Blog Template Theology of the Body: Why I'm A Catholic, Bit I

Friday, March 07, 2008

Why I'm A Catholic, Bit I

I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the mighty and revealed them to little children. Matthew 11

G. K. Chesterton said that all children are born Catholics; their natural tactile and imaginative impulses, which ought to be molded into the fruition of integrated worship in the Mass, have to be trained out of them by means of deliberate restraint in Protestant households. I think it’s true; thuribles and light streaming through stained glass, and kindly images like family photographs, and the solemn genuflection before the Presence are just the sorts of things that children think are terribly important. And, as is often the case with children, natural impulses for liturgical worship and the material means of grace reflect the kind of profound truth that grown-ups struggle to put into words.

As Aquinas carefully explains it in his Summa III.60, the human person’s faith is united to his body; thus, Christ’s provision of the material Sacraments is the greatest sort of gift for our faith. Humanity acquires intellectual knowledge through the senses; therefore, sensible signs are aptly used to signify spiritual things. A sacrament is a sign that the senses can grasp; and only then can the human the mind adequately apprehend what the sensible sign conveys. The child’s grasping little fingers, eager for something real to hold onto, also bears profoundest witness to the opening words of I John 1: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” As the Gospel writer puts is, the Word became flesh, to dwell among us; and the Incarnate God was not thereafter reduced to a mere text or confession.

I’ve often told my friends that my conversion began when I was about seven years old. I was raised in an old Presbyterian establishment. I was blessed in this upbringing, and I learned many things that have stood me in good stead.

However, I remember suffering from two real needs throughout the whole thing. First, I had no way of making sense of a very real, childlike yearning to be near to Jesus- materially and really. I had a vivid imagination as a child, and I thought of Jesus; of His Passion and suffering, of His promised return in glory, of His tenderness for little children. If someone had only explained to me when I was about four that Jesus really entered the presence of His people at their invocation, as He always promised, such that you could touch Him, I’d have bought it in a second. It’s what I was always waiting for.

Secondly, combined with this yearning, was something perhaps a bit more universal- the need for steady and authoritative answers and explanations, for moral guidance grounded in this very Jesus who I was learning to love, and who I wanted to love fully. It seemed to me very early on that there was something deprived and undignified about the scramble to rustle through the pages of the Bible that we honored to construe a self-solved solution to a perplexity at a moment’s notice. The world was an enormous, quick, variegated place to me as a child, a world always struggling too much with its own wounds to offer guidance, and I and my parents- like all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve- needed a steady place in which we could be taught and healed.

And then there is another thing; the child’s capacity to imagine life in the new creation. Paul imagines this new creation in a rather wild way in Romans- a royal community grounded not in secular modes of community-making, but in something indissoluble, which leads the rest of the world to glory. I recall that as children this kind of proposal made a great deal of undomesticated sense to us, largely from our story books; we wanted to take dominion in a real way, and to live in a grand community of allegiance and waiting together for the Emperor Beyond the Sea, in sworn allegiance to King Peter. While we were given texts to honor, and liturgical dances, and a pantheon of early modern secular heroes, what we really wanted was to be kings and queens of Narnia.

My chief regret now is that no one really told us how.

In my teens and early twenties, as most of you know, I discovered with a lot of joy that something like the desired ways was lodged in the lovely tradition of Anglicanism, in which I lived for a few years while I hoped for something more.

You see, all along there was another childhood itch at the back of my mind. It came from a set of books that I read when I was a little girl, about a sappy young lady named Elsie Dinsmore. She is a character who lacks any sort of backbone, except for the fact that she is rabidly anti Catholic. When I was eight, I recall throwing one offensive volume across the room, because the whole thing snarled of a deep, deep hatred. I knew even then, when I still did not quite know what the Catholic Church was, that while the impulse to reform her members is always right, the sad impulse to resist her and abandon her defied the very clear cry of Jesus that His Church must be one, for Him to love, and for all the world to see. I knew even then, as I have confirmed now, that to refuse to love the glorious body entrusted by Jesus to Peter is to refuse to love the will of Jesus. It is, in some way, to refuse the Father’s invitation to the wedding banquet of the Lamb because of more pressing concerns.

As a teenager, I once broke into tears when I crossed St. Peter’s Square in Rome with a group of well-meaning Protestants who were full of derision, because I somehow knew (regardless of whether or not I agreed with some of their derision at the time) that the occasion of their accusation was the work of the evil one, who hates the church and wishes to break her into a thousand pieces, as he has done. But the Church is supposed to be one. Chesterton explains it this way in his book The Catholic Church and Conversion: whatever happiness you find in your own piece of the Church, there is still no denying the reality of the thing that you have broken.

I have learned a great deal since I was eight. Yesterday, while navigating a lady’s tea, I turned from trying to persuade one well meaning Episcopalian that Peter Gomes is crazy (does anyone actually read him anymore?) to a different sort of Episcopalian lady, one who finds great comfort in identifying herself as “an Anglican.” I’ve recently become confused as to what reality such designations actually refer, but I went along with it, until it became time to explain to her that I had become a Catholic, last year. The Anglican blinked at me, as though trying hard to situate my statement in her own fantastic construals: “wait… you mean you have joined the Roman Communion?” -Um, yes, as I said, I am now a Catholic. And there I left it, with this lovely lady and all of her friends who have become enamored with complicated, hyphenated self-identifications.

(Come to think of it, the lady is just the sort who, if she marries, will proudly attach her maiden name to her husband's by hyphenation, and will insist the same for her children: Mrs. Archibald Fuller-Brown, with all the little Fuller-Browns, etc. I cannot help but wonder if it's the same sort of impulse for the Anglo-Catholics, who seem to have adopted a similar way of being part of the Bride of Christ.)

In response to such conversation, my childish impulses, I believe with gratitude, have been formed. I have learned that never, ever, in the whole history of the Christian faith, has it been Catholic to be separated from Rome. Whatever the reasons for an apparently legitimate separation from Rome, and whatever consolations are available apart from Rome, to leave Rome is to cease to be Catholic; it is to attempt to maintain a very, very antiquated confession and aesthetic in a communion splintered from the first one, and it requires refusing Christ’s call to be kata holos, to be part of the whole, to be one. It is to be a part of a well-meaning piece instead.

Next: Where we found brethren, we desired to tarry with them... but then we went toward Rome. Acts 28.