Sunday, October 21, 2012

Becoming Catholic, Becoming Christian

Technically, I've been a Christian for 30 years now, according to my Evangelical Protestant roots. I was received into the Catholic Church this year on April 7th, so I'm now a Catholic on top of being a Christian... Wait... how can this be? To some of my own family members, this sounds like heresy. I am either Catholic or Christian. I can't possibly be both. Or can I? Aren't Catholicism & Christianity two distinct movements that should be separated, or are they in fact, one in the same? How can I become more "Christian" by becoming more Catholic?!

If I were to say something like "Protestantism didn't really change me", the onus would be on me. I probably didn't work hard enough to pray or read my Bible or evangelize. It certainly wouldn't be Protestantism's fault, because so many other Protestants experience powerfully changed lives... why not me?! And if Protestantism didn't make me a better Christian, certainly Catholicism is akin to driving the wrong way on a one way street. But honestly, I always wondered what the "Good News" was- what exactly was I supposed to be sharing? I was always so miserable. The Gospel didn't seem like anything profound to me & I couldn't figure out how to "know" Jesus from the Five Solas. I was literally believing on sheer faith that I was really saved... really forgiven... but I don't think I could never bring myself to actually believe it. "Jesus loves you" was kind of just a catch phrase- more of a profound, uncertain hope I held in my heart than something I was able to grasp... until I became a Catholic.

How did becoming a Catholic reveal God's love to me?
As a Protestant, I was told we are sinners & when we repent, we are instantly forgiven, without consequence. Since no one has to know what we're repenting of, we can do it in secret, where there's no guilt, no shame, no trace left behind (& therefore, no punishment necessary). If I were a parent who attempted to raise my child this way, its a fair bet he or she would have some issues later on in life. Why? because I did not teach the child to a) respect authority, b) that there are consequences for mistakes, c) that mistakes need to be amended if possible & d) that something constructive can always come from the experience. Protestant belief did not teach me these things, but Catholicism did...

As a Protestant, I was taught to pity the Catholics because they were deceived, living by works & law & constantly burdened by guilt... As a Catholic, I now understand that the liturgy, sacraments & disciplines of the Church aren't in place to oppress people & bind them to some archaic standard. These things are meant to teach us, correct us, & guide us in the way we should go. It does that through scripture & tradition both, much like a parent does when  raising a child. Think about it- the parent brings their own history alongside a kind of universal morality in order to groom their offspring for life... But if one or the other are lacking, look out! In my limited experience, I believe becoming a Catholic somehow brings balance to my faith, enabling me to "become"  more  Christian in practice, heart, mind & soul, than ever before.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Flavor of Daily mass

At daily Mass this week, I realized I am not just a warehouse worker... I am a bus driver, a nurse, a retiree. I am a single mother, happily married, tragically divorced, a widower. I am a business man, a priest, a child, a nun, a grandparent. I am a veteran, a student, I have fallen on hard times, I am content & well off in life. I am Asian, African American, Hispanic, Latino, White... I am red & gold... I am violet & green. I am a successor in a long line of martyrs, virgins, apostles & other Saints highlighted in the priest's homily nearly every day as prescribed by the liturgical calendar.

I am the fidgety middle aged woman digging through my purse for papers, keys & beads... I am the portly black lady in a leopard print shawl who prostrates & gesticulates at the threshold of the chapel. I am the white haired lady in the long, puffy white coat who shuffles up to the Tabernacle to say a quick prayer. I am the tiny old couple who sits & reads together in the pew after Mass. And then, I am of course, “me”, gazing quietly at Mary, the Tabernacle & the crucifix, never quite knowing what to say.

Though significantly shorter, there is a flavor to the daily Mass that seems lacking in Sunday Mass. People come just as they "are" & in some ways, it feels more honest. Everyone is there because they want to be, because something- or Someone- has drawn them, not because they are required to be there. I like that...

Daily Mass

I'm not exactly sure why, but I've been going to daily Mass this past week. I guess I wanted to see if it would make a difference. I've been working long hours & am contemplating big changes in my life... My extended family is also going through transition, which directly affects me in various ways. I know when I get worn out, I get stressed out. Its been my custom to use my precious downtime to sleep or engage in mindless activities, but daily Mass, I've found, seems equally, if not more restorative.

I've been attending a noon Mass on the grounds of the Grotto. Its conveniently located between home & work, so I spend 30 minutes at Mass, another 30 in silence before the Tabernacle & then I jaunt off for a quick stroll through the Stations of the Cross, which are situated on a path in a small wooded area. Its the most blessed hour & 15 minutes of my day. I go straight to work & can definitely tell the difference in how I think & interact with my coworkers.

I've begun to recognize the “regulars”- while there are anywhere from 20 to 50 people in attendance, only a handful stay daily. Instead of racing out of the church after the priest, they flip down their kneelers to pray their rosaries or make their way to the front to kneel before the Tabernacle. Others sit & read quietly or ask the intercession of the various saints stationed throughout the chapel. I watch the nuns scurry across the altar area, putting out candles & tidying up... and then the music comes softly over speakers stationed somewhere- monks chanting or church bells chiming. The main lights are dimmed & we are left to our own devices.

Yesterday after Mass, there was an Asian couple behind me a few rows back. I could hear them whispering back & forth & at first, I wondered what they were carrying on about. As I continued listening, I realized they were praying the Rosary together in their native tongue. I only knew this because I adopt the same rhythm when I pray it. I was able to pick out the words “Hail Mary, full of grace”... and “Holy Mary, Mother of God”... And I felt the strangest thing- I felt full inside, full of joy & something else that nearly brought me to tears. It was a sense of connection... Even though we didn't speak the same language, there was something about knowing they were praying the same prayers I pray...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wounding the Body of Christ

I was recently reading the 1st couple chapters of Lumen Gentium, a document the Vatican put out in the 1960's. There's a part that talks about how sin wounds the Body of Christ. I began to wonder how does an individual's “secret” sin wound the public body? As Christians, we understand the "Body" to be the Church. But instead of a congregation, I got a picture of Christ's own body on the cross. He was not lifted higher than a couple feet off the ground & each of my willful sins was a blow to His side, a fist, a connection, a giving way of His already bruised & bleeding flesh. I observed that my presence hindered others from coming close. What they saw was a distorted view- more my backside than Him. There were others with me... And our “secret” sins exposed us as sinners & usurped Him, wounding His physical body & hindering the body of believers who wished to draw near to Him. 

If He be lifted up, He will draw all men indeed, but our sins can hinder those who want to come to Him. "Let the little children come to Me" He said... Let us also humble ourselves & become as children at His feet, that we may reflect His face & not get in the way of our brothers & sisters.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Branches Remain

I took this picture on a recent camping trip. I suppose there's nothing extraordinary about a hollowed out tree rotting on the forest floor. But something about this one caught my eye. If you look closely, you can see there are branches protruding not from the outside of the tree as you might expect, but from the inside. I drew closer. The branches on the outside were broken off years ago. The tree had mended itself & continued its growth unhindered. But I found it interesting that the branches on the inside corresponded with the wounds on the outside. Something on the inside had remained & continues to rot with the tree, even though the extremities were sawed off & the heart of it was ripped out.

I began to liken that tree to my humanity... How often have I had branches lopped off & thought all was lost... Little did I know there was indeed something left inside... those branches came from within. I would not have known such a thing could be unless I saw that tree rotting on the forest floor. When the external branches were taken by whatever means for whatever reason, I covered my wounds & kept growing. Those branches could represent anything, positive or negative... They could represent hurt or happiness... Trials or talents... anything. But whatever they were, they were extensions of me, are extensions of me...The branches remain.

Six Months Catholic

Easter Vigil feels like forever ago, but this weekend, I celebrate six months as a Catholic. I neglected Mass attendance for an entire month, “threw off fetters” & avoided reconciliation up til yesterday. It had become easy to stay away in some respect, but it took its toll on me emotionally. I felt like a failure & grew darker by the day.

I was recently gifted a book about the sorted lives of saints before they were saints. I devoured it & realized I was no better or worse off than they... If God could make something of them, whose to say He couldn't do the same with me? I decided I couldn't let another weekend slip by without reconciliation. Its not that I feared being caught off guard & dying in mortal sin... I feared the thought of having to exist alone in my pain even more. Don't get me wrong- I repented to God plenty of times over the course of the month, but it wasn't enough to keep me strong. I needed community.

I'm away from my home church this weekend, so I found myself at my “surrogate parish” preparing for confession. My heart raced as I waited in line. I'd never spoken to this priest before. Would he berate me? Would he listen politely, have me recite something & send me off with a quick absolution? Would I leave feeling any better? Would I leave feeling anything? When my time came, I laid it all out & was kind of surprised that he engaged in an actual conversation with me. He sent me off with an Our Father for my penance & a heartfelt reassurance that I am loved by God & am an important part of the Body of Christ. He commended me for coming to confession & encouraged me to come to Mass no matter what... to hold on to the feeling I have when I partake of the Eucharist & to not let anything keep me from It.

I definitely felt different, but my soul didn't soar 0 to 65 as soon as I left the confessional... I was more like an old beater car that needed extra time to warm up. I sputtered through Mass & approached the Eucharist tentatively. I returned to my kneeler kind of numb, but thankful. I'm a six month old Catholic & I think I'm finally beginning to realize that I can't do this on my own. I need the Body of Christ in community & in the sacraments, like a car needs gas & maintenance. It doesn't run of its own volition, neither can I take care of it just because I have a key & some cash. Others need access to it to help keep it going, but they don't come to me... I have to go to them. Daily devotions & prayers aren't enough to sustain me... I need the Mass, the priest, the community. I need reconciliation & the Eucharist and I need not be alone in this...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Is Self Worth Worth My Self?

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. James 4:1-4 ESV

We think so much of ourselves but forget God... If I thought nothing of myself & everything of God & held His glorification as my highest aim, how would I change? And how would I view others? And how would the Gospel message be transformed in me & subsequently transform me? James says the reason we quarrel is because of desires that don't get met within us. We hate people for what we don't have or can't have or must strive to have. We want this right or that distinction or some credit for our troubles & when we aren't allowed to have it, we puff ourselves up in protest because we are taught our interests are worth fighting for. If we wanted to justify it, we could say something like "we are made in God's image, we are children of the King, we deserve the best because God only wants the best for us". In reality, we only want these things to make ourselves feel better, to make ourselves look good, not necessarily to glorify God. When we do approach God for these things & we think we're being all pious & contrite, are we really planning to put it to good use or will we squander it for our own means?

Is self worth worth my self? That is, do I extract worth from this world? Do I attain worth from my reputation, social or economic status? Do I receive worth from my chosen professed faith? Or do I find my worth in becoming small, in seeking to discipline my self to magnify God's worth first? Giving myself to glorify God glorifies me also... Like the moon to the Sun, its God I reflect when I turn my face toward Him...

The Secret Curmudgeon Part I

Yesterday on the way to work, I felt annoyed by people. This is nothing new. Driving through downtown at lunchtime is always an interesting experience. As I was secretly loathing the lady with the big hair who I had been trailing well below the speed limit for the last 2 miles, God decided to strike up a conversation with me. I suppose it was as good a time as any... I certainly wasn't going anywhere fast. 

He brought up the habit I have of racking up the offenses of my life. When will I ever have “enough” recompense to satisfy all the wrongs done to me? He followed up by reminding me that vengeance is His, it's His to repay. I was suddenly overtaken with a solemn feeling... I've heard this whole line of reasoning before, but this time, it had teeth. I felt the sting as the words sank deep. Am I one of those people... all bitter & curmudgeony? Could this be why I often feel so angry with the world around me?  And what of all my sins? Are they canceled because of all the wrongs done to me? Are they rendered null & void b/c someone owes me? No... But I often live as if that's the case. What justification do I have to hold onto hurt & offense or to believe that my sin can be overlooked because I must live with deficits inflicted by others? My offendedness has always been the card up my sleeve, the leverage point... the thing that makes my badness “ok”. But I'm starting to see things differently.

As a Protestant, I heard the forgiveness message more times than I can count. I know the “forgive & you will be forgiven” scriptures. I know the parables about what happened to people who didn't forgive... I thought I'd forgiven quite thoroughly. But my gut is rank & what I've been doing is the equivalent of shoving antacid down my gullet to stave off the truth. I need to change the way I “eat”. I may eat lots of good things, but it only takes one serving of offense to sour the whole “stomach”.

I've begun to wonder if being a Catholic has somehow changed my understanding of forgiveness. We of course didn't have the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Assemblies... we simply said our prayers to God in private. Sometimes a preacher would call people up to the stage & he/she would encourage those gathered to speak out the name of the offender(s) or offense(s) to be forgiven. But no one was really listening... that is, it was nothing like sitting down with a priest. Specially trained lay ministers would work the crowd, make their way to those weeping, hand out tissues & pray soothing words, read scripture, rub backs & hold trembling hands... Of course, we were told forgiveness isn't a feeling... but the emotional folks always seemed to “score more points” with the ministers. I was one of those frustratingly un-emotional folks when it came to those kinds of altar calls. I said the right words & always assumed I had done what I could, but I never felt much different. I think the Sacrament of Reconciliation has played a significant role in opening my eyes to what forgiveness actually means...

The Secret Curmudgeon Part II

Forgiveness is the very same Gospel Christ preached to us.  It should have been obvious, but it wasn't. When I was a Protestant, I understood the Good News was for other people- a one time thing for me- once forgiven, always forgiven, no matter what. But the Gospel wasn't for me anymore, it was for the "unsaved". No wonder it never changed my life. Merely being forgiven isn't quite the same as being saved. To borrow Luther's example, I was nothing more than “snow covered dung”.  I suppose to certain kinds of Protestants, the Gospel can never actually change the reality of the dung... It can only mask it. We were always told that when God looks at us, He sees Christ because Christ covers us. But we are still worthless scum underneath... 

In Catholicism, the Gospel of forgiveness seems to assign worth to my depravity & I suddenly become transformed from a rotting eyesore or a pedestrian hazard to fertilizer or fuel... “Behold the old has passed away”, I'm a “new creation in Christ” & all of that. The Gospel is supposed to transform us so we can help others grow & move forward, not merely cover us so as to hide us with whitewash. That was me, a white washed tomb, a snow covered turd. I wore forgiveness like a fresh coat of paint, like I just got a free gift. It was free, wasn't it? That's what we were told when we prayed the prayer... I was told we ought to forgive because Christ forgave us, but it wasn't a requirement to get into heaven. All we had to do was receive His forgiveness, confess His name, believe we're saved in our hearts & it was a done deal. I was heaven bound no matter what. I never truly believed this in my heart (which is why I became a Catholic), but I sure lived with this mindset for many years.

The Gospel is still as much for me now as it is for an "unsaved" person. I wouldn't have realized this except for the constant reference to it in the Catholic Church. The Good News is that Christ has saved us, is saving us & will save us ultimately unto the next life- if we persevere. And we persevere not by resting in His forgiveness for ourselves, but extending that same forgiveness to others. The extension of forgiveness is the heart of the Gospel that Christ preached. What point is there if it ends with me? In the Lord's Prayer, we always say "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..." and for the first time, I'm beginning to understand what that means & just how difficult (but necessary) it is. No wonder we follow by saying "& lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.". Its so easy to be tempted by offense...