In grade school physical education classes, my classmates and I found it thrilling to play with a huge multi-colored parachute. We’d ripple it so that dodgeballs bounced high in the air; we’d create a moving wave by taking turns raising our small part of the fabric. But the most whimsical moments were when our teacher instructed us to raise the parachute so we could all go under it. Before the silken material fell on us, we’d be surrounded in rainbow light, like we’d left the outskirts of the school baseball field and entered some otherworldly circus tent.
As beautiful and relatively coordinated (for a bunch of third graders) as that experience always was, my faith as a tent is one that I resist. The sky under the parachute may have been akin to stained-glass wonder, but there was a wider sky beyond it, one which holds the world under it.
Perhaps the sustainability of a faith is measured by who it includes. I’ve always loved that Catholicism means “universal.” What most assures me of this universality is the witness of those who never became Catholic, but were honestly drawn to it. One such individual was author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Scarred by the prejudices of his Puritanical ancestors, Hawthorne’s vocation as a writer of romance opened him to appreciating what the rather stringent Protestant American culture of his day struggled with: a faith that invited all the senses into worship—the body and the spirit. This sensual faith included artistry and architecture that was not prominent in Protestant worship spaces. In his English Notebooks, recorded while he was U.S. Consul to Liverpool, Hawthorne remarked on the stained-glass windows of a church he encountered in York:
It is a good symbol of religion; the irreligious man sees only the pitiful outside of the painted window and judges it entirely from that view; but he who stands within the holy precincts, the religious man, is sure of the glories which he beholds. And to push the simile a little farther, it requires light from Heaven to make them visible. If the church were merely illuminated from the inside–that is, by what light a man can get from his own understanding— the pictures would be invisible, or wear at best but a miserable aspect.
A faith illuminated from the outside. That Catholic worship can be flavored by the myriad cultures in which it exists bespeaks an enriching dynamism, a faith that sees beauty in the individual, as well as the universal. It is also illuminated by those who might consider themselves on the outside. Hawthorne’s observations during subsequent visits to France and Rome helped inspire his final novel, The Marble Faun, which takes place in Rome. In this book St. Peter’s Basilica is described as a “Cathedral, worthy to be the religious heart of the whole world” with “room for all nations” (276-277). Room to wonder, room to wander.
But lest it seem that the image of Catholicism as a tent is being replaced with Catholicism as a cathedral, let’s explore another facet of this word. I’ve been reading Bishop Robert Baron’s Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels—which has been referred to as a “cathedral in print”—and was recently drawn to his reflection on Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan: “In one of the great windows of Chartres Cathedral, near Paris, France, there is an intertwining of two stories: the account of the fall of mankind and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This reflects a connection that was made by the Church Fathers. The Good Samaritan is a symbol of Jesus himself, in his role as Savior of the world” (“Becoming Other Christs” 367). Reflecting on the Good Samaritan as an other-Christ, I am reminded that our faith is so broad that the face of God can be revealed just as luminously by the non-Catholic as the Catholic.
This truth is made plain in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, where the parable of the Good Samaritan is a touchstone passage by which he calls the world to a greater love of neighbor, one that bypasses our common modes of division: borders, cultures, political affiliations, and economic classes. The parable clarifies our universal vocation to love: “Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others?” (no. 70). In a world fragmented by division, the question is not, is there room in the tent? Or even in the vastness of the beautiful cathedral? The question becomes, is there room in my heart for the other, especially those with whom I ardently disagree or to whom I’m wholly indifferent? And perhaps, more pressingly, is my heart, like Christ’s in the monstrance, able to be flipped inside-out to better orient itself toward others?
It is significant that cathedral contains the root hedra, which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, means “seat” but also “face of a geometric solid.” In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis uses the shape of the polyhedron to describe a genuine “culture of encounter” between individuals to create a “variegated unity”: “The image of a polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others” (no. 215). Each of us is a necessary face, a face of Christ.
Hawthorne teaches me that Catholicism’s dynamism is such that one’s life may point the direction for others. The Church recognizes Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose, because she became Catholic and founded a religious order. However, Hawthorne’s life—blessed as it was with a position that brought his family abroad and a writing career that produced novels replete with Catholic symbolism—probably helped pave the way for his daughter’s conversion. Like the Good Samaritan, one can be a Christian without calling himself one. I’m ever-struck by a line from The Marble Faun, where the character Hilda remarks, “Why should not I be a Catholic, if I find there what I need, and what I cannot find elsewhere?” (285). Perhaps Hawthorne did not feel so readily disposed toward acceptance of Catholicism, but he did seem to find in it a way one can approach wholeness.
So, this Catholicism I try to live—it is not a tent, nor is it a cathedral. It is the body and soul of the world, as expansive as the atmosphere, as necessary as oxygen. And when lived with all its natural beauty, it is an invitation to taste, see, and touch not only our Lord, but his people, our neighbors and brothers and sisters. As a child, I never wanted to be the kid who wasn’t ready to disappear under the parachute with the rest of the class. Today, I realize that faith isn’t a dichotomy of inside / outside. It is a continual going out to others, a perpetual pursuit.
Lindsey Weishar is a contributor to Verily magazine. Her poems have appeared in Steam Ticket, The Indianapolis Review, and Kansas City Voices, and her chapbook, Matchbook Night, was published by Leaf Press in 2018.