When I was a rookie police officer, my training officer and I went on a domestic disturbance call. There were many such calls over the years, but I’ll never forget this one. We got there and could hear a man and woman shouting at each other in the house. My training officer pounded on the door. The door was jerked open from within, and things got suddenly real quiet. We walked in the house.
Now, I have to tell you why things got so quiet. I’m not a big dude. I’m barely 5’9” and weigh maybe a buck seventy. Back then, I was lighter, probably around 160 lbs. My training officer, however, was another story. About 6’4” and weighed about 250 and it was all muscle. He was a big guy and looked very intimidating.
We walk in the house and my TO picked up the TV remote. He turned the channel and said, “Ya’ll be quiet; Andy’s on.” And so, we watched a few minutes of the Andy Griffith show. I had no idea what was going on but knew that this was NOT how they taught us to handle domestics at the academy. At a commercial break, my TO looked at both them and said, “Ya’ll don’t be ugly.” He got their names and we walked out.
Ya’ll don’t be ugly.
It’s a southern thing.
I tell that story to start this conversation about ugliness. If you pay attention at all to what is happening in the world, you can see quite clearly the ugliness of the world around us. There is so much hate, so much vitriol, so much tension. Rage seems to just ooze out of everyone. Our public figures (especially our President) just seem to be angry all the time about everything. The fact that we even have conversations about abortion and war and mass shootings and suicide and drug overdoses (and the list could go on) should illustrate to us how ugly and bitter and destructive the world is.
This is a real struggle for me right now. I see the ugliness of the world. I see the destructive and satanic agenda being pushed, especially on our children, and I am anxious and angry and feel the proverbial walls closing in. The fact that people either seem oblivious to this or don’t seem to care and just keep kicking the can down the road is unfathomable to me. Going along to get along and keeping quiet while the world descends into hell is unacceptable.
But here’s where it really strikes home for me. I was recently reading a book review of a compilation of sayings from St. Silouan, a Russian ascetic. One of the sayings jumped off the page at me.
“Of a truth I say, speaking before God whom my soul knoweth: in the spirit I know the Most Pure Virgin. I never beheld her, but the Holy Spirit allowed me to know her and her love for us. Had it not been for her compassion I should have perished long ago; but she was minded to come to me and show me, that I might not sin. This is what she said: ‘I find your ways ugly to look upon.’ And her words, soft, quiet and gentle, wrought upon my soul. More than forty years have passed since then but my soul can never forget those sweet words, and I know not what return to make for such love towards my sinful self, nor how to give thanks to the good and forbearing Mother of the Lord.”
“I find your ways ugly to look upon.”
I cannot stop hearing it in my soul. “I find your ways ugly to look upon.” Can you feel how that quiet whisper crashes into your heart? Oh, how this convicts me! How far I have fallen from the ways of our Saviour. How far I have fallen from the ways of His Blessed Mother. How far I have fallen from the ways of the saints.
I read Holy Scripture and the things that our Lord Jesus said and did, the things that His Apostles said and did, the words of the Fathers and the saints and I am ashamed. I am ashamed of myself. Far too often, my ways are ugly to look upon. My selfishness, pettiness, anger, greediness, and worldliness are so very ugly. So very sinful. Wretched man that I am. I live such a silly and frivolous life. My heart is too easily distracted by silly things that have no eternal value. I think we’re all like this at times. We read the lives of our Lord, His Apostles, the Fathers and the Saints and we should be struck by the differences in ourselves and them. There was an intensity and focus and sobriety about them that we are sorely lacking. Or maybe it’s just me.
Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for yourselves. Let us fall on our faces and repent of our ugly ways. Turn off the TV, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. Turn away from the world. Turn again to the staggering beauty of our crucified Lord. Turn again to the purity and piety of the ascetical life of the Church. Turn again to prayer and the life of the Christian. Partake of the Liturgy and the Body and Blood of our Lord as often as possible.
May God forgive us for the ugliness of our lives and hearts. May He grant us His beauty and peace as we turn again, over and over, to Him.
If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!