On the Roof of the Church, part I

A repost from 2019 stitched to some new material.

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Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits. — Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, S.J

A few years ago, I was driving home from work, listening to a priest on Catholic radio speak about a recent evangelization and apologetics conference. He extolled the various Catholic speakers, gushed about some of the distinguished prelates in attendance, and described the beautiful Mass that was celebrated to conclude the conference. In a brief aside, he mentioned the venue for the conference was a Hilton and said the facilities were excellent and the staff professional.

Then the strangest thing happened to me as I listened to this passing side comment. I was overcome — to the point of pulling off the road — with a stunning awareness of the “staff” that made this religious event possible. In my mind’s eye flashed Hilton corporate employees planning the new site, bankers transacting, architects drafting, lawyers negotiating, safety inspectors overseeing, construction workers cussing and sweating, truck drivers struggling to stay awake while driving hours on end to deliver building materials cross-country. I saw a procession of manufacturers, landscapers, cement truck drivers, electricians, interior designers, concierges, porters, event planners, managers, musicians, maids, servers, chefs, security guards. Too many to list. I pictured their families at home, their struggles with finances or failure, their worries about health, their search for happiness, their vulnerable moments of wondering about life’s real meaning. That Hilton was a world built of checkered stories, cosmic and human.

Look at the where you are right now, the space you occupy, the chair you sit in, and recall all of the stories silently embedded in everything, stretching back to time’s beginning.

All of these people woven into that Hilton seemed to me, as I sat in my car thinking and writing, to be so many (witting or unwitting) celebrants of an unseen liturgy (that theandric rebuilding of the world), purveyors of an anonymous providence constructing an artifact of our human civilization — all of them motivated by wildly diverse intentions and shaped by vastly different life circumstances. Yet all of them, no matter how far they may have been from God, and that for so many reasons, found a hallowed place as co-workers in God’s providential plan (Is. 44:28).

As this all occurred to me, it seemed the priest on Catholic radio would have done well to have given these countless hidden laborers greater honors, an exaggerated aside. Not simply as mercantile functionaries who provided religious folk a clean, efficient, safe and useful secular venue for the real work of doing sacred things, but as honored plowmen grasping the handles of sacred and secular, tilling a small field on the front lines of the Church’s universal mission. For “since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (GS #22).

Did they know they were being called by God in each moment to consecrate a homeless plot of earth and make it into a fitting hostel, a “place of hospitality” where God and humanity can dwell together in friendship and unity? Did anyone try to tell them?

What if, I imagined, the Church invested its greatest energies into convincing all of these front-line workers of the immense meaning of their mundane lives and professions. What if all the lonely people knew that every insignificant, grand or arduous detail of their work interlaced with Everything, and shared in the whole work of God’s re-pairing our torn and war-weary world into a unified garden of peace. Theirs is the real-time liturgy of life, of the hidden years of Christ the Tektōn, the Architect and Builder, preparing seven days a week all of the material needed for the offering of the eighth day (Sunday) Eucharistic Sacrifice.

When those ordained ministers first walked into that Hilton for that conference, they must have felt overcome by the vastness of sacrificial material stored in that space! They must have been overwhelmed by the countless royal and priestly people awaiting a prophetic invitation to offer All for a final Consecration at the hands of the righteous High Priest, whose bread and wine substantiate the Whole upward toward God Most High. In fact, I heard the priest say to all these humble workers, past and present, as he gathered them together before the event began:

To all whose toils prepared this place and whose brow sweat baptized it, thank you for making it a home for us today. Please, tell me your names, your intentions and needs; share with me stories of all the work you have done for this day; recount for me the struggles and failings you’ve suffered up to now, and the loves that inspired these things. With you I weep, with you I laugh.

Then, with your consent, I will bring all you share with me to Christ our God. I will tell him about all of it, and about you, as he longs to know. I will faithfully offer all you’ve entrusted to me into this Father’s hands. I assure you, he will hold your sorrows with supreme care, in his flask of tears (Ps. 56:9), and he will keep safe your hopes and joys in his imperishable treasury of all that is good, true and beautiful (Mt. 6:19-20). You see, he’s already gone to prepare a place for you, awaiting your building materials.

Never forget this Day, and let it pattern your everyday from here on out…

The Church everywhere should be incessantly encouraging and lifting up the men and women who have fashioned the civilizations and cultures that give us our sacred buildings, altars, books, vessels, art, vestments, bread, wine, oil, incense, candles, alms. Without the secular genius of the lay faithful, there would be nothing to consecrate, no new song to sing, no earthly matter to signify heaven, nothing to offer Up, nowhere to gather for the Offering or to reserve among us the Presence. As St. John Henry Newman said to the Bishop who snidely asked him, “What are the laity, anyway?”– “Well, we’d look quite silly without them, wouldn’t we now, your Grace?”

When the radio show interview ended, I sat in my car quietly for about ten more minutes taking in and scribbling out this crazy vision. I wish I could have given to it better language to match the feeling I had. At the end, I wrote on a receipt these phrases in Mass:

“Fruit of the earth/fruit of the vine and work of human hands.”
This is liturgic language for human culture and its symbolic artifacts.
Thank God for the countless
skilled hands
that made that conference possible.
Those hands and their artifacts
that become the matter of sacraments,
in-formed by the Potter’s large and dirty Hands.

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