Mortification is the key to happiness

July 3, 2010

I’ve always had trouble understanding mortification. In becoming Catholic, there were subjects that I sidelined, preferring to focus on the meat and potatoes of Catholic life, instead of the weird fringe. For instance, I always steered clear of the saints section of the bookstore, especially the book entitled The Incorruptibles. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me goosebumps. Then there’s mortification. What sane person would subject themselves to pointless misery? But when you look at those who have practiced mortification according to the faith, like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa, they weren’t miserable. They were gloriously, happily, unshakably at peace. Maybe those crazy Catholics (ha! us crazy Catholics) are on to something.

Let’s consider the nature of mortification for a minute. It is technically, “the subjection and denial of bodily passions and appetites by abstinence or self-inflicted pain or discomfort”. It’s not just self-inflicted pain or discomfort. It is pain in a very specific context, with the goal of subjugating our desires. Why should our desires be subjugated? We could just chase our every whim, letting our desires rule us. But then we’d look a heck of a lot like Chris Jr. (He’s 2 now! And good at it.) when he’s protesting the denial of his third DanAnimals drink for the day, no matter what it might do to his digestive system. If we decide we must have the light-up bouncy ball, when it is taken away from us, we suffer great emotional angst. Of course, this is nothing more than our own ridiculous desires turned against us. If we could wield our self-control such that our very desire for the light-up bouncy ball doesn’t sway our emotions, we could be happy no matter what come along. If.

So then, mortification is a forced detachment from the things that matter more to us than they should. I’m sure that Pope John Paul II liked a comfortable bed, but when he slept on the floor, he made himself rely on the bed less and rely on Christ more. He detached himself from the bed, so that he didn’t need it to be happy. When we’ve achieved that detachment, we can be happy in whatever circumstances we are in. Then like the men of the New Testament who suffered great persecution, we can rejoice in the great things that God has done for us even when the world seems to be ending.

Unfortunately, we are creatures made of flesh. Our desires are difficult to ignore just by concentrated effort. They can only be subjugated by making a habit out of mastering them. It is with practice that we can hone our desires and attitudes and emotionally suffer less though our physical sufferings remain. That is the goal of mortification – our happiness based firmly on the foundation of what really matters instead of on something as changeable as the weather. Truly, what matters most is our relationship with God, to remain in Him and He in us. If we have that, nothing else should bother us. It’s not that our sufferings aren’t real. We really feel the physical pain, and pain is a real evil that we sometimes must endure. It’s just that our happiness lies in God alone, not in our creature comforts.

Where am I with all this? I’m taking baby steps to mortify my creaturely desires. Right now, I’m having a difficult time controlling the urge to buy. Specifically the urge to buy yarn. That’s right. Yarn. It’s something that non-knitters/crocheters might have a hard time understanding, but it’s a well known addictive side effect of knitting. I see a skein of 40% alpaca, 35% merino wool, 25% silk, in a pearl gray hand dyed colorway and I start to drool. I imagine the lovely things that could be done with such a yarn. My world would be a better place, I’d be a happier person, a more patient mother, if I only had this yarn. But I am making an effort to control this seemingly ridiculous urge. I’m waiting to buy. I’m saving up spending money. I’m resisting the desire to load up the credit cards and hide the mail from Chris.

It’s maybe only half a baby step that I’m working on here, and I’m not doing all that well. I think the reason I fall so short so often is that I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to do things, the right thing to do, and I try very hard to work it all out. In the end, it’s me trying to work it all out. All too often, I’ve sidelined Christ as my guide instead of my strength. I’ve tried to get to know the person of Christ, to serve Him, to emulate Him. But it’s just me trying, and I’m not letting Him do the work. I confess I don’t spend nearly as much time as I should just with Christ. I haven’t made Him the light of my life, I’ve made Him the book light. I turn Him on when I want to look something up and figure something out.

Mortification teaches me that practice at denying my lesser desires will allow Christ to blossom as the center of my life. So then – small steps, little habits, repeated attempts. All on my to do list.

These lyrics are from Paul Inwood’s Center of my Life, and seem applicable:

“O Lord, you are the center of my life: I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight. Keep me safe, O God, I will take refuge in you. I say to the Lord, “You are my God. My happiness lies in you alone; my happiness lies in you alone.”


The Catholic Heart

May 4, 2009

In my semi-long absence, I’ve lost my trains of thought. I planned to update my thoughts on Redeeming Love since finishing it. I have several posts about Calvin’s use of the Church Fathers percolating. There’s a lot I’ve planned to write, but here’s what’s been on my mind recently: the heart of the Catholic Faith is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it’s beautiful.

What I mean is that the deep root of Catholicism is surrender to Christ. We are called to deny our selves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. (Matt 16:24,25) Seeking to be our own master is at the heart of our separation from God, and at the heart of reuniting us to Him is rejecting our own desires, submitting to God’s plan, and accepting His way for us in Christ. We are even called to submit to those in authority over us here on Earth, regardless of their behavior. Contrary to what Luther taught (see his bio), this includes those in authority over us in the Church here on Earth.

In the Catholic Faith, every belief, every practice, every prayer, is permeated with submission to God’s will. This is acted out in submission to Christ’s Church and His way for us here on Earth. It is a practical submission, whose efforts are not confined to the spiritual realm, nor are the commands to which we submit. Once the Catholic Church is recognized as Christ’s Church, the dogmas and practices of the Church are to be obeyed and believed as if Christ Himself is speaking to us. For the good Catholic, this includes attending mass every Sunday, believing in the Real Presence, going to confession and accepting penance, obeying your priest in matters of confidence and your bishop and Pope in matters of faith and morals. This includes not getting an abortion if you should find yourself inconveniently pregnant, or not giving into the temptation of homosexuality if that is present. The list goes on, but these are practical things that a faithful person may not always want to obey, but does, not for fear of men in an institution, but for love of our Lord and the desire to do His will instead of our own.

This submission carries over into the attitude that Catholics have in life. Remember when my manicurist asked if I was Catholic? It was because he recognized (or so I believe) my acceptance of God’s will in my family life and faith in His grace. The good Catholic surrenders control of their daily life to God, gladly accepts their calling, and does all work for the glory of God. If you need proof of this, consider the “Universal Call to Holiness”, Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva, Thomas A. Kempis, Brother Lawrence, and so many others. Also, like in no other faith, Catholics can accept struggles along the way because they put value in it! Every thing is offered to the Lord, so that we may be united to Christ in our suffering, and so become co-heirs and share in His glory. There is merit in our actions, value in our suffering, and reward for faithfulness, unlike anything acknowledged by the Reformed faith and Protestant theologies.

Some may not have read about my ecclesiastic past, so I’ll briefly describe my parent’s Word of Faith beliefs. Besides believing that there is power in words, by virtue of speaking them, Word of Faith-ers also generally believe in “name it, claim it” or “health and wealth” theologies. My parents deny this sort of theology that demands what it wants of God, yet they still believe since we are adopted sons and daughters of God, Christ has already suffered all that we must suffer and God’s riches are our inheritance in this life. They believe prosperity and health are for the taking, freely distributed by God to those who have enough faith, all for the purpose of His glory and to win converts. Although the Word of Faith ideas that my parents adhere to are extreme, I watch them live out such a violent resistance against the struggles in life. I believe this resistance is characteristic of Protestant faith. They lose any benefit they should gain from their struggles and fall into despair, believing that they should overcome their sins and afflictions in this world and not the next. I so much desire for my parents to find peace in these things that I believe they can only find as Catholics.

Protestants may have good intentions to submit to God’s will, and although there are good Protestants who may seek His will in all that they do, the beliefs and actions of the faith are not helpful and in fact hinder growth in surrender to Christ. Consider the once saved, always saved idea. Not only does this lead people to believe that they should be immediately and permanently changed, it nullifies the value of any efforts on their part to change after salvation. The struggle with sin becomes a struggle to prove your salvation experience was real, instead of a process of working out your salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). On a side note, I was listening to a Protestant radio show a couple weeks ago and found myself listening to the Catholic “saved and being saved” message of justification. It seems there are plenty of non-denominational Protestants returning to Catholic ideas to avoid Reformed pitfalls.

Catholics are more equipped to live out the imitation of Christ and share in His suffering because of the Catholic view of ongoing salvation. Our struggles not only unite us to Christ in our suffering, but we also become co-redeemers with Christ, by God’s grace and through the merit and sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Every step matters, and like a faithful marriage which can’t be called faithful unless it is faithful every day until death, faithfulness to Christ throughout our entire lives is what we must strive for. With this perspective, it becomes delightful to submit to your calling in life, and valuable to bear burdens of sickness and frustration, that we may have been justified and are justified still. Even in their darkest struggles, the good Catholic can say, like Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the good Catholics. Every religion will produce faithful followers and lazy followers. There are those who take their faith to heart and live out their beliefs. Then there are those who go through Sundays like most of us go through high school. All they were supposed to get out of it is lost, and they’re just happy to leave when the bell rings. The rules of any faith have a life of their own; it’s the personality of the institution, and it is seen in the best of the faithful. The form of Catholicism is seen in the Catholic saints. This is the heart of the Faith that I’m talking about.

The submissive Catholic heart is exemplified in one of her saints, Mother Teresa (obviously one of my favorites, and for this very reason). She experienced a call, in her early closeness to Jesus, to go and love the poor of India and to win souls for Jesus. She felt this call intensely and earnestly, but constantly sought the direction of her spiritual superiors – first her priest, then her bishop. In every step, she did her best to obey their advice, even in remaining silent and “forgetting” about her call for some time. I’ve since learned that this is a common Catholic test of the validity of a call in someone’s life. Those in authority test the spirit of those under them to see if they are obedient, the first sign that their call is from God. I can’t help thinking that if Martin Luther’s superiors tested him in such a way, that he failed miserably. Mother Teresa’s submissive faith continues in her later years, when she experiences a separation from the presence of God, she continues to follow His will for her faithfully. I want to be that kind of saint.


Responding to the Liturgy in Love and Unity

March 10, 2009

I’m not sure I have the delicacy or balance to be discussing the issue of orthodoxy in the Catholic liturgy. However, I have seen many extreme blog posts crying for orthodoxy, and none giving it balance urging acceptance of flaws in the Church community. I will make my best attempt to give such balance, and I beg from everyone that they not take offense. Any reference that may sound like you is not. I assure everyone that the issues I’m discussing are not just found in one or even a couple places.

There is a general cry among bloggers, especially of recent converts to Catholicism or those contemplating conversion, to have a strictly orthodox mass. There are complaints about semi-heretical music choices and flubbed wording in the liturgy. I have heard complaints about the “Judas shufflers” ducking out after communion, which happens to be my pet peeve. Worse, RCIA poorly catechizes initiates and they’re left with confused and vague notions of the Church. Most seriously, there are complaints about poor handling of the Eucharist. Since Vatican II relaxed many things including the liturgy, some believe those on the ground have taken the freedoms too far. Catholic parishes are accused of trying to be Protestant in their laxness and trendiness. Thankfully, Pope Benedict XVI seems to be fighting against this backlash from Vatican II.

This isn’t the whole story. There are plenty of people who love their bishops and I’m one of them. I love Archbishop Naumann and Bishop Finn, who both have urged the priorities of life and charity in their diocese. During election time, they were hugely vocal about pro-life issues, and even now they fight FOCA and similar legislation with a vengeance. More than ever during these economic hardships, they not only urge parishioners to share with their fellow man and give to the Archbishop’s Call to Share appeal, which supports programs and charities in the area (it has already exceeded its goal of $4 million), but they also urge those in need to come forward and give their brothers an opportunity to share with them. One of our priests gives regular homilies on being a proper Catholic, stressing personal encounter with Christ and sincere and complete observance in every expression of it. There are people doing it right, and people who want to do it right, including those bloggers crying for orthodoxy.

Besides those specific examples, the Church as a whole is getting things right. Running in online apologetic circles, I’m convinced more than ever that the insipid, passive, ignorant stereotype of all Catholics is just a stereotype and there are plenty of examples of those well-versed and passionate in the Faith. Also, the Church still stands against homosexuality, contraception, and abortion where all others have fallen by the wayside. Without a strong root of faith and the blessing of God working through His children, we would never see such positive fruit.

Still, there are those who would separate themselves from the failing liturgies and unorthodox communities. Many travel a long way to find an orthodox mass to attend. But why? Doing that is not addressing the problem. I believe it may even worsen the problem by removing those few who do carefully observe from the community that so desperately needs them. What is the motivation in such a case? I do not pretend to read the hearts of men and women, but if the motivation is selfish, so that said person can distance themselves from the rotten apples and experience the pleasure of orthodoxy, then the motivation is wrong. In all things, we must be motivated by love that is not inward-looking and divisive, but outward-looking and unitive.

Some may protest from their love for God that abuses in the liturgy dishonor Him, and scandalize others, making it difficult to worship Him. Honor and glory given to God is important in itself, but is this the sole purpose of the liturgy? Don’t we all profess the same creed and say the Lord’s prayer, partake of the same divine nature in the Eucharist, to preserve unity of the Faith and of the Body of Christ? Take care with this protest that your motivation is not pure legalism. The liturgy is designed to honor God, but I believe it is designed mostly to unify the Church in the Faith. Legalistic attitudes only destroy the purpose of the liturgy and divide the Body of Christ further.

Yet another reason everyone seems to be so passionate about orthodoxy in the liturgy is because it affects our Faith. This is how we are spiritually fed and how we maintain and pass on the beliefs of our Faith. But we must not make the mistake of thinking messy liturgy causes lazy faith, rather the opposite is true. The poorly catechized and careless individuals are the source of this complaint. We can’t just fix the liturgy when it is merely a symptom. Lack of faith in the people is the real problem, but separating ourselves from them is not the answer. Instead, we must work to strengthen the faith of others by being a good example, giving our fellowship, and volunteering to teach and serve them.

My primary concern is not checking what people are saying or doing, it’s checking the motivation behind their criticism. Our words and actions must be motivated by love, or the most perfect liturgy sounding of the “tongues of men and angels” is worth nothing. For easy reference, I’ve included the entire description of a response born in love below.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Maybe we should ask ourselves whether we want orthodox liturgy because it better honors God, or because it better serves a need to feel close to Him. In the latter case, we may be ignoring committed faith which overcomes that empty loss of the presence of God. This kind of faith has become vitally important for me since attending to the needs of my children make it nigh impossible to work up an emotional connect to God, especially during mass. Mother Teresa lived with this kind of emptiness for fifty years. She told Malcolm Muggeridge, who was suffering from the same:

Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you. He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have regarding His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.

In an article about Come Be My Light, we hear more about abandoning our feelings and working in commitment:

Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

I do understand that the liturgy is important, and if we are critical of it out of concern for the corporate Body of Christ and love for God, then there are certain actions available to us. The canon law says it is the duty of the priest to guard against abuses and ensure the nourishment of the faithful through “devout celebration”. It also declares the right of the faithful to take their opinions and needs to the priest, adding that we should act in concern for the common good of the Church and in reverence and obedience to the priest.

Canon 528 §2. He is to work so that the Christian faithful are nourished through the devout celebration of the sacraments and, in a special way, that they frequently approach the sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and penance. He is also to endeavor that they are led to practice prayer even as families and take part consciously and actively in the sacred liturgy which, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, the pastor must direct in his own parish and is bound to watch over so that no abuses creep in.

Can. 212 §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

§2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Can. 218 Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry and of expressing their opinion prudently on those matters in which they possess expertise, while observing the submission due to the magisterium of the Church.

Can. 223 §1. In exercising their rights, the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, must take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.

§2. In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful.

Throughout, we must be careful of our own behavior. Working for the common good means not only striving for the sanctification of your community through faithful observance, but also avoiding divisive and negative language toward the Church. If our efforts outlined above and our requests directed toward those in authority meet with overruling, we must submit quietly. Love and obedience guide the sound walk of the Catholic faithful. Above all, behave in a manner worthy of the gospel, and, in every thing we do, build up the Body of Christ.

The frustration of living with rejected efforts and careless liturgies may be hard to deal with, but take heart. St. Josemaria Escriva contemplates the dual-natured Body of Christ, that of humanity and that of divinity, in In Love with the Church. Perhaps he can help us see past the despairing treason in the Church, and love her, flaws and all.

In the visible body of the Church, in the behavior of men who make it up here on earth, we find weaknesses, vacillations, and acts of treason. But that is not the whole Church, nor is it to be confused with this unworthy behavior. On the other hand, here and now, there is no shortage of generosity, of heroism, of holy lives that make no noise, that are spent with joy in the service of their brothers in the faith and of all souls.

I would also like you to consider that even if human failings were to outnumber acts of valor, the clear undeniable mystical reality of the Church, though unperceived by the senses, would still remain. The Church would still be the Body of Christ, our Lord himself, the action of the Holy Spirit and the loving presence of the Father.

The Church is, therefore, inseparably human and divine…

It would be a serious mistake to attempt to separate the charismatic Church, supposedly the sole follower of Christ’s spirit, from the juridical or institutional Church, the handiwork of men, subject to historical vicissitudes. There is only one Church…

Faith, I repeat. Let us believe more, asking the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today, for greater faith. Anything can happen, except for the thrice holy God to abandon his spouse.

I believe we should approach the Church in the same way we approach marriage. A marriage based on unrealistic expectations is doomed to fail. One in which both partners are grounded in reality, aware of their duties and committed to them, and willing to overlook a good deal of imperfection is bound to be happy and fulfilling. Like in a marriage, we need things from the Church, but she needs us as well. Although we go to her so that our needs can be met, our duty is to perform our specific function with perfection. We must know our place and perfectly fulfill our call, trusting that Christ will fulfill his promise and meet our needs in return.

Despite the loss of orthodox liturgy, we are still needed to serve the broken Church in the hope of healing her. Your broken and sinful communities need you. If you know more about the faith than the RCIA instructor, get certified as a catechist, and volunteer to teach. Befriend your fellow Catholics, join the community, be a good example of how a devout Catholic should behave at mass. Request traditional songs of your choral director. I requested Latin hymns to the chagrin of our old choral director, but she complied. You may be surprised how God can use your effort.

I urge everyone, do not abandon your communities, do not rob them of your fellowship — you are needed right where you are! Don’t separate yourselves from them because they are not good enough. None of us are. Don’t grumble, and do not speak out of turn and correct those in authority over you unless it’s serious enough that the mass may not be valid. Be certain that you strive for personal perfection in the body of Christ because of a sincere and holy love for Christ and his Spouse, and not out of an obtuse legalism. When our motivation is always, first and foremost, love for God, and, secondly, love for our neighbor, then we will not go wrong.


My Paradigm Shift

January 5, 2009

At some point I realized I was using phrases like “us” and “our views” while referring to Catholicism. I wondered when I began thinking of myself on the Catholic side of the fence rather than the Protestant side. I can pinpoint the beginning of this paradigm shift to a lengthy debate with a friend of mine that recently abandoned his Christianity. He belonged to a form of Calvinism and drifted away slowly. Then he finally announced his rejection of Christianity in favor of embracing a new-age pantheistic view of the universe. He now believes in a holonomic theory of the universe in which all of matter consists of energy that is consciousness.

My friend said that his new views gave him freedom to love and forgive others and conquer his sins whereas Christianity never did this for him. He complained that Christians ignore inconsistencies in the Bible (which I’ve heard from a lot of people, but never had a compelling argument presented), use the fear of Hell to convert others, over-emphasize guilt and sin, and foster hateful attitudes towards others. The list goes on but those are the highlights.

A year before his denouncement of Christianity, I remember asking my friend would he lose his faith if the theory of evolution were true? His affirmative answer gave me worry. It was just one symptom in a series of problems that I have come to identify with the Protestant break from the Catholic Church. His problems constantly seemed to be rooted in sola scriptura coupled with bad interpretations. He would believe anything if he could find a verse or even a couple words together in the Bible to support a view. One example is the idea that you should only forgive people when they repent, which he got from the verse “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:3). I read this and see a command to not withhold forgiveness if someone repents, not a command to forgive only if they repent. An authoritative interpretation would do away with this kind of rampant Bible literalism that gives fundamentalists so much trouble with modern science.

In response to his accusation that Christians use the fear of Hell to win converts, Mother Teresa sprang to mind instantly. She was even criticized for not pushing conversion on the poor she worked with. She insisted on witnessing through actions by spreading the love of God. This is the general attitude that I find from Catholics, and I think the “win souls any way you can” attitude is strictly an evangelical downfall. It’s my theory that “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16) evangelism is a natural conclusion to being saved once and for all and by belief alone.

This salvation invention of Luther’s may also be the root of my friend’s other major objection: over-emphasis on sin and guilt. This is the epiphany of epiphanies for me. In reading Luther’s biography, “Luther the Reformer: The Man and his Career” I learned that all of Lutheran theology stems from belief in the total corruption of everything we do and are, which in turn came from Luther’s obsession with his own sins and the insufficiency of anything he did in front of a righteous God. While his fellow monks pointed Luther to the forgiveness of the cross, he instead came up with the following formula for salvation: Our salvation depends on our faith in Christ (i.e. belief that he is the Son of God who died for our sins), our faith depends on repentance and knowledge of our state as a sinner. Therefore, says Luther, “always a sinner, always repentant, always righteous”. Ironically, in a self-reliant effort to escape from his sinful state, Luther instead emphasized his sinfulness and elevated it to the basis for his own salvation. But his illogical and fruitless method of finding righteousness through belief and repentance alone left his followers despondent. They have no arsenal in the ongoing battle against sin to become like Christ.

Just previous to these discussions with my friend, I had read “Counterfeit Revival” by Hank Hanegraaf. His well researched history of Pentecostalism made me sick to my stomach about the shady persons initiating the charismatic renewal, a movement I had unknowingly been a part of from the ages seven to seventeen. I learned from this book the importance of knowing the history of things and the damage that can be done with Bible literalism, especially when things are taken out of context. So when these other issues came up in discussions with my friend, I was primed to take refuge in Catholic beliefs, starting to claim them as my own. Sola scriptura crumbled, authority of the Church rose from obscurity, and the practices of the Church started making so much sense in light of errors that were possible when you try to do things a different way. Chris says that if it’s anything like his conversion, this paradigm shift of mine is like getting over the top of the hill, and it’s all a fast roll down from here.


Self-driven Faith

December 29, 2008

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.