The Light of Longing

The Light of Longing

The Light of Longing
By: Fr. Walter Wagner, O.P.

Fr. Walter Wagner, O.P., is the pastor of the Dominican Parish of Saint Vincent Ferrer and Saint Catherine of Siena in New York City.

What a joy, and constant renewal, to live and work at a crossroads in our city. St. Catherine’s and St. Vincent’s welcome worshippers from all directions and our preaching must take into account the beautiful heterogeneity of our listeners. The diversity of the congregation also makes of the communion line an icon for contemplation, as if Pentecost itself were lined up double file in the middle of the church. But if the Holy Spirit gathers a demographic array of souls before God, He also deploys them in different kinds of worship.

Surely we clergy find satisfaction in the good folks who take their places in the pews on a daily basis. They listen attentively, and make their responses with gusto.

But you know what: all kinds of people cannot manage this kind of churchgoing. They do not speak English, or they lack control over their hours of work: perhaps caregiving consumes their time, or anxiety keeps them from crowds. For the stranger, for the busy, and for the distressed, their candle stands in for them at Mass and remains long after.

Our early morning sentinels confirm this story. Many people come in way before the first Mass-goers. With all the alacrity and efficiency they bring to their commute, our vanguard of prayer find their way to an accustomed altar or shrine to offer the morning’s petitions, intercessions, or thanksgivings. After a few minutes of quiet intimacy they are gone, off into a day whose long hours belong to another. From dawn to bedtime workday thoughts will crowd the mind, but the light remains behind as a sign that the heart never loses its Sunday longings.

The pre-dawn lamps soon find company in the lights added by Mass-goers and church visitors all the way through to closing time. On Wednesday nights, after holy hour at St. Vincent’s, or in St. Catherine’s on Sundays, we Friars get to turn off the bulbs and see the church radiant with the gentle flickering light of prayer. For me the faith, hope, and love of hundreds becomes palpable at this moment and I go to bed truly warmed by the spiritual communion of the Church.

The faith-formed realism of candle-lighting comes clear in the brief prayer of Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 during the English Civil War, “O Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day: if I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.” The soldier’s quip with God speaks to the truth of us. In a silent moment we realize how thick with concerns is our heart; there abide memories of our dead, concern for the beloved of the present, anxiety for ourselves, and worries for the challenged world we live in. But as each day envelops us with its concerns how much time can we give to the longings deep inside? The candle we light proclaims the bifurcated truth of us: we came to pray, but we had to leave. In that flame I see the crucial things in my life that I cannot dwell on at the moment. I am busy and distracted but the matters at the core of me do not thereby lose their importance.