When I was planning my wedding, I had a very small budget, and any time I could get away without paying for something, I did.
Borrowed music, homemade cake, amateur photos. I remember carelessly telling the florist that I wasn’t too worried about flowers for the church, because there always seemed to be flowers there already.
He tactfully explained to me that the reason for this was that other people had put them there—people, in fact, who had been married in that church the previous Saturday, and had purchased flowers and decorated the church with them for that purpose.
Oh! Duh. All my life, I had been going to Mass and seeing fresh flowers every week, and it never once occurred to me to wonder how they got there.
Without realizing I was thinking this way, I halfway believed that I was the main attraction at this church, and that it was just sitting there, flowers and all, waiting for me to show up and enjoy them.
So I bought some flowers. I didn’t spend very much, but I did purchase a few pots of flowers for the side altar, and a few stems for the front, and of course a nice bouquet for myself to carry.
This memory came back to me the other day, as I happened to be in church (although not the same one) for a rare daily Mass, and the reading was a letter from Paul.
Poor Paul, even at that late date, was still a little shocked that the Christians in his care were not … better.
They weren’t acting, in fact, any different from anyone around them. He comes right out and tells them he is trying to shame them for their behavior. He reminds them of their past life, and of the baptism that marked the beginning of their new life, and how awful they used to be. And now … they’re supposed to be different! Get it together, guys! Remember who you are.
I’ve been hearing several Catholics lately expressing how much they’re struggling with something they notice: They’ve been hearing all their lives that the graces they receive in the sacraments should transform them.
And yet they look around them, and their fellow Catholics are very clearly no better—no kinder, no more generous, no more willing to make personal sacrifices, no more gentle—than any random agnostic or atheist or pagan they might happen to meet. If the Gospel is true, then why isn’t it blindingly obvious when someone is a Christian?
There is a certain amount of comfort in realizing that this mismatch is a very old problem—one dating back to the absolute babyhood of the church, as the Pauline epistles demonstrates.
But that only takes you so far.
Here is where I have landed. I tell myself, Look. You spend your whole life going to church, and it always looks pretty, and you never really think about how it gets that way. Until one day you’re planning your own special day, and you realize the church is empty and bare. Catastrophe! What to do! Somebody do something!
So guess what? It turns out the very one who’s in charge of making the church beautiful is M-E. Just me. Nobody else.
Horrible. But what other answer could there possibly be?
I really do think of this, every time I go into a church. I see the flowers, and I think about who put them there. Some bride, some wedding planner, some gardener, someone. Someone who realized there was an empty vessel standing there, waiting to be filled, and decided it was up to them.
Sometimes it’s a matter of beauty that’s needed — literal flowers, or something liturgical, music or art or some wonderful new program that draws people in and attracts them to our faith. Sometimes it’s a matter of goodness; sometimes it’s a matter of truth. I’m definitely not just talking about programs and official groups. I’m talking about individual choices: How we comport ourselves, how we treat each other, how we respond to each other. How honest we are with ourselves about ourselves.
Sometime there is an emptiness in the church that I cannot fill, being who I am, or an injustice that I cannot fix. But I need to be there. I need to be in the church, and I need to be willing. The church isn’t a backdrop of decency and virtue, waiting for me to swan in and enjoy it as if I were the main attraction, and everyone else merely readymade spiritual scenery. I am the church. Just dumb old sorry old me, either choosing or not choosing to make it beautiful and good and true by bringing what I have, even if it’s just my presence. Even if it’s just my failure.
Grace is the kind of thing that only transforms people if they want it to, and if they’re willing to be transformed over and over again, with constant conversion of heart. And that means realizing that the work that needs to be done is personal.
It means reading phrases like “constant conversion of heart” and thinking, “How can I, myself, turn that cliché into something real before I go to bed tonight?” What is one little thing I can do? One little flower I can bring to the Lord?
It’s such hard work. But there really is no other answer. How could there be? If I think the church ought to be good, then I need to bring the flowers.
Photo by Christine McIntosh via Flickr (Creative Commons)
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Catholic Weekly on March 29, 2023.