Glorious Vacation! We just spent a thrilling week touring about Northern California, a delightful experience augmented by the extraordinary beauty and fascinating history of this corner of the world. Pristine Sierra lakes, sprawling vineyards, and majestic giant redwoods all conspire to leave the tourist breathless. My only complaint during an otherwise perfect holiday was the haphazard posting of road signs, a situation which too often left one in a state of mystified spatial confusion.
We little realize or appreciate just how much we exist at the mercy of sign makers until we find ourselves unexpectedly on the wrong side of a six lane torrent of madly rushing traffic, or trying to navigate a non-existent access ramp that some errant signage indicated should be there. Ideally, of course, signs are meant to help orient us and guide us safely to our chosen destination. But when improperly placed or poorly worded they have the potential to lead us into confusion and even peril.
I actually experienced numerous instances of this very thing driving various turnpikes in California, so much so that I began to feel jinxed, or the hapless mark of some cruel sport. In one instance a tortuous section of winding highway was posted at 55 mph even though the next several miles consisted of winding, serpentine 20 to 10 mph curves. At other times I found myself driving long stretches of state highway without the least indication of a route number, hoping against hope that I was on the road I had intended. Even the familiar mile markers, common in most other states, were conspicuously absent. Despite the commendably high quality of the Golden State highways, I would still have to give her highway engineers a failing grade for actually marking their roads in a consistent and user friendly manner.
The lack of directional clarity is, to my way of thinking, just as great a hazard as oversize, unfilled potholes or the omission of guardrails along dangerous drop-offs because a lack of accurate, well-placed signage can hinder us in safely navigating to our intended destination. This common sense dictum also applies in many other areas of life as well. Signs are indispensable beacons for guiding one through a happy and fulfilled life. Yet we rarely think about signs until we suddenly find ourselves in some difficulty caused by either ignoring missing the sign altogether. Discounting that acute pain in your abdomen may land you unexpectedly in the emergency room, or worse.
Everyday life is filled with signs that we observe almost unconsciously. If the sky is cloudy we pack along a raincoat. A wedding ring on the finger tells the world that we are married. Just as in driving a car, much of one’s behavior is governed by the many signs we observe along the way.Misreading or missing those signs can lead to trouble, confusion, and perplexity for without the proper indicators our lives would quickly deteriorate into a jumble of conflicts, misunderstandings, and dead ends.
What is true of the physical world may be even more true in the spiritual realm. In order to attain spiritual health and safety, we must have signs that keep us on course. And if those signs are inaccurate or poorly placed we will likely go astray. For example, the Ten Commandments are a set of such spiritual signs presented as moral precepts. Their purpose is to guide us as social beings and keep us from harming ourselves and others. Too many people today reject those signs because they may prove inconvenient to one’s own desires. Instead they preach that it is enough to be a “nice” non-judgmental person and all else will fall into place. But as a society goes ever further down this particular relativist path things, instead of falling into place, only seem to fall apart. This is like driving down some unmarked back lane hoping against hope that it eventually leads where we really want to go. But is that a realistic expectation? If we cannot follow the existing signs then we are driving blindly and the broadest, smoothest highway in the world is of little use to us if we have no idea where it really leads.
Christianity has a set of even more definitive signs which are designed to lead us to our hoped for destination, which is heaven. Now the world is a jumbled maze of roads and trails leading every which way which is why accurate signs become indispensable to any person who truly wants to find heaven. The first sign that every good Christian needs to recognize is the Sign of the Cross. That is where their pathway begins, not its end point, and yet it is surprising how many Biblical Christian seem to fear or shun this most ancient Christian sign of faith and filial piety. These same Christians, if married, would never dream of going out in public without a wedding ring and yet they are ashamed of the very sign of fidelity to God that is bound up every time one makes the Sign of the Cross.
But the Church possesses an even more useful and potent set of signs than this beautiful acknowledgment of the Divine Trinity. The Church has in her armory a compendium of signs called sacraments which do more than merely point the way. Sacraments are signs that actually EFFECT WHAT THEY SIGNIFY. There is a mountain of meaning in that brief definition. In other words, Christ gave his Church a set of tools that do more than point the way to our final heavenly destination. They bring heaven down to to us in a mystical way, here and now, in our mortal pilgrimage. When we partake in a sacrament we are entering into a personal compact with God himself. He is truly present under the sign of that sacrament. Though our physical senses are unable to perceive that reality because they are limited to things earthly, our spiritual senses are able to grasp the wonder of this wonderful communion with the soul’s very Creator.
The greatest of any sign, sacramental or otherwise, in this world is that most sublime and perfect sacrament of the Eucharist. It both signifies Christ himself in the flesh and IS Christ himself in the flesh. Of course, like any sign, it will only help us along the way so long as we put faith in its efficacy. We can, and I fear that many Christians do, simply glance at the sacrament superficially and continue along our own way. In other words, a sacrament can only profit one to the degree that the person receiving it is willing to correspond with its many graces.
Many Christians observe the sacraments in a merely perfunctory way so that, while God is still truly present in that sign, they approach Him indifferently. Instead of taking that most wondrous sign and incorporating it joyously into their hearts they are content to glance at it in in the rear-view mirror. This is the great tragedy of too many would be Christians. They seem to take for granted what should never be taken for granted. Sacraments are the Momentous Signs that God has provided, through his Church, to lead us to Himself. But like any sign, these signs can only be effective if they are faithfully heeded. To the degree that one heeds and embraces these most wonderful signs, especially that of the Eucharist, one will discover the abiding presence of God in this temporal life, and enjoy his friendship in eternity. The sacraments are in effect the only true pathway home because they show us the way better and more clearly than any substitute.
Fran Pierson +a.m.d.g.