Recently, the subject of reconciliation came up in a conversation with a Baptist friend of mine. I found out he grew up in a world that thought Catholics believed only the pope could speak to God. After settling that erroneous claim, I tried to explain reconciliation. As I was describing the experience and explaining the belief system, I realized I was giving more real life examples than theological explanations. I ended up coming to my own conclusion: Catholicism touches the human, lived experience. I had never put it into those words before, but had always felt that was true.

God doesn’t often take us out of this human world to communicate with us. Certainly there are times when we feel we’ve reached a particularly holy place in our prayer, but God plays on our human senses to do it. We experience the world, and God, in this body, and our Church speaks to that experience by showing us that God reveals God’s love for us in this world.

We sing joyful music at Easter and Christmas, expressing our happiness and joy of the season. We use incense during adoration or certain special days throughout the year, awakening our sense of smell. We eat and drink (how much more human can we get!), weekly, or daily, the Body and Blood of Christ. When someone is sick, there is a ritual to help ease the suffering, a communal experience to show the love of God through the gathered community. When two people confess their love for each other, we have a way for them to express this love publicly, as one is wont to do when in love! We are constantly marking life with the holy.

I have a distinct memory of eating lunch at my grandparents’ house as a child. I was hungry and eager to eat the feast my grandmother had prepared and I started to eat before everyone had sat down. She immediately caught me and told me that we needed to pray to thank God for what had been provided us. “After all,” she said, “the food tastes better if we pray before we eat.” I was skeptical at my grandmother’s claim, but paid more attention to my food after we prayed and it somehow was different. This was clearly a line you feed to small children to get them to pay attention and pray, but it has stuck with me and has made eating a meal together a sacred experience. We are constantly making meaning out of our life experiences, even the routine ones. We are constantly marking life with the holy.

This idea of Catholicism involving the human, lived experience is not my idea alone. The idea of “Catholic imagination” has been around for many years. Most widely known is Andrew Greeley’s book, “Catholic Imagination.” He says, “Creation is grace, and the Church is a sacrament which bears witness to that truth.” [1] Let us break down this rich statement.

Grace is God revealing Godself to us. So, creation (i.e. trees, people, animals, mountains) is a way God reveals Godself to us. That is why when we come to a cliff looking out over water, a forest, or the Grand Canyon we stare in awe and beauty. We may also sense some otherness in these sites; there must be something bigger than us that created this awe-inspiring view. God reveals something about Godself in these views.

The Church, in this context, is the institution of the Catholic Church. Sacraments are encounters with the living Christ, here and now; they reveal and make present the reality of God.[2] Andrew Greeley describes sacrament as the “revelation of the presence of God.” [3] So, the Church reveals God’s presence. Creation is how God reveals Godself to us, and the Church reveals God’s presence, which backs up the claim that God reveals Godself through creation. The Church puts an exclamation point on the truth that God is active in creation! The Church does this through mass, through the sacraments, and through the preaching and witnessing of its members— it is about telling a story.

As an illustration of how this human lived experience is reflected in Catholicism in a unique way, I will use my own family’s story with tragedy and grief.

On Saturday, September 4, 1999 my oldest brother, Neil, collided with a train while driving home. At 21 years of age he was fit and on track for a successful college baseball career. His life as he knew it—my family’s life as we knew it—was suddenly and drastically changed. Neil sustained a brain injury that left his left arm and leg limp and his speech faint. Neil would spend the next two years on a road to recovery that he is still navigating today.

Because of the injuries he sustained, Neil spent about five months in a coma. After testing out of a coma he had surgery to replace bone of his skull that had been shattered in the accident.  It was unknown at the time that, because of the replacement, fluid was gathering around his brain making his rehabilitation regress. It took five months for doctors to be convinced something needed to be changed. He had another surgery to reroute the fluid easing the pressure, and improving his rehabilitation. Neil’s first memory since the week of the accident occurred shortly after the shunt surgery– 10 months after the accident. After leaving the Intensive Care Unit, he spent about 15 months in the rehabilitation center.

Since leaving the rehabilitation center Neil learned to walk, bought his own condo, completed an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, and found a job he loves. He has regained his life.

This is my family’s story. By telling this story I am helping to create meaning in my family’s experience. Just as I was able to describe to my Baptist friend the experience of God in reconciliation through stories, I describe the experience of God through my family’s story. We are constantly marking life with the holy.

As is often the case in tragedies, there were many graces that occurred during this time that we are still discovering and unfolding today.

[1] Greeley, Andrew, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 6.

[2] The Catechism for the Catholic Church, Liberia Editrice Vaticano (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995), # 1084 & 1127.

[3] Ibid, 1.

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