Fallowing the advice of a fellow ACNM contributor, in this post I am going to talk a little bit about my conversion and the differences I see between Catholic and most Protestant theologies. Obviously this will take more than a single post. In fact I am uncertain how many posts I eventually make about this. Since I suspect there will be sequels I dub this post Catholicism 101 Part I: A Sacramental World.
While I have only been a Catholic now for coming up on three years my first encounter with the heart of the faith came much earlier. This came my Junior year of college through a good friend and housemate we will call Mary.
Mary had lost her mother to cancer the summer before that year. It was a very tough time for her in general but some nights she seemed less at peace than others. One night I could sense Mary was feeling the weight of the world. I asked her if she wanted to talk about and she refused. I suggested perhaps we should escape for a night, maybe go see a movie. Mary considered this but instead she suggested something different. We checked out a DVD at the blockbuster off of campus and snuck back to a “private place” to watch it.
Marys secret hide away turned out to be the third floor of the university Catholic center. The UCC would have been locked and abandoned that night but because she was a trusted UCC leader she had her own key to the building.
When we passed the second story creeping up the UCC stairs I noticed Mary’s posture and spirit instantly change. She became very quite and motioned for me to stay silent. She stopped and genuflected to one side of the stair well. For a moment I felt a strange calm come over me. For a moment I could see the weight of the world lifted from her shoulders. Slowly Mary began to lead me again, but it was only on the third floor she began to speak again.
I don’t remember exactly what Mary said but in general she tried to explain inside that little box we had just passed was the real physical presence of the body of Christ. I remember my response well, “You keep little chunks of undead Jesus flesh in a box?. …that’s a little creepy.”
In my defense, it is a little strange isn’t it. Catholics believe something that can be not be confirmed by any of their mortal senses nor fully comprehended by the mortal mind. We can only sort of feel its presence. The feeling is real enough for the non-believer and it is real enough for a grieving daughter whose mother has gone too soon. But that feeling is so strange to us. It is different it is holy.
If you are ever struggling to make a convert, don’t. Take them there. Let them feel it. Be reasy though they may find all of this reverence for “bread in a box” a little hard to grasp. They might call it creepy, they might call it strange. A good number of well meaning Christians simply call it idolatry. Where does all of this controversy really come from? Well in fact when someone accepts that Christ can truly be present in bread and wine their entire world view must change.
The Catholics and a few others (Episcopalians for one) are sacramental churches. They are founded on a sacramental world view. You have probably heard the seven sacraments these are seven times the church guarantees the presence of Christs grace. But does it mean for a church to recognize the sacraments. As a wise woman once told me it means God gets involved in the stuff in our lives. He’s in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. Hes touching the water of baptism. He blesses the sacred oils that anoint the sick. He’s right there with this Oil, Bread, Water and all this other stuff.
Before you can appreciate why Catholics need this world view perhaps lets consider the alternatives. How would be find God if he kept his hands off our stuff? Let just suppose God made all the earth and the heavens visited us twice (Prophets and Jesus) and then left. “Peace out everyone, read this book I’ll see you when your dead!” He just stopped touching all our blasphemous stuff. Well that would be a big fat who cares.
One day we will die, so I guess we would have to pray at least once for that. But in the mean time we are pretty well insulated from that God aren’t we. We are completely surrounded and absorbed in this stuff Jesus will never touch. In a way this world view sounds like true Idolatry. Your giving the physical forms you sense and touch more power over your real life than the creator will ever have. He is the great vague out there and your living in the very concrete hear and now.
But you could also take the other extreme. If God can work through the stuff why don’t we just assume God is in all the stuff. God is universally present everywhere. The whole galaxy and everything in it is an immense sign of God. Indeed it would be a sign so vast no one could ever read it.
How can you form a personal relationship to the universe? Can we disappoint the universe? If God sent his voice through the burning everything would that even make a sound? This world view ends in total confusion. I had an Atheist once tell me it was wrong for Christians to think that humanity was special. Everything in the universe had some value so who where we to say anything was more sacred than anything else. How could we therefore say that a human life is more precious than a stone. When it becomes difficult to see it is better to break a stone than kill a child it is clear your world view has become an abstract mess.
To understand God he had to set aside special sacred stuff that we could focus on and we would know pointed towards him. So by his grace he did that. Each of the sacraments teaches us about Christ.
Christ to watches over the leaders and traditions of our church. Holy Orders are sacred. Christ calls all people to be born anew. Baptism is sacred. Christ calls all of us to become members of one community on earth. Confirmation is sacred. Christ is forgiving and washes away our sin. Reconciliation is sacred. Christ brings us together to bind our flesh and produce new abundant life. Marriage is sacred. Christ brings honor to the sick and the suffering. Anointing the sick is sacred. Christ has made himself a total gift to us. The Eucharist is sacred.
But a Sacramental world view goes beyond the big seven. These are only the signs that the church guarantees are available to everyone. God may touch you life through any thing he chooses. He was present to Saint Francis through many animals. Nature is Sacred. Many find God particularly present at the location of Marian shrines. Mary is Sacred. God may become present in your life through the breeze on a warm summer day. Time is Sacred. Be ready for these experiences and recognize them when they come. These are your (small s) sacraments. From this springs the joy of a sacramental world view.
My challenge to you this week is to take some time to pray for greater awareness of Christs presence in the stuff in your life. When God makes your heart open to these sacred mysteries it will no longer be the Eucharist that feels strange. It is your new life that has become strange. How strange it is that this love beyond our comprehension is now an active participant in the stuff of our life. Never cease to wonder at this beautiful mystery.