It is one of the most important days on the liturgical calendar, and I couldn’t even convince myself to get off the couch that Friday. Like the clouds gathering in the sky outside my window, as I sat on the couch, spiritual clouds gathered in my soul. It was an unwelcome, but familiar feeling. I am no stranger to doubt and wrestling with my faith. In fact, I have learned to embrace the struggle and appreciate the fruits of the fight. But Good Friday is not the day I wanted to struggle. Like Christmas, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter have always stirred welcome feelings of faith and passion in me. Instead, this year I felt doubtful and numb.
If I look at a crucifix, I will see a man hanging there, bloody and beaten, leaving no doubt that he suffered. Like the one on the cross, Catholics are meant to embrace suffering. This is something that I found attractive when I first began to study Catholicism. When answers aren’t found and healing isn’t granted, there is not only a theology of suffering to dive into and give meaning to pain, but a God who experienced pain to lean on. This fall will make three years since I entered the Church, and the phrase “offer it up,” is no longer strange to me. I have found the everyday reality of embracing suffering is less comforting in the moments most needed, however. Not because it is actually useless, but because in those moments, I don’t think of how this could be beneficial to me later on. And I wonder how I, riddled with doubt, but warm, fed, and loved by my family, should bring my meager suffering to a God hanging on a cross, bleeding and dying?
I didn’t make it to the church on Good Friday. Doubt or not though, I am sentimental to a fault, and when little else can, tradition motivates me. So on Saturday, our little family dressed up and went to the Easter Vigil mass at 7:00 p.m. We met outside with the other parishioners and after lighting candles, processed into the dark sanctuary, once again filling it with the light that represents Christ. The familiar rituals, the smell of incense, physically set me at ease. I didn’t dwell on my problem in that moment. I just sat there content to be among those who did believe, and I let them believe for me. I watched a baptism and confirmation, and admired the beauty of the words and actions. And just like the little candle I carried into the sanctuary two hours before would not have lit the whole church alone, my soul wasn’t set ablaze again by the little flame that began to burn there. But at that Easter Vigil, a little candle inside was indeed lit. And every Sunday since, I have continued to stand, kneel, sit, cross myself, and recite those beautiful and ancient prayers. And as surely as He rose from the dead, and spring has arrived, belief is once again sprouting in my soul.
I sat in the worn, faux leather chair across from her and tried to explain why I felt I needed to be there. I never really had trouble seeking help for my emotional and mental needs from friends and family when I needed it, yet here I was, sitting across from a therapist. I have always had an extreme personality. I used to see things as black and white and gave people little room to mess up in my life. And someone had undeniably messed up, and it had left me anxious and struggling to forgive.
After several sessions, I was given tools to help cope with OCD tendencies. And through those methods, and with the help of my church, I began to see how those tendencies had unfortunately dominated my spiritual life. The rigidity I imposed on myself and others, was not only crippling me emotionally and mentally, but my relationships with people as well. In this particular instance, perhaps it wouldn’t have been the blow it was if I hadn’t expected perfection in the first place. I was justified in my anger at that point, but not in my unforgiving attitude or demands for repentance on my terms.
My approach to spirituality led to unhealthy tendencies. I became hard-hearted and judgmental to preserve my own sanctity at the cost of those around me. But in what way is the meek, humble Savior I adore like that? God humbled himself to walk on earth with us. He drew in the dirt, he turned over tables, and he cried, feasted, celebrated and mourned. He lived perfectly in an imperfect world and did it embracing human emotions-his own and others- fully. If there’s no room in my journey to holiness for other’s imperfections, is there room for a perfect God?
Willis walked into his local grocery store and began strolling up and down the aisles searching for inspiration for supper that evening. He was hungry after a long day of class and work and he wanted something he could prepare quickly. He was single, and had recently moved away for college, so he had no one to cook for but himself. He also no longer had to endure his mother insisting he eat his greens and shoving fire and brimstone sermons down his throat about processed foods. “Stay out of the middle aisles, honey. That’s where the temptations are,” her voice echoed in his head. He smiled to himself, remembering, and then defiantly turned and strutted down the frozen food aisle, embracing his independence. He didn’t intend to totally discard all the motherly wisdom he had absorbed over the years, but he also did not share his mother’s belief that gluten was the source of all illness in the world.
He settled on an organic, roasted vegetable pizza, simultaneously appeasing his mother’s voice and his own. The following week he went back after work one evening and was able to walk straight to the frozen food aisle with no lingering hesitation. This time he chose a conventional, meat lovers’ pizza. It was half the price, further justifying the decision in his mind. The next week, he ate frozen pizza two nights. Within a month, every supper Willis ate came from the frozen food aisle or could be cooked in a microwave. When Willis came home for Christmas, six months after leaving home, he had gained a total of fifteen pounds and had suffered from several colds already that winter. By the time Willis left college four years later, he had established a pattern for an unhealthy lifestyle. He gained a total of fifty pounds over four years, and because he lacked energy, he ceased to maintain an active lifestyle. He justified his decisions by appealing to his right to decide how he wanted to live his life.
Eating strictly junk food did not kill Willis. The food he ate contained just enough nutritional value to keep him alive and minimally nourished, but he wasn’t receiving all the nutrients healthy foods potentially offered him. Willis decided to neglect his mother’s restrictive dietary standard and embrace his own standard, based on his own wants. He sorted through foods only selecting the ones he cared for and rejecting the ones he had difficulty stomaching. This resulted in a different, but still radical way of viewing food that was slowly causing Willis’ health to deteriorate.
Organized religion in Christianity plays the role of the sometimes annoyingly restrictive mother in our spiritual life. Religion can be abused, smacked over heads leaving lumps that hurt like hell and need time to heal. Religion requires prudence, but that is not the point of this particular story, because it can also nourish us, in ways only fruits and vegetables can. Picking and choosing what we do and don’t want out of religion amounts to only eating junk food and receiving minimal nourishment. The less pleasant aspects of organized religion such as sacrifice, repentance, and service, are the vegetables and fruit we need for our faith to remain healthy and sustainable over a lifetime. And, ultimately, it is what is required for salvation. If Willis doesn’t have to listen to anyone else, only his own wants, why they would he chose a quinoa and kale salad over a hamburger and fries? Madness. Religion without spirituality is dead, sure, but spirituality without religion can more often than not be fruitless.
Following his rejection of additional authorities on food, Willis was doomed to make more and more unhealthy decisions. Left to our own devices we will succumb purely to our own wants. We apply this to daily life in other ways like government, but are bound and determined to keep religion from confining us. The “I am spiritual, not religious” mantra of today is ultimately leading society as a whole down an unhealthy path. In the end, the appeal of being able to choose only white bread over wheat bread if we want will prove to be of no nutritional value and leave us in a worse place than when we started. We will settle for unchallenging homilies/sermons, we will trade in computer screens for pastors, and couches for community. We will sacrifice work, responsibility, and effort for entertainment and fancy lighting. We will take all the nourishment out of Christianity until it eventually starves to death.
Last Advent I was seven months pregnant. Maybe I was too self-absorbed at the time focusing on my numerous pregnancy ailments, but I did not take time to reflect on that unique moment in my life as the advent of my son and the advent of Mary’s son coincided. I simply wanted the end of my pregnancy to come, and the beginning of our life as a family of three to begin. Even as I neglected the opportunity to experience Advent in a particular way last year, I am better prepared to experience it more deeply this year because now I know the value of waiting, of enduring, of anticipation.
This year I will wait during this season quietly and patiently with Mary, not because we share the same physical state of pregnancy, but because I know what awaits us on the other side. I am joining her as one who has already experienced the pain and ultimate joy of birth. I will wait with her full of hope because I know what is on the other side. Redemption.
It has been almost two years since my last post. What a wild two years! Reece and I were married, I graduated from WCU, and we entered the Catholic Church. As you can see, blogging was pushed to the side for good reason, but hopefully I can get back into posting more regularly. Although I did not originally write this to post on here, I decided to anyway because it is about such an important part of my life now.
Acts 8:26-40 RSV
26 But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. 27 And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. 36 And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”37 * [No text] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip was found at Azo’tus, and passing on he preached the gospel to all the towns till he came to Caesare’a.
I never imagined as a twenty-two year old, American, married, and now Catholic girl I would be able to identify so closely with a first century Ethiopian eunuch. I was raised in a wonderful and faithful Methodist family, however, in high school I began church hopping, or, more appropriately, denomination hopping. I cannot think of the reason I began to visit other churches other than the fact that almost none of my friends were Methodist. Most of my friends were either Baptist or Pentecostal. I continued this pattern when I began college, but this flaky approach to church would prove unable to handle the spiritual problems I was about to encounter. Almost immediately after I began college in 2012, I, too, began asking the Ethiopian’s question, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” As all my beliefs were challenged in my classes and by new friends, I became overwhelmed by my inability to deeply understand Scripture. Simple truths in scripture were plain to me, such as the Christian’s call to remain joyful and content in all circumstances; however, when deep theological questions would arise in my life such as “Are works necessary for salvation?” or “Is infant baptism valid?” I felt woefully incapable of reaching a definitive answer.
Many questions I asked seemed to have multiple answers. For example, in one passage Paul tells us it is by faith we are saved, yet in another James tells us we are not saved by faith alone (see Ephesians 2:8 and James 2:24). I did not just feel I had inadequate knowledge and wisdom to correctly interpret scripture. I knew my tools were inadequate. So, I reached out and engaged in conversations with Protestant leaders I respected on different topics like baptism, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. Instead of helping, these conversations further confused me. These men and women of faith all provided me with different answers, and they all supported their claims with Scripture. They insisted their versions of doctrine were true, but also told me that the other people I had discussed these matters with, even those who differed, were saved because they believed in Jesus.
My confusion turned into despair. None of the Protestant denominations I had grown up attending seemed to be able to give answers that satisfied me. I didn’t really even know what all my questions were, but something about my faith was not clicking. I would read texts such as “the spirit is not the author of confusion,” ( see 1 Corinthians 14:33) and since I was clearly deeply confused, I concluded I must not have the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, I reasoned if I did not have the Holy Spirit, I could not be saved. My doubts were coupled with a tendency towards relativism. I tried to convince myself these questions I asked did not matter as long as I knew Jesus. If I knew Jesus, then I was OK because all other questions about baptism, authority, and church structure were secondary. This line of thinking did not comfort me in the end because many of the questions directly related to the basic question of who is and isn’t saved. This led to doubts of even the existence of God. I frequently felt depressed and as if any effort to grow in my faith was useless because I couldn’t be sure I was going about it the correct way. I gave up on truth.
My faith was being severely tested and my thoughts became borderline agnostic. I rarely went to church, and when I did, it felt like emotional torture. Up until this point in my life I was like the Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand with only a book to guide me. Then, as the Lord sent Phillip to the eunuch, he sent a messenger to me in the form of a history professor during the fall semester of 2013. This man was not only a brilliant professor but a very godly man. One day, without ever mentioning his own personal faith, he gave a lecture about the pursuit of truth and how it has been lost as the main pursuit in academic circles. He provided the class with his explanation for why relativism has progressed so quickly in the past five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation.
Until the fifteenth century, most people in Europe, and especially Christians in Western Europe, believed Truth existed and that Truth resided in the Church. There was no question of which church, or which doctrine was true because there was only one church in Western Europe, the Catholic Church. Many of the clergy in Germany during the fifteenth century had become corrupt, and the Church in Germany was badly in need of reform. A monk named Martin Luther took it upon himself to begin this reform. His initial goal was simply reform, not separation from the Catholic Church. However, as Luther’s campaign for reform gained power, it quickly became a protest against the Catholic Church as a whole, rather than the corrupt individuals. Luther decided to reject the Catholic Church’s authority, but he needed to replace it with a new source of authority, leading him to declare an already authoritative source, the Bible, as his sole authority in matters of faith. However, by doing this, Luther made himself rather than the Bible his sole authority in matters of faith. This is because the Bible must be interpreted. Otherwise, the Bible is simply literature. Someone or something must give it meaning. So, in this manner Luther became his own authority on matters of faith. This doctrine of sola scriptura or “scripture alone” quickly crumbled as Luther’s followers realized what this new doctrine actually meant. If each individual reader is responsible for deciding what scripture means, and if he or she interprets it differently than Luther, then that reader is not bound to follow Luther. Consequently, this first split has resulted in tens of thousands of new denominations and interpretations of which I found myself sorting through attempting to determine which could tell me how to be a true disciple of Jesus.
After class, I visited this professor and explained to him my distress over the Bible and distress over my faith in general. I explained to him I believed in Jesus, but I didn’t know why I believed the Bible was the way to Jesus other than my parents and pastor told me so. I then heard for the first time the story of the formation of the Church and the subsequent formation of the canon of scripture. I began to see how difficult it is to understand scripture apart from this context, hence my difficulty in understanding the Bible. When Christ came, he established the Church. He never instructed his followers to write a New Testament or even mentioned a Bible. So why do we have one? More importantly, why do we believe it is the inspired word of God or even the correct books? The Church decided we needed one and Jesus gave the church authority. And with this authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church compiled the canon of Scripture we have today. If the church didn’t have the authority from God to do so, then the Bible cannot be trusted. But God did give authority. Therefore, if one accepts the authority of scripture, one must accept the authority of the Church. The question then is which church? Only one church existed when the Bible was compiled, the universal, or Catholic Church.
After this meeting, I resumed my search for truth. I felt for awhile that seeking truth sounded rather arrogant. But I simply desired to seek the Lord and know his will. He told his disciples the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth ( see John 16:13). So, I went looking for it, all of it. It seems that Jesus cares a great deal that we should not live in confusion like I did, but with hope, faith, and love. I had known the most essential truth- Jesus is my Savior, but that couldn’t have been the whole truth. Jesus didn’t just come to give me a ticket to heaven but to make me holy and help others to become holy so we can help his kingdom come on earth. I needed to know how to do that. I wanted to know where and what Christ’s church really was and after a year long period of study with the campus minister, I discovered it was the Catholic Church. My decision to become Catholic was as simple as deciding I believed the Catholic Church had the authority to help me understand what it is Christ desires for me to do. Of course I had reservations about topics like Purgatory, Mary, the saints, and confession, but ultimately it didn’t matter because I now believe the Catholic Church has the authority to decide what the truth is on those matters. Although the issue of authority first led me to inquire about the Catholic Church, further study of the other teachings I had originally been so confused about, like baptism and the relationship between works and faith, revealed answers that not only spoke to me spiritually but also set me at ease intellectually.
This quest was uncomfortable for me and also those around me, particularly my husband who was my fiancé at the time. But I was spurred onward in my quest by one of my heroes C.S. Lewis: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” I had experienced the despair of possessing little to no truth. I was comforted after three years of searching when I entered into the Catholic Church on November 22, 2015 with my husband, Reece. I was comforted spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. That day, I found the Lord in bread and wine. In this way, even an illiterate person, who may never have seen a Bible, can encounter the Lord. He has healed my soul, and like the Ethiopian I go along my way rejoicing.