Monday, January 21, 2008

Experiencing God in the Sacraments

Sometimes I feel I compare Catholicism and Protestantism too much, but I think that is just the phase I am going to be in for awhile. I am trying to make sense of both my previous expression of faith as a Protestant and my new expression as a Catholic, and that means comparing them. The thing I have been thinking about lately is how God works in the lives of Catholics, because from my experience, it is different than what I experienced as a Protestant.

As a Protestant, I felt very much that I was on my own in my relationship with God. True, I had the privilege of being actively discipled by several women well up to the task, and lived in community with other Christians, but, overall I was on my own. I always came up with my own words to pray, I came up with my own style of personal devotion (rather than deciding to daily follow something like the Liturgy of the Hours), and, most importantly, I felt responsible to 'conjure' up God, if you will-- if I couldn't "feel" him, I started to worry that my spirituality needed a patch-up. It was up to me to seek God, to try to feel emotionally connected to him. I don't mean I credited myself if I felt the spirit of God moving, I just mean that there was no particular vehicle in which I had full confidence God would show up every time. Because of this, I believed that I had to always or usually sense somehow that God was present, because, otherwise, how could I know?

What was even worse were those experiences when I'd go to church or some group meeting and, while it seemed like everyone else was being moved by God, I felt nothing. Sometimes I could chalk it up to a mismatch of worship styles, but sometimes, I couldn't, and I would go away feeling empty. Not staggeringly empty, but disappointed. I have to say that overall, God was very real to me back then, and faithful. But there was a very predictable pattern of spiritual drought that would occur in my life; when I couldn't go to Bible studies anymore, or a church service that I loved, or I didn't have close friends to pray with, I felt extremely far from God.

The Catholic expression of faith has been entirely different for me, and I believe this to be the effect of regularly partaking of the sacraments. The difference wasn't instant, because I started being Catholic with Protestant eyes, and it took awhile for my Catholic eyes to develop-- they are still developing. But the sacraments had become available to me. As a Protestant, they were not, and I have wondered--did I miss a lot of God's grace over the years by not partaking of them? The fact is, God could not be with me or communicate to me through the sacraments then like he does now. It had to be done in other ways. When I think of it now, it's sort of like being a non-Christian, although to a much lesser extent. God can certainly get a hold of a non-Christian's attention, but if that person never goes to church, or never picks up a Bible, and ignores the big questions of life, it's not very likely that they will hear God. God can work around these issues if he wants to, but when one lives a lifestyle closed to God, one limits the chances of hearing God.

How did God speak to me, how did he actively give me grace, how did I spend time with him when the sacraments were closed to me? I had my routines which had proved faithful to me; spending time alone reading scripture and praying, grabbing a friend to pray with, going to an energetic church service, doing a Bible study. But, as I recall, sometimes I felt like I was looking in corners--Will I find God here? There? Will he show up tonight? Tomorrow instead? Maybe I should try this, or that, to find him. As I said earlier, my faithfulness to God, and to private devotions, (which were often tied to my judgement on how faithful he was being to me), went downhill as soon as group structures were removed from my life; Bible study, group prayer, etc. The funny thing is that currently, I am not in any group structures save Mass, but yet I am in a really good place spiritually. I'm not going to Bible study, or praying with other Christians outside of Mass, and the two friends I have made since we moved here are both atheists, so I'm not bouncing many 'God ideas' off of them.

I have to chalk this up to the sacraments, really, I do. I am receiving the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance regularly right now, and I fully believe I am being infused regularly with grace because of them. I cannot put into words how wonderful it is to go to Mass and have full confidence that I will receive God there physically every time in the Eucharist. Or to go to confession and hear God answer back to my sins in the voice of the priest I confess to, and to walk away knowing I have done all I need to do for that day, I am forgiven. Literally, I am feeding off Jesus every week at Mass, and literally, I am forgiven right there in the confessional. I love this predictability--while I don't have God down to a science, in some way, I have figured out how he works, and how to get at him when I need to be with him. I haven't now decided that being with God is limited to the sacraments, I just so appreciate the certainty and consistency of having them, because this was an element lacking in my life as a non-Catholic.

I would like to be in a small faith-forming group again someday, they have been valuable tools for me in growing closer to God in the past. But these types of activities feel like an add-on to what I have found to be essential in my relationship with God as a Catholic: the sacraments. It's odd how we decide what is important in knowing God, and I think leaving it up to myself previously was rather misguided. In college, Bible study felt very equivalent to going to church, and I would often substitute attending church with a Bible study. I can't do this as a Catholic and still be in a good place with God, because Bible study is not at all similar to receiving the Eucharist. I appreciate knowing the formula of the sacraments...I finally feel like an adult in my faith.


Andrea said...

Well said! You've captured some similar thoughts that I've had since becoming Catholic.

I've been wanting to comment on your other recent posts as well, but there is so much to say and so little time :-) I'll call you soon to catch up.

MHL said...

Very good post and very similar to my thoughts. I'm not Catholic (yet) but I do desire a more sacrementally ordered worship.

I enjoy your blog very much.