Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reflection for January 15, 2012

Not always so prompt but - persistent

The Church has been compared to many things: a Mother, a City built upon a hill, a Sheepfold. The early Fathers of the Church sometimes compared it to the ship of ancient Ulysses, which wandered sometimes too close to hazardous rocks and whirlpools or whose crew let itself be seduced by siren songs of wealth and power or lolled away its time ultra-piously among the lotus-eaters – or (bedeviled by single-eyed Cyclopean giants) let itself become obsessed with “single issues” and thus apt to apply simplistic solutions to complex problems. Yet, whatever the winds that have assailed it, Christ has somehow always appeared out of the night walking on the waters to set us once again on course toward home.

It’s true that in these Gospels of January we hear tell of the first apostles responding immediately to the call of Christ – not hesitating for a moment. We hear they abandoned their nets, the many ties that entangled them, and followed him. But there are other episodes in the Gospels where, when Jesus summons people to follow him, they drag their feet, think of ingenious excuses to delay their response. In other words they are slow about it. And insofar as that also could be said about the Church as a whole down through history, it makes me think of another (and not entirely negative) metaphor applicable to the Church, namely: the turtle!

John Steinbeck must have studied a turtle quite thoroughly to come up with his wonderful description of one crossing a road in The Grapes of Wrath. The scene is a concrete highway in Oklahoma; a summer day. “And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hind legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.” Steinbeck notes how “his fierce, humorous eyes . . . stared straight ahead.” The turtle then came upon a steep embankment, which he investigated with head held high and then clawed and pushed his way up. Then came a new obstacle: the four-inch high shoulder of the road itself. Laboriously the turtle shoved itself up against this barrier until its shell stood at an angle whence its front legs could not touch the ground. But its hind legs kept pushing and pushing until the shell was high enough to plop over flat on the roadbed.

Now all seemed easy as, with all its legs working, the creature waggled from side to side - until one car just missed it, causing the turtle to withdraw its head, legs and tail tightly within its shell. But no sooner did it venture forth again than a truck grazed it, spinning it like a coin right off the road, where it landed on its back - all its feet waving in the air, “reaching for something to pull it over.” Somehow it righted itself and continued on until Tom Joad found it and wrapped it in his coat as a gift for his little brother. But in the end the turtle worked its way out of the coat, hid for a while within its shell to avoid the pestering of a cat, and was last seen walking “southwest as it had been from the first.”

The Church! Considered a slow moving phenomenon by many, but obstinately aimed at a destination of which this world seems so ignorant, carrying a heavy shell of tradition within which it retreats occasionally when under pressure but whence it emerges again under its compulsion to keep advancing toward its rendezvous with the Source of its being. The Church! Running into roadblocks, tossed about by the violence of controversy - but driven by the Holy Spirit to waggle on, bearing ever so awkwardly the burden of the Gospel. The Church! Namely, you and me, ridiculously slow to catch on yet likely to cross the finish line before Bugs Bunny - by sheer tenacity if not by speed.