Unclogging the Spirit

In 1978 the Italian director, Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed a film that I would list among the five greatest I have seen. He entitled it: "L'Albero degli Zoccoli" -- "The Tree of the Wooden Clogs." Relatively little action takes place in its three hours: peasants labor and celebrate simple, yet loving lives, a father cuts down a tree to fashion shoes for his son, the family is expelled from their meager dwelling by the landowner. But the film is so contemplative and compassionate that its effect, as one reviewer put it, is to "unclog the spirit."

I was reminded of that striking phrase when I read Jerry Ryan's article, "Why I Stay Catholic," in the latest Commonweal.

Here is part of what he wrote:

We may not "feel" what we want to believe; we may even have surface doubts; but there is a core conviction that gives meaning to our existence, without which all would become an obscene joke. As a Catholic, my conviction is the love story the church offers me -- the love of a God who becomes my brother, who suffers in me and with me, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and descends to the depths of hell to seek what was lost. Although this gives meaning to my existence, it does not necessarily make me "feel good," for it challenges me at a level where I do not want to be challenged and exacts more than I am comfortable giving. What the church puts before me is the wisdom of centuries: of confessors and martyrs and fools for Christ. This wisdom is incarnate in the ambiguities of both history and my own life, but it represents the continuity of the communion of the saints, the heritage bequeathed to me by my ancestors in the faith.

In our better moments, when we have experienced what is divine in the church -- and this requires discernment -- the human element becomes less troubling. Then one experiences an obscure but real anchor, an instinct, I suppose, that is akin to the idea of the sensus fidelium.

Read the whole article. Bring it to church tomorrow. Hide it in the parish bulletin. And if the sermon proves unenlightening, don't crab: exercise your sensus fidelium, open the article, and unclog your spirit!

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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