It’s ironic that a common Protestant view of Catholicism is that it’s a self-driven religion. I always had the stereotypes in my mind that Catholics try to work their way to heaven and have all these strange man-made rituals to get them there and make them feel spiritual. After over twenty years in evangelical churches and only three in Catholic churches, I think this may be a classic case of Freudian projection. What Protestants accuse Catholics of, they are guilty of themselves.
Over at the blog, Thoughts from a Ragamuffin, Ragamuffin has talked about the hype generated at many Protestant churches like the upbeat big band music and the dynamic preaching necessary to keep a church alive. I wish I could find his specific post, but I’ve lost it. The problem he discusses and that I have found in these situations is that sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. You could smile and clap and sing but can’t “enter in”. Often enough for me it’s because the kids are wiggling on my lap, or ready for a nap since they’ve been up all night. I don’t feel like working myself up into a spiritual frenzy. Like Ragamuffin has said, it’s comforting to profess your faith in the liturgy even when you don’t feel like it.
There are the respected men and women of God at these Protestant churches who always seem to have it all together and be able to “enter in”. They’ve memorized every verse in the Bible, their prophetic accuracy is over 50% (if you’re Pentecostal), they attend every meeting and are “forerunners” or some other word-of-the-day. I have seen the best of them fall. Affairs, divorces, homosexuality… it does seem most of these problems have to do with sex. I’ve also heard from our pastor at different times “Let’s judge this leader by his fruit” and “You can’t judge the godliness of a person by their personal life”. Fifteen years later, I’ve had the privilege to judge these “forerunners” by their spiritual fruit as well, and let’s just say that the church is no longer a church and they no longer lead anything. One excuse I’ve heard for disasters like this one is that the pastor or church was new and inexperienced. I’ve not so secretly thought that if there was a heirarchy of experienced leaders, some set rules of initiation, and less of an emphasis on venerating leaders based on their own powers then we wouldn’t set ourselves up as easily for such a fall. Sounds Catholic to me.
This self-driven spirituality has always been a problem for me. Ironic, isn’t it? Protestants (who have probably never read the canons of the Councils of Orange or Trent) accuse Catholics of trying to work their way into heaven, while they time after time they try to keep their spirituality and liveliness of the church going through their own abilities. I know it’s not the same in every church, but I think the Protestant system sets people up to be considered spiritual by their own power, by what they do and how great a faith they have. I’ve known several people who have given up their faith altogether, because they thought if they were saved “once and for all” then they would stop struggling with their sins, and couldn’t take being disappointed. I always knew I never had that power to make myself spiritual and backed out of the whole scene, terrified of becoming a hypocrite like the others.
On the other hand, in the Catholic Church I have found a series of rituals and graces available to everyone who wants them. It’s not dependent on how many prophecies you make that come true or how many people you’ve prayed for that get healed or even leading a spotless public life. Any individual can avail of God’s grace through the sacraments and become closer to God. Not because of the wondrous faith he has or his sinless record, but because of his hunger for God and that small amount of faith that it takes to step forward and act on your belief, making use of the sacraments. There’s something poetic about crying out for God and seeking him in the Eucharist.
Chris has known about my distaste for the self-induced spirituality of Protestantism and the comfort I take in the Catholic faith. So this Christmas, he gave me Mother Teresa’s secret writings, “Come Be My Light”. She is quoted as saying “If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The darkness she talks about is this lack of feeling the presence of God in her daily life. Although close to him early in her life, she lost her sense of closeness with God when she went to Calcutta to become one of the poor she ministered to. She became like them – completely impoverished, thirsting for the goodness and love of God.
I wonder if Mother Teresa had any idea when she begged her superiors to destroy her letters how many of us feel the same way at times and would benefit from her example of faith. Abraham, when he was asked to put his faith in God and do something he didn’t want to do, he did it anyway. It was credited to him as righteousness. I think it rings truer to believe in God and commit yourself to following Him no matter what you want or how you feel than setting up your whole faith on the greatness of your ability to purely believe.
I contrast Mother Teresa’s committed faith to the self-centered faith of Martin Luther. As a monk, he obsessed over his own sins instead of dedicating himself to the will of God. He relied on his own belief (I don’t even want to call it faith) to save him instead of the graces available in the church. He rejected authorities because they weren’t as well read or intelligent as he thought he was. I’ll give a more complete portrait of Luther when I finish his biography, but his narcissistic motivations seem clear enough to me. I compare Mother Teresa to the son who told his father no, but did his will in the end, and Martin Luther to the son who told his father yes, but did not do the will of the father.(Matt 21:28-31) I don’t think she ever told God no, but certainly did the will of the Father however she felt. Luther seemed to never think twice and consider that the Father’s will might be different than his own.