It’s a Sunday evening many years ago. I’m newly married and my husband and I are watching a news show, 60 Minutes most likely, on the little bookshelf TV we’d sacrificed a good chunk of our budget to buy.
The camera pans a hopeless inner city neighborhood where crime is high and gangs tempt young men to affiliate. The story is about a prosecutor in this city. Among the run down houses and decrepit shopping centers stands a Catholic church, and the prosecutor in this story has chosen to make it his place of worship.
Cameras have been allowed inside to film him and we see the people of the neighborhood gathering for Sunday Mass. Grandmothers are thumbing their rosaries, young families are coaxing their toddlers into stillness and tough teenage boys in oversized NFL warmup jackets trudge in looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.
And then we see the prosecutor, a handsome Hispanic man in a camel overcoat.
He quietly enters alone and finds an open pew. He genuflects, pulls down a kneeler and folds his hands. He gazes at the large crucifix above the altar.
“I want them to see me here,” he says in a voiceover as the interview continues. He’s referring to the young men. The camera cuts to a face-to-face conversation with a reporter, now sitting with the prosecutor in his attorney’s office. He says he may be standing opposite one of those boys in a courtroom one day, and he wants them to know him first, to understand that he cares for them and that the faith is always there for them too.
Justice is necessary in a broken world, he says, but justice and mercy can meet.
At least that’s the meaning I took away from the interview in which “I want them to see me here” is the only sentence I can quote after all these years. The rest is paraphrase.
It is really the image of that man on his knees that is still with me, his straightforward act of public adoration and his desire that the youth of this neighborhood know this is where he gets his strength and compassion.
That man, whose name I don’t even know, inspired in me a love for Catholic churches as places where you could publicly kneel and contemplate the suffering Christ. He was a living icon.
Living icons are indispensable witnesses to Christian hope.
In a time when few are open to reasoned arguments about anything religious, it’s more important than ever to consider the iconic effect our lives are having on those around us..
“No man is an island/Entire of itself,” the Anglican poet John Donne declares in one of the best loved poems in the English language.
“Every man is a piece of the continent/A part of the main….Any man’s death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind.
The daily headlines of atrocities in two wars diminish me to helplessness, but the fact that the faithful action of a man I never met can encourage my heart decades after I saw him on TV speaks of the truth of human interconnection and the power of worship in community.
“Donne expresses a profound awareness that his relationship with God ties him to the whole of humanity,” writes Father Robert Spitzer in Escape from Evil’s Darkness. “We are all involved with one another…within a spiritual fabric that unites us:
“Human beings are not only interpersonal; they are transcendentally and spiritually interrelated–everyone is intertwined with everyone else.”
When I listen to the news about war in the Middle East and the ongoing horror in Ukraine, there’s no “quick take” on the news that will stop the slaughter. There is no pundit who can wrap it all up for us so we can go back to our chosen forms of self-medication and complacency, feeling like we have a grip on the situation.
There’s no flag you can put on your Facebook profile that will accomplish world peace or change anybody’s mind if they see the situation differently than you do.
But there is power in your every action today, here, in the world where you actually live and interact with others.
There are doors you can hold, meals you can make, eyes you can meet with a smile. And there are public places even now where you can kneel and pray in communion with those around you. The effect of your action is real, though you may never see the result.
Faithful action, no matter how small, matters.
Not long ago I read online a simple story of an iconic moment shared by an immigrant woman. She was reflecting on a time when she was strongly tempted to abandon her Catholic faith. New to her parish, she felt so out of place and alone in the church that one Sunday morning as the entrance procession began, she got up and walked out, determined to never return.
As she bitterly descended the steps outside the church, a well dressed woman whom she recognized by her active presence in the parish was rushing up the stairs, obviously late to Mass. Still, the woman smiled at her with a kindness that spoke of the reality of Christ. The two didn’t speak that day; one went in the church and the other went out.
But the joy in that smile calmed the immigrant woman’s heart and encouraged her just enough that she returned to church the following Sunday and remained actively participating as a praying member of the community.
She’d seen a living icon, and she became one too.
“The enlightenment ideal of human autonomy is not only false, but a radical underestimation of the significance and value of every human being,” Spitzer comments, noting the truth in John Donne’s intuition.
Our common human bond is enhanced when we join with others in faith that we are members of the living Body of Christ, serving each other, receiving spiritual guidance, learning how to pray. Our common life translates us into a living iconography that disrupts the darkness and brings hope in the most unexpected places.
Every man’s death diminishes me, but each act of faith increases mine.
That’s just one of many reasons why I still show up at church, where I receive Christ in communion and others in my little hometown can see me on my knees.
And where I can see them. We need each other’s presence now more than ever.
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