Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Sacramental Life

Candice, this is the second major reason for my "reversion." It is, admittedly, the more personal aspect (though it also has strong theological underpinnings). I had reached a point (reaching 50 did it, I guess) where I longed for a more direct experience of God in my life. An intellectual sort (have you noticed?) I knew a lot after years of Biblical study, pondered much, read widely. But I wanted more of a heart relationship as well as the head relationship. And for all the talk among evangelicals about 'having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,' I wasn't feeling it as fully as I wished. Not that I was cold, or dry, or anything like that. I had a deep inner life. I knew there was more. I read (of course) the work of poet-scholar-pacifict Thomas Merton, an intellectual and Trappist monk from the 1950s-60s (who went to Columbia University as I did) and I developed, in my imagination, a friendship with him. His exploration of the contemplative life, recorded in his extensive journals and letters, moved me. And I began to read more of the Catholic mystics - Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and others - with a clear (and cautiously skeptical) mind. I learned new ways to pray - not getting weird, not at all - but discovering ancient Christian ways of reading Scripture (lectio divina) and praying as developed by the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers and Mothers. I went on retreats to monasteries and was struck by the rhythm of the Divine Office and the chanting of the Psalter. I wasn't thinking of becoming Catholic - just becoming a deeper believer with a stronger connection to my spiritual heritage. But to my astonishment, I was indeed becoming more Catholic in my sensibilities. I began to think less about "having a relationship with Christ" and more about "being in union with Christ," which is more Biblical (as it turns out) and a conceptual step above mere 'friendship' with Christ (a term
I hear more from Catholics than Protestants, by the way). This 'union' is wonderfully intimate, to the point where marriage itself is a physical - yes, sacramental - metaphor for the union Christ desires to have with us and His Bride, the Church. The way this union is maintained - no, deepened - is through the sacraments, which are physical 'contact points' with Him. Call them 'portals to the divine' if you like, as long as it doesn't get science-fictiony.

But this is only one aspect of 'sacramental' spirituality. The other is in seeing all of life as sacramental, in a way - where the extraordinary glory and goodness and grace of God can be apprehended in the ordinary if one is paying attention, building awareness, staying quiet long enough to listen. It's a holy mindfulness of God at work around us all the time - if we'd only detach ourselves from all our distractions to notice. This is not woo-woo stuff. It's about being fully awake. It's about recognizing the unseen in what is seen. And this is why 'the sacraments' are so physical. God is invested in matter (He made it and called it good) and uses material things to signify what is eternal. So water is used in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, and so on. I'll answer your questions about specific sacraments another day.

For now, let me conclude by saying I began watching certain speakers on EWTN such as Dr. Scott Hahn and I'd think, "These guys sound like evangelicals!" when in fact I was becoming more Catholic. As it turns out, many of these guys were once devout evangelicals - most of them pastors - who had become Catholic through a similar journey as mine. I re-read CS Lewis and realized how Catholic he was (he nearly became one but opted to remain "Anglo-Catholic," a highly sacramental Anglican who went to confession weekly and had a private devotion to Mary that few people know about). I discovered that many of my favorite literary figures were Catholic or Catholic converts. What is happening to me? I asked with some measure of distress. So I explored my traditional stumbling-blocks - many of which you've mentioned in your questions and I'll get to them later - and these got resolved. I finally gathered the courage to attend Mass, I sat in the back row trembling - and was transported.

Next time, I'll begin to address the things Protestants typically find 'wrong' or 'unbiblical' about the Catholic Church. At some point, I'll address what honest non-believers have a problem with regarding Christian faith in general. Thanks for your patience.

Grace and peace.


PiresPortugal Neo-Machiavelli, Serip said...

Where is the diference bettween catolic sacraments and magic initiation?

johnny dangerous said...

Hello, Wip (short for Work-In-Progress, perhaps?):
This is a good question because, from the outside, they may look similar. The Romans certainly thought so, believing the Christian movement to be akin to other 'mystery religions' that had secret rites of initiation. The bull-cult of Mithras, for example, popular among soldiers, involved bathing in the blood of a sacrificed bull as a way to acquire the animal's strength. Cults of Dionysus involved wine - and orgies. When rumors spread that the cult of "Christos" involved eating the flesh and drinking the blood of its deity, well, it sounded like just another kooky fad or worse, a subversive cult of cannibalism. How wrong they were. But based on a lack of information, they thought that things that looked similar were indeed the same. This is a common logical fallacy - and the assumption behind your question, too. But here are the two main differences: First, the most obvious difference is that the sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself. Anyone who takes Him seriously will take the sacraments seriously as the very best way by which we are drawn closer to Him. They are means by which we share in His very life and "abide in Him," becoming more like Him. That's a lot different from 'initiation' rites. Baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist (which all go together)may appear to be an 'initiation,' and in a limited sense of the definition I guess they are. But the more accurate term is that they are signs of adoption in the family of God, sharing in God's very life and an intimate union with Christ himself. The Catholic Church does have something called RCIA, "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults" which is like a course meant for those who wish to "enter full communion" with the Catholic Church, ending with their baptism and receiving the Eucharist on Easter. So the sacraments are involved in their 'initiation' which was actually a longer process. In the ancient church, the process for 'catechumens' was quite lengthy. Anyway, the difference may be plainer in my second point: "magic" of any sort is an attempt to access and manipulate natural forces in order to control them (I wrote a book about druids and know a little about this). Sacraments, by contrast, are means by which believers participate in the life of the Creator of all natural forces. Can you see the difference? Magic, ultimately, is all about power. The sacraments (and the Christian faith in general) are not about acquiring power in any worldy, natural or material sense. Quite the opposite. The 'power' of the sacraments is all about receiving God's own strength in order to grow in faith, hope, and love (and love is the opposite of power, since it never seeks its own advantage). So in conclusion, the 'appearance' of similarity doesn't mean they are - this is a commmon logical fallacy. Here's something worth considering: many magic/occult practices openly mimic or mock Christian practices, and one must wonder what forces are really at work in them.

Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience said...

This was a fascinating, enlightening post regarding sacramental living: seeing God in all things. As a Protestant evangelical, I deeply appreciate and understand in part, the story of your faith journey.

Your story changes and compels my own.

With humble thanks,
All's grace,

Ann Voskamp