Prayer conducted primarily in public becomes a matter of making announcements to God or to the group or to your own self-image…When we emphasize public, verbal and social prayer forms, along with group rituals, while not giving people any inner experience of their own inner aliveness…it tends to keep religion on the level of a social contract; this is often what we call cultural Christianity or civil religion…Social and public prayers hold groups and religions together, but they do not necessarily transform people at any deep level. In fact, group certitude and solidarity often becomes a substitute for any real journey of our own.
–Richard Rohr, “The Naked Now”
One of the main criticisms of Catholicism is that it produces a “form of godliness” without the inner reality. The idea here is that instead of developing a personal relationship with God, Catholics emphasize performing formulaic rituals.
Religion without relationship, then, is akin to marriage without love.
I think this is a valid criticism of Catholicism insofar as it refers to a Catholicism that emphasizes rote imitation and not inner transformation. But it’s important to remember that this “form of godliness” can happen in any church or denomination. My guess is that the lack of inner reality is probably the fault of poor discipleship and bad Christian example than Catholicism itself.
As humans we seem to have this inherent need to systematize everything. We want it all codified and organized. But what is so scandalous about the grace of God is that it’s not limited to our ability to organize it.
The grace of God breaks out and goes rogue just when we think we’ve tamped it down.
Catholics are not the only ones who have seemingly codified the approach to God.
If, as fundamentalists often told me, I would only come to know God through reading my Bible–I would probably be an atheist by now. Reading the Bible was simply not an option since it had often been used as a weapon against me.
As blasphemous as it sounds, God was going to have to be bigger than the Bible, bigger than a Sunday sermon, bigger than a Church.
I needed to know one thing: did God love me unconditionally?
The problem with a question like that is that it’s completely irrational. First of all, it presumes there is a God and secondly it presumes that He’s capable of loving and thirdly, it asks if that love is unconditional.
Apparently, I like to ask the questions that have no answer.
At least, no systematic, theological, rational answer.
I probably wouldn’t even ask this question if I wasn’t first brought to a place of complete and utter lowness. This is where I found myself after the twins were born. I was desperate. And in that desperation was a kind of grace because I was open to the possibility of finding God in an unexpected place: Catholicism.
This is not to say that God was/is limited to the Catholic Church. But it is to say that it’s not really up to me to tell God where to reveal Himself and for reasons that are entirely beyond my ability to understand them, I first began to experience the unconditional love of God in that ancient form of liturgical worship.
There are, of course, many Catholics who grew up in the Church and say they were never “saved” or ever had a personal encounter with God. I understand this frustration and to be honest, there are things about the Catholic Church–or, perhaps more precisely, their way of doing things–that truly perplex me as well.
I think what gives me hope is that the Church is an organic, tangible body that is still developing, growing, changing, adapting. Yes, it moves too slowly for many.
But it is moving.
In the end, all I really needed was an experience of my “own inner aliveness” as found in the unconditional love of God. I found that in Catholicism.
And yet, I still hold a deeply embedded fondness and debt of gratitude to my Protestant upbringing. If anything, I see myself as a spiritual pilgrim–caught between two worlds.
It’s a fairly lonely pilgrimage–nobody on either side of my family is Catholic. There are times when the loneliness of it is just totally overwhelming, especially when I hear the muttered jokes, the mocking comments, the misinformed prejudice.
I don’t know how to answer that. I really don’t. So, I keep quiet.
There’s no way to have that conversation because there’s no way of explaining it in coldly rational, intellectual, systemized terms. Sometimes I wish God could have revealed Himself to me in, say, Presbyterianism–I really didn’t want to end up Catholic.
But that wasn’t my choice to make.
All I know is that once I was lost, but now I’m found.
And most of all, there is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear.
Love is my only hope, my only certainty.