How do I put this? I feel a little bit stuck in limbo.
In a normal year (I am so tired of thinking about this, but here we are again), RCIA would be in-person. We’d have the class once a week, and then afterwards if people wanted we could go out for drinks and discuss, or at least chat in the parking lot before heading home for the night. It’s easier to wrestle that way, and it’s easier to engage when you’re “offline”, outside of the formal time of learning. We’d also see each other at Mass on Sundays, and maybe we’d double back after the benediction to talk more, discuss more. Everything would be woven together into the fabric of life.
On a zoom call, the discussion is over as soon as you click the little red button. It’s very abrupt.
There’s something anti-sacramental, really, about Zoom meetings. They take us further from reality rather than deeper into it. And the whole draw of this Catholic thing is the sacraments. If we’re not here for those, what are we here for? The water, the bread, the wine, the oil—pictures of them, words about them, are no substitute at all for receiving them.
The senses matter in Catholicism; the body matters.
And besides that, we can’t go to Mass—at least, not yet. And that’s been a major handicap to experiencing what the Church does and believes. Lex orandi lex credendi is a handy Latin phrase which means, roughly, that the Church “believes what it prays”. But how to believe with the Church when we’re not praying with the Church? So much is expressed in the Church’s liturgy, architecture, dress, song, incense, and so on. When all we have is talk, language, something is lost.
I’m tired of talking about it; I just want to do it.
This basic frustration has led the three of us to a sort of exhaustion. I’m not even sure what RCIA is about right now. What are we doing here?
This is more of a “processing” post rather than a complete thought, so I hope readers will bear with me.
The focus on RCIA this morning was on Mary, who has been my main focus for the past couple weeks, first as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then more generally.
I was somewhat surprised to learn today that since Vatican II, the Church has been choosing to emphasize more the humble origins and humanity of Mary. Mary was (and is!) an ordinary Jewish girl, poor, of humble origins. By choosing to emphasize this fact, the Church foregrounds what it holds in common with its separated Protestant brothers and sisters. That isn’t to say that the Church no longer considers Mary to be immaculately conceived, Mother of God, Perpetual Virgin, or any of the (many) other titles she has accumulated over the centuries. But it seems most fitting at this moment in time to focus on her more relatable attributes.
That makes sense to me! But it also made me wonder: so, have I become too devoted to Mary? I pray the Rosary. I have a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I like to think about her and talk to her. I like those parts of becoming Catholic. What’s more, I’ve heard convincing explanations of the four Marian dogmas and I believe them! And I just wrote a post about how I can almost call Mary co-redemptrix, something that my RCIA director (I think unfairly) condemned as heresy today. So . . . that was weird.
Part of the irony here is that I’m a Protestant-becoming-Catholic in an era when the Catholic Church is trying to be more conciliatory with the various Protestant churches. So while the Church is soft-pedaling some of its more distinctive doctrines in order to make dialogue with Protestants more agreeable, I’m over here running the other direction trying to encourage Protestants to think more theologically about Mary. So . . . that’s weird too.
Anyway, I suppose I can see the danger of going “off the deep end” with Marian devotion: praying the Rosary at Mass, for example, or going to Mary exclusively instead of to Jesus through her intercession. That makes sense to me, though I don’t feel myself in any particular danger of those things. But I suppose, having only recently cultivated an ongoing devotion to Mary, being told by my (female!) RCIA director to exercise caution when it comes to Marian devotion just hits kind of funny.
I’d be curious to hear from more cradle Catholics what Marian devotion meant to them as a child and whether it plays any ongoing role in their spiritual life today. I feel like I got one angle on Mary today, a different one than I’m used to, but I’m sure there’s more than just my perspective and that of my director.
Our RCIA director is a good doctor of the soul. She began our first session with the question: “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘grace’?”
All three of us gave a variation of the same answer:
Grace, said one of us, is when my spouse is patient with me even though I’m being annoying.
Grace, said another, is when God gives you something good even though you don’t deserve it.
Grace, said the third, is Jesus dying on the cross even though I’m a sinner.
Isn’t it weird that all three of us understood that “even though” as being essential to grace? I had never noticed it before, but it had been the same arrangement of theological furniture in nearly every “room” I’d ever been in: the doctrine of grace was always situated next to the doctrine of sin. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t conceive of one without the other.
I realized then that, whether it was among liberal mainliners, who tend to conceive of sin in structural or systemic terms, or among conservative evangelicals, who tend to think of sin as an irreparable defect in the fallen human heart, nearly every sermon I’d heard on grace was first and foremost a sermon about sin. In order to understand God’s grace, I first needed to understand human depravity, whether my own or just in general.
“Amazing grace,” so that most famous hymn goes, “that saved a wretch like me.”
Anyone who’s been raised in Protestant worship services can think of countless reiterations of this, whether they be in the old hymns or the latest Hillsong album.
God is amazing, I am terrible.
You’re so good, I’m so bad.
This sort of attitude isn’t just a problem of bad hymns or bad catechesis—it’s a pretty foundational Protestant understanding of the word.
The Reformers, eager as they were to counter the “works-righteousness” they saw in 16th-century Catholicism, brought the doctrine of grace under the heading of justification. We are not saved by our works (by anything we do) but by the grace of God. We have no righteousness in us at all, but righteousness has been imputed to us by God in Jesus. God sees us, as I heard many a time, through “Jesus-colored glasses”. Grace is God’s loving us even though we don’t have a righteousness of our own. Grace is Jesus dying on the cross even though we are wretches, sinners—as Calvin would have it, totally depraved.
I have heard this so many times, I could go on and on without much effort.
Our director is a very good Vatican II Catholic, so she’s eager to speak well of Protestantism as much as possible. However, here she just shook her head and smiled, as if she had a bit of good news for us.
“So, what you’ve all said is a bit foreign to me, but it’s something I hear from nearly every Protestant who comes to RCIA. When Catholics talk about grace—I mean, yeah, sometimes we might talk about not deserving it—but most of the time, whether or not we deserve it isn’t really that important. St. John tells us that God is love; it’s the same thing with grace. Grace is basically God’s eternal giving of himself to us. It’s an essential part of God’s nature, so whether or not we deserve that gift is not really an important part of the doctrine.”
I had read the word “grace” plenty of times before in the breviary and the catechism and other Catholic sources, so I was familiar with what she meant. When Catholics speak about grace, it tends to be about seeing God’s presence in all things, or receiving an unexpected gift, or having a fresh insight into God’s goodness. I’ve experienced grace, for example, when, during a long walk, I feel enchanted by nature’s beauty; or, in the midst of a difficult day, I realize that God is helping to preserve me and strengthen me.
God is always present, always offering himself, always sustaining and sanctifying every sphere of life. That’s the meaning of grace.
What we do is pay attention, receive, and give thanks.
By the way, all of this isn’t to say that Catholics believe that, contra the Reformers, we do deserve God’s favor apart from grace! It’s only to say that the concept of grace is bigger than the issue of human sin.
Come to think of it, in the Protestant conception of things, the meaning of the word “grace” depends on our first understanding how much we don’t deserve it! That’s why so many sermons begin with a lengthy meditation on how bad we are (and the punishment we thus deserve), because there’s a hidden worry that, unless we thoroughly understand how bad we are, we won’t understand how gracious God is.
But isn’t it more correct to say that God’s goodness—God’s grace—doesn’t need sin to in order to operate in the world? Grace is not something external to God, but rather something intrinsic to the divine nature. It’s not something that God has to come up with after sin enters the world, but rather, something that God always is and always has been and always will be: absolutely good and totally self-giving. And that grace is present and available at all times and places, not just when we’re dealing with our own failures.
A final thought on this.
One of the ideas the three of us riffed on quite a bit last week was the difference between guilt and shame. That is, while guilt says that I did something bad, shame says that I am something bad. The two are often confused, but there’s an enormous psychological difference.
Catholic guilt, is of course, a cliche, and there’s some truth to the stereotype.
But given everything we’ve noted above, how many times we’ve heard sermons and read books about how bad, how depraved human beings are, and how essential this is to Protestantism’s “good news” about God’s grace, I had a strange thought.
These RCIA posts will be a little bit less refined than others, because I want to use this space as an opportunity to share my experience in RCIA and talk about what I’m learning. Although I’ve done a lot of reading before starting the official process, I’m by no means an expert, and I’m find that there’s a lot of things I still don’t understand—or worse, things I think I understand, but don’t.
(RCIA, by the way, stands for “Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults”. It’s the path into full communion with the Catholic Church for adult converts such as myself.)
As a former pastor told me, some of the most conservative Christians you’ll ever meet are Catholic, and so are some of the most liberal. This is a good thing! Catholicism is much bigger than any one person’s opinion.
But as someone from a Protestant background, that can be confusing.
We were discussing one of Catholicism’s more difficult teachings, one of those things that makes you say with the disciples, “This is a difficult teaching. Who can accept it?”
So I asked our RCIA leader about it, and she basically said, “Oh, nobody actually follows that one. You have to consult your conscience, pray and discern, and then go with that. One of the highest teachings in the Catholic Church is that the conscience is inviolable. You have to follow your conscience, even if it goes against church teaching.”
Whereas initially I had been scandalized by the difficulty of the Church’s teaching, now I was scandalized from the opposite direction. That seemed way too permissive! I was certain that wasn’t right. Hell, I’m in the middle of a series about the need for a teaching authority! I had simply never heard a Catholic dismiss a church teaching outright like that.
But what was I going to do, tell her, a lifelong Catholic, that she was wrong? That didn’t feel right either. Our RCIA director is a cradle Catholic. She has an M.Div. She participates in the sacramental life of the Church. I can’t say any of those things about myself.
So I just shut up and listened, even though I didn’t like it.
After several days of reflection, I realized that one of the reasons that the Catholic Church can be so enormous and hold such a diversity of opinion is that its unity doesn’t come from everyone believing the exact same things. Intellectual agreement is pretty paramount in the Protestant settings I come from, so sharp disagreement is scary and confusing, and often a cause of schism.
But Catholicism operates a little bit differently: unity rests not solely on agreement, but also in the hierarchical structure of bishops, priests, and deacons, and especially in the common celebration of the sacraments—the Eucharist in particular.
Having the three different dimensions of unity in the Church seems to allow for a little bit more dynamism and flexibility. Like, maybe I struggle with a certain doctrine or teaching. Maybe I disagree with the pope about a certain issue. Or maybe I’m not living (maybe I’m just not able to live) totally in line with the Church’s teachings.
In that case my obligation isn’t to pretend I agree when I don’t, or to hide the fact that I’m imperfect. It seems to me like if I’m engaging in an honest and transparent process, taking advantage of the sacramental life of the Church, going to reconciliation to talk things out, listening carefully to my conscience, reading and studying and praying—well, why should I not consider myself a Catholic and partake of Christ’s body and blood?
As Pope Francis loves to say, the Eucharist is not a reward for the righteous, but a medicine for the sick.