Yesterday was the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Saint John Lateran is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, where we find the Pope’s chair (cathedra), symbol of his office and authority. For one living in Rome, I have the blessing to be able to visit these places, and of course the actual feast day is the day to go.
The Basilica of Saint John Lateran, like Saint Peter’s Basilica, has a side chapel with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I planted myself here for my time of prayer, where my thoughts turned to the Church. All of the readings on the feast day of a Church do not deal with buildings but with the fact that God wants to make us into His dwelling place. For example: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthains 3:16)
Thus, the Church uses the occasion of the dedication of a Church to point beyond the physical stones to the deeper reality. The beauty of the stones and the artwork, the beauty of the music and the singing–everything we see and smell and touch and hear in the church–points beyond itself to the Beauty that we cannot see. St Augustine comments: “Who made all of these beautiful, changeable things, if not You who are unchanging Beauty?”
My heart full of such thoughts, of the reality of the feast that the Church proposed, I turned to the book that I brought with me to the chapel that day: The Christian State of Life by Adrienne von Speyr. She speaks about the different forms by which the Church mediates God’s life to us, makes the transforming power of God accessible.
With the founding of the Church in the New Testament, God makes even more of his divine life visible to mankind…The Church is instituted as mediatrix between the divine life and sin-laden, God-alienated human life in order to ease man’s approach to God.
“Mediatrix”, meaning a female mediator, because she is not the source of divine life (that is God the Father), but receives the life of God and passes it on to her children. The Church is always referred to as a Mother, female. How specifically does the Church pass on this life? Again von Speyr:
The sacraments are the ecclesial modes of access to divine life. On the one hand, they enhance and elevate the forms and destinies of human life by the grace they bestow; on the other hand, they are the forms by which divine grace enters into man’s life. The ecclesial states are a further development of these modes of access. They, too, elevate man’s natural dispositions and forms of life and also place themselves between the dispensation and the reception of the sacraments.
The Church’s sacraments “mediate” the life of God to me. I touch salvation for the first time through Baptism; and again through the forgiveness of sins in Confession. God becomes my very food through the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But Adrienne speaks of another way that the life of God becomes our life: through the states of life in the Church. What does she mean? The three states of life are the married state, the religious state, and the priestly state. Let’s look at these three forms of life as mediators, as they point beyond themselves and make something of the mystery of God present in the world.
The Married State. “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” Saint Paul speaks about marriage as a sign that points to the marriage that God wants with the human race. By choosing marriage as a sacrament in the Church, the couple says Yes to something that is bigger than them and outside of them: a state of life in the Church. From now on, their “normal” married life points beyond itself, for their good and for the good of the world. In the faithfulness of the spouses (for better or for worse, in sickness and in health) something of God’s faithfulness to His promises breaks into this world. In the fruitfulness of the family (children and life together) something of the fruitfulness of God’s love and the fullness of His life is communicated to the world. In the couple’s forgiveness of each others faults, God’s forgiveness despite all our failings and forgetfulness is mirrored.
The Religious State. When a woman (or man) says Yes to the vocation of the religious life, she is making present in the world the whole-hearted response that is the only true response to God who reveals Himself to us and invites us to His life. The religious witnesses that there is something greater than human love and human pursuits. She does not condemn these things as evil, but challenges us to live our lives for the one thing necessary, the Kingdom of God. As we hear in the Gospel, “In Heaven they are neither married or given in marriage.” And so someone who hands over her life completely in love of God points all of us to the final destiny of our lives: Heaven. The world may only see the renunciation–what the nun or the monk says No to–but the question will linger: Why would someone commit herself in this way? Thus, the Mystery of God finds a way to enter into our awareness.
The Priestly State. We know that the Catholic Church has both married priests (East) and celibate priests (West). And so, something of the religious life could be repeated in the case of the priest, as far as most of us are concerned. But specifically, the priestly life demonstrates the institutional, sacramental character of the Church. The priesthood makes us “bump into” an unavoidable question, one that our Protestant brothers and sisters feel profoundly: Did God really want to have a visible, institutional Church? If he did not, then the priesthood makes no sense. By institutional, we do not just mean bureaucracy, but all those “official” elements of Church life: sacraments, preaching, official teaching, laws, structure (what is sometimes called “organized religion”). Ultimately, the priesthood (and specifically a male priesthood) points beyond itself to the Incarnate Son of God, God who became a man. The priest stands in Christ’s place, not because the priest is holier than other people, but to extend the Fact of God-made-man. The structure, like a skeleton, is not the whole body and could not live without the rest of the body. But it is necessary to the Body!
Don’t worry, I wasn’t thinking all of these thoughts in Adoration; that experience only sparked these reflections. But, looking up in the Adoration Chapel, I saw something that sums up perfectly what all this reflection on the Church is aiming at: the monstrance.
The monstrance de-monstrates, makes it possible to see the Host that it contains. Adoration prolongs the point of the Mass when the priest holds up the Eucharist on the altar. In Adoration, I contemplate the Mystery of the God who has become our food in the Eucharist. I do not contemplate the gold and silver, the beauty of the monstrance, but the Mystery that it contains within it. But the gold and silver draws my attention to the importance of the holiness of the Mystery at the center.
Here is the point: the Church is a huge monstrance! Through things I can understand–bread, wine, water, oil–I am introduced in an experiential way to the Mystery of God. Von Speyr helped me to understand this fact as it applies to our vocation. Through things we understand–love of a man and a woman, the renunciation of marriage and wealth, even structures and regulations–something greater is held up for the world to see. Someone greater. Just like the monstrance…