“All the way to heaven is heaven.” ~ Catherine of Siena
“You got any change, man?”
I’d only made it a few blocks from the Denver Sheraton, and I’d already heard that request three times. “Sorry, I’m tapped out,” I mumbled.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“That’s OK,” he replied with a smile as bright as his big orange Broncos sweater. Something in his tone made me think it really was OK, so I hazarded my own request. “Can you tell me how far up the Cathedral is?”
“Sure,” he said. “Just a couple blocks more, and then one block over. Can’t miss it.”
I was in Denver for a conference—downtown, near Capitol Hill. The conference was well worth the trip, but the schedule was pretty packed every day, sunup to sundown. In fact, I had to duck out early from one of the Sunday morning sessions and hoof it double time to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception so I could get to Mass.
The Basilica was up a ways on Colfax at Logan, and if my trek was any indication, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much in the quarter century since I lived in Colorado. Gritty, a bit raw, the Basilica’s immediate vicinity retains a rough edge despite loads of redevelopment and rezoning. You see it in the mix of storefronts along Colfax—bars and sandwich joints mingling with upscale dining and boutiques—and you see it in the immense variety of folks on the street from all walks of life. The whole scene reminded me of 1980s NYC and Chicago; it was a homecoming in more ways than one.
I reached the Cathedral just in time for Mass and approached the west transept entrance on Logan to avoid the crowd at the main entrance on Colfax. Immediately across the street was the Fork & Spoon, and I couldn’t help pausing to admire their mural on the wall opposite the church. It was a tribute to Jack Kerouac, featuring the beat author’s profile along with a quote from a Buddhist-inspired letter he wrote his first wife, Edie Parker. “Practice kindness all day to everybody,” the quotation read, “and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”
Was it an intentional challenge to the Cathedral across the street and its habitués? The mural’s placement could be interpreted as a rebuke, or perhaps a wake-up call to the hoodwinked faithful. Alternatively, it could be argued that Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing led him to unconsciously represent the very teaching of the Church herself. About seven years after Kerouac wrote his letter, the Council Fathers had this to say in Lumen Gentium:
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.
If that’s the case, though, why go to Mass at all? And why endure the rigors of the Church’s moral requirements when you can just be nice and achieve the same result—hand out a few coins on the street, for example, and call it a day, à la Kerouac?
I entered the Cathedral anyway.
People were filing in, finding their places in the pews. It was a typical cathedralish cross section of the population: Families, individuals here and there, regulars and visitors, random groupings of people that defied easy classification. I grabbed a seat on the aisle right in front of a transept pillar—it was close by and adequately inconspicuous for a visitor. On my right was a group of folks that were apparently related—a father, it seemed, with his grand, white, Amish-like beard, along with his clan. In front, a couple with a toddler in tow, and a young woman, stylishly attired and sitting by herself. Mass was just about to get under way….
*Whoosh!* A rolled-up newspaper flapped in front of my face. I turned in the direction of the flap, and there was a woman with multiple layers of clothing and shopping bags, clearly annoyed, waving her paper at me as she walked by. I think she was indicating that I had usurped her usual pew for Sunday Mass, but by the time I figured that out, she’d already taken a seat a couple rows ahead of me.
Stealing somebody’s regular pew is a major breach of Mass attendance protocol, but what could I do? Figuring I’d only make matters worse if I tried to rectify the situation, I stayed put. It was a good call for nothing else came of it, and I think she even acknowledged me at the sign of peace. In a way, by overlooking the unintended affront, she in effect became my host, and I, her guest, the recipient of her sacrificial hospitality—almost like an estranged family member whom she welcomed home.
The Gospel that day reflected a similar theme. It was Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast where all the seats ended up being filled by outsiders and hoi polloi:
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
Among other things, that image of a wedding feast and invitations assumes that God’s kingdom has boundaries and limits—it’s a party, to be sure, but not a free-for-all. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus goes the ancient patristic dictum—“outside the church there is no salvation.” This is still the teaching of the Church, although the Catechism frames it in a new way:
Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.
The institutional, big “C” Church is of divine origin, but it has boundaries and edges because it’s run and inhabited by finite humans. It’s like the Basilica itself, which has walls and doors; the liturgy as well, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there are rules and standards and expectations for those who wish to be a part of these things.
The small “c” church catholic, however, is a mystical body, with boundaries known to God alone. Its membership, unlike the visible Church, isn’t always clear cut. The normal way people attach to that body is through the Sacraments and practicing the Faith, but apparently there are other ways as well—and that’s only God’s business.
In other words, outside the visible Church there’s likely a good deal of invisible church (or at least potential church), but we just don’t always have the eyes to see it—yet. In any case, since we can’t know who’s in the invisible church, those of us inside the visible one have a duty to welcome in everybody, no matter what. Lumen Gentium continues along these lines:
Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
All Christians have a hand in this to be sure, although as laity our preaching can take many forms. Primarily, we preach through our acts of charity and service, through caring for our families and neighbors, through working hard to improve our little corners of the world—living our lives, that is, in a way that always invites rather than excludes. The more we do that, the more we literally extend heaven to those around us, deepening our own interior affinity for heaven in the process.
The irony, of course, is that many of those folks on the outside are already doing this very thing.
The recessional hymn concluded, and following a brief prayer of thanksgiving, I genuflected and exited my pew with a glance at my watch—just enough time to get back for the start of the next conference presentation. There was a light rain outside, and I made sure to slow down and hold onto the handrail as I descended the slippery stone staircase from the west transept door.
Right behind me was an elderly couple, and the woman was attempting the navigate the stairs with a cane. She was doing alright with her husband’s help, but I stuck around just in case—and I wasn’t the only one. An usher and another man stood at the top of the stairs watching the couple take each step. Once the woman made it to the sidewalk, the two men nodded to me as if we three had all been part of a covert stair-descent safety team, and then they re-entered the church.
Nothing particularly virtuous about our watching out for that woman—pretty much any decent soul would’ve done the same. And that’s the point—we’re all in this together, insiders and outsiders alike.
Jack was surely onto something.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared October 19, 2014 on the author’s blog “God-Haunted Lunatic” and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “The Good Samaritan” was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1890.