Last night I conducted a sort of thought-experiment. I imagined my daughter asking me what some aspect of Catholicism meant, how she was to understand it, what its relevance was to living a meaningful life.
First, I thought of the major figures and events of the Old Testament. I imagined telling my daughter that each of these stories was meant to convey a certain moral.
The Creation story is meant to remind us that we are made in the image of God, that we have that of God in us (as Quakers would say). Also, this story shows how it is human nature to always want more, since even living in paradise, Adam and Eve are shown to be dissatisfied. The consequences, of course, were dire, and the point of the story is that we should cultivate contentment, that learning to be content with where we are in life without constantly wanting something different or something more, is the key to a return to paradise.
Noah was given instructions from God that made no sense. He was ridiculed for building a giant arc no where near a water source. And yet, his dedication to being in tune with God, willing to listen for God's inspiration regardless if it is what we expect to "hear", led to him being the only one prepared to endure the legendary flood. The story also highlights the importance of the various members of the animal kingdom, as God desired for all of them to be saved along with the humans.
The tower of Babel shows that our different languages, cultures, religions serve to divide us, limiting our ability to work together towards a goal. Of course, the goal of the people in the story was to worship an idol, hardly a task worthy of enlightened persons. But the underlying point is that God originally wanted us to work together - it wasn't until the people in the story proved to try to use their community for bad that God put a stop to their nonsense. So with the right joint goal, it can be said that God wants us to work together and transcend the superficial differences of our societies.
Sarah and Abraham didn't receive their mission in the story of the Hebrew (and later Jewish) people until an old age. This goes to show that we are never too old to make a contribution, to do something worthwhile. (I absolutely refuse to engage in the other part of the story, child sacrifice.)
Moses led his people wandering around for generations. I think this is indicative of another aspect of the human condition. We search, we seek, we want to find God, even if we seem to constantly mess up along the way.
The proverbs are mini morality lessons, Cliff notes without the whole myth or legend to dig through. Just the bare pearls of wisdom.
Psalms and - one of my favorite books of the Bible - Isaiah are not so much stories with morals as they are expressions of praise and worship and adoration towards our wonderful creator. When we cannot find the words ourselves, we can turn to these books and find a reminder about how awe-inspiring God is, how miraculous life is.
Even the utterly tear-inducing borefest of Leviticus can be valuable. It shows in minute detail how one people - the ancient Hebrews - expressed their spirituality. The detail with which they tried to please God is noteworthy, even if not relevant to modern times or gentile people.
Next, as far as the New Testament, I strongly believe that Christianity is a religion started by Paul, who took advantage of Jesus's teachings and popularity and twisted it according to his own spiritual understanding. As such, I see little value in placing much of what's written there on the "truth spectrum". Even so, there is certainly plenty to be gained from the stories found there.
One of the values of the gospels can be found in what they have in common. That which is repeated, well, apparently bares repeating. The teachings that are attributed to Jesus, regardless if he actually taught them, stand alone. Each of Jesus's teachings can be taken to heart and applied to our modern lives. If we struggle with guilt or grudges, Jesus insists on our repentance and assures us of our forgiveness. If we struggle with keeping the various commandments, he breaks it down for us to the core, so we know what the motivation behind our thoughts, words, and actions ought to be. If we are stuck in a constant competition, comparing ourselves to others, Jesus reminds us what's important instead.
I really like the way Quakers are stereotypically said to hone down their values: integrity, peace, simplicity, equality, community, stewardship. Jesus not only teaches these things through his sermons, but he lives them and exemplifies them through the stories about him.
The incarnation story takes place in the womb of an unlikely candidate. A woman, a young girl really, is elevated to the role of God-bearer and later (in Catholic and Orthodox theology anyway) Queen of Heaven. Equality. In the story of the nativity, Jesus is born in a barn among hay and animals. Simplicity. He travels around with his disciples, and he slowly expands the circle of his audience to include gentiles. Community. He dines with people no respectable person would dine with. Equality and peace. His passion, crucifixion, and death are an incredible testament to his integrity and commitment to peace. He has opportunities to change what he preaches, to go back on what he's said, in order to save his life but he doesn't. Even stewardship can be found in how he alludes to the lessons we should take from nature - the sparrow who doesn't collect into barns yet is fed, the wildflower that doesn't spin yet is marvelously clothed. Nature, it would seem, is there to teach us, not to be trampled on.
I also like how the Rosary gives each of the main events of the story of Jesus a core value or spiritual gem to ponder. These vary somewhat depending on the source, but include gratitude for the gift of faith, fidelity, desire for holiness, spiritual courage, and love for the Eucharistic Lord (Luminous Mysteries instituted by pope St John Paul the Great). That last one is clearly Catholic-specific, but we can easily simplify it to "love of God". (The Joyful Mysteries encourage us to ponder: humility, love of neighbor, poverty of spirit, purity of mind and body, and obedience. The Sorrowful Mysteries: acceptance of God's will, mortification of the senses, reign of Christ in our heart [Quakers would say "Christ within", or "God within"], patient bearing of trials, and pardoning of injuries. The Glorious Mysteries: faith, hope, gifts of the Holy Spirit [ability to be inspired by God], "to Jesus through Mary" [value in intersession], and grace of final perseverance.)
Finally, I also considered the regular ritual practice of mass attendance in my thought experiment. I continue to participate regularly with my husband and daughter in spite of having completely made peace with the fact that I am no longer Christian. Nonetheless, I am staying put on Sundays because there is still much spiritual wealth in the practices, even if my understanding of them is different from the "official" beliefs.
We gather together regularly for the very basic human need to form community. We sing, pray, and hopefully learn together, as well as contribute financially to the greater good. These acts remind us of our social nature and that we have a place in the community.
The stories of the Old and New Testament are read and expounded upon, so even those who never crack open the Bible on their own have the benefit of being exposed to the moral lessons discussed above.
But as Catholics, the center of our worship is the Eucharist. I have never stopped feeling something special about being in the presence of the Eucharist. It has been ingrained in me, and I welcome having this opportunity to still link to my old Catholic faith. Yes, God is everywhere, but when something is too wide-spread, it loses its appeal. When something is overdone, it stops being special. That's why we celebrate birthdays, holidays. They are special days set aside to remember someone or something worth remembering. That's not to say we shouldn't remember them any other day. But without that special designation, everything becomes mundane.
And so, being able to step foot in a Catholic church, stand in front of the tabernacle, and become aware of the enveloping silence around me, I'm able to truly come to grips with the fact that I am standing on holy ground. I am in the presence of God. It's not that this place is more holy than any other place, or that God is more present here than anywhere else. But the reminder makes it very real for me.
Then, we are invited not just to be in God's presence, but to actually come up and receive holy Communion. We are being allowed to physically experience the spiritual reality of God being a part of us. There is that of God in all of us. Literally. Not only that, but watching others receive Communion reminds me that each and every one of these people is made in the image of God, has that of God in them. I don't have to know them, agree with them, or even like them. God made them and lives in them all the same. What a beautiful reminder!
And then, at the end of Mass, we are told to go forth and take what we've learned, what we've experienced, into the world. So in a sense, we are told to include everyone we meet or come in contact with in this realization that God lives in them too. And so we are encouraged not to limit our experience of God to this time and place, but to have our weekly church attendance nourish our souls for the week, so that we can stand in the presence of God on the street, in our living room, under a tree, stuck in traffic, in an elevator, in line at the store, in the waiting room at the doctor's, and remember how God is there with us, in the people around us.
The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that it occurred to me halfway through that by just framing the Catholic teachings as "stories" and the "sacraments" as "ritual reminders", all of a sudden I don't experience my defenses kicking in, resulting in a blockage to gaining any spiritual benefit from any of it. Instead, I'm able to hear the deeper meaning and grow spiritually. As a Spiritual Independent, in the Catholic tradition.