Always Watching: Of Candles, Commands, and “The Joy of Love”

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Ointment of the Magdalene”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Ointment of the Magdalene” (photo: Public Domain)

“I’m watching you, Wazowski. Always watching.”

During my brief foray in Manhattan, I worked at a bookstore on Madison Ave. One of the advantages was the proximity of St. Agnes Church – just a short walk away on the other side of Grand Central Station – and I’d get over there whenever I could. I haven’t been there in years, but at the time St. Agnes was the quintessential urban spiritual oasis. Squeezed in tightly amid engines of commerce and hives of human industry, it was a blessed enclosure of solitude and grace where I could duck in to spend a few moments with the Lord even when I couldn’t stay for Mass.

As a bonus, St. Agnes was blessedly retro, with a perpetual hint of incense hanging in the air and lots of gaudy statues fronted by racks of votive candles – flames seemed to flicker out from every nook and cranny. All that dripping wax required regular attention, of course, and one of the perks of praying in St. Agnes was viewing the sacristan’s casual reverence as he took care of the candles. He’d quietly come out from a side door with his scraper and supply of new candles, cross in front of the altar (slight genuflect), clean up a rack on the far side of the church, and then return (another quick genuflect) to dispose of the refuse in the sacristy.

As a relatively new convert, I found his unobtrusive acknowledgements of the Eucharist both enlightening and edifying. Here was a worker whose responsibilities required countless trips back and forth through the church every day, yet he never neglected to manifest some kind of respect, however cursory, to the One housed there. I imagine if that sacristan had stopped making his little bobs and nods, somebody would’ve noticed and he’d have heard about it, but my impression is that he wasn’t merely following a job protocol; rather, here was a true believer and loyal son of the Church who would’ve done the same regardless of any human audience.

That sacristan at St. Agnes came to mind recently when I stopped in to pray at our Parish Center. A former convent, the Center has a small, intimate chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and where various groups – adult and teen Bible studies, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – can visit Jesus whenever they’d like. During most of the week, however, the Parish Center is deserted, and I’ll frequently stop in at the chapel to gather my thoughts and then shoo them away again as I unwind in the Presence of the Lord.

On a recent visit, I noted that the sanctuary lamp had burned out – no prob. Before settling into my prayer time, I popped into the little sacristy to retrieve a new candle and made like the St. Agnes sacristan: With a slight bob and nod in front of the tabernacle, I crossed over to the red lamp, lit the replacement candle, and then (bob and nod) back to the sacristy to drop off the lighter before turning my full attention to God.

Now, mind you, nobody was around to see whether I reverenced the altar and the Real Presence, so why the formality in that tiny little space? Was it liturgical scrupulosity – an obsessive rigidity borne of dread? You know, like a little voice murmuring, “You better genuflect because He’s watching – and you’ll catch it otherwise!” As if some Monty-Pythonesque “Church Police” were lying in wait, ready to pounce and accuse. 

Nope, not at all. He was watching, sure enough, but like the St. Agnes sacristan, I was motivated by firm belief and filial love. I made my wee bows, even in that otherwise vacant space, because I knew it was God sitting inside that gold box, and obeisance to my Divine King was not only proper in its own right, but eminently edifying for me – as much a part of my “prayer time” as when I subsequently sat down to actually talk to Him.

Pope Benedict XVI referred to this as aligning “interior dispositions” with “gestures and words,” but some (both Catholic and non-Catholic) might prefer to write it all off as whimsy and caprice. You hear folks say things like, “There seem to be so many rules in the Church,” with an implied assumption that those rules are arbitrary human inventions rather than expressions of essential truths. Think of Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s masterful Brideshead Revisited. Rex, boorish and unchurched, wishes to marry Julia, a Catholic from a devout family. “I’ll become a Catholic,” he agrees. “What does one have to do?” Rex dutifully meets with a priest, Fr. Mowbray, but their conversations always end in frustration. “He’s the most difficult convert I have ever met,” says Fr. Mowbray at one point. “He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.” Rex, for his part, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Here’s how he puts it to Julia’s mother:

If your Church is good enough for Julia, it’s good enough for me…. Look, Lady Marchmain, I haven’t the time. Instruction will be wasted on me. Just you give me the form and I’ll sign on the dotted line.                         

Despite his protests, his fiancée and her family recognized the crux of the matter: Rex just wasn’t getting “it” – the “Thing,” as Chesterton put it. Catholicism isn’t just about rules and the protocols – not just about “what’s on the test,” as my students would say, not just about avoiding the Church Police and getting along. It’s about something deeper, more subtle than that: love in the midst of strife; hope amid despair; joy mixed with pain; faith despite doubt.

I think that’s at the heart of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’s recently released Apostolic Exhortation: A reminder to us all that Catholicism is not to be equated with moral conformity. “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule,” he writes, “because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (304). The Holy Father makes it very plain that Church teaching is not changing on the hot button issues of our time – contraception and the nature of marriage, for instance – but he also calls for a renewed pastoral sensitivity in keeping with the challenges facing today’s faithful. “A small step, in the midst of great human limitations,” Francis writes, quoting his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (44).

Isn’t this simply the Gospel? “I believe,” the official tells Jesus, kneeling and pleading for his sick child, “help Thou my unbelief.” God meet us on our margins. We’re in the Church at all because we’re not yet saints – and He brings us along, “by little and by little,” three steps forward, two steps back, with bobs and nods, fits and starts, never neat, always messy. “Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love,” Pope Francis further insists in Evangelii Gaudium, “which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.”

Yes, He is indeed always watching. Thank God.