To a great extent, all of us are, in large part, the result of people we have bumped into during our solitary sojourn down whatever paths life has taken us. People and sometimes events have shaped who we have become and that process continues until death has it due. In my own case, as I reflect upon my Lectio Divina verse (Philippians 2:5), I feel immense gratitude that Christ bumped into me and continues to be merciful to such a broken-down, old Lay Cistercian, such as myself. I call this the Christ Principle because everything that informs my life is based on that encounter (not just a one-time meeting, but seeking God each and every day), your life might be different, but I don’t control that, only my own. Of course, there are many, many more people who have contributed to where I am today. One of the learning points I have noticed since becoming a Lay Cistercian is having the ability to see the Holy Spirit in other people with whom I meet as I seek God daily. All of them form a sort of tree with Christ as the vine and we being the branches. There have been ten people who have left their mark on how I look at reality, ten that have an enduring influence on how I approach Christ, The Center of all Reality.
In a series of blogs in the future, I will examine each of these people and how they have helped me have in me the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). In this blog, I will share with you the experiences I had with Father Aidan Kavanaugh and why that is important in how I look at reality.
My relationship with Father Aidan is personal in that he was my instructor at St. Meinrad School of Theology in 1963, teaching a course on Sacramental Theology. That was the extent of my contact with Father Aidan. His classes were memorable, in that I still hold onto four situations and examples that were to remain with me and guide me in how I view reality. In the later part of this blog, you can read for yourself about the impact that Father Aidan had on liturgy in the United States Catholic Church.
THE ENDURING EXAMPLE OF MRS. MURPHY
My first exposure to Mrs. Murphy, a fictionalized, archetypal character used by Father Aidan to ground the academic theologians in the practical expression of Liturgy as the Body of Christ in the local community. She lifted up all the cares, worries, successes, and challenges of the day with Christ to the Father. What I remember him saying about Mrs. Murphy was that she is the little, old lady in the backbench of Church, eyes closed, faithfully praying to God with all her soul. This lady, said Father Aidan, knows more about the meaning of Faith than all the sophisticated theologians and academics combined. She brings all her struggles and aspirations and lays them at the feet of Christ in humility, simplicity of words, fidelity to the love of Christ, seeking only to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the time, this example just passed right over my head, like so many of the other ideas I encountered. Being in Father Aidan’s class was like taking a sip of water from a fully functioning fire hose. So many wonderful and scintillating ideas were presented in such a modest way, that I found myself struggling to catch just a gulp. I do remember Mrs. Murphy because it has taken me a lifetime to flesh out the significance of what Father Aidan was trying to communicate. It has been only in the last six or seven years that this image has even begun to make some sense to me. My inspiration came from the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in their monthly Gathering Days. Being from Tallahassee, Florida my drive to the monastery, once per month, was five hours away, in Atlanta, Georgia. I very slowly came to see what Father Aidan was alluding to in his avatar of Mrs. Murphy. It is the time I take to place myself in the presence of Christ, in the presence of my fellow Lay Cistercians on gathering day, that makes me open to the Holy Spirit in community. Liturgy is the expression of this living body of Christ which culminates in the Eucharist but which is sustained in the local Gathering in the name of Christ. I am very slowly coming to expand my Faith horizon from Church as someplace I go to for the Sacraments to actually believing that I am the Church wherever I am and that, joined with others of like persuasion, we offer our whole day as sacrament in our search to find God wherever we are. Spirituality becomes not just those times where we formally pray in silence and solitude, although it is that, much more significant is the time we take in our whole day joined with our community of Faith, and all of this joined to the Church Universal as the acceptable sacrifice of our lives in with and through Christ to the glory of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. Practicing the five Cistercian charisms of silence, solitude, work, prayer, and community is how I have come to address Mrs. Mruph’s challenge of simply being in the presence of Christ and listening. St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., great Doctor of the Church states it so: “One day when Thomas Aquinas was preaching to the local populace on the love of God, he saw an old woman listening attentively to his every word. And inspired by her eagerness to learn more about her God whom she loved so dearly, he said to the people: It is better to be this unlearned woman, loving God with all her heart, than the most learned theologian lacking love.” https://www.azquotes.com/author/490-Thomas_Aquinas
THE ENDURING EXAMPLE OF CHRIST AS HEROIC, MYTHIC FIGURE
I can still see Father Aidan writing on the chalkboard. He was talking about how Christ fulfilled not just the Old Testament prophets, but also the hero myth model of Greek and Roman mythology. The Gospel structure did not just pop out of the air but was actually a literary device that cultures used to show a hero who had a mission to overcome, faced great obstacles and overcame them, and rose above (resurrection) all his adversaries and blockages to bring new life to the whole world. The late Dr. Joesph Campbell has written extensively about this topic of hero, savior, messiah, king of kings. Here is one synopsis of the steps he uses to explain the journey of the hero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBOx_zizir0 In doing research for this idea of a hero, I am struck by the last of applications in the literature about Christ as a heroic figure for the human race. I bring that up because that is exactly what Father Aidan proposed back in 1963. It is not exactly the model that Dr, Campbell uses, but there are so many variations out there that I give Father Aidan poetic license to interpolate it for his purposes. Here is what he wrote on the chalkboard that day (keep in mind, that was back in 1963 and I am not 80 years old). Father Aidan adapted the classic hero myth form from Joseph Campbell.
The Anticipation of the Hero
Birth Of God/Man Jesus into Ordinary Time
The Mission Identified
The Mission as Journey
Helpers in the Mission
The Hero faces and overcomes trials and barriers
The Hero suffers and dies for his Mission
The Hero Rises (Resurrection) with humanity to new life
The Hero Descends into Hell to unite all reality into one, holy, apostolic and catholic Universal Church
The Hero Ascends to ordinary life again but this time it is supernatural.
The Hero passes on this supernatural life to his followers.
THE ENDURING EXAMPLE OF LITURGY AS LIVED EXPERIENCES LIFTED UP THROUGH, WITH, AND IN CHRIST
So far, I have just touched on the importance of Mrs. Murphy as being one who is open to the possibility of all Being and is content to be in the presence of Christ. Next, the heroic myth story is one that Christ did to fulfill the prophets and leave the local Gathering of the Baptized to do what Christ did. And what did he do?
Christ loved each one of us in the context of our faith community so much that he became our nature (Philippians 2:5-12). He did that to not only tell us how to love others but to show us how to love others as He loved us. Liturgy is not just a Eucharistic moment in the life of the community, although it is indeed that. It is the Church gathering the faithful together to lift up their life situations to the Father as did Christ. In the myth hero formula, this would be the obstacles he would face to sidetrack him from his mission. This mission was to re-establish the relationship between divinity and humanity lost by the archetypal choice of Adam and Eve to be god. In the liturgy of the Hours, the liturgy of the Eucharist, there are moments where we offer up to the Father with, through, and in Christ the glory due his name as God, living and true. What Father Aidan exposed for me was the purpose of liturgy as a dynamic way to transform my everyday hurts, sufferings, accomplishments and successes into praise and glory of the Father. Mrs. Murphy is everyman, everywoman, all who use the externals moments provided by the local Gathering to see what cannot be seen and hear what cannot be heard. The community is the living body of Christ, composed of all the individual leaves on that branch, Christ being the trunk and the roots. Liturgy in the broad sense is prayer, those of the community of faithful but also the Church Universal. It is in this sense that the Church Universal is holy while all of its members are sinners in need of God’s constant mercy.
THE ENDURING TASK OF SEEKING GOD EVERY DAY
Everything in the above three categories seems to point to the individual in the context of the Church seeking God every day with what life serves up. This was brought home to me in this era of COVID-19 self-isolation when my wife asked me why I don’t go to church anymore. I made a feeble attempt to tell her that my doctor thought I was at high risk of being out in public because of my past battles with Leukemia (CLL type) and having a pacemaker implanted four weeks ago. Her argument was that I was not a good Catholic anymore because I did not go to Church as often as before and she never saw me praying out loud. I used this experience to measure myself against Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict, which I read every day, to ground myself in what is essential. In one of my Lectio Divina (Philippians 2:5) meditations, I actually asked the Holy Spirit if I was a slacker and losing my faith. The thought came back immediately that, far from being lacking in Faith, this COVID-19 test actually made me stronger. Instead of my being a lax catholic because I did not attend church as frequently as before, I realized, thanks to Mrs. Murphy and Father Aidan, that I am Church and that wherever I go, Church goes with me. The fact that I think I am Church does not mean I speak for the Church Universal. It does mean that, like one leaf on the branch of my tree of Christ at Good Shepherd Community, I am one of many leaves who tries to move from self to God each day. I realized also that when I join in my thoughts and Cistercian practices, I am joined with all other individuals who make up the Gathering know as Church. We share one faith, one Lord, one Baptism, and are the living, real presence of Christ on our journey. Seeking God in my daily life is not an isolated event between just Christ and me, but it is the presence of others Baptized in the Faith and adopted sons and daughters of the Father who, together and individually, long to move from self to God in the context of community. The Cistercian charisms of silence, solitude, work, prayer, and community enable me to join with others to give praise to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. The God who is, who was, and who will be at the end of the ages. –Cistercian doxology.
Thank you, Father Aidan and my other professors who planted the seed. Even though it has taken a very long time, Christ has given the issue. The choices I make are informed by all those who have, in some way, touched my mind and heart.