Walking the Way Into Faith

There is so much to love about Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s posting on the Reformed Tradition.  First and foremost, I think he really exemplifies the spirit of Harold Heie’s project on Respectful Conversation, laying out with great humility the strengths and weaknesses of his tradition, with a real openness in his tone.  One can hear he is a man on a journey, seeking after our Lord.  There are so many foundational things that Roman Catholics and folks in the Reformed tradition flatly disagree upon (many key examples of which Dr. Granberg-Michaelson lays out succinctly in his response to my original posting, including: transubstantiation, the role of the priest, the sacrificial nature of what goes on at the altar etc.  I would add total depravity and issues around free will to the list).  And yet, this posting, and his earlier response to my own, read far more like an invitation to bracket and set aside those differences in order to focus on and even celebrate those places we can agree.  I am delighted to do that here.  I am also eager to describe how some of the assertions Dr. Granberg-Michaelson makes take on flesh in my tradition.  In my postings I have made references to ‘Catholic piety’ without often being specific, (which a few CPs have inquired about) and interestingly this posting by Dr. Granberg-Michaelson seems to most open the door to talk about some of what piety looks like for our family as representative of ‘traditional Catholics.’ 

It seems both strength and weakness to Dr. Granberg-Michaelson that the Reformed tradition can be confession-centric.  I can see this possibility in my tradition as well.  The various confessions in his tradition could perhaps be compared to the catechisms in mine.  These are many, from some earlier than even Trent and right on up to the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 under Pope St. John Paul II.  They all provide interesting looks into the core of Catholic belief, and are very important to our faith in the way Dr. Granberg-Michaelson holds the confessions are for his.  I completely agree with him, however, that without lived experience and practice, our catechisms fall flat as mere intellectual exercises.  He puts this so well: “Focusing on defining faith by correct propositions can imprison belief in rationalism and mistake “correct” thoughts for faithful practice. Faith then becomes detached from the whole person, and spiritual experience is suspect, subjugated to right thinking.”  While Catholics certainly value ‘right thinking’ in our doctrine, there is a lot of room for the practice of the faith to help bring one to that place, and to temper self-righteous attitudes.  

I love that Dr. Granberg-Michaelson has found solace in one of the great faith pilgrimages of the West, the Camino de Santiago.  I hope to walk it myself one day!  I find his insight here excellent: “My time on the Camino de Santiago, and other paths unfolding from my contemplative journey, have persuaded me that while what we think and confess carries importance, in the end we walk our way into faith.”  This certainly resonates with my experience.  While my conversion to Catholicism was certainly rooted in a kind of theological search and assent, it was things like praying the Rosary, sitting silently in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, or living into the liturgical year in our fasting, feasting, praying and singing in the home that fed my faith in a new way, and fueled our quest for ‘right belief.’  

As a Roman Catholic it is easy to affirm Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s beautiful thoughts on infant baptism.  He writes: “When an infant is baptized in a Reformed (or other) congregation, theological critics will complain that he or she has no choice in the matter. But that is precisely the point. Christian faith is carried communally; it’s personal but not individualistic. A Christian community’s covenantal promises can be a vehicle for the initiative of God’s grace.” I heartily agree!  I was so pleased to spend some time looking at the joint statement on Baptism made by our two traditions that Dr. Granberg-Michaelson linked to in his response to my posting: These Living Waters: Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism [A Report of the Catholic Reformed Dialogue in United States 2003 – 2007].  In no way does this document attempt to sort out all of the differences between the two traditions, but what it does do very eloquently is to affirm how baptism is a wonderful starting point for healing the breach. 

This is just a taste of the document’s stated purpose:“Ultimately our unity is not something we create but is a gift given us by God. Its visible manifestation is something for which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ prayed (John 17), and we know that the earliest witnesses to the Christian faith proclaimed both the present reality and the eschatological hope of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4). Where we have fallen short of answering the call to that full visible unity, we confess our culpability and the enduring scandal of division within the body of Christ.”  This statement required both humility and courage from both parties, and I see these qualities in the tone and approach Dr. Granberg Michaelson takes in his posting for this project.  May God grant his Church this unity someday soon!

I can also deeply appreciate the statement made in Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s posting about the seriousness of sin, and the tension between that reality and the ample, overabundance of the Love that flows out from the Lord for each one of us, including the mystery that we are made in His image.  This topic is a bit sticky between our traditions.  I certainly cannot affirm Total Depravity (and indeed, I can’t even really makes sense of it in my mind in light of Scripture, for example see Matthew 12:37, James 2:24, Luke 18: 13,14), but the seriousness around sin in my tradition is undeniable.  On the ground, there is much Catholic piety that centers on the gravity of sin.  The title of his posting, “From Guilt, to Grace, to Gratitude” reminded me of jokes Catholics and others often make about “Catholic Guilt.”  But as Dr. Granberg-Michaelson articulated so beautifully in his posting about the Reformed tradition,  authentic Catholicism never stops at sin and guilt.  It is only a starting place, even though some seem to get ‘stuck there.’  

The reality of sin is made manifest in many seasons and practices in my tradition.  The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent invite particular concentration on sin and its consequences, inviting repentance. The practice of praying through the Stations of the Cross on Fridays (especially in Lent) communally (in parishes or families) helps participants to connect these events of Christ’s passion to our own culpability and role in putting Christ through His agony.  The daily examen which many families and individuals use certainly helps us to take stock of our trespasses regularly, so as not to lose sight of the daily battle for virtue and the necessity of asking forgiveness of God and others as we fail.  The regular use of the sacrament of Confession means (at least) the roughly monthly chance to recognize and repent of our sin with the help of the priest, who bestows absolution.  Even within the Rosary, which is not particularly focused on sin, the Fatima prayer is repeated in each decade every day of the week: Oh my Jesus! Forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell.  Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.  The reality of sin and the battle against it is daily on the minds of pious Catholics, and this is just a taste of the way our family uses these gifts of the Church to ponder sin, and to learn to avoid it (little-by-little!).

Thankfully, there are just as many counterbalances to this focus on sin!  Each penitential season has its glorious opposite of feasting and celebration.  Every day there are invitations to dwell on the mystery of God’s grace.  In our family’s rule of life we say the Angelus three times each day (this was once an entirely normal practice and church bells would ring publicly on schedule to remind everyone when it was time).  This quick but powerful form of prayer brings the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to our minds, and reminds us thrice each day of the mystery of the incarnation and this joyful moment.  God is with us, and so very near!  The mysteries of the Rosary cycle through the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious on the various days of the week, so there is a regular focus on the amazing works of salvation God has done.  When a family prays the Rosary daily, in about a half hour they dwell on 5 of these sequential mysteries as they say the words of the Hail Mary and Our Father together, making the Rosary a powerful tool for mental prayer (so far from the idea Protestants have that it is a fruitless, mindless ritual of saying a bunch of prayers a million times).  Notice there are twice as many mysteries (the Joyful 5 and the Glorious 5) that focus on the remedies for sin as those that focus on the role of sin in this fallen world (the 5 Sorrowful).  The various sacramentals we use all the time (holy water, salt, or oil, medals, crucifixes, even the sign of the cross which we make so often) remind us of how many tools and gifts the Church has given to help us guard against sin, if we will only reach for them when the moment comes!   All of this doesn’t even begin to attempt to describe the joy of receiving our Lord in the Eucharist, to so thoroughly cleanse, heal and fill us.  What is sin compared to this?!  It is a sweetness that knows no bounds. So, while I can affirm with Dr. Granberg-Michaelson that my tradition does have a kind of focus on sin, it also, in the fullness of what the Church offers, never leaves us there, but rather offers a tenfold host of remedies and guards against sin that help to move us toward the grace and gratitude that Dr. Granberg-Michaelson also describes.  These gifts of God taste so much sweeter when sin is taken seriously.

I will end by quickly responding to one aspect of the gracious response Dr. Granberg-Michaelson gave to my posting, which was to wonder about the role that teaching and discipleship has in living out the traditional Roman Catholic faith, as my posting perhaps gave the impression that receiving our Lord in the Eucharist at Mass “results in such a mystical infusion of Christ’s presence that ‘following Jesus’ simply flows naturally.”  A fair critique!  I find it so difficult to squeeze all of what happens into these postings!  I agree with him (because of friends that I have who share his tradition) that teaching and discipleship are most certainly a commendable strength for Reformed believers.  Our experience outside of the Latin Mass was certainly that teaching the basics of the faith is a serious challenge and often a failing in average Catholic parishes, and there is much the Catholic church at large could learn from the practices of study and teaching from our Reformed friends.  We are grateful that this kind of serious study of the faith is far more present in our parish life with the FSSP.   Even the ‘normal practice’ of families in the Traditional Rite to use Saturday evening as a time to prepare for Mass the next day (to study and discuss the readings of the Mass before they are proclaimed liturgically), has brought a new kind of vigor to our family’s experience of the liturgy, and has deepened not only our knowledge but our faith. 

I hope I am conveying a little here, by sharing just a few bits of the practice of Catholic piety we’ve come to know about, of what Dr. Granberg-Michaelson hints at when he speaks of practices like pilgrimage.  Our Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi is so akin to his statement that “we walk our way into faith.”  All of these traditional Catholic practices of piety are a way to walk closer to Jesus each day, throughout the day.  The things we do to pray (lex Orandi)  are in their very nature and patterns instructive, and inform our belief (lex Credendi), perhaps even as much as our serious study and ‘right thinking’ can. And praise the Lord, this affects our lives (lex Vivendi) directly in a glorious spilling-over into every day, hopefully touching those around us who have yet to know His love and grace.  

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