There is a chapel on the campus of the University of British Columbia that is rather important to me. It is St. Mark’s Chapel, and it is where I went to mass for about a year-and-a-half, just before becoming a Franciscan. And last weekend, I had the chance to go back there and join their community for Sunday mass. For a moment, all that had gone through my head at the time of discerning religious life came back to me. I could remember it all quite clearly, and I was very glad to be reminded of it.
Places of prayer are very precious, as they put things into their proper place. In the midst of a very busy secular campus, there is this chapel in which every day, not only on Sundays, a community gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. This does not seem like very much, considering that usually only a handful of people would be there. Nevertheless, I remember it so very clearly. It was the ritual of leaving my office, shortly before noon, and walking to the chapel. Services were short, barely half an hour, leaving me with enough time for lunch before I had to get back to work. The service did not have to be long. What mattered was not the preaching but the fact that mass interrupted my day. It needed to be only long enough to be an interruption, a noticeable break.
It was quite wonderful to have my work day interrupted like this. It showed that as important and interesting my work might be, I needed to seek what was even more important and more interesting. This kind of break kept things in perspective, and it also allowed me to remember why my work was important and interesting.
A few days later, back in Victoria, there was another break and another kind of reminder of what is most important. This one was of the public kind. On Thursday, back in Victoria, I was praying outside the BC Legislature. The occasion was the annual March for Life. Usually, I prefer to march alone, but I try to make it for this one, and when I do, I consider not so much a march but a pleasant walk in the community of friends. We need this, to be reminded that we are not alone, and that we need to show ourselves as being part of Canada. One of the speakers said that he sometimes felt as if Canada was no longer his country, as if he were no longer at home in his own country and its culture. He expressed his gratitude for the religious freedom that we enjoy, but he also expressed his bewilderment of living in a world that no longer sees each and every human being, from conception to natural death, as an innocent life that ought to be protected rather than taken by human hands. A gathering like this helps me to put things back into perspective, and to remind me that there is indeed nothing that is more important than this, the protection of individual human lives, no matter how small, no matter how dependent, and no matter how close to death.
Some time ago, I expressed my frustration of the intellectual life in academia by pointing out that what has gotten lost is a sense of reverence for truth. What I meant was a sense that the pursuit of truth has a sacredness, and that it must be done with devotion. Truth is not just something that we can define to meet our practical needs in any given moment. And neither is life. We know when there is life, and we know the sacredness of life, and that we must respond to life with reverence and devotion, especially when we do not understand it. We cannot subordinate life to our understanding of it and eliminate life when we do not understand it. Love is what we do for the individual even when it goes against the impersonal and abstract understanding of what is of use to us.
Marching, or walking together with friends in remembrance of a cause, is also a break from the ordinary, the ordinary thinking of the world. Once in a while, we need to stop and remind people of this, by giving public witness to our awareness of the sacredness of life.
So there you have it: prayer in private places and in public places. The contemplative life and the active life. But always in the midst of things, always reaching out and always in community, never isolated and withdrawn, so that we can continue our mission as a Christian people.