In my new home of California, the churches are closed again. Therefore, we are not able to see the simple beauty of the Advent wreath, purple vestments and candles on the altar. But no mind, I found the box containing my Advent wreath and candles and they are now displayed- for these weeks before Christmas have become cherished ones.
During my pre-conversion life, these weeks before Christmas were jam packed with parties, mostly work-related and therefore obligatory, along with shopping excursions to unearth novel gifts for people who did not need them. And planning vacation when the week of Christmas and New Year’s finally arrived.
The holiday held no religious significance to me. So when friends tell me they don’t want to attend church because they have no need for it, church is irrelevant to them. I understand. There was a time I felt the same way, occasionally quoted Nietzsche’s acerbic comment, “God is dead. He choked to death on theology.”
Wholly oblivious to the wonder of the incarnation: …
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good. to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin.
He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? I received the likeness of God, but failed to keep it. He takes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image, immortality to the flesh. He enters into a second union with us, a union far more wonderful than the first…
If I learned about Advent during the Episcopalian faith I walked away from as teenager, those lessons did not stick. Now, more than twenty years after conversion to Catholic Christianity, these weeks before Christmas are precious.
We converts get emotional when attempting to explain to cradle Catholics-or to those who don’t yet know Him-what it feels like to belong…after years of searching for a faith that reeks of truth. One with rules. Not suggestions.
Even after all these years, I need to reign in the passion to speak and write coherently about before…and after. Because when I consider the specific details of my life without faith and compare it to my life with it it feels very much like the Zen maxim:
Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.
In a conversation with a good friend the other day, I paraphrased CS Lewis while explaining why I thought we need church, religion, an association with a religious institution. I explained the sense I’ve had for most of my life that life is a series of battles. Only upon my conversion did I realize why: The Spiritual combat for which the gains or losses mean no less than everything.
Lewis learned what each of us does when we reject the faith of our fathers-and our mothers. We lose our way, get distracted, make stupid, silly-eventually, evil, choices.
“In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
Theology is like a map. (Italics are mine.)
Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused.
And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive.
It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
In other words, Theology is practical: especially now.
In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.”
but not executed practices like prayer. Not just our routinized prayers but actually talking to Jesus.
Isn’t that what prayer is?
A conversation with God?
Believing that He loves his creatures, all of them, even the weak, flawed and most pitiful of sinners. Which is all of us. All seven and a half billions souls whether in or out of church. Even you and me. Trusting Him enough to bring him our greatest fear, the one we tell no one.
In clear and unequivocal tones, the young priest stated, “God wants to meet you at the point of your greatest fear.” Go, he explained, to the point of your greatest fear, in your mind and heart, and God will meet you there. When He meets you there, tell Him about the fear, and He will help you there.
Those words struck me in my core. I had to admit that although I had consecrated my life to Jesus through His Blessed Mother, and was on intimate terms with a number of saints, St. Thérèse of Lisieux in particular, I tended to avoid meeting God directly. I kept Him at arms’ length, in the safe and superficial distance.
What was it that I was avoiding?