Simcha Fisher: The grotto behind the church

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Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

I told a priest I was so tired of the Catholic Church

I told the priest in confession. I told him I wasn’t leaving, and I wasn’t apostatising. (Where the hell else would I go?) But I was so tired.

Every encounter I had with Catholics lately seemed to have nothing to do with anything Jesus taught us. I was really rattled. It was murderously hot, and I was sweating and agitated, and full of righteous anger. Sick of the Church, and with good reason.

And he laughed at me. This old, old man with brown, placid eyes waved away a mosquito that floated by his face, and he laughed gently. Birds sang and tears leaked into my mask. We were sitting on benches outdoors, where a safely socially distanced confession could be heard, in front of a grotto for Mary. It was a place I had forgotten existed.

Every encounter I had with Catholics lately seemed to have nothing to do with anything Jesus taught us.

The grotto is a cool, dim spot behind the church, surrounded by trees. It smells of pine, and there are weathered benches grouped around, so you can sit and pray. It turns out they built it because a young boy insisted he saw Mary there. Did he? I have no idea. There is no record that I can find, other than a plaque mounted on the little stone shrine below the statue of Our Lady.

I had to admit, it was a place of unusual peace; a good place to calm down and recollect myself. I had forgotten it was there.

“You know, Jesus said the Church will last until the end of time. The gates of hell won’t prevail, you know,” Fr Bill said, smiling.

And do you know, I had forgotten this. I had fallen into thinking that Jesus was sort of trapped at the center of a clotted tangle of Catholicism, and that as long as I wanted Jesus, I would need to prove myself by fighting my way through that ugly, irrelevant tangle to be with him.

But that’s not really how it is. Jesus doesn’t just sort of put up with the Church, the way you or I put up with pointless rules and regulations before we can get our license or our permit or our degree. He’s not just with the Church because the Church is the hoops you have to jump through. The Church isn’t going anywhere, and its deep and ancient goodness, truth, and beauty are unchanged, changeless.

But sometimes we forget what we have, when we have the Church.

I thought, as I have thought a thousand times, about the words of the Mass:

For we know it belongs to your boundless glory,
that you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,
that the cause of our downfall
might become the means of our salvation,
through Christ our Lord.

Jesus is very big on this technique: making the cause of our downfall become the means of our salvation. This is what he does with the Church, as well. And so I had to acknowledge to myself that “but it’s terrible here” is not a good enough reason to leave. It’s actually a pretty big clue that it’s where we need to be.

I had to acknowledge to myself that “but it’s terrible here” is not a good enough reason to leave

We need to be there, but we need to see clearly the fullness of where we really are, when we are in the Church. As I mentioned in a previous piece, the rigours and limitations of social isolation have made me think hard about what things I am and am not free to do, and whether I’m acting stuck when I’m really not. This is less of an argument and more of a recalibration of the heart. If an overwhelming preponderance of ugly and hurtful experiences with other Catholics can overpower theological arguments no matter how true, then it’s also true that an overwhelming preponderance of beauty and goodness can overwhelm evidence against the Church.

The hard part is, you have to seek that beauty and goodness out. There is so much of it. But it tends to wait to be found; whereas ugliness and horrors leap forward, demanding attention. The tears and the disgust and the mosquitos and the frustration are there, and they are real. But so is the coolness of the grotto. Did you forget about the grotto?

Sometimes I behave as if I’m forced to spend all my time with people who fill me with rage and disgust, or as if I’m locked inside a tight schedule of reading distressing headlines and news analysis. I really am not. I never have to hate-read anyone. I never have to stay in groups that do nothing but complain about awful Catholic.

I don’t have to read every bit of bad news that comes out of the Church, especially if I habitually skim over good news. I act as if I’m chained to a rock and drowning in discouraging, frustrating news and company that’s making me despair, but I have the key in my pocket all the time, and I’m choosing not to use it.

Seeking out the good

I can listen to music. I can go outside. I can read a book. I can make something with my hands. I can work up a sweat. I can draw. I can clean. I can dig. I can listen to the birds. I can make a pie. I can go to bed early. I can read the psalms. I can look at great art. I can listen to hymns and chant.

There are so many things I can do to refresh my heart, and I’m free to do them — and to remind myself that everything that is good comes from God. To stand in a dark corner and stare at the endless drip, drip, drip of badness is a choice, and I can choose not to do it.

I’m not arguing in favour of ignoring the bad in the world or in the Church. I’ve done my share of reporting on it, and I know with all my heart that the truth is worth telling, even when it’s ugly and shameful.

But it’s all too easy for me to let myself believe that the ugly and shameful are all that there is in the world, and in the Church. It’s all too easy for me to believe that the ugly and shameful things are the realest, most truthful truth about what the world is like, and anything other than these things is some kind of escapism or fairy tale. And this is false.

There is such a thing as cold, hard truth, but there is also such a thing as warm, rich, nourishing truth. And if we want to know the world, and the Church, as it really is, we have an obligation — yes, an obligation! — to seek it out. Not only the truth, but the warmth, the richness, the nourishment. The forgotten grotto.

So I’m not really here to make an argument. I’m here to remind you that the tangled theological conundrums we face, and the incontrovertible evidence of hypocrisy in the Church, are only one way of encountering the truth. Another way is to recall that goodness, truth, and beauty will last until the end of time, and the gates of hell will not prevail against them. They aren’t going anywhere. But we can. We are free to choose if we wish to stay close to them and draw strength from them, or not. We are free.