The Canyon down which the Spirit blows

When I was in Claremont for fifteen years (1994-2009) as pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption parish, I was often surprised by the unique weather of that spot in relation to other parts of the Pomona-Inland Valley. At times it would be markedly cooler and clearer than the rest of the hot and smoggy valley. Often winds would rage to the east and sometimes to the west, and the air would be relatively calm in Claremont.

Most people didn’t really notice this, and many of those who did didn’t seem to know why.  After talking with a few people “in the know,” I discovered it was because Claremont is situated precisely at the foot of the highest mountain in the area, Mount San Antonio, otherwise known as “Old Baldy.” In addition, San Antonio Canyon opens up directly into the alluvial plain upon which Claremont is built. This means that cool mountain air flows down from the peak through the canyon, and directly into Claremont before dissipating in the rest of the Inland Valley. Cool air is heavier than warm air, and so it descends and displaces the hot and often pollution-laden air of the surrounding region, giving Claremont a distinct environment not shared by its neighbors. (At least that’s true sometimes, not always.)

This image came to me as I read about the beginning of the Synod on the Family in Rome, which begins today and continues for three weeks until October 25. Pope Francis’ address to Saturday night’s Prayer Vigil in St. Peter’s Square speaks of God’s Spirit as the “still, small voice” that followed the the whirlwind, earthquake, and fire at the cave on Mount Horeb where Elijah took refuge when fleeing for his life (1 Kg 19:3,8-9). And he quotes words uttered almost 50 years ago by the Orthodox Metropolitan Ignatius IV Hazim: “without the Holy Spirit God is far off, Christ remains in the past, the Church becomes a mere organization, authority becomes domination, mission becomes propaganda, worship becomes mystique, Christian life the morality of slaves” (cf. Address to the Ecumenical Conference of Uppsala, 1968). Read the whole address; it’s good stuff!

In his homily for the Sunday morning Opening Mass of the Synod, the Holy Father reflects on the Gospel passage of the day, in which Jesus answers a “trick” question about divorce with a call to return to the meaning of the creation of man and woman. Recalling and affirming reality in truth must also be done in charity.  Doctrine is not a club to beat people over the head with. The Holy Spirit does not compel, but invites. Our job is not to force people into a straight-jacket of belief or conformity. Nor to shame them. The Spirit within the Church moves and empowers us to create an a hospitable atmosphere in which all who seek God in any way can find a welcome, and then, being in a safe home, we can explore together the God who has revealed the Mystery of God’s Being in the Scriptures and the lived tradition of faithful followers of Jesus Christ. This God is as intimate to us as we are to ourselves, and yet remains infinitely beyond. The complementary love of man and woman in the lifelong commitment of marriage and family life echoes this Oneness-Otherness relationship of God with us. Francis’ homily is worth reading and reflecting on.

In this vein, I too offer my meager homily of today as well.

What is this “Synod,” you ask? Veteran Vatican commentator John Allen helps with this primer and background article. Predictions are that it may be messy, with a lot of conflicting opinions (labeled “liberal” or “conservative”, mistakenly IMHO) being aired and promoted which could sidetrack the real message of renewal of marriage and family life in our world which is truly a different world than “the good old days.” (See the Pope’s remarks to the US bishops.) The Holy Spirit depends on the agency of fallible humans to carry on God’s work, but God’s work is not under human control.

Perhaps the mountain and the canyon are good metaphors for how the Spirit might blow into the Church through this Synod.

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