Here is the reflection I wrote for Night Prayer last night (Scripture text included first):
Isaiah 6: 1-7 (RSV)
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
A couple years ago, right after I was received into the Church, I was walking around Ambridge one afternoon after class and decided to stop into my parish to spend some time in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. A few awkward conversations had been occurring lately with some of my classmates who wanted to know where I stood now on some of the more touchy points on which Anglicans and Catholics are divided. I was honestly a bit flustered by all of this, because it was a joyful time having just been received into the Church and I wanted to focus on that rather than engage in ecumenical dialogue when I had only been a Catholic for three weeks.
Many converts from Protestantism experience this sense of joy about becoming Catholic and want people to share that joy with them. At the same time, there is usually frustration at all of the anti-Catholic polemics and misunderstandings they have encountered– and in fact grown up with. My dear friend Geoff converted to the Byzantine Catholic Church around the same time I did. We had many conversations about the problems we had with Protestantism, the beauty of the Catholic Faith, but also the dangers of developing a superior attitude and religious pride out of our disagreements with our Protestant friends and family members. This religious pride is often lovingly referred to as “Convert-itis.” We’ve probably all encountered that insufferable person at one time or another; the one who has finally seen the light, learned the error of his impoverished upbringing and is now out to tell everyone who has not seen the light about how they need to get with the program. Geoff and I were well agreed that neither of us wanted to be “that guy.” We could be respectfully critical of the faults of the form of Christianity we had grown up with, but did not want to turn into the self-righteous Pharisee who praises God for making him better than the tax collector in Jesus’ parable.
So on this particular day, I came in to adore Christ in the Eucharist. I kneeled down in the pew and looked around the Church with a great deal of satisfaction at the unashamed collection of statues and icons around the church in contrast to the iconoclastic views of some of my friends. And at the very center of the Church… the Eucharist, where it ought to be- given the honor that was due the Body and Blood of Christ. No frustrating arguments about the Real Presence of Christ here. How could anyone not want to be a Catholic? I mean, just contrast this beautiful church with the rather austere chapel at the Anglican seminary…
At about this point… the LORD spoke to my heart in that gentle, wordless way which He so often uses. He seemed to be saying to me, “Even my throne in heaven is not worthy of Me, and yet I pour Myself into Bread and Wine every day in every place out of My Love for Mankind.” I was overcome with the realization that God is so glorious, so loving, so unfathomably good that even to sit on His throne in heaven to accept the worship of angels and saints is an act of humility on His part. And yet, He goes so far as to lavishly come to us in the Eucharist – the God who created all things seen and unseen veiled in a humble piece of bread and chalice of wine. For the first time I realized that in all of His glory… perhaps the greatest glory of God is that He is humble. As Pope John Paul II reminds us in Pastores Dabo Vobis, “Jesus’ service attains its fullest expression in His death on the Cross, that is, in His total gift of self in humility and love… The authority of Jesus Christ as head coincides then with His service, with His gift, with His total, humble and loving dedication on behalf of the Church.”
When faced with the humility of God, I became painfully aware of my own pride that had been creeping in, and how unlike my Savior I am. I was in danger of becoming “that guy.” Isaiah’s response to beholding the glory of the Lord is a good way of encapsulating this whole encounter. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” I did not become a Catholic to hold myself in higher esteem than my friends and family- indeed, they had raised me to know and love Jesus Christ and had so many times shown me His love in humble service. It was what I had learned from them that ultimately led me to Catholicism so that I could enter more fully into the mystery of Christ. Yet, had God not spoken to me when He did, I was well on my way to becoming that blind and prideful Pharisee.
Isaiah’s encounter in the Temple also shows us the profound love of God, that He wills to heal our blindness, our pride, and all our infirmity. It is a great comfort that just like Isaiah, God wishes to cleanse us, to renew His image and likeness in us. And like Isaiah, we get to have the divine fire touched to our lips to bring us that healing and renewal in the Most Blessed Sacrament. One of the many blessings that has come from my friendship with Geoff is that I have gotten to attend Divine Liturgy at the Byzantine Catholic Church on a number of occasions with him. His pastor, Fr. John, has the custom after everyone has received the Eucharist to paraphrase the angel’s response to Isaiah in our passage. “Behold! This is fire, and it has touched your lips and burned away your sins.”
Furthermore, the book of Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by a whole cloud of witnesses, including the prophet Isaiah, who are there to encourage us and pray for us on our way to becoming more like our loving and humble Savior. In his pastoral letter, The Church Alive, Bishop Zubik reminds us that foremost among this cloud of witnesses is St. Joseph and Our Lady. St. Joseph, he says, is the “just and humble husband of Mary, full of love for her who was called to be the Mother of the Savior.” Regarding Our Lady, the bishop reminds us that “Mary is, in fact, the most liberated of all persons. Free of all sin and self-centeredness, she protects all who defend human life.” A popular icon tradition depicts Our Lady as the Burning Bush, which is so pure that it is utterly consumed by the fire of God and yet unharmed. This is an appropriate image for us to reflect on in light of what we have just read in Isaiah as we implore the unfailing intercession of Our Lady, the Help of Christians, in our Christian journey. Let us take then both Isaiah and Mary as models and ask them to teach us from their example of humility and to pray for our deeper conversion.