Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Worship in spirit and in truth

Originally, I intended to end my mini-series of "why do I believe" with some Catholic apologetics addressing common Protestant objections to Catholicism - the papacy, Marian theology, the Eucharist, salvation through faith AND works.... but in the interest of total integrity, I have to say that I cannot, in good conscience, post what I originally planned to post.

After my time away from Catholicism, church-hopping to various denominations and even considering non-Christian religions, when I finally decided that the Lord was calling me home and I reverted back to Catholicism, it was for a reason.

I chose to return to Catholicism because it was the only Christian faith I was familiar with at the time that had a sense of the sacred in it's public worship.  I based this on my memory of Mass from Poland and the Polish parish where I received my First Confession and Communion.  For some reason, I managed to turn a blind eye to the way I've experienced Mass at the American parishes I've attended.

Protestantism taught me a lot about Christ, and I am very grateful for the Protestant Christians who have helped me along the way on my journey.  They are the ones who introduced me to the Bible.  They are the ones who showed me how to speak openly about my faith.  They are the ones who presented to me Jesus as a person I can relate to.  I did not learn any of this in the Catholic church.  I think part of it was that faith was not discussed in my household, so nothing I heard at church about faith was reiterated at home.  If anything, God and Mary were mentioned in passing as a matter of course, but there was no family prayer, not even grace.  I was sent to religious education classes, and only in preparation for the sacraments (First Communion/Confession and later Confirmation), where I was to learn whatever I needed to learn about God.  It was not discussed at home.

My great-grandmother, a pious and holy woman, with her altar in her room, her regular listening to Catholic Radio, her support of her parish, and her living out her life in humility, purity, obedience, and hard work, was often ridiculed by her own relatives for turning the other cheek.  Being taken advantage of seemed to be the worst sin in my household.  We were to be too proud to let anyone take advantage of us. My great-grandmother kept quietly to herself, never preaching with words, and yet being the main witness to Christ-like living for me.  But because it was not something that was discussed, my faith became much like that of my other family members - taken for granted, not explored deeper, boiled down to a minimum set of obligations and an attempt to live a moral life with no reference whatsoever to Jesus's example.

So I do have to give a shout-out to the American Protestants who filled in the gaps in  my religious formation.  Having said that, there was a deep sense of something missing whenever I would worship in a Protestant church.  There was exciting and motivating preaching, there was emotionally pleasing music, there was tons of opportunity for fellowship.... but at what point during the Protestant service did I get to meet God?  When did I get to stand in the presence of the Holy One and pay Him homage?  When did I get to feel His divine presence?  Did I worship God through listening to the sermon?  Did I worship God through the singing and clapping and swaying back and forth?  Did I worship God by mingling with fellow believers?

Perhaps the closest I ever came to experiencing God in a Protestant setting was through the music, and yet this was so very incomplete for me, after having experienced Jesus in the Eucharist all those years.  At best, I felt like I was worshipping in Old Testament times.  And actually, the sermons very often seemed to focus on Old Testament readings, which didn't seem right in a Christian church.

In search of the solitude I longed for, I turned to Quakerism.  The theology of the Friends really resonated with me, and I looked forward to simply sitting with them in communal silence when we met for worship.  But sooner rather than later, I found that now the pendulum had swung the other way.  I missed being able to experience my faith with my senses.  God gave me vision so that I could gaze upon beautiful images that told the story  of our salvation.  God gave me hearing so that I could bask in the joy of music.  God gave me the sense of smell so that I could so easily link the scent of a candle or incense with childhood memories of my faith.  God gave me the sense of taste so that I could experience Jesus even this way, through the Eucharist, feeling the Host melting on my tongue.  God gave me the sense of touch so that I could handle Rosary beads as I pray and feel the dampness of my fingertips after dipping them in holy water and then gently touching my forehead, chest, and shoulders in the sign of the cross (reminding me that God demands from me my mind, my heart, and my body - me in totality).  God gave me the possibility of movement so that I could worship Him with my whole body - standing, sitting, kneeling, shaking hands, bowing, genuflecting, lifting my hands in prayer.  Not using  my entire body to worship God seemed like I was telling God that I would limit the extent to which I would glorify Him.

I realized that neither extreme of Protestantism would work for me.  I then attended an Anglican church for several months, thinking it might be a nice middle-of-the-road compromise, enjoying the sermons and the music, having the opportunity for a bit of ritual, receiving communion even.  But alas, there was no silence, and communion was nothing more than a symbol.  I did not feel God's presence there either.

I returned to the Catholic church.  Alex and I found a Franciscan church whose spirituality really resonated with us.  We've gotten involved with various ministries - immigration, foreclosure crisis, environmental justice, support for childless couples.  This is the first church where I know people, and the priests know me by name.  Not since I was at the Polish parish in the US as a child did I have a sense of fellowship in a Catholic church.  So now I have it all, right?

It is with much regret that I have to admit that the silence that I remembered having, the reverence that I remember experiencing, the presence of God that I once knew only in a Catholic church... well, it's all hard to come by even at our great church.  In the interest of friendliness, people chat casually before and after Mass, right there in the sanctuary.  Our pastor seems to err on the side of approachability, using very informal language wherever he can get away with it.  Hardly anyone genuflects or even bows before the Eucharist, not to mention that most seem to receive Holy Communion in their hands, hands that just a few minutes before handled cash as they placed it in the collection basket.  There isn't even a proper adoration chapel associated with our church.  The church that spurred me on my church-hopping days due to various negative experiences at least had a dedicated 24 hour adoration chapel.  It is there that I find myself going now, when I want to sit in the presence of Jesus.

My mother, bless her heart, doesn't seem to have more than a single spiritual bone in her body.  Just the other day she told me that she doesn't understand why people convert.  You should just be whatever religion you were born, go to church, try to be a good person, and be done with it.  I finally realize that converting her may be a lost cause, and maybe it's not even necessary.  The God I believe in loves her for her sacrifices, for her virtues, and forgives the sins she - like everyone else - commits. I do not fear for her soul.  I believe that we will be together in heaven.  But this side of heaven, I cannot ignore my spiritual longing.  I apparently take after my great-grandmother in that we are both essentially spiritual beings.

So while I do not necessarily jump for joy at the thought of yet another leg to my spiritual journey (for I truly assumed that I was finally home), I have to be true to the urging of my heart.

If my search has been about finding a place to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24), then I can't say that I've necessarily found that place yet.  "In truth" I believe refers to the fact that there are true teachings and false teachings, and we must find ourselves worshiping according to the truth, as revealed by Jesus.  This aspect of my journey has brought me back to Catholicism because I believe it is closer to the Truth than any Protestant faith.  It has what Protestants have stripped away - the Liturgy, the Eucharist, the Tradition  (Paul said, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (2 Thessalonians 2:15)). Catholicism recognizes the very human need and nature of ritual, and that it is not somehow intrinsically evil.  Without going into Catholic apologetics, suffice it to say that I've mulled over every Protestant objection to Catholicism, and ended up seeing the truth with Catholicism every time.

"In spirit" I believe refers to the fact that one experiences God's presence during worship.  God is spirit, so how can we experience God if not spiritually?  I will not deny the presence of the Holy Spirit in many Protestant churches, where the faithful are compelled to lift their closed eyes and open arms towards heaven as they praise God.  Surely, they experience God's presence.  And yet, Psalm 46:10 reminds us to also just be in the presence of God in order to understand who He is and who we are in relation to Him.  Here, I will break with my tradition of using the New American Standard translation of the Bible (used by Catholics) and instead use the New King James Version: "Be still and know that I am God."  It's interesting that a Protestant version of the Bible uses the phrase "be still" when in fact the majority of their corporal worship does not include any stillness, silence, or reflection whatsoever.  But alas, as I've come to realize, neither do most of the Catholic Masses I encounter nowadays.

So what am I to do?  I know I can't return to the Protestant side for answers, because I've already gone that path and am satisfied that I've gained all that I will gain from Protestantism.  And yet, I have not considered, as it turns out, all expressions of Christian faith; it had never occurred to me - until now - to look into Eastern Orthodoxy and in particular, Eastern rite Catholicism.

1 Corinthians 1:10

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.

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