What I notice about the changes of mid-life- that phase of life after 50 years on the planet to which we rather optimistically refer- is that the pressure on my bucket-list is full-on. There are parts of the planet I want to see. All we humans desire is to make meaning of this life. There are experiences I want to have. There are foods I want to taste and even learn how to cook. And there are books I want to read or at least listen to and sometimes even touch.
Today a top bucket-list event was achieved – standing in and reading a book from the great Clementinum library pictured above. It took three letters and two meetings in order to gain access to the room outside of tourism hours in which armies of people huddle by the door. I wanted simply to walk in the room, and to be in it for a time; and that request was finally granted by the Prague antiquities librarian.
For me it was a pilgrimage. I wanted to simply pray in this room. It sounds hopelessly pious and disgracefully self-indulgent. But pilgrimage to a specific place for a specify religious or spiritual purpose is an ancient and time-honored part of Christian spirituality.
We believe that things of this world have meaning and precisely because our God took the form of something of this planet and made things holy by so naming and touching them. I love books. I love the church (sort of.) And I love people and their desire to love the God we so frequently reject. I love the great minds of the church and I try hard to love its idiots, narcissists and careerists of the church in my last few decades of experience.
This room means a lot to me, and is a pilgrimage site for my life. In many ways it is why I came to Prague. It represents what I want my life to be about. It is symbolic of what I want to accomplish in my vocation as a priest. This room is important to me not because it is beautiful. The Baroque is not my taste really. This room is important because in many ways it is an epicenter of ecclesial pride.
Jesuits brought here in the mid 1500s worked to stamp out heresy. One of my close friends is a Jesuit and of all the orders it is the one I most deeply respect in terms of its ideals – hard work, scholarly excellence, a real salaried job which funds church mission. And yet pride – the planet’s greatest sin – became marbled in the order’s ethos. In the years between 1556 and 1618 the Jesuits worked hard to build schools and libraries believing that if they formed and educated young people in their way of thinking, they would build a church of strength and power while furthering and maintaining their particular brand of Christianity. In 1618 the Jesuits were expelled and returned two years later with money and an absolute conviction that two-thirds of the population of a Christian population were secret Heretics and so took the pain of Prague’s experience of the Inquisition and ripped it open anew, making the church the chief source of fear after poverty in the minds of the people. The church’s paranoia meets its pride in a perfect storm. By the time of American independence, the Jesuits had been expelled permanently from Prague and the libraries confiscated.
People make pilgrimages because they find something in what a certain place represents to be pivotal to their understanding of the planet, life and spirituality. Like Thomas Becket’s place of murder in Canterbury, the pinnacle of Doi Suthep, friendship with an elephant, the Athonite caroulia, Terezin, Danilov Monastery, Blackwater Bluff, the bee hives on the cathedral roof in Denver, Volokolamsk Monastery, and a dozen other places of spiritual significant in my life, this library is a place in which I wanted to simply sit and feel the pain which the church has exacted on her people. I wanted to beg forgiveness for the pride of the clergy – sure they alone were right and ready to torture and burn those who disagreed with their way of worship or their way of praying or their way of seeing life. I wanted to beg God to forgive the pride of a clergy whose self-aggrandizement was little more than a thinly-veiled obfuscation of their own insecurities and desire for a hug from the human father or mother who rarely managed one.
After three decades in the church, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to this library. I wanted to imagine the smell of burned books lit by Jesuits. I wanted to imagine the popping and crackling of fat and peeling of skin as the bodies of protestants writhed in flames before Bishop’s Palaces. I wanted to see the room which was the epicenter of ecclesial pride in this city.
The result of a pilgrimage should not be a statement; it should be a question. Mine is this: when will Christians simply live with each other and love each other without manipulating and maneuvering to make others worship, pray, interpret scripture in one particular way? When will the church simply sit down in the gutter with a starving prostitute with AIDs and hold her hand, feed her and wipe her brow? When will the church set aside its toys in exchange for authentic conversation about goodness and kindness? When will it sell its candlesticks for bread for orphans? When will clergy admit that their way of being in the church is nothing more than their preference?
And more importantly, where is there pride in my heart? Where am I intolerant of different ways of seeing Jesus’ mission? Where have I attached to the power, status, wealth and security of the church? Where am I afraid of losing that status as generations X and Y begin to wall up and starve out the church over the next three decades?
I have never been much afraid of what was going bump in the night under my bed. More fearful have I been of what goes bump in the library, in the sacristy, the vestry, the church councils and in my own heart.