It’s in the heart

By 
  • November 7, 2012

There is a special spot where I stand in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta every time I have the blessed fortune to enter the sublime majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica.

But there is an altogether sweeter spot in my heart that is deeply touched by attending churches whose glory is, shall we say, of a more radically humble nature.

We all know them. Things are always, well, just a little rag-tag on the liturgical front. Not in fidelity to the Mass, of course, but in the mechanics of the service. A glitch here. A stumble there. A perpetual air of excited uncertainty hangs over all.

The choir is always a titch off-key or late finding the opening words behind the organ’s roar. When there is no choir, the psalm and hymns are carried by one brave soul whose vocal range truly is a testament to soul-filled bravery. An unfamiliar word or name from the Old Testament invariably stymies the lay reader of the first lesson as if he or she is about to sneeze. The congregants scatter in the pews like dropped copies of last week’s unread parish bulletin, maintaining valiant indifference to forgetting when to stand, sit or kneel. The priest is inevitably a genuine model of Christian patience implacably enduring every blip and blemish.

I love such churches not merely as a reminder, but as a lived experience, of the fullness of the humanity at the heart of our faith. I find their foibles not a distraction but, on the contrary, an aid to focusing on why I am there.

For while Our Lord admonished us to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” we are all there to try and try again to live up to His standard, aren’t we? Indeed, even He, born perfect and without sin, did not always find it easy to bear His humanity lightly, did He?

“What stuck out for me was the humanness of Jesus,” Paul Henderson told me recently in speaking about his first trip to the Holy Land. “The fact that He had to walk around that dusty road; He got dirty; He got tired. You wonder where He spent the night. We stayed in beautiful places. Jesus didn’t have those.

“I understood His humanness a lot better by being there. I was standing where He lived. I could picture Him on the shore asking ‘did you catch any fish? Maybe you should throw the net out on the other side.’ Almost playing with them.”

Henderson, of course, is the hockey immortal who gave Canada the winning goal and the saving grace of eking out victory against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. His autobiography, The Goal of My Life, was released earlier this fall to mark the 40th anniversary of the greatest single moment in Canadian sports history.

Yet from the book’s opening pages, and from the opening moment of the interview I did with him for the forthcoming issue of Convivium magazine, no doubt exists that the man famous for his electrifying goal has made the true goal of his life the stumble toward the Cross. His greatness as a hockey player, he makes plain, is as nothing to the smallness of his humanity before Christ.

Henderson states frankly (Convivium magazine memberships are available at www.cardus. ca/convivium) that it took him more than a few slips to find his way home to God following the Summit Series. He defiantly kept his back turned to the Christian Church of his youth until he had to face himself.

“I finally realized that it’s God’s work, not my work. He uses us and that’s the dumbest plan He ever had in His life as far as I’m concerned — using dipsticks like me,” Henderson says with typical bluntness in the interview. “But God does say that we are to be His ambassadors. That’s the only plan there is. When I look at the 12 disciples that He chose, if I had been in His place, I don’t think I would have chosen any of them. But God looks at the heart. God knows what’s in the heart.”

The human heart naturally responds to the staggering creative genius of a Michelangelo. It reverberates with moments of victory that bring an entire nation to its feet. But I am certain God knows the heart as a radically humble place, too, the not-quite-right place that has a glory all its own.

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