As part of a pilgrimage to Italy, we were privileged to visit all of the major cathedrals in Rome. It was very easy to be bowled over by their beauty. They were truly a feast for the eyes; majestic and overwhelming. I remember visiting St. Mary Major while daily Mass was going on. As all the tourists walked around admiring the magnificence, the local people went to Mass and, when it was over, simply got up and left. To me, this was a wonder to explore; to them, it was just “their church.”
It reminded me of the old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Not that the people were in any way contemptuous of their church; they weren’t. I just mean that to them St. Mary’s was “home,” a familiar place, one many of them had known all their lives.
However, there does seem to be some contempt for Jesus in the questions and attitude of the people in his home town. They had known Jesus most of his life and seem somewhat bemused as they ask one of the most crucial and ironic questions in the gospel: Is he not the carpenter’s son? (Matthew 13:55). From our perspective we might wonder at their wonderment; this is the Son of God, announced by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But those asking the question weren’t reading the gospel; to them, this was Jesus, who grew up among them. They knew his mother, they knew his family, they knew him.
Or did they?
It’s human nature to want to know things, and to think that we do. We’re used to learning; we’ve done it from birth. But our intellect is limited; no matter how much we know about anything, certain aspects remain hidden from us. We see this in our own relationships. If you’re married, think of your spouse; if not, perhaps brothers, sisters, or other family. Think even of places, like this church. We know them, right?
Yes and no. Although we do know a lot, there are limits, things we can never know. Take even the most familiar person. No matter how well we know them, they will ultimately remain a mystery simply because we cannot know their inmost being – their soul. At church we can see the pews, the walls, the statues, the tabernacle, the hosts inside it, but the supernatural realities also remain a mystery: the substance of the bread and wine, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Real Presence of Christ. Hidden from our senses, these are revealed only to the eyes of faith.
The complication is that our senses can actually keep us from seeing the spiritual reality. We become so preoccupied with what they’re telling us that we miss what lies beyond them. When I walked through St. Mary Major I saw every artistic and architectural wonder she could reveal but missed the revelation that all of it pointed to, the greatest one possible – Christ in the most holy Eucharist. As for the people at Mass, they were also at risk of preoccupation, not with works of art but with their own thoughts or problems. In either case, the task before us is to concentrate on the glory being revealed to us, for it alone is the more lasting and soul-satisfying.
The key to success is faith; the free assent of our mind and submission of our will to divine revelation. When faith guides where senses fail we find that familiarity breeds not contempt but love, that familiarity is not a barrier to a deeper experience of God but actually the road by which we enter more and more deeply into it.