Friday, March 20, 2009

A Summation of 2006

For two months I have written and rewritten this post. I’m a rather private person who rarely expresses my deepest feelings to others. Thus, for me, to articulate something as intimate as God’s call on my life has not been easy.

At the entrance to the Roman Catholic church we attend there is a word engraved in the stone floor. That word is humilitas . . . humility. When the Lord spoke to my heart to follow Him and see what He would do as I supported my husband in his Catholic faith, all I could see was a harsh desert before me. When Christ placed within me a ravenous hunger to taste the Catholic culture, I was driven into a wilderness of all things Catholic: parish activities, Catholic books, Catholic internet sites, radio, and television. In that new and bewildering place, I had to discard my Protestant attitudes to see my way clearly through the shifting sands. After the first year, the dry winds of exclusion scoured away my protests, angers, and discontent. Those same winds pitted my soul with a second year of servitude, self-examination, and readjustment.

Through it all I knew intuitively that somehow this was for my good, and the process was God’s method of caring for me, just as the desert had been a place of His care for Israel. These words of Deuteronomy chapter eight resonate with me:

"You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” And "Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son“ (Deuteronomy 8:2, 5 NASB).

By the fall of 2006 I was a ragged pilgrim in need of some clear vision about how to persevere.

My desert extended through harsh elements. For example, in a Zenit article, the writer quoted a well-known Cardinal who said non-Catholic Christians practice “a soft Christian life that does not take seriously the reality of sin and its consequences.” He then added, they are tainted "with the individualist error, which is so widespread, of thinking that Christians can relate to God on their own."

Protestantism – perceived from afar – might lead many to believe Protestant Christians have an unperfected process to be forgiven of their sins. And, I suppose, based on their observation of some Protestant televangelists, one might easily conclude Protestants are self-absorbed, worldly, and much like spoiled children.

But, sometimes perceptions can be off the mark.

Thankfully, some in our parish took the time to scrutinize my life, engaged me in conversation, challenged me, poked, and prodded to ascertain if I was indeed a Christian. The scrutiny left me breathless, often without strength, and drove me into the arms of Jesus where I learned His mercy, forgiveness, and courage. And it was there that I reflected upon the kindness of those who sought to know who I was in Christ.

St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians and Colossians about the Church and the Body of Christ taught me that as a baptized child of God I was part of Christ’s mystical body. I learned the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church recognized all Trinitarian baptisms as efficacious for salvation, acknowledging I was a Christian, part of Christ’s body. But when Rich converted to Catholicism, I discovered many Catholics believed they alone were the Body of Christ. Their statements shocked me, and I thought they must consider me dead, lost in my sins. How else could they view me? As far as they were concerned, I was not part of the living organism, the body of Christ.

That was when I began to understand why Catholics told me I could not understand the deep mysteries of Catholic faith, and I thought, surely that was why I was not permitted at the table of the Eucharist (Communion).

The more I listened, the more I learned, and the more I tried not to notice the unrelenting conversations around me of Catholic primacy – or of the rhetoric that emphasized the faults of non-Catholics, the idiocy of trusting in the Bible alone for spiritual direction and warnings about the divisiveness of schismatic Protestants.

But it was the words “individualist error” that struck home.

What I did not know that November 2006, was that there are many unofficial voices that consider themselves teachers of authentic Catholic thought and practice. These people often ignore the Roman Catholic Church’s renewed desire to dialogue with all Christians, to view all baptized Christians as brethren, and to seek a path that will lead to a unity in Christ. I did not know that the many Catholic apologists I was reading online or listening to via radio might be espousing their own view of the Church.

Words like error, used by some of the online apologists, conjured in my mind the idea of being “doomed.” Unlike the conciliatory messages I heard at Mass, they said things like, “From the Catholic perspective we see Protestantism as a single collective error with many facets that is internally fractured through the core error of insubordination to God’s Ecclesial Authority.” They also opined, “Protestantism’s aversion for not boasting by works has made it easy to completely ignore the necessity for Holiness [sic] and the mandate to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).’ That requires regular routine disciplines of bathing (confession) and shearing (penance) and health checks and eating of good food (Eucharist) and exercise (prayer).”

After encountering such examples of religious correctness, I came to wonder why I even attended services with Rich. What kind of dim-witted person was I to keep going to a place where these types of opinions were the norm? But I was no fool. I was following my Savior. And although separated from the Catholic body by its rules, I did not practice self-centered individualism, as some Catholics accused Protestantism.

I desired only singleness of heart toward God. By the fall of 2006, that had been my desire for thirty-one years. The Holy Spirit initiated such a desire in me because singleness of heart is an attribute of all Christians. It is a Christian’s deepest longing to be conformed into the image of Christ. For my part, I knew that meant God would work in me and upon me. I knew He would use the framework of my life’s journey to “will and do His good pleasure"(Philippians 2:13).

I was willing to agree with God – whatever it required. I endeavored as best I could to obey my Lord. He called, I answered. That was the only way I knew to respond.

Conversely, I was learning that most Catholics conceive of obedience to God’s call as existing within the structure of their obligations – obligations, for example, to participate in the Mass, observe Holy Days of Obligation, regular times of confession, penance, to evidence good works, as well as obedience to the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

But structural obligations made little sense to how I responded in obedience. That simply was not my culture.

My conscience was formed within a culture that accepted no other rule but of God alone as expressed through His Holy word. It was a matter of trust. I expected God to direct my steps. I had learned to hear His direction through reading Holy Scripture. So, in 2005 when I heard Him say through the Scriptures, “Be with your husband. Live out unity in your marriage,” I simply obeyed. When, within several homilies I heard Christ say, “Choose my way--- the way that is not usual or well understood,” I prayed for strength. When we sang at Mass, “Be Not Afraid,” I heard His call in the lyrics, “I go before you always; Come follow me and I will give you rest,” and I gained confidence.

The call of the Holy Spirit always comes with a price. I must humble myself, follow Him, and obey Him at any cost. His message to me was no less clear and authoritative as the Holy Spirit’s call to those within the Catholic Church to practice obedience and holiness.

St. Francis of Assisi often said concerning humility of those within the Church, “The subject should look upon his prelate not as a man, but as the representative of Him for Whose love he is subject to him. For the more contemptible is he who commands, the more pleasing to God is the humility of him who obeys.”

When I realized that God had put me in a place where I would be subject to distrust, disparagement, misunderstanding, marginalization and disregard, I wanted to give up.

However, as incredible as it might sound to the writers of the excerpts I quoted earlier, a complete and utter commitment to follow hard after my Lord Jesus overcame my paltry objections and worries. And with that commitment to obedience, a deep well of love gushed up in my heart for the very people who thought I was destined for hell.

Once the hand of the Savior rests on the soul, how can it refuse Him any desire of His most sacred heart? That heart, aflame with holy authority to empower, sets all alight with its agape Love.

I felt that flame during the summer of 2006 at a Bible Study mentioned in an earlier post. It was at that time I discovered I could listen without rancor and without offense to those who spoke disparagingly about my Protestant brethren. Jesus did that work of grace in my heart. It was nothing that came from myself. But how like Him to make His call upon my life silently, without fan-fare – and to humble me also in the process. How like Him to allow me, a non-Catholic, to participate even in small ways in the liturgy and in spiritual communion. How kind was His invitation to me to share my artistic skill and other gifts with my parish. It was one of my great joys that year to encourage Christ’s beloved body through the creation of a tapestry for Family Mass. That bright opportunity was to me like a refreshing cup of cool water on a hot summer day.

Later that fall, the wilderness still seemed far too difficult. I fell very ill. In my illness, I longed for the familiar, the simple, the pleasant . . . .

Jesus sent me His heart as His gift – and in that gift I found myself learning to lean on His wounded side, to trust in the plan that flowed from Him - and to wait upon His way, His time, and His call to be ever in the process of being conformed into His image.