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In May Crowning, Mass, and Merton, Liz Kelly, a thirty-something writer and jazz singer, eagerly shares her ardent love for the Catholic faith. While the beliefs of the church are important to Kelly, her passion is really ignited by the holy people and places, the beloved ...
In May Crowning, Mass, and Merton, Liz Kelly, a thirty-something writer and jazz singer, eagerly shares her ardent love for the Catholic faith. While the beliefs of the church are important to Kelly, her passion is really ignited by the holy people and places, the beloved rituals, and the rich spiritual traditions of this living faith. She celebrates them here, with wit, affection, and candor.
Kelly has realized that “the litany of reasons to love being Catholic is extraordinary.” These include everything from the crucifix, kneelers, and Ash Wednesday to Flannery O’Connor, the Swiss Guard, and Tenebrae. Though she writes that, “Mine is not an extraordinary faith, so much as a faith growing a little messy, a little rough and subversive around the edges,” it is a rich, inspiring faith, celebrated by a fresh, young Catholic voice.
Ironically, when I was formulating the topic of reasons to love being Catholic, some of the first things that came to mind were reasons why I did not like being Catholic: guilt, shame, and fear; a pile of negative stereotypes about Catholics that made me feel small, ugly, stupid, close-minded, and weak; and misunderstandings of myself and of the church that led me to leave it for a time.
As I ticked down this list of reasons why I don’t like being Catholic—some legitimate, others not—I came up with two basic points of contention.
One: It’s hard. Being Catholic has taught me about balance and prudence and the deep joys of daily discipline and commitment, just as training for a triathlon did. But being Catholic is hard. Very hard. It requires all of me. Heaven wants all of me, and every day there are bits and pieces of me that I want to squirrel away for myself, little lusts that I want to indulge, or perhaps pockets of shame or guilt or resentment, or moments of grief or loss I mistakenly believe do not concern God. But heaven still wants all of me—and this is hard. It’s both terrifying and relieving to know that once and for all, God wants all of me, just as I am, no adjustments, no tinkering required, no “Well, we want you, but thinner, prettier, holier, more perfect.” No, God wants just me right now. Mother Teresa once said that we aim to allow Jesus to use us, just as we are, without our permission. More often than not, the permission I am withholding is out of fear not that God will assign me a task I will hate, but that in seeing me just as I am, with all my faults and deep desires, he will assign me no task at all, will find no use for me.
Two: It’s hard. Sometimes it is painful to be Catholic, not because the rules and regulations so often associated with being Catholic are so restrictive, but because the love of heaven leads us to fearless expansiveness, to vast open planes of senses and love so great they cannot be named but only recognized and felt in our deepest weeping core.
As I’ve filled these pages I have been delighted to unearth a great well of gratitude for the many blessings that being Catholic has poured into my life, my writing, my music, and all my loves. I find in the church as an institution a larger picture of what God has already graciously and most wondrously and efficaciously implanted within me. I feel wildly fortunate that the church is here—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, established to help support humanity in its quest toward becoming our best selves, the people God intended us to be, his devoted children.
I hope this book will put to rest for some of its readers the misconceptions I have held myself of what it means to be Catholic. I am certain it will not speak to everyone, and that’s all right. The journalist Henry Bayard Swope once said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” Catholicism is not interested in the success that pleases everybody; instead, I believe it is interested in the success that brings people into loving relationship with God, where we become our best selves. And no matter which way you slice it, that is hard.
Do I have much to learn—of myself, of God, of my church, of you? Oh yes. This is the great joy of it, embracing the mystery, becoming willing to live with questions and to evolve. Am I open to learn? Most days, yes, I hope. Do I wish for greatness, in the sense that it may lead to more learning, deeper understandings that bring greater freedom? Yes.
Dear, sweet Jesus. Let me never settle for good. Instead, let me fly, fly, fly toward greatness—and find that you are there and have been there, waiting for me all this long, long while. Amen.
Objects with Meaning
It begins here: the telltale Catholic icon.
My favorite crucifix hangs low over my bed, low enough that I can reach up, take it off its nail, and hold it across my center when I’m in bed meditating or praying or just feeling lonely. It was a gift from my younger brother, something he brought back from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. It is your standard crucifix: Christ nailed to a tree, the classic pose, the crown of thorns, “INRI” hanging over his head. For many years, it bore the strong aroma of roses—not an uncommon phenomenon for blessed objects brought back from holy places of pilgrimage such as Medjugorje or Fatima—but the scent has faded some. It sits with me now while I write, speaking gently to me and reminding me of our long relationship and the long nights we’ve kept each other company.
Cradling a crucifix might seem like an odd, or rather fanatical, thing to do, but I like the sense of keeping the cross close to me, close to my heart. I find it comforting, something to hang on to, to grasp when I can’t get myself centered or when I feel afraid.
I see a lot of things when I look at my crucifix.
The drawn face of a man abandoned.
I see a body with nothing more to give, drained of life, of breath.
I see blood and thorn and nail and nakedness.
The ruin and wreckage of hatred outpoured.
But there are other things to see, too. Even more powerful things.
I see understanding and compassion. No matter how low I feel, I see that I am understood, and I am not alone.
I see gentleness, and honesty, innocence, authenticity.
I see not the absence of strength, but the presence of surrender.
I see a distinct lack of self-pity.
Sometimes when I look at the crucifix, I see other people: a former boss who was greatly and unfairly burdened, a dear friend who suffers from a chronic and unpredictable illness, an addict I met on a train ride, a coworker abandoned by a husband, a man who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and with the side effects of his drug treatments. And I remember to pray for others and their suffering and, as much as I am able, to be a catalyst to alleviate the suffering around me, to move through life as a healing balm.
When I look at the crucifix, I also see a promise kept. God said he would love me, know me, and never abandon me, no matter what, no matter the cost. He keeps his word.
To some degree, the Christian life begins with the Crucifixion. It is the gateway to everything else. Accepting the Crucifixion is the first step toward trusting that with Jesus, to die is to rise again. Accepting the Crucifixion is agreeing with your whole person that you want to at least become willing to give your whole life for love. We are reminded of this sacrifice by the crucifixes we hang over our beds, around our necks, from our rearview mirrors, in our churches, and on our walls—the myriad ways we plant them throughout our daily worlds.
But that’s just a place to start. The Good News is that it doesn’t end there.
Holy Water, Incense, and Candles
They are sacramentals, physical signs or reminders of the seven sacraments. They are surely one of my favorite traditions within the church. Sacramentals take the spiritual graces of God and bring them to our senses and experience in a way that heightens and strengthens our understanding of the glory, majesty, and holiness of God, along with his great love to extend himself to us through the sacraments.
Sacramentals speak to the larger picture. The seven sacraments—baptism, reconciliation, holy communion, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, and anointing of the sick—are outward signs of inward grace given to us by Jesus. The church teaches that “sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (Catechism, 1670). Catholics “cooperate” with heaven when we dab our foreheads with holy water, burn incense, and light candles. We perform these small outward signs as a means of demonstrating an interior that is soft to the work of heaven through the Holy Spirit.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.
A dear friend with virtually no experience of any religion—a devout “cynicist,” as he calls himself—recently came to noon Mass with me. He saw me dip my fingers in the holy water stoup outside the sanctuary doors before entering and promptly stopped me as I was making the sign of the cross. “All right, before we go any further,” he said, “what is up with the holy water bit?”
Well, that’s one way to put the question.
Holy water is meant to remind us of our baptism. Usually holy water is simply plain water that has been blessed by a priest. A touch of salt is added because it is a preservative, and holy water is meant to “preserve us” from sin.
It was as Jesus was rising out of the water following his baptism that the clouds opened and the spirit of God descended upon him, and “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17). When I bless myself with holy water upon entering the church, not only am I beginning to prepare myself for Mass and for prayer, but also I may recall this scene from the Gospel and remember, “So too am I beloved. Oh Jesus, help me be pleasing to the Father, as you are.”
Holy water works as a tiny drop of a reminder that I have been baptized and, in that, appointed, blessed, and anointed for my role on the planet. Christ was baptized and then entered into his public ministry, performing his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, turning water into wine. So too have I been chosen, baptized, and prepared. So too am I to go forward and enter into the world to fulfill my vocation.
When we dip our fingers in water and make the sign of the cross, damp and blessed on our body, it is a deep reminder of all these things.
My favorite church in Boston is St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine. It is run by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a lovely order of beautiful priests whose seminary sits next door to the shrine. I introduced a close friend to it not long ago. Upon entering the sanctuary, she took a deep breath, exhaled, and said, “It smells like Jesus in here.”
I love the smell of “church,” the waft of incense that has worked its way into the very walls. It is comforting and reminds me of liturgy at its warmest, finest, and most ceremonious: midnight Mass, Easter Vigil, adoration. The psalmist says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, / and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). And Proverbs remembers that “perfume and incense make the heart glad” (27:9). In Revelation, “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (8:4).
Have you ever wondered why God bothered with smell? There has to be more to it than keeping us from eating something rancid or knowing when to change the baby’s diaper, though those are certainly productive uses of our olfactory nerve.
Smelling is an unconscious, innate activity. Some researchers believe that our sense of smell may have been one of the most important to possess for survival; in primitive times it would have been a tremendous advantage to smell prey or predator before seeing it. Tied to the limbic system of the brain, which registers emotions such as pleasure, fear, and pain, our sense of smell can have a very powerful impact on our mood and can immediately and unconsciously stir up deep memories.
The history of incense is equally complex and tied to our earliest forms of prayer and meditation. From ancient times and our first interaction with fire, we discovered that certain substances produced very pleasing aromas. Because of the intricate way that smell affects us mentally and emotionally, it probably wasn’t long before we discovered that certain aromas helped to produce various effects: calming scents to prepare us for prayer, meditation,and contemplation, or stimulating scents for rites of celebration and healing. Additionally, certain substances, such as frankincense, were costly. To burn them liberally, releasing their pleasing aroma, was considered a generous offering to God.
The church continues to use incense in practical and symbolic ways: to prepare the faithful for ceremony, prayer, or adoration; to offer our prayers and works to God; to bless holy objects, the altar, the congregation, and the bread and wine; and to bless funeral and other processions. The use of incense in church may also help to stir our collective memory, calling to mind a number of moving symbols: prayers rising to heaven, the cloud in which God appeared to the Israelites to lead them through the desert. It is a reminder of the Holy Spirit that descended upon the Virgin Mary and upon the apostles at Pentecost, every Catholic at his or her confirmation, and the same Holy Spirit that descends upon the water and wine at Mass during the transubstantiation.
Lord, may my life be an offering of sweet incense rising to make your heart glad.
Candles have dozens of uses within the church. One of the most popular and most frequently associated with Catholicism is the use of the votive. The name “votive” comes from the Latin votum, which means “vow.” It is very common to see little villages of votive candles, often at the back of church or on either side of the sanctuary, gathered at the foot of a statue of one of the saints or of Jesus or Mary. When Catholics say to you, “I’ll light a candle for you,” they mean that they will say a prayer for you, possibly requesting the intercession of one of the saints. They light a candle for you to recognize that prayer or to say thank you for a prayer answered.
There is the tabernacle or sanctuary lamp—another candle—placed near the tabernacle where the Eucharist is housed, signifying the living presence of God. We have candles specifically designated for Easter, Christmas, baptisms, marriage, and other sacraments or holy days. Our family used Advent candles in an Advent wreath every year; there are typically three purple and one pink candle representing the weeks of preparation of Advent. Lighting the advent candle before meals was a means of gathering us together to recognize and celebrate the holy season.
Even as I sit here, I have a candle burning. It is my little petition to the Holy Spirit to come and light my way, to burn through me to reach the page, as corny as that sounds. It helps. I don’t think heaven needs my burning candle any more than it needs holy water or incense. Sacramentals are for us, because we are sensory beings, and symbolism and sacramentals help infuse the spiritual into the other planes of our experience—physical, emotional, mental. We light our candles to remind us that Jesus is the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Amen.
We Catholics like our attire. Our babies have their baptismal gowns; our altar servers their robes; our priests their vestments; our brides their white wedding dresses; our communicants their veils; and some of our children, their Catholic school uniforms. These articles of clothing speak of roles and preparation; they speak of unity and uniqueness; they reflect on the outside the way we are feeling on the inside, and they share our faith with the world in a wonderfully colorful and open way. They remind us of who we are and who we hope to be; they cloak and cover; they expose and identify. Ultimately, they symbolize and magnify the riches of tradition and the importance of the various roles and rites of passage in the life of faith.
First Communion Dresses
Mine was pink. And, as was all my clothing until I was about twenty years old, my first Holy Communion dress was a hand-me-down. I still remember how cool the satin sheath felt against my skin; covered in white lace, it slipped over me like an onionskin.
In the picture from my first Holy Communion, I am walking down the aisle of the church of my childhood, St. Raphael’s. My hands are folded, my white kneesocks pulled up snug to my kneecaps, my white sandals strapped on tight, a long white veil draped over my light brown hair. The camera snapped just as my eyes blinked shut; I look so peaceful, so serene with my eyes closed that you’d think I was sleepwalking. But I was most alert. I will not forget the significance of that day, the day I was invited by God himself to be the bride.
We don’t dress up our children like brides and grooms for their first Holy Communion because we think it’s charming, though it may be. The clothing is a reflection of the greater relationship forming between Christ and the communicant. Bridegroom and bride. We are chosen, prepared, and called forth for initiation into a holy communion with God, a body-and-blood relationship that will bring forth life in all our relationships. In these ways, Holy Communion reminds us of wedding vows and speaks to the part of us that longs to be chosen.
When I was in Rome, one of the most moving ceremonies I got to observe at St. Peter’s Basilica was the blessing of marriages by the pope. Hundreds of couples gathered on the steps of the cathedral and were seated in hard plastic chairs flanking the pontiff. It was a sea of black and white, with many of the couples dressed in rented gowns and tuxedos for the occasion. Each couple approached the pope, knelt before him, and received his blessing. In some cases, especially with older couples who had clearly been married a long time, the pope would hover over a couple a bit longer, perhaps touching the face of the bride or placing his hand on the head of the groom.
That so many of these couples went to the trouble of putting on wedding attire, even though some of them had traveled from other countries to receive the papal blessing, speaks to the significance of preparing ourselves, of wearing on the outside the roles we live out on the inside. Dressing for one’s wedding is certainly not a tradition that belongs solely to the Catholic Church. Instead, it is one of the many ways that the church intertwines with the world around her.
Wedding attire is also an outward expression that mirrors the dignity of the sacrament. The special attention we give to our appearance is merely an outward way of saying, “What happens between this man and this woman is sacramental.”
After nearly thirty years of working as an attorney, my father became a judge. I first saw him in his judge’s robe when he was being sworn in, and this moment stuck with me. The symbolism of his robe was powerful. It spoke to his authority and the responsibility that went with it. His robe was a reminder to all in the courtroom that it was his job to interpret and apply the law with reason, understanding, honor, and, ultimately, fairness. His robe said that he was willing to take on the burden of deciding the fate of abused children, drunken drivers, and delinquents headed down the wrong road. It could not have been easy.
I was reminded of my father’s swearing-in when a seminarian at my church recently took his first vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. This beautiful young man knelt before the seminary director and proclaimed his intentions to become a priest. While we sang songs of thanksgiving, he was led to a room at the side of the sanctuary, and moments later he emerged in his first cassock. It was stirring to observe this exterior representation of the interior journey to love and serve God with a singleness of purpose. It was his outward demonstration of an inner acceptance of the responsibility that comes with becoming a priest.
Priestly vestments act in a similar manner and greatly enrich the experience of the Mass for me. They are visual reminders to those of us at services that the priest has been especially prepared for his role at the altar and that his calling is different from ours in the pews. The two most distinct pieces to priestly vestments are the alb and the chasuble. The alb is the white linen robe worn underneath the more colorful chasuble and is a symbol of purity and innocence. The chasuble is generally one of four colors: red, white, violet, or green. Red is worn on the feast days that remember the martyred saints who shed their blood for their faith. It is also the color of fire and is worn on feast days, such as Pentecost, that honor the Holy Spirit. White is a symbol of glory or innocence or purity and is used on various feast days of our Lady, angels, and saints who were not martyred. Violet is worn during the seasons of preparation, Lent and Advent, and is also a symbol of penance. Green, symbolic of hope and growth of the church, is worn at various times throughout the year.
I love that God bothered with color and with hearts and imaginations that would crave ceremony. The holy gear that marks the life of Catholics also reminds me that my world is a colorful world, not just black and white and gray. Similarly, my faith will have shades and colors, responsibilities and accountabilities, honors and duties, and many beautiful seasons to be lived, embraced, and celebrated.
Rosaries have worked their way into my purse,my gym bag, my luggage, my computer case, my desk at work. They hang off my bedpost, sit in a tangle on my dresser, and have settled into countless drawers—just as they have settled into the very creases and crevices of my soul’s skin. My little anchors. And of course, they’re not just mine. As I was walking down the street a few days ago, a big, burly guy drove by in a big, burly vehicle with a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. I smiled and thought to myself, Dude, I know exactly how you feel.
What is the appeal?
The rosary has been called “the epitome of the Gospel.” Evolving over centuries, it has become—for Catholics as well as non-Catholics—an effective and popular means for meditating primarily on the life of Jesus. The rosary invites the person praying to contemplate the most significant moments of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and is composed of the most common Catholic prayers, including the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. The physical rosary is made of five sections of stringed beads, which serve as tallying devices for the prayers. The person praying names a “mystery” on each section to facilitate meditation on events from the life of Christ, such as the birth of Jesus, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. The rosary is a simple yet effective means for anyone at any level of experience to begin the practice of meditation and draw closer to Jesus. I owe a great debt to this simple devotion; it is not an exaggeration to say that it saved my life.
My first experiences of the rosary involved praying it with my family on Christmas Eve. Indeed, it is a popular family prayer because of its simplicity and repetition. As an adult, I returned to rosary meditation during an especially tumultuous time because of this simplicity. In my emotional struggles, I found the repetition comforting; it cleared my head and heart in much the same manner that going for a long run or listening to the ocean would, only the effects were much, much deeper and longer lasting. It was gentle and easy and led me to profounder meditation and contemplation, which would eventually bring about great healing on every level. (This story can be found in my book The Rosary: A Path into Prayer.)
The rosary is largely considered a Marian devotion, but it should be noted that Jesus is the focus of the meditation. The Our Father prayer is taken directly from the lips of Christ and takes an appropriate place at the head of each decade (a group of ten Hail Marys). The Hail Mary, the prayer most often repeated in the rosary, continues the rosary’s absolutely Christocentric focus; the name of Jesus is not only the physical median of the prayer, but also the spiritual centerpiece of all Marian devotion. Without Jesus, there is no Marian devotion.
In brief, the Hail Mary is drawn largely from the Gospel of Luke. In the Gospel, the angel Gabriel visits Mary and addresses her in this manner: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Gabriel goes on to reveal to Mary that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus. This angelic salutation—called the Annunciation—marks Jesus’ entrance into human history. The saving work of the Father was brought about when Mary responded, “Let it be with me according to your word.” The prayer continues with another passage from the Gospel of Luke, where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth tells her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (For more on the development of the Hail Mary, see chapter 26, “The ‘Ave Maria’.”)
The prayer concludes with a simple petition: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” We ask Mary to pray for us because her unique role as the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, also makes her a powerful intercessor. Catholics turn to her often, but this devotion is not to be confused with worship.
The rosary was used throughout the history of the church as a means to teach the life of Jesus to audiences who either lacked access to books or could not read. The rosary was also a method of drawing believers into communal prayer and greater fellowship.
While rosary meditation is entirely optional for Catholics, its practice has been strongly encouraged by many prominent figures within the church, including Pope John Paul II and many of the saints. The church teaches that meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him. (Catechism, 2708)
The explanation or study of rosary devotion could never replace the actual practice of it. I began slowly, with a decade now and then, and was drawn more deeply into my faith life. I have grown to love my rosaries and feel the need to always have them close by, if not on my person. They remind me of my momma in heaven, that magnificent woman in the sky, always interceding for me, loving me home to heaven. The beads sound good jangling in my pocket or thumping gently against my chest when I go running. I don’t have to be praying a rosary—just as I don’t have to be at Mass or adoration—to feel the presence, strength, comfort, power, life, virtue, and mystery of all that these beads embody.
Table of Contents
Part One: Objects with Meaning
1 The Crucifix 3
2 Holy Water, Incense, and Candles 7
3 Holy Gear 13
4 The Rosary 19
5 Kneelers 25
6 The Pietà 29
7 Michelangelo’s Creation Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel 33
8 The Scala Santa and Devotion 39
9 Wedding Bands on the Hands of Nuns 43
Part Two: Those Who Journey with Us
10 Mary 49
11 The Archangels: St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael 53
12 Pope John Paul II 59
13 Flannery O’Connor 65
14 The Young Thomas Merton in Rome 71
15 Mary Lou Williams and the Blessing of Conversion 77
16 The Communion of Saints 81
17 The Swiss Guard 87
18 St. Joseph of Cupertino 93
19 Bd. Pier Giorgio Frassati 97
20 The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis 101
Part Three: Devotion in Practice
21 May Crowning 109
22 The Anima Christi, Soul of Christ 113
23 Adoration 117
24 Fasting 123
25 Silence 129
26 The “Ave Maria” 133
27 Forgiveness and the Sacrament of Confession 137
28 The Rosary of the Holy Wounds and Sr. Mary Martha Chambon 143
29 Pilgrimages 149
30 House Blessings 155
31 The Eucharist 159
32 The Sign of Peace 165
Part Four: Truths That Bring Grace
33 To Arrive at Love 173
34 Heavenly Humor 179
35 Celibacy 183
36 The Pro-Life Life 189
37 The Promise of the Holy Spirit 195
38 The Names of God 199
39 God Comes to Meet Us 205
40 Visit the Imprisoned: A Corporal Work of Mercy 209
41 Belonging to the Universal Church 215
Part Five: Rhythms of the Faith
42 Daily Mass 225
43 The Feast of the Epiphany 229
44 Ash Wednesday 233
45 The Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus 239
46 The Tenth Station: Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments 245
47 The Hour of Divine Mercy 251
48 Tenebrae 257
49 Easter 261
Epilogue: The Cross 267
Posted July 23, 2007
I recieved this book upon completion of finishing RCIA with the catholic church. What a pleasant suprise! It is short little chapters that talk about why the catholic church is a great faith to be apart of. I found myself loving how for a relegious book Liz's writing is entertaining and thought provoking. This book only confirmed in my life that I have made the right decision regarding faith.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.