Don’t worry, I’m still as sure as ever that I want to be Catholic but I’m sad to say that it was not always so. I think there comes a time in the life of every religious person where they question whether or not they want to continue practicing their religion and this article is written for the person who finds himself or herself on that lonely boat.
I was complaining to my mother recently about the sort of things published by the various Catholic media groups I follow across various social media. In particular, I read a list of “8 things you should be doing daily as a Catholic” because I was curious what they were and if I was doing them. Unfortunately, the entire list can be summarized in 4 words “pray and be nice” with a recommendation that we do this on social media too.
Ugh. I hate lists like that and I was annoyed that I took the time to even read it.
You should pray and be nice as a Catholic. But I absolutely detest things that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) treat Catholicism as the whipped cream on the overpriced coffee of life. Before you judge me for being as stupid as my simple metaphor suggests, hear me out. So much of what I read encourages a light and “fluffy” Catholicism, one that is unobtrusive and undemanding, something to simply add on to your day. In other words, to treat Catholicism (or whatever your religion happens to be if you have one) as a nice addition, just a little sweet something extra, to top off your own life and your own affairs. Blogs that remind us to throw in a prayer as we go about our daily business, to try and be nice if it’s not too inconvenient, and to post a peaceful psalm with a picture of a mountain or field on our Facebook page. The end.
Granted not all the resources out there are like that, but I confess there seems to me to be a wave of Catholicism (especially on social media) that is so determined to maintain a broad appeal in the name of bringing people through the doors of the Church it’s as if they downplay the full force of the truth we believe for fear it would alienate a potential new members. Pinterest can post a quote telling me to “love all people” written in cursive over a sunflower, but I have always liked Catholicism which gives me the image of a crucifix to demonstrate exactly how God desires me to “love all people” in the same selfless and sacrificial way He loves me.
It is not that any of things suggested by the author of the blog I read were a bad means of discovering God in one’s daily life, it is when such external things are valued and emphasized over and at the expense of the interior life of the soul that I get crabby and complain to my mother. I do believe that faith without works is dead but to put the works before the faith is as silly as it is futile because to do that is to miss the essence of love.
There is something about the mysterious nature of love that makes the impossible seem possible, that makes us want to be better versions of who we are already. I do try to “pray and be nice” but not so that I can check it off my “acceptable Catholic living” to-do list. I pray because not only do I love God, I like God, and many a bad day has been made better by sharing it with God. In fact, much of my crabbiness turns to laughter in the presence of God because I have the faith that God loves me even in my crabbiness and even in the midst of my many failed attempts to be patient because He always understands and provides me with many more fresh moments in which to try again. (And again, and again, and again…I’ve been working on patience for quite some time now.)
Believing in God is one thing, but maintaining a relationship with God, especially in the modern world of the prevalent new atheism, can be a daunting task which no man or woman should be expected to go through alone. And when you are in the depths of doubt, when God feels so very far away, and you feel completely lost and alone and unworthy of the love that you nonetheless desire from the bottom of your soul, you don’t need some sunflower and some crappy cursive offering you some cliched and shallow inspiration that you probably already know and have doubtless heard before, you need the cross.
And when you water down the message of the cross to “pray and be nice” with a big old smiley face you either affirm the message to those who already believe it or pander to those who don’t yet believe in the hopes that they might, but you risk losing the most important demographic to any religion; the one Jesus Himself served during His life and died to save: the sinner. The sinner who struggles, the sinner who questions, the sinner who is tempted by the paths of the world that seem so much easier and so much more gratifying (in the short term), the sinner who falls away and isn’t sure how to come back.
And when I who know myself to be a sinner was stuck on the precipice of doubt and dangling precariously over complete despair, it wasn’t the sunshine-y garbage of the world that brought me back. It was instead was a firm conviction of the ever faithful and merciful love of God which I saw laid out on the cross. A love that transcends all human understanding because it is the love that loves not for a reason but without a reason, a love that is perpetuated not by the merits of the beloved (you) but by the promise of the God Who loves and is incapable of breaking His own word. But in beginning to grasp after a love that was so far above me I found it, to my surprise, not only to be close at hand but ready and willing to enter into my soul once more if I was simply willing to grant Him my permission. So I did. And it is that beginning point of my “yes” to God which laid the groundwork for the construction of a soul that housed not one, but two. And it is to this development that I controversially attribute every good thing I have ever done because it is the motivation behind my every prayer and the inspiration for every attempt to be “nice” or, to use the term I prefer, holy.
And to those of you who find yourselves struggling, promise me you will be not afraid. Because even if you don’t feel it and can’t even bring yourself to believe it God is with you. He loves you so much He could never leave you, and He will make everything all right in its time. There is only one thing we as humans must never do, we must not quit. We must not stop our prayers or our pursuit of a relationship with God, and we must begin to do those things if we have never done them if we ever hope to find what we are truly seeking. And while I can’t answer how each of you specifically are meant to encounter the love of God, I can at least start by letting you know that I’m praying for you, I love you, and that I’m confident in you even if you are not.
Mother Angelica, one of my favorite spiritual guides, is often quoted as saying “we are all called to be Saints, don’t miss the opportunity.” And the darkness of doubt or even the temptation to despair is not a failure or a sign of weakness that you should hide away for fear that others might discover it, it is instead an opportunity to become little and depend on the merciful love of God to raise you back up again and transform you into the person you were always meant to be. Because while we may fail time and time again the love of God never fails or falters, and His mercy endures forever.