think it’s nest is being threatened for it to attack, and such a deception comes quite easily with a modern reflective window. Because our friend and neighbor, the male Cardinal, after perching himself on occasion a top our deck to hunt and survey the world that is our shared back yard, noticed himself in the reflection of our full length deck window. Which of course he then, without reservation, charged intently and mercilessly right into the glass.

Now, not being a scientist or any such expert on birds, I was left with two unique discoveries about this situation. The first is, this didn’t kill the poor creature, which frankly I am still in shock about. The second, and ironically highly relevant to the first, is the experience didn’t kill his determination either. Because for nearly five years now this Cardinal has come back to nest by our house, and can spend hours a day putting on his Don Quixote impersonation “defending his home.” We will be doing things around our home and all of the sudden think someone is knocking at our back door… donk…. donk…. donk… only to then realize that our friend is back. Rest assured that in the time it has taken you to read this, the poor fool has crashed into our window a couple of times.

Now realizing we created this situation out of trying to attempt to do something good in the world, we tried to take a measured approach in our response to it. Our response evolved from being afraid for him, to being frustrated with him, to being ticked and really annoyed by him, to then yelling at him, to exasperation with him, and finally now we just stand in our kitchen, drink coffee and watch with pity and laugh at the poor fool.

As a person of faith I did struggle for a bit wondering why God would make a creature, who when you think about it, will spend the better part of its existence, doing something as pointless and self-defeating as flying into a window over and over again. Not really ever realizing the futility of its actions. Believing it is doing what it sees as its own best interest, yet when looked at for what it really is; reveals that act to be so naturally self-destructive. Why would God do that to some creature like a bird?

Now we certainly realized long ago that we could simply move what we had built to solve the problem.  But then that would change the relationship we originally sought to have with the creature and his kind, and would therefore defeat the purpose in why we did all this to begin with.  As parents of human children however, we learned long ago to look at situations like this a little differently. We have come to take the perspective of…. well, this is kind of what we signed up for isn’t it?   So we have come to live with our headstrong Cardinal as a part of our co-existence.

Our Cardinal Quixote (of Don Quixote fame) and I got to spend a lot of time together this weekend. My wife and the kids took off to see their Grandparents and cousins back in Illinois while I stayed at home for work needs this week. I spent quite a while cooking my various meals by myself and watching my little neighbor try with all of his might to attack that other sinister bird in the glass, flutter erratically back to his perch, get focused, and then charge again.

On my catch up call with the family Sunday night my wife shared an interesting story. It is her family tradition to attend the Lenten Sunday lunch at St. Brigid’s Parish in Liberty, Illinois. It’s their annual parish fundraiser. My wife has memories of attending this back to when she was 5 years old. It is normal she shared, for the lines at this event to go for blocks. Normal weight time could be from 45 minutes to over an hour to get through, but owe it is so worth it. Originally formed as a farm parish, this is St. Brigid’s annual roast beef lunch. Freshly slaughtered beef, organic, cooked fresh and beyond delicious. All of the trimmings served family style, and all you can eat. This one fundraiser, she tells me, drives a significant amount of the annual parish budget. But this year, she shared, our family arrived later than they had hoped and afraid they would be in line for hours, yet walked right in getting served in minutes. Hardly anyone had shown up, she said. They pretty much had the place to themselves.

In disbelief my wife asked around. What happened? Turns out the parish is up in arms about a change in policy by the local priest. A mandate that all volunteers who work with the children of the parish go through Virtus training. For those of you don’t know, Virtus training is a policy of the entire Catholic Church, and one that Sacred Heart instituted years ago. My wife is Virtus trained as she volunteers with kids at our parish. At issue at St. Brigid’s is the background check that comes at the end of the training. Many in the parish felt extremely uncomfortable with that component.

Now as a fellow thick headed Swiss I am not surprised that many of these people can act this way. My home town in Illinois also has on its catholic resume a parish that still stands in open opposition to Vatican II, claiming it to be against Christ. Their much older parishioners actively lobby within the town’s general Catholic Community as why they are right and everyone else is wrong.

My wife’s anecdote led my mind back to the open letter from our Father Pat Sullivan this weekend in the Parish newsletter regarding cold and flu season and their choice to withhold the precious blood. This is a decision not everyone is in favor of, but appropriate to the needs of the parish and necessary.

Certainly nearly anytime our greater church body is straw polled nationally, or regionally, by outside or inside bodies regarding “issues” relating to the Catholic faith, it becomes readily apparent that as members of the body of Christ any one of us can struggle with complete and total surrender of what it means to be Catholic. Simply and sadly, there are many who take umbrage with something. Of the great many things a person or persons could take issue with that the Church holds as essential doctrine might include: the marriage rights of priests, women serving as priests, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, marriage, baptism, confirmation, who gets the Eucharist, Vatican II, how the Mass should be said and language should be used, and on and on. Then we have less political concerns like Virtus training, cold and flu protection, who’s running a certain program, the parking lot, or what sports team the priest likes.

From personal experience I can tell you that there can be a moment of tremendous humility and embarrassment that comes when you realize what a fool you have been with respect to your faith. I spent the better part of my life thinking the Catholic Church was the modern day version of the Pharisees. That the Church was somehow institutionally blind to the greater message of salvation. That Catholicism was a joke. That Catholics weren’t “real” Christians.

In the moment when I was blessed to really see the Church for the first time – really saw it for what it was and not for what I wanted it to be – it was like peeking behind a great curtain and bearing witness to something more beautiful than I had ever imagined. For the first time I saw the Church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, saw it as the bride of Christ, and saw it as the Body alive. I saw the Mass as one uniform body of Christ himself existing through his creation around the world as a living breathing singular movement. What I envisioned as the collective view of the Mass around the world – if it could be seen from space – would look like the image of the face of Christ. In that moment I was brought to my knees. Not just in the humility of my foolishness, but more importantly in the awe of its beauty, its design, and the inter-relationships of all of its parts. Father Robert Barron likely does the best job of trying to orchestrate an actual visible representation of the collective majesty that is the Catholic Church through a singular perspective with the video series Catholicism (www.wordonfire.org).

It is very easy at times to think you are smarter than the Church. That somehow you have a greater grasp of a situation than what you see as men, or some cabal isolated behind walls, that lack some greater understanding that you have somehow otherwise managed to muster together in your life. As my father-in-law likes to say, “The worst thing about the Catholic Church is the marketing department.” Which is a fancy of way of saying we don’t have one. Which also means the Church can tend to be the last word said is a rushed argument, and then usually doesn’t stick around for the follow-on debate.

Further, we as designed creatures from God have been constructed, like a great many other of God’s creatures, with defense mechanisms for our survival. Fighting for something we see as inherently true as part of our limited understanding of things is just part of our nature as people. A reflexive response to a perceived, or poorly perceived, threat to our person, our home, or the life we have been constructing. These are our defense mechanisms as human creatures. But we must always remember that we are not called to a life of our own construction, we are called to a life in Christ. That we are gifted with the Temple of the Holy Spirit as a guide in this journey. We as Catholics use the term “formation” and “reconciliation” for a good purpose – it’s an acclamation process. For some of us – especially yours truly – it’s a slow process.

But unlike my backyard neighbor Quixote Cardinal, we are blessed with the gift of reason. We have the opportunity to see the glass for what it truly is – a reflection that gives us a view of what we think the world is, perhaps not what it actually is or need be. Reason helps us learn through prayer, spending time in the Word of God, and staying focused on Christ and our faith in him to continue to grow closer to the person Christ wants us to be – a Saint! And as we make this journey along the path to sainthood, we are blessed with great moments of humility and embarrassment in which we suddenly find God standing in the kitchen, drinking coffee and thinking to himself, “well, this is kind of what I signed up for isn’t it.”