Last weekend I was blessed to witness the marriage of two very dear friends. The wedding was absolutely joyful, full of celebration that flowed spontaneously from the deep love and commitment of my two friends. On the drive home, with a heart full of the echoes of the celebration and the presence of my friends and family, I found myself reflecting on the words of the priest’s homily during the ceremony. The priest drew attention how my friends had invited Jesus to be a part of their marriage. He emphasized how important this invitation is, since God never forces His love on us, He waits to be invited.
This disposition of openness and of invitation is fundamental to our relationship to God, because love is only true as far as it is free. Indeed, as a wise friend of mine often says, if it isn’t free, it isn’t love.
This led my reflections in a further direction. The openness that is a fundamental characteristic God’s love for us, of which our love for each other is an authentic reflection, must also be reflected in our love for the Bride of Christ, His Church.
As I drove down I-35, I saw how deeply this relationship dynamic is reflected in our relationship to the Bride of Christ.
Over time, in any relationship, many things can cloud our vision and cause us to withdraw from the other. You may have heard the term “confirmatory bias.” In counseling and psychology, it means holding on to a previously learned belief such that new information is interpreted in a biased way.
To illustrate: you can imagine the lover who, over time, begins to focus on the perceived flaws or past transgressions of the beloved, such that the lover may eventually only see the flaws rather than the whole person. Whatever the beloved may do to change or grow is disregarded, because the lover does not see it, since the lover interprets every action through the biased lens of the previous flaws or transgressions. This entrenches the relationship dynamic and prevents openness.
How can this dynamic heal? Again we come back to openness. It is the lover’s vision that must change; the lover must open their eyes anew to the beloved. For surely both lover and beloved are always flawed and fallible, but when each truly sees within the other that beautiful original image of God within, the love of the other draws this beauty forth, with and in spite of all limitations. Such eyes of faith and openness to forgiveness and transformation are the everyday miracles needed to sustain human relationships throughout a lifetime; we really can’t do it without God.
In a parallel way, openness is an essential quality in our relationship with the Church, the Bride of Christ. Just a lover’s vision may become too focused on the beloved’s flaws, blocking out and obscuring that beautiful original image of God within, so can we be with the Bride of Christ, the Church. Over a lifetime of being a part of the Catholic Church, in a way we could say being in relationship with Her, our vision can become clouded with confirmatory biases. Whatever bias we see in the Her will taint Her entire reality for us. If we have come to believe that Her hierarchy is oppressive, Her Dogma lifeless and Her wisdom useless, so shall She be to us. If we let our biases blind us to the unique power of the Sacraments, we will not full experience their power, precisely because God will not force us to experience it.
Our own murky vision makes us unable to see how God has transformed Her and continues to transform Her with each passing generation towards the perfection of being His Bride. No one will be able to convince us that She is more than what we perceive Her to be: broken, unfixable, unforgivable, and stagnant.
Only if we are open to having our vision transformed, open to seeing past our biases with the eyes of faith, indeed truly the eyes of childlike faith, can our relationship to the Church be restored and continuously renewed.
What is childlike about it? Look at a child and see their openness! As an aunt and a frequent caretaker of young children, I witness this daily. The child wants to discover everything! As Christ said:
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:1-5).
Recklessness and spontaneity are two other fundamental characteristics of the child. Spontaneity is key for breaking out of the confirmatory bias and being open to the newness of the Spirit in the now. Without spontaneity in our hearts, we cannot be truly open to other in relationship, or truly open to the Spirit in the Church.
And while anyone who knows a child knows how naturally destructive children can be sometimes in their curiosity, the recklessness I refer to is that willingness to risk, to try new things, even sometimes things that are a bit dangerous or outside their comfort zone, for the sheer joy of discovery. This recklessness is what Jars of Clay sings about in Faith like a Child:
Sometimes when I feel miles away
And my eyes can’t see your face
Well, I wonder if I’ve grown to lose
The recklessness I walked in light of You
If we have become hardened against the Bride of Christ through the build up of years, or if we have abandoned her, let us pray for the grace to receive new vision to see Her once again with the eyes of a child. Let us invite God in that He may create this daily, essential miracle of openness within us through the gift of faith. As Pope Francis said:
“Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.” (Lumen Fidei, p 6)
In so much as we allow our own vision to be transformed and our own hearts to become childlike – open, spontaneous and a little bit reckless – so the Bride of Christ will also be transformed. We will see again, through that “fresh vision,” the great promise of the fulfillment of the beautiful original image of God planted within Her. And we will see that same beautiful original image in ourselves and in others. For truly we are the Church, the Bride of Christ, and in seeing this original beauty within ourselves and within others, striving for it even as we struggle with our limitations and must forgive ourselves and one another, asking again and again for new grace, in this way we ALL – you, me, the Church, unto the whole world – grow each and every day into closer communion with God.
To conclude, we hear again from our Pope:
Faith becomes operative in the Christian on the basis of the gift received, the love which attracts our hearts to Christ (cf. Gal 5:6), and enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world. For those who have been transformed in this way, a new way of seeing opens up, faith becomes light for their eyes. (Lumen Fidei p 27)