Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Conversation that Struck a Chord

Someone said to me the other day - and I am paraphrasing greatly - that they are bothered by the way Catholicism is being lived today, that is, in a way much more impoverished than they had hoped it would be. The person is a convert.

I wanted to understand precisely what the person meant. I think I got the gist.

Let's apply an analogy with Theology. The Catholic theological tradition is rich and beautiful. But do you ever get the impression it is being reduced to Thomism? For some that would not constitute a problem.

Or, take religious orders - must they all be Benedictine or Jesuit, etc.?

Or, the saints we talk about - always Therese, Bernadette, Faustina?

I can identify with this feeling. I like learning about new things, trying new foods, exploring new parts of the countryside, fishing in rivers and lakes I've never been. It's not novelty for sake of novelty, it's a different beautiful thing, because it's beautiful and it exists.

We had a great talk here at OLSWA about a year ago by Dr. Peter Erb on Newman. The thing that struck me most was when he said something about converts being more appreciative of the richness of the Faith... I might add to this observation that perhaps Catholics do not love their Faith for the right reason(s).

I think that cradle Catholics often do not experience their Faith as possessing a sense of saving freshness. They have perhaps never known the complete emptiness of a life bereft of meaning, and so cannot really appreciate that the Faith offers us so much. Can they feel the sense of sheer grace and mercy that having faith in God brings?

Yes, certainly, even though I am a convert, there is a conservative, inherited aspect in my own faith. I am, in some ways, a 'Bible Christian,' at least relative to most of the Catholics I know. I prefer reading Scripture to praying the rosary, if that means anything. I do not prefer it to going to mass, and that is probably determinative. No probablies about it.

Our whole tradition is still completely available for us. Every aspect of it should be explored and experienced. If we seem to be focusing on just a few small parts of it today, it's up to YOU to remind us about what we have forgotten. Catholicism outside of Chesterton, Divine Mercy, TOB, etc.

The thing is, the Tradition is alive and meant to continually nourish us. Hence the Communion of Saints: no time passes in heaven, their governorship over our spiritual welfare does not expire. Read widely the lives of saints from completely disparate times and places, their spiritual master-works, imitate their sometimes exotic practices.

My friend who made the remark, as I said, is a convert, and I am, as you know, a convert. As our Catholicism ages, things change. Excitement can diminish and focuses and concerns alter. They don't disappear. At 18 or 19 I wanted nothing more than to be a mendicant friar, going from place to place, begging and preaching, and wearing cool sandals. Then I wanted nothing more than to study and teach. Francis would not have approved. Now I want to be a good husband and father. Yet in this vocation I am attempting to live out in the light I take with me what was good and at the heart of my desire for mendicancy, and what was at the heart of my desire to teach and study the Word of God above all. It doesn't disappear, but it does 'age.' We do need to keep alive the fascination with Christ in these changing circumstances. There is something magical about our Catholic tradition, which includes everything from strange liturgical and ascetic practices to wonderful works on prayer and theology. We cannot box ourselves into a corner, and say Catholicism consists in this and only this. We do that. We tend to like the word 'best' too much. It keeps us from looking around at other aspects of the tradition.


  1. What a beautiful picture of Lauren!

  2. I love the new picture of Lauren. And these last posts have me wondering who the gum-chewing lady is. Dave told me that you had written a post about me and my sunglasses just to get me nervous! I have become very aware of the glasses and have started taking them off in conversation even when it pains me greatly... I actually apologised to someone the other day for the glasses and he looked at me really strangely and said, "Doesn't bother me in the slightest." I think that I have taken the glasses thing too seriously - I am going to start chewing gum.

  3. I think you make a very good point about the tendency, perhaps found most strongly amongst cradle Catholics (I am one), to narrow the faith and life of a Roman Catholic to the exclusion of much spiritual, liturgical, intellectual, etc... wealth.

    I think part of the reason for this, beyond a certain complacency, is the fact that so many of us who were raised in the Church in fact received very poor instruction. Going through the Catholic schools in the late 60's and through the 1970's was to experience a catechetical program that was, at best, insipid and, at worst, just plain wrong. Many of us never learned about the rich intellectual tradition of the Church at a time in our lives when we had, moreso than as busy adults, opportunity to read broadly and think deeply. So, perforce of circumstance we have latched onto that which was most easily accessible.

    There is always the risk of growing intellectually stale, whether with respect to the faith, or even one's chosen profession. But, I'd like to think that your point about remaining ever open to that which is new, not for the sake of novelty, but for the experience of a different beauty, is something that continues to be true in the hearts of those of us who had the good fortune to be raised in the Church.

    Now, maybe, I'll find the time (courage?) to tackle the social doctrine, beginning with Leo XIII. I really do believe that it's one of the most under appreciated and misunderstood areas of theology.

    A thoughtful post, Colin. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Claire!

    Elena, I'll have to keep you guessing about the gum-chewing lady ;)
    and that sun-glasses lover is my new worse enemy. They are blight on the face of the earth!

    Anonymous, good for you. Totally dive into the encyclicals!

    -all these things said by me (Colin) Google is giving me problems right now.