I have been wanting to write a new post for weeks now, but I haven't had any time. I finally have a free moment now, so I thought I'd pop on and try to get as much of my thoughts down as I could.
**Before you read on, I want to let you know that I write some things in this post about my experiences with Catholicism. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to apply my experiences universally -- I know that Catholicism works very well for many people, and I don't mean to diminish or put down anyone's experiences with my post -- I am trying to describe my own perceptions, not carry that over to make statements about what anyone else ought to do or not do.**
It's spring now in Tallahassee, and part of me -- a little part -- is sad because we didn't have a winter. I like winter a lot. I like that it is short here -- just a few weeks, really -- but I like knowing that there will be 20 or so days a year where things are crusted with ice, and the trees are more bare, and the air is dry and cold. It is like having a retreat from the usual riotous motion of everything here. The aggressive plant growth, bugs, reptiles, etc. I usually do really good creative work in the winter because it is like being on another planet. Tallahassee is such a summer kind of place -- hot, humid, sunny, thunderstorms, bugs -- that having a break from all that helps me get some perspective on things.
But most of me is glad that it's spring. I love that green freshness in the air, and I am very excited about our garden this year. The lovely folks down at Bent Tree Bioscaping came and put in the garden space, and have taught us how to care for it. Weekly maintenance is also included, for only a dollar a day. Wow! It's really fantastic. We have sprouts of salad greens and chard already, and tomato and pepper plants transplanted and ready to grow. If you live in the Tallahassee area and want a garden but don't know where to start, I highly recommend giving Scott a call at (850)559-5590. They utilize reclaimed materials and natural fertilizers, etc. It's really a great program.
This week has been a big challenge, because Ben broke his ankle last Saturday. He was providing 100% of the child-watching that I needed in order to get work done, so now without his 6+ hours a day, we are working to shift our schedules around so that I can still work.
So far, we have had so much help from family and friends -- it is really touching and amazing to me how many people have come forward to help, receiving nothing in return, not even conversation, half the time, because I have been so tired and wired.
So in this kind of environment, I have had a few late nights to meet deadlines. At times, it felt like I was working nonstop. I had an experience last Sunday that I wanted to share, because it was so encouraging to me.
Since I stopped attending Catholic church, I have had the kind of bumpy, awkward progress that you expect when you start over. It's like the first few days after a relationship ends. What do you do, and when? How do you move forward, with all the love and anger and sadness and hope all jumbled up together?
This spring season, I feel this electrical cloud of confusion parting a bit, and a few things have happened.
First, I woke up last Friday with an urge to read the Bible. This doesn't happen too often for me, but I know that I need more scripture knowledge. I have been slowly working my way through the gospel of Matthew and trying to read with fresh eyes. The stories in the gospels are so multi-layered and interesting, and reading them with the Holy Spirit as a guide is very interesting. I understand how people can devote their lives to Biblical studies. I received on Friday a lot of messages about faithfulness, healing, encouragement, and consolation, and most of all about the sufficiency of God to address all of our needs. Then, the next day, I found myself turned upside down, driving around, making phone calls, and trying to adapt the house for Ben who couldn't get around without crutches, and who was in a lot of pain.
On Sunday my friend Heather took the kids for a few hours so I could work, and as I was working that afternoon, I felt very tired and scared and discouraged. I have a tendency to try to fix the "big picture" all at once rather than just taking things one day at a time. I had a task to get through, and I was so stressed and tired that I could barely focus. So I just sent out one of those "I don't really know what I need but please send it anyway" prayers, along with as much faith as I could muster, which I admit was not very much at all. It can be hard, in the midst of a crisis, to not feel like God is trying to kick you while you're down, or like you are being punished either for a reason or for no reason at all.
But then right there by my giant stack of papers I just had a calm sense of focus come over me, and I just did the work in front of me. I knew it was grace -- this thing that is hard to describe. It is something that, as a Catholic, I learned is available to us through the sacraments, and I definitely experienced it there -- but it seems like maybe (and just maybe) the spiritual experience of "grace" that I perceived as a practicing Catholic was mixed and blended with the physical feeling of relief that I would feel once I knew I had done all of the rituals required of me. As in, part of what I knew of grace was just temporary respite from the constant, grinding, leaden fear of hell. This fear is so written into my own experience with Catholicism that it didn't even separate itself out as an identifiable feature until I had a little distance between me and the perfect practice of the faith. If you had asked me a year ago if I experienced constant, grinding fear of hell, I would have said, no, of course not, I just have a knowledge of what is right and wrong, and I know when I have sinned. But then, while my lips were giving service to a merciful and loving God whose sacrifice on the cross achieved my salvation, I was sitting up nights, nauseated at the thought of what it would be like to face God one day with all my faults exposed. In other words, I didn't know I was in bondage until I was set free.
But all of that is abstract and dramatic, and that's not the point of my story. The point is that last Sunday for one of the first times since my conversion I experienced grace first hand, just as a result of asking for it and believing that it might be so. God visited me right there in the midst of my papers and notes, with no priest present, without me stating all my failings out loud and firmly intending to never sin again (a part of the Act of Contrition that seemed to make me into a liar all the time -- I know that I will sin, even if I do not set out to do so. It's in my human nature, and saying, "I promise I'll never do it again" just seems disingenuous. It's not fooling me, and it's certainly not fooling God).
The fact that grace exists and is poured out on us outside the bounds of Catholicism is a great gift, and the knowledge of this is so comforting to me that I can't even really put it in words. It brings me to the real challenge of post-Catholic Christianity -- the fact that there is not much there except me and God. In other words, there are no distractions, no little OCD rituals I can do to make myself feel better, no words I can repeat verbatim so that God might have mercy on me if I should die before I get to confession, no smug assurance that I am clean and good in the eyes of God now that I have filed the proper paperwork. Instead, there is God, and Jesus, and a promise of salvation, and me. And that is enough. That sufficiency is something that I am not used to. It feels like coming up to a giant pile of cash in the middle of the grass. Looking around, no one is there, it is free for the taking, it's all just laying there. If that happened to me in real life, I probably wouldn't take it -- I would assume it was a trick. I am conditioned to believe that salvation requires constant personal effort from me as payment before I can receive it.
I attend a small Sunday School class with five ladies at church before service, and it turns out that of the five ladies, three of us were Catholic until we were adults. Our stories have some differences but the overwhelming fact of them is similar. At one point in our conversation I shared my experience of the first time I attended Lutheran service. At the beginning of a Lutheran service, there is confession every week. Everyone stands and confesses together that we have sinned, and that without the grace of God we can't do anything else. There is time to reflect on the specifics of what you have done, in your heart, in the presence of everyone else, and you admit out loud that you have sinned. Then, after we say an act of contrition together, the pastor pronounces absolution over everyone. It's forgiveness, pouring out all over the place, all over everyone, in words you can hear, in the presence of the whole congregation. No one has to sit out from communion because we start the worship service by examining our consciences and confessing our sins together as a group. It reminds me of James 5:16, "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed."
The first time I experienced this, it was all I could do not to burst out crying and run out of the church -- forgiveness, given so freely. The gift of absolution without the humiliation of having to confess out loud to one person everything I had done, without making any mistakes and without leaving anything out -- the gift of forgiveness that I did not have to trade my dignity for -- it was a greater gift than I ever expected to receive in all my life. And it wasn't until that experience that I really began to understand the extent to which I had never believed in salvation as a free gift before. It's strange because as a Catholic I had thought about this exact issue and I didn't see a problem -- I thought the humiliation was good for me, and that Catholics have a better idea of right and wrong than other faiths. And that in itself might be true. With the constant threat of hell over our heads, Catholics might indeed have a better perception of having sinned. But in exchange for that knowledge we have handed over our knowledge and faith in God's forgiveness, and in the sufficiency of his sacrifice.
To put this another way, in my experience only (many others might disagree, but this is my perception), the Catholic view of forgiveness is similar to a huge insurance policy. Imagine that there is a company that will pay for everything you need, when you need it -- food, clothes, medical care -- with no copays at all. Total coverage, guaranteed. So you don't have to actually buy your life needs. However, the premiums for that insurance policy are so high that you work night and day to earn them, and barely make enough to cover the premium every month, and then you have to start over and earn it again with only a day or two until the next bill arrives.
Because of this structure, the insurance company can claim that they give you everything you need as a free gift. After all, you aren't directly paying for any of your needs. But access to that free gift costs a lot, so much that you can barely pay it, and sometimes you can't even earn enough, and they cancel the policy on you until you can pay. Everything you will ever need is available for free -- if you can afford the cost of buying in.
So that's what it is like for me trying to be a good enough Catholic to squeak by and get my insurance premium paid. The carrot of total coverage hanging out there in front of me, but never really reaching it, or at least not for long. Constant anxiety even though I get my needs "for free."
It wasn't until I followed the Holy Spirit to believe in a God who is more than an insurance payoff, and to follow a church that is more than a spiritual HMO that I began to understand and really experience a fact that I had never known or even suspected. I did not expect this to happen, and in fact I expected it not to, so I feel confident in saying this:
When you can accept -- or even begin to accept -- the fact that salvation from God is a free gift, it fills you with the desire and grace to live as a better person.
This really happens. I think the Catholic fear/assumption is that if you remove that ever-present threat of hell -- that constant fear of losing your insurance policy -- that you will then go run out into the street and become a hedonist, and do whatever you want, and lose all respect for decent living and turn your back on everything that is challenging because hey, there are no consequences anyway. It is the same fear that some religious people feel about atheists, like there can be no moral living if there is no abject fear to keep a person in line.
But the reality is the opposite.
If you think of it in terms of a mother's love, it makes sense. A mother loves her child and cares for her child without a clear idea of being repaid. In many ways, a mother's love is a free gift. When the child grows up, the child sends his mother cards and gifts on holidays, and flowers on Mother's Day. The child does not do this in great fear that the mother will stop loving him if he doesn't. Instead, the child gives the gifts because the generosity of the mother's love inspires it. It seems natural to hand over gifts to honor the connection of love and generosity that has existed between mother and child since the child's first breath.
As a Christian I have to let myself experience the love of God, and trust the Spirit to lead me to give God the gifts that are a right and proper extension of the love and trust that exists between us.
It's so simple that it is challenging. I have very little to cling to to distract myself from the fact that God loves me. And if he loves me, then I am called to a radical life change of reordered priorities, faithfulness, and service. This thought scares me, but with an invigorating energy that leads me on. The old twisting, leaden fear of hell gives way to an energetic, motivational fear of living a life that doesn't do enough to honor God for the gifts he has already given me, "pressed down, shaken together, and running over" (Luke 6:38).