Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Catholic in me (6)

We are all part of the manifestation of Christ’s Church as it is today. We are the Body of Christ: we are the Christian Church. By ‘we’ I do not mean only those of us who are seen to be members of a church community or congregation, regardless of denomination, but also those who are beyond the easily recognized boundaries of mutual belief and compliance; everyone who has the slightest degree of faith or interest in Jesus and why so many follow Him.
Whatever our point of view and however unassailable we believe the particular pinnacle upon which we stand, we remain united by that fact in spite of having lost sight of the truth that underpins it. Clearly we are not the one body our Lord prayed that we should be (John 17:20-23). Equally clearly, we are not united in the ways we ourselves know we should be, even if many of us do keep that knowledge suppressed within our own consciousness and out of sight of others.

I am a Catholic, but I do not cling to every little thing thought to be Catholic or believed to be so by others within the Church. Still less do I cling to those things which, in the eyes of many outside the Catholic Church, are mistakenly seen as being part of the essential beliefs, worship and conduct of Catholics and thus part of what being a Roman Catholic is all about.
Some of these observed actions and attitudes are based upon teachings of the Church, but much of the understanding of that teaching, as well as the appreciation of the extent and limits of that teaching, have become diffused among the unsurprising attractions and devotions that seem to be embedded among so many of the world’s Catholic faithful. The distortions involved in some of these forms of individual devotion and peripheral belief are, in reality, far less significant than they appear to be, particularly when it is borne in mind that the apparent significance is as seen by those who are not Roman Catholics. There is no way of avoiding the fact that all such observers, but for the divisions and separations of the last five hundred years, would otherwise have been Catholic or not Christian at all. However much in need of reform the Church may then have been, and if, as I believe, the Reformation was not just inevitable but essential, and not just essential but Spirit led, the eventual results of the turmoil were not inspired by the Spirit of God. The splits, further divisions and fragmentation of the Church were brought about through strength of human feeling, not through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Much that gave rise to that irrepressible strength of feeling was inspired by the Spirit, but, then as now, the individuals most able to discern the Spirit’s presence and leading were unable to prevent themselves running ahead with their own feelings and assessments of truth, losing track of the Spirit’s guidance in the process.
We easily fail to understand or misunderstand even those who share our denominational allegiance and church community, and who are therefore thought to share our beliefs and our values, but failing to comprehend the thoughts, beliefs and actions of those who do not share our background, routines and mindset seems to come naturally to all of us; it appears to be part of the human condition.

Somewhere here is the heart of what Jesus came to change in us, in our lives and in the world. The continuation of God’s presence among us in the form of His Spirit works towards the ultimate aim of uniting the whole world in recognition and appreciation of God as reality for us all. Unity is at the centre of all Christ desires for and from mankind.

Here I find myself struggling not to use one of the many words that can lose the attention of the reader or listener. Jesus is our Redeemer. But what does that mean? What is redemption?
There are so many words used by Christians that are distinctly unhelpful to themselves as well as to those who are on the fringes of the crowd, looking and listening but not yet sure enough to follow Jesus. Some are rarely heard or read in any other context, but others are relatively normal words which have a similarly distancing effect by being used in unusual ways. In other words, the Christian context itself causes confusion and a sort of ‘lost in translation’ vagueness even when the more esoteric words are avoided.
I believe this holds many devout Christians back in their journeys towards a living faith as opposed to the learned and habitual routine which may contain little understanding of what we are meant to contribute to Christ’s Church and what He wills that we derive from being members of it.

Jesus came to redeem the world; we have heard it so often but what on earth does it mean? Literally, what on Earth does it mean?
Trying to understand without anchoring that understanding in the world in which we live will lead us nowhere; at least it will not lead us to the correct interpretation of what Christ has done for us, and that is what matters. If we do not appreciate mankind’s need of God’s influence in our lives we remain oblivious to our most essential needs and to our potential both as individuals and as a community.
My own understanding of ‘redemption’ has come slowly, through the gradual unfolding of my own awareness of myself as someone loved by God and in some way important to His plan, not for my own life but for His Church and for the redemption of all mankind. And yet I would still hesitate to define the word. I still regard it as one of many that have the ability to confuse, to distance and to confound the very people I long to bring in from the fringes – from the very edge - closer to Jesus and into the intimate vulnerability that allows the Spirit of God to grasp and transform lives.
I well remember being asked by someone who played an essential part in my journey to a real living faith, ‘Do you feel redeemed?’ At the time I was unable to say that I did; I did not feel anything. But even if I had been aware of some sort of feeling, I could not have answered ‘Yes’, as I did not really understand the question; I did not really understand the word. Why? Because it is one that cannot be understood by being superficially aware of the meaning: by having a vague idea of what it means based on its occurrence in church writings and teachings, and on an automatic absorption of things Christian which may have begun as a child. It seems that it remains a word the meaning of which I may never grasp sufficiently to enable me to use it with confidence. Despite being comfortable with reading and hearing the word, it remains one I rarely use.
But – and it is a big but – dwelling on this and recalling the asking of the question has clarified an awareness for me.
Many years have passed, but the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and my slow progress towards a fuller appreciation of what Jesus has done for me have brought me to a place where I can quietly but joyfully answer, ‘Yes ..., I feel redeemed.’

I am redeemed, and I know it through the experience of living a life within the unity that is redemption: the redemption and the unity which are at the heart of Christ’s gift to mankind.
Perhaps my continued difficulty with using the word is not so much due to a lack of understanding, as to the fact that I understand only too well. The enormity of what has been done for me makes me cringe inwardly at my sinfulness, my lack of humility, love and compassion. I, unfaithful and insignificant as I am, have been redeemed!

The combination of a sometimes anguished conscience overlain with constant joy perpetuates my feeling of personal redemption. It is part of what binds me to the Catholic Church, but it is also a major part of what prevents me from finding any contradiction in my will to bring others closer to Christ without necessarily leading them into Catholicism. We must each do that which we are called to do: no more and no less; beyond that we must allow the Holy Spirit the freedom of our lives, and be blown wherever He wills.

‘Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you,
or try to discover what is beyond your powers.
Concentrate on what has been assigned you,
you have no need to worry over mysteries.’
(Ecclesiasticus 3:21-22)

About Me

Who I am should be, and should remain, of little consequence to you. Who you are is what matters; who you are meant to be is what should matter most to you. In coming closer to my own true self, I have gradually been filled with the near inexpressible: I have simply become "brim full", and my words to you are drawn from those uttered within myself, as part of an undeniable overflowing that brings a smile to my every dusk, and to my every new dawn.
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