If anyone could be considered raised in the church, I would say that I could. I was baptized when I was a baby just on the other end of the aisle, I was confirmed maybe four feet from where I’m standing, and I’ve been an acolyte since elementary school. And recently I’ve started to think that those of us raised in the church, familiar with the liturgy and with early memories of Sunday Mass and prayers, are in serious danger of letting something beautiful slip by us, unnoticed and unappreciated. For example, I knew the words of the Creed by heart long before I knew what the word “begotten” meant. For years of my life, some of the things that now most profoundly shape my life were just a matter of routine and choreography. We’re born with this path available, the path of security where we pay lip service to God, not exactly out of insincerity but more as a matter of course. And it’s not that we then feel free to live lives of violence and debauchery, but we just never consider that there’s a higher gear available, that we can and should strive, contest, and contend with ourselves and the world, so as to further and deepen our relationship with God.
I have been blessedly, incomprehensively lucky and fortunate in my life to have been saved from this path by meeting the people I’ve met, when I met them, and experiencing the things I have, starting with being baptized and confirmed and raised here. And, to my shame, it took me much too long to realize any of it. I, if I want to flatter myself, could fairly say that I possess a bit of an independence streak, but perhaps a less softened and more accurate term would be obstinance. Because of this, it’s required some outside help to get me to the point where I could realize what has been directly in front of me my whole life. My freshman year of high school was, I think, the year when I really began to wake up. We had had a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for a long time on a shelf in our house, and one day I decided to pick it up and started reading. And, I remember, there was an early line that struck me. It was a proclamation, which now seems to be an obvious one for an advocate of Christianity to make, that Christianity was the right religion. Strangely enough, this idea had never really occurred to me. It seemed odd to see it phrased that way. But this simple and explicit phrasing opened me up in a way that’s hard to describe. It put the possibility of Truth on the table. If you haven’t read it, Mere Christianity is an excellent beginner for theology. His arguments, for me, made it clear or at least very possible that Christian faith has a legitimate value beyond some vague cultural heritage.
And, for me, it put me in a state where I was open to the possibility that there is something more to what I had been hearing my whole life. Soon after this, how I remember it, Mother Beth gave a sermon describing the nature of divine assistance: that God comes to carry your burden when it is heaviest. This was not something she had not been preaching before, but it was at the right moment for me to hear it and it struck me. And then following this, I was inspired by a religious friend of mine to take up a Lenten discipline, and that was when I first experienced a subjective intimation, sure but non-specific knowledge, of something. And this drew me to read more theology and philosophy and made me understand, without necessarily solving any sort of logical puzzle or coming to any solution, that I was a Christian.
But the moment that will never leave me, that threw me into deep water and has changed my life and keeps changing it every day, was a Christmas Eve Mass a few years ago. At this point in my life, I was confident that through work and study God reveals Himself and some sort of Truth, but only in the vaguest sense. But near the end of the service, when they said the words from the Gospel of John, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” and we all knelt down, I can’t even really explain what happened very well. Physically, my whole body ached and it was like being dizzy but without losing my balance. I had an overwhelming urge to fall on my face. I don’t know how else to phrase it; it was a compulsion to worship and an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder and the Presence of some colossus. It’s how I imagine a mouse would feel looking at a massive dog. To this day my heart pounds when I think about that moment—it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. It was a looming presence, over me and inside of me, of something that was whole and good, and I often feel tears well up when I think about it. Since then it’s been like I’ve been walking on a sheet of ice with a huge expanse of water beneath, a flip side to life that sits there in the back of my mind. Since then I’ve felt it a handful of times, usually during prayer, often in church and often on Holy Days. And I always come away with some knowledge, some new understanding of things that God has been telling me but I’ve been too stubborn to hear. I’ll look at communion, or someone bowing their head, and it’s suddenly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll know things about my life, and my purpose, and I’ll see things more clearly and relaxed. In those moments everything is impressive and spectacular and beautiful, and worrying about anything at all seems silly and trivial.
People like to draw a dichotomy between science and religion, at worst that they are irreconcilable and at best that they’re in dire need of reconciliation, but in comparison to the voice of God and allowing yourself to see that you are puny and that your grandest, most daring attempts to execute your vision, whatever it may be, will be swept away like they’re nothing just by the mere existence of time and space, what is worldly knowledge but an interesting corollary.
This realization led me to see the value in Scripture and the teachings of Christ; as far as I can tell, there’s nothing to be won from the world that is worth having, but in living rightly, denying ourselves, and wrestling with God we can truly, finally experience the beauty and glory in which we are all living, and how nothing but grace could make that available. The most common issue I face, and perhaps many others do as well, is that I ascribe domains to God, or morph what He says to fit my worldly ideas of fairness or right and wrong. Many a Christian will be more patriotic than they are devoted to Christ, or more attached to their political affiliation, or their occupation, or their family and heritage. Every major tenant (to give before receiving, to forgive all things always, to pursue redemption through repentance) requires that we abandon all the shallow things we pursue and reach past them. Whatever you have or want is not worth anything. It’s all over everything: in the Incarnation where the infinite becomes complete in something finite, in the Revelation that is available to all of us at all times, in the path to Redemption through recognizing your humble status. Like when Elijah realizes that God was in the small, still voice, and not in loud, destructive, crazed world around him, when we realize how to listen to God and realize the silliness of the things with which we distract ourselves, we realize that life would be trivial or silly unless spent, as the only currency we have, wholly and without trepidation in service and devotion to God.
What becomes important becomes our actions in themselves, not our accomplishments. It becomes better to suffer for living in virtue than to live otherwise, it is better to be taken advantage of than to be ungenerous, and more important to do what matters and not what is urgent. And the beauty of it is that, while it never gets easy, God more readily reveals beauty to you the more you try to listen. And even with how proud we can be, or obstinate, it’s almost laughable how easily it can be swept away. And without all of you, without Emmanuel, without our excellent and generous clergy, without my family, I don’t know if I would have ever been told any of this. I owe all of you my life, the life that started really a couple of years ago, and I will never be able to repay you. God bless you all, and thank you.