True But Not Factual

Visiting the iconic Cologne Cathedral is fraught with danger. The imposing structure begun in 1248 remains under constant repair. Yet, the threat is not physical. The danger I felt last week was to my sophisticated 21st century post-modern Christian faith (sarcasm intended!)

The grand edifice was begun to house the physical remains of the Three Magi who presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Yes, indeed! Their bones had resided in Milan until 1164 when they were brought to Cologne where they remain in a gold, gem-encrusted reliquary which rests atop the main altar.

By the way, if you care to see the actual manger in which Joseph and Mary laid their infant child it has long been housed in the Chapel of the Nativity at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.

I’ve been told that the very foreskin of Jesus was devoutly preserved at his circumcision and can still be venerated somewhere in Europe — I don’t have the time or inclination to verify this claim or its location! Superstition perverts the Gospel. Magic poisons authentic faith. Nevertheless, they abound aplenty!

Pity the one who suggests a story in Scripture can be true but not factual — that the Bible is a proclamation of dynamic covenantal faith, not a presentation of historical facts; that it is a testament to Love, not a treatise of laws. Sadly, this is heresy for many well intentioned folks, some of whom even hold positions of leadership in our faith communities.

Imagine my amazement last week when my belief in the Christian story and commitment to my faith was actually deepened by visiting the Cologne Cathedral. I was awestruck by the majesty of the reliquary and beauty of the edifice.  I found myself moved to venerate what I beheld.

No, I most assuredly do not believe the bones inside the bejeweled gold box are the very remains of the Three Kings. But I most definitely believe in the authenticity of faith expressed by builders of and pilgrims to the Cathedral over the last 1000 years!

This assurance came from the way guides and materials spoke about the centrality of Christ. Yes, the reliquary commands a place of prominence. The Three Kings’ search for the Christ Child — lifelong, through joy and sorrow, danger and discovery — is presented as the universal human pilgrimage.

As did the Magi, we all bring different gifts. But whomever we are and whatever we bring, all is to be placed at the service of the King of Kings. The Cologne Cathedral looms as a physical destination. But what we encounter is encouragement to forego the easy, false paths as did these three exemplars of persistent, searching faith. This monumental church was constructed to assure us of this truth — we too will ultimately come face-to-face with the One we seek.

I walked into the Cologne Cathedral skeptical and dismissive of medieval piety and sentimentality. Days later, comfortably settled at home in Minnesota, my faith remains strengthened, encouraged, grounded by what I witnessed.

Is the story enshrined on the banks of the Rhine factual? Not in the least! Is it true? Yes, I stake my life on it!

Taking Personal Inventory

“You can take only your own inventory, never anyone else’s!” remains a bedrock tenet  for any who seek the serenity promised by 12 Step programs. I pushed the limit yesterday in my assessment of Archbishop Neinstedt’s appearance in First Class.

Here’s the rest of the story… I had brought Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir for reading onboard long trans-Atlantic flights. Disclaimer: No, I have no plans to write my memoir! Discovery: Karr’s incisive instruction for writing about what really matters offers a brilliant view into how we might better access and express our spiritual lives in prayer or with others.

I had highlighted Karr’s reference to George Orwell’s masterful essay Shooting the Elephant, “You wear a mask, and your face grows to fit it.” Yes, I could accuse John Neinstedt of that. More importantly, I need to accept that truth as my own truth as well.

Speaking of her literary efforts Karr concludes, “No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle … The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

How I wish we’d hear such earthy, blunt preaching from our pulpits! I now cringe when I recall how many of my homilies relied upon an array of disembodied platitudes and pious principles — Lord, have mercy!

Why? Why do we retreat to the impersonal and theoretical? Karr observes, “We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either ourselves or our story must be hidden or disowned.”

Though speaking of the craft of memoir writing, her wisdom equally applies to our most intimate selves and spiritual lives:

With every manuscript I’ve ever edited — even grown-assed writers’ — the traits a writer often fights hardest to hide may serve as the undeniable facets both of self and story. You bumble onto scenes that blow up the fond notions of the past, or whole shifts in attitude practically rewrite you where you stand.

Karr’s cure for writer’s block — so familiar and feared by any who put pen to paper — applies equally well to boredom in prayer or spiritual desolation. When our faith seems to have withered, even evaporated; when our prayer feels dry, hollow and purposeless; we’d do well to follow her advice: “Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Now you know the rest of my Neinstedt story. I need to ask myself: What fires my visceral reaction to the Archbishop’s appearance? What might I be projecting onto him that I dare not admit about myself? What is so unacceptable about my own story or life that I so vehemently condemn or seek to control in others?

Yes, it’s time to focus on taking my own inventory! For sure, there are stories to more than fill a lifetime.

___________

Quotes are from The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, #2276 and 2278 of Kindle edition.

Flying First Class

Who could have concocted a more ironic or bizarre scenario — flying home First Class from our honeymoon with John Neinstedt!

Yesterday we returned from Amsterdam to Minneapolis after a 16-day European extravaganza. Much to our surprise and fleeting consternation, the disgraced Archbishop rose from his seat at Gate D-57 as “Priority Status” boarding was called. Equally shocking but with a  promise of comfort, a friend had surprised us with an up-grade to First Class for our return flight.

My first response upon seeing the man rise and turn toward us from his seat two rows ahead was pity. Impeccably attired in tailored black suit and Roman collar, the swag of a silver chain hinted at the pectoral cross neatly tucked away in his pocket. A gold ring symbolizing episcopal status still adorned his right hand.

I have flown First Class only twice in my life, the other time being more than thirty years ago! My assumption is that Archbishop Neinstedt typically flies first class — perhaps I’m wrong. How could I not pity him — alone, disgraced, a shepherd who scattered his flock, deemed to be no better than a hired-hand.

Amid this eight-hour flight of continuous pampering, I could not help but wonder when legitimate privacy and need for rest bleeds over into self-indulgence, status-seeking or sense of entitlement. When does it all become routine?

We were two of only 33 passengers in First Class among a roster that likely surpassed 300 passengers. Only five of the thirty-three were women — one was an elderly lady whose daughter regularly came from “coach” to check on her, two twenty-something women were accompanied by men I presumed to be their husbands. (Might they also be returning from their honeymoons?) There was only one person of color — a man whose tone would have been of great advantage during Jim Crow days.

The overwhelming demographic was middle-aged white males who appeared to be accomplished, savvy and influential business types. By contrast with the Archbishop, their attire or appearance exhibited nothing to distinguish role, function or status. They were conspicuous in polo shirts, khakis and dress-for-comfort.  By comparison, their sense of self and personal bearing appeared to emanate from somewhere within.

We savored our First Class treatment and indulged every comfort as honeymoon luxury. We fully recognized this to be a singular gift and not our social norm. Ruminating over sixteen marvelous days in Europe and the incredible kindness and hospitality shown to us, we hope never to take any of these days for granted — even the bizarre twist of flying home with John Neinstedt!

In the end I cannot help but wonder what it might have been like if the man had only gotten out from behind his clerical attire and shed his episcopal trappings more often. Would he have been a better bishop — a shepherd who truly knew his sheep and allowed us to know him?

What if he had donned khakis, polo shirt and flew coach back to Minneapolis yesterday? It’s a pity he did not!  Perhaps the thought never even occurred to him.  That, if true, is a pity!