Thursday, April 23, 2009

Walk before you run: learn the basics of Catholicism before you go deeper

Over the centuries, our faith has been developed more and more. Of course, right from the start, we've had everything we need for salvation. When I say start, I mean since Christ. From the beginning, we've had the Eucharist, Confession, the community of believers, leadership in the form of bishops and priests, our practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The list, of course, goes on and on. Over the centuries, theology and spirituality have developed, with a lot of new information. For example, we've dug deeper into our sinful nature and how to align ourselves better with Christ. We've elaborated on various doctrine, such as the divinity of Christ, the trinity, transubstantiation, doctrines about Mary, etc. But I think along this path of development, recently we've tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will give examples to show what I mean.
One example is fasting. Fasting is eating less, often much less or nothing in order to reduce our reliance on material things and to bring us closer to God. But how many people actually fast? Over the years, the numbers have gone down to the point where people who fast are seen as weird. While the entirety of Lent was once a period of extreme harshness and austerity, it has become something of a conversation topic to people nowadays. People once strictly fasted for 40 days, now people fast a little for 1 day, maybe 2, mostly Good Friday and sometimes Ash Wednesday. However, even those 2 days out of 365 are often reduced to make it easier. For example, a common trend now, which I find rather antithetical is to have a large meal of fish and chips from a local store on Good Friday. This misses the point completely of fasting. We are to abstain from flesh meat, but this doesn't mean we have to eat as much non-flesh meat as we can. But this is not the worst part about it.
The worst thing is that people have the attitude that fasting is passé and that now we are so much more advanced. Even when priests are giving homilies, they will say, yes of course there is fasting from food, but there is also fasting from gossip and fasting from mean words, and fasting from complaints. While this is a very good point, people tend to see these things as substitutions, rather than additions. They believe that fasting from food was an archaic practice that no one does anymore and as long as you make some vague effort to "be a better person" everything will be fine and dandy.
But let's look to Christ as our example. He didn't make his Passion nice and easy. He didn't say, the point is I'm forgiving sins, so it doesn't matter what I do. Christ didn't go for a walk in the park on a nice day, Christ suffered more than anyone has ever suffered, then he died on the cross. Fasting is an ancient, tried and true practice which is very much still a part of Catholic life. Fasting enables people to deny themselves temporal goods so that they may achieve spiritual goods and grow closer to God. I recently did some fasting and received enormous graces. They are truly beneficial. I think people can often be very attached to their worldly pleasures and unless they truly fast from food, they will not experience this detachment from the world.
Another example is confession. People are often told that counting sins and talking about bad things you did was an old way of confession. Now confession is a therapy session. You talk about how you feel, you tell the priest your problems, and he gives you ideas how to resolve them. You don't go into details about your sinfulness, but rather you say how you are trying to deal with things but sometimes it's hard. This is perhaps a good confession for a saint. But for a lot of people, it is important to be clear about our sinfulness. Confession is not for our "convenience", confession is God's way of reconciling ourselves to him. Yes, there is pain because of the choices we've made, but from the pain comes redemption. If we pretend we have no sins, they how can we say we are forgiven?
Yet another area I believe this occurs in is beliefs about prayer and spiritual life. People are often told God is not only in the Church and we can find God elsewhere. This is very true, God truly is everywhere. We can find him in nature, in helping the poor, in cleaning up the environment. But this assumes people already have an appropriate prayer life within the church. People have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You cannot find God in nature to the exclusion of going to Mass. Many saints have called us to see God in everything and everyone, but these same saints usually attended daily mass, received the sacraments frequently, and had a very strong prayer life.

The point I'm trying to make with this article, is that when it comes to being a Catholic, you have to walk before you run. I remember watching a video about a bodybuilder, and he was making sure he was getting enough fat in his diet. This was because most of his diet was very lean or was fruits and vegetables. At his level of physical fitness, he had to specially ensure that he had enough fat. However, an overweight person who has not worked out in years could not start eating fat all day in order to get in shape. We have to make sure we do not confuse the gravy with the main meal.

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