“All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” — St. Thomas Aquinas
I should have known better. That’s how I felt after my last exam. I left the room with a pit in my stomach and an old familiar flood of anxiety. Final exams can sometimes present themselves as a kind of moral certification, a mark of worthiness or proof of potential. That this happened to be a sacramental theology exam during my final stage of formation before priestly ordination certainly didn’t help. If there’s one thing a priest-to-be needs to know…
I couldn’t overcome the sense that what felt like a very poor performance meant that I was a total fraud, that I’d never pass as a priest, and that I was a fool to think it possible in the first place. Maybe I don’t know what I need to know. Maybe I don’t believe what I need to believe. Maybe that whole ‘falling in love’ thing was just a cruel joke. Maybe this wasn’t meant to be. Many good relationships end this way, with a sense of betrayal or inadequacy, with a bullying one-two punch to the gut: Who do you think you are? You should have known better.
Anxious self-doubt manipulates the truth with needless worry and endless projection. The antidote to this anxiety is to stop narrating what should be and to express gratitude for what is, to give attention to the present and the real.
The truth? I passed the exam (good enough for me) and my anxiety probably had more to do with fatigue than failure. So, I decided to take the first available bus out of Madrid, to rest and recover, to remember that all was not lost, that the wide world is greater than any test and that I don’t need to pen my ‘Dear John‘ letter to Father General quite yet. I headed south to Granada. It was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.
The house in Granada was under construction so the community was living temporarily in a vacant university residence hall. There I was, hoping to get away from my studies only to find myself sleeping again in a college dorm. Even in trying times, it would seem, God maintains her sense of humor.
We had daily mass in a converted classroom under horrible fluorescent lights. The priest wore a cheap alb, wrinkled and transparent, about as dignified as a motel bedsheet. The altar was a bit of old lace thrown over a rotten particle board desk. We sat in classroom chairs with retractable tables. Someone had cut bushels of green vines with white flowers and placed them in every last corner of the room. This seemed a bit like putting lipstick on a pig until I realized that they filled the space with the scent of orange blossoms. After a few deep breaths I recognized again the presence of the sacred in the midst of the ordinary.
These same flowers hang from the balconies and fall over the tops of Granada’s white walled patios. This same scent pulls you through the narrow streets of the Albaicin at dusk until you spill out into the Plaza Mirador de San Nicolas and realize that you are not as alone as you had thought. It’s this scent that surrounds you as you stand with dozens of strangers while the soft light of the setting sun sets the Alhambra aglow. And it’s this scent that holds you as two gypsy girls dance while a circle of old women clap and sing and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes that grow darker like the night with every drag.
As I prayed in that converted classroom chapel I was grateful for the brother (aptly named, Hermano Bendito) who had cut these flowers and brought them into this dreary space, filling it with memory and making of the miserable a sacrament. He must have looked like a romantic old fool, coming home with his arms full of crudely cut vines, white flowers spilling out from every nook and cranny of his wiry frame. It was an extravagant expression of care for a rather ordinary looking lover — a lover who awaits him daily under cheap fluorescent lights and dusty lace in a room once used for study and now for worship.
I look back at this year and, more than a single exam, I see many humiliating moments and painful silences. There were many times when I felt diminished, as if, because I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the true depths of things. This difficult feeling is an emotional remnant from the worst parts of my childhood when I had complicated experiences of suffering and an insufficient vocabulary with which to speak of them. It’s a breathless thing to feel yourself caught between not knowing enough and knowing all too well.
Perhaps we should all know better. Or maybe it’s not that we don’t know well enough, but that what we know, what has been revealed to us in the depths of our experience, is often impossible to explain. How are we to sufficiently communicate the real and present truth of our passion, our suffering, or our love? After a year of sacramental theology I can tell you that the Catholic Church believes Christ to be really present in the eucharist, but when it comes to understanding how, all of our explanations return, in the end, to mystery.
Of two things I am certain: God is less concerned with being understood than with being known and we will come to know God more by experience than by explanation.
To know the real presence of God we must hear it echo in space and time. We must seek it out like the scent of incense or fresh flowers. We must take it in our hands like a loaf of bread or a cup of wine and we must taste it. We must accept the real presence of unconditional self-giving love and we must become that presence for others. Gathered together like freshly cut flowers in the arms of ‘Brother Blessed’ we must fill the dreary spaces of this world with our stories, our sacrifices, and our songs.
With hands full of bread and roses, water and wine, we await the real presence of Christ like a lover. In our gathering, in our breaking, and above all in our sharing we become that for which we long. We become lovers. When we understand this we will wait no more. We will tumble over walls like white flowers in springtime. And we will know better what we should have known always — the real presence of the living God.