Alligator lizards in the air?

The title of this blog is in fact a real lyric from one of my all-time favorite songs – “Ventura Highway” by America.  Everytime I hear the first guitar chords that open the song, I’m there.  In my soul at least, its’ sunny, there’s a cool breeze blowing and I’m out on the open road(usually I imagine the Pacific Coast Highway, actually) – free, joyful, blissfully cruising down the road of life.

Yet if you just look at the lyrics…..well, what exactly does “alligator lizards in the air” mean?  And while the rest of the lyrics aren’t quite that bizarre – you wouldn’t likely confuse them with Shakespeare.  Of course, there are many (most?) pop songs like this – if you only had the lyrics , you’d miss the full experience.  It’s the words and music together that make the song.

It seems to me that there are many in today’s Church who have lost sight of this truth.  The vast majority of these folks – a number of whom are bishops and priests – are good and generous people who love God and the Church and really try to be the best people they can be and who take their respective vocations seriously.  But we live at a time when there is such an overemphasis on the words – what do the doctrines say, what does the Pope teach, what are the exact words of the ritual to be performed – that I fear many of these folks are not so focused as they ought to be on the music.  What is it that the Holy Spirit is saying in the hearts of the faithful and in the Catholic Christian community at this time?

Now don’t get me wrong – good catechesis, which is the ministry I’m invovled in, requires helping people getting the words right.  We’re dealing with a Mystery right at the heart of our Faith – the risen Christ.  Formulations of dogma and doctrine have developed over centuries, drafted by some of the greatest minds in history, tested through the real difficulties of history so that the faithful might through these words capture some glimpse of the Mystery to which they point.

But that’s what the words are. Pointers.  They do not contain in and of themselves the Mystery to which they point.  To think otherwise is to engage in some kind of a pagan superstition – like Magic when magic was not a form of entertainment – in which getting the gods to do what you wanted them to do depended on saying the right words.

The Holy Spirit who animates our faith life will have none of that.  St. Paul himself writes that the  Holy Spirit prays for us, not in words but in “groanings” that express our deepest longings and needs.  If you read the Pentecost story in Acts 2 from this point of view, you could make the case that the image of people from all over the Roman Empire being able to understand the apostles in their own languages is a way of saying that encounters with the Holy Spirit transcend words.

So by all means treasure the words.  But , please, listen carefully to the music playing behind them.  What seems dry and uncompromising on paper might actually be an invitation from the Holy Spirit to join in the Dance.

Hope to see you on the Ventura highway of the Spirit.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)

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