Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, by Robert Barron (2011)

I stumbled on Bishop Robert Barron on Youtube nearly five years ago, back when he was still a Father. As a writer, I was impressed with his knowledge and insight about story and its function. I was also encouraged by his educated commentary and articulate style. I subsequently watched several more videos in which he talked about the Bible, Christianity, and Catholicism. Thanks to his clarifications, I soon discovered that much of what I’d been told about Catholicism as a practicing protestant was either misleading or untrue.

Several months later I attended my first Catholic service here in town. I enjoyed the service, despite my ignorance of its rituals, and came away sobered by its grandeur and somber tone. The entire experience humbled me. And this, oddly enough, is what appealed to me most.

As a protestant teen attending an Assembly of God church (which, incidentally, has its roots in the Pentecostal tradition of the early 20th century), emphasis was placed on baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is a separate thing from traditional Baptism, and it made for some overly sensationalized interpretations of Christianity. Services were more free form than structural, involving dancing in the aisles, jumping up and down, and the shaking of tambourines. This high strung, emotional aspect – abrupt outbursts by church members speaking in tongues and others providing subsequent interpretations or announcements of what those tongues meant – struck me as disorienting and bizarre. It was my parents’ church, my mother’s in particular, and I never really felt at home.

To make matters worse, in the vein of what some today term the Prosperity Gospel, popularized by such famous millionaires as Joel Olsteen, our preacher portrayed God as a kind of Father Christmas, granting favors and blessings to the pious. Evidently, one’s arrangement with God was characterized as a sort of quid pro quo. The more devout the believer, the greater the odds of financial success. Taken to its extreme, this tends to reduce the purpose of following Christ to a material rewards system. Even as an ignorant teen, this struck me as a perversion of Christianity. Christ’s apostles suffered hardship, trials. Somehow, despite my upbringing, I regarded Christianity as an expression of sacrifice. Through ordeals, I reasoned, one grows, presumably, not only more reliant on God but more devoted and attuned to His desires, not our own.

I acknowledge this isn’t a particularly attractive interpretation. Nor am I suggesting I lived it. But I regarded the idea as beneficial because it urged the believer to, if anything, better himself. The idea that God seeks our obedience for its own sake, our love because He loves us, our devotion because He wants what’s best for us – this is a hard sell, but it rang true for me.

At this Assembly of God church my family attended, however, I still recall several occasions in which the more modest and contrite elements of Christ’s message were supplanted by those verses that suggested we Christians are children of the King of Kings and therefore inheritors of the Kingdom of God, and that since Heaven is paved with streets of gold, we had but to ask our heavenly Father for stuff and He would oblige. This struck me as self-serving and even satirical.  

To expect God to grant our requests like a genie grants wishes caused me, over time, to question my church’s doctrine. That God is beholden to our prayers as if He were legally bound to a contract loses sight of what Christianity is all about. Yet that’s precisely what many at this church believed and taught at subsequent Bible study groups, insisting that if God doesn’t oblige, just insist. I could only imagine such a prayer. “Look here, God. This is Your Word. Luke, chapter eleven, verse nine: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’ To refuse me is to disavow Your promise. Grant my request!”

As I say, even as a teen, I found this approach presumptuous. Throwing specific lines from the Bible in God’s face was a form of arrogance I couldn’t abide. In fact, I remember wondering whatever happened to the contrite, penitent Hebrew of the Old Testament, rending his clothes, ripping out his hair by the roots, prostrating himself before God, and sprinkling ashes on his head. Where did his contrition fit into this privileged, arrogant attitude this church had adopted? This turned me off and played a part in my religious doubt and eventual atheism, which, by the way, after over a decade of practicing and reading gobs of philosophy, from Anselm to Sartre, I ultimately abandoned. After embracing Christianity again, however, I was still leery of organized religion.

While attending this Catholic service, though, I knew I needed to treat this faith more seriously. Unlike my experience in the Assembly of God church, this Catholic service, to my mind, was a far cry from the more convenient, opportunistic tone I witnessed growing up.

Another reason Catholicism appeals to me is that in my youth my family frequented a number of protestant churches, not only the Assembly of God one above, in an effort to find which one best suited them. As a result, I was dragged to services held in what sometimes were little more than rented office spaces with folding metal chairs, artificial potted plants, and makeshift podiums.

The Catholic sanctuary I entered, in contrast, gave one the impression the structure sat firmly on hallowed ground. The statue of Mother Mary, the priests in their ceremonial garb, the paintings, the sacred symbols, stained glass windows – it was as if the artisans themselves were giving glory to God through their work, the beauty and majesty of the interior staggered me. The place itself appeared to reverence God.

Examining this rich, lavish interior, where members assumed a dress and demeanor in keeping with modesty rather than those at my former churches where attendants sported pearls, cleavage, and skinny jeans, I was reminded of a line from Robertson Davies’ wonderful novel What’s Bred in the Bone.
"Catholicism has begotten much great art; Protestantism none at all."
Any faith that recognizes the Kingdom of God via humanity’s efforts to visibly represent His glory, to commend our longing in this way, is a faith worth observing. It was during this service that I knew I needed to become a Catholic. But I wanted to first educate myself about the history and creeds of the faith more fully.

I got a hefty tome called The Catechism of the Catholic Church and began to read it. I’m still reading it. It’s quite a thick volume. But I love having a guide at my disposal that thoroughly articulates the creeds of a faith, referencing the applicable scriptures and authorship to support it. A few weeks ago, I bought this little treasure, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. After completing it, I realized I’d finally come home.

You see, I’ve always loved art. As a musician, writer, and avid reader, I was intrigued by how Bishop Barron used art, philosophy, and literature in both his Youtube videos and this book to help illustrate the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis did the same, which is one of the reasons I so love C.S. Lewis. Some of my most spiritual experiences (as well as a few religious awakenings) stem from my exposure to great works of art, music, and literature. When Bishop Barron referenced Dante, Michelangelo, Aquinas, Tolkien, just to name a few, I thought, “I’ve seen, read, and enjoyed these masters’ works, and this nod to them, this celebration of their contribution to society and, more importantly, to the glory of God, resonates with me.”  

One of the things Catholicism does that Protestantism fails to do involves taking what are essentially abstract concepts – virtue, vice, the Trinity, grace, salvation, redemption – and attaching visual representations, corresponding, tangible objects and images to them that make physical these otherwise, sometimes obscure or oblique ideas. In paintings, literary epics, sculpture, and music, we’re given a sensory glimpse of the transcendent, the divine, or to quote from my own work, beauty beyond the mortality of those who revere it. 

I neither know nor care whether the average Catholic versus the average Protestant is more well read or attuned to the wondrous nature of art and literature and how these things redound upon God’s majesty. That’s not my point. My point, rather, is that any faith celebrating the way in which artists use their talents to illuminate the faith holds a special place in my heart precisely because I identify with this effort much like, say, a cellist can appreciate the complexity of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, as much wisdom one can gain from reading the Bible, I’ve gotten just as much spiritual nourishment from the writings of the philosopher (and Catholic) Peter Kreeft, novelist (and Catholic) Graham Greene, as well as C.S. Lewis and his apologetics, to name only a few.

Another element is my love for and fascination with the saints. A few years ago, I read The Song of Bernadette, a stirring, well-written novel based on historical accounts of Bernadette of Lourdes (see blog post). From Bishop Barron’s book, I read about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa. I’m not too proud to confess that in spots throughout these brief bios I was moved to tears.

We talk about great athletes, those whose performance epitomizes the human body’s grace and form. We admire great authors whose expertise with words stirs our intellects and our hearts. We admire heroes, those who show courage in the face of danger, who risk their lives for either an individual or their country. Likewise, we revere (or should) the saints, those whose self-sacrifice, self-denial, devotion to God at the cost of everything else, who minister to the needy, the hungry, the disenfranchised, whose vows demand they renounce things few of us are willing to abandon, and whose lives ultimately demonstrate the pinnacle of human goodness, charity, and love.  

I wouldn’t dare besmirch the good that protestants have accomplished over the centuries. Yet I can’t help but view Protestantism as a lesser faith, in some cases a watered-down version of Christianity, in others a distortion, providing many of the truths Catholicism recognizes, granted, but a facsimile nonetheless. On the one hand, you have a faith founded on a doctrine and a tradition of principles the priests of the Old Testament, Christ and his disciples, and Paul practiced and taught, not to mention the rich history, rituals, and beauty. On the other you have Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg door in 1517, which has resulted in over thirty-thousand denominations today, many of which are absolutely bonkers and all lacking an ultimate authority as to the veracity or legitimacy of their particular or peculiar interpretations.

Of course, I can speak only for myself. I intend to continue my autodidactic journey until I’m ready to approach a priest and declare my intentions – conversion. By then, if necessary, I’ll quote Saint Edith Stein, “Prufen-sie mich!” (“Test me!”). Highly recommended for anyone curious about reading an inspiring examination of Catholicism. Five out of five stars. 

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