Saturday, April 05, 2014

Swimming the Tiber

So, it's been a while since I've written.  Far too long, in fact.  But there have been so many questions rolling around in my head for so long that I really felt I had little to write about.  Unless my readers wanted a list of all my concerns and doubts, I felt I had little to offer.  I knew I was dissatisfied with the fundamentalist patriarchal "gospel," but I was equally dissatisfied and disillusioned with the liberal emerging church dogma I found in my return to the United Methodist Church.  (I realize that there is much disparity in teaching among UM churches.  The church of my youth, St Peter UMC, is faithful and orthodox.  Others, I have found, are not so faithful to the teachings of the Bible. The final straw for me was reading the official position of the UMC on abortion.  It states that while they don't believe that abortion should be used for birth control, eugenics or gender-selection, they do understand that abortion is sometimes justified.  I cannot see Jesus saying it is okay or justified to murder an unborn child.)  So I searched.  And prayed.  And searched some more.  I made lists of doctrines that confused me and questions that I needed answered.

Realizing that many modern churches claim to base their worship on the New Testament church of Acts, I went back to the teachings of the early Church fathers like St Clement and St Irenaeus to see how they described the meeting of the early Christians.  And what struck me most was the emphasis on the reading of the Word and the celebration of the Lord's Supper.  And startlingly, how adamant the early Fathers were about the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Our old church celebrated the Lord's Supper each week, but made a big deal each week about how it was only symbolic and had no power in and of itself. (They also said the same thing about baptism, which struck me as bizarre.  I mean, why celebrate the sacraments if they have no power?)  But looking at Jesus' first references to the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John, far before the Last Supper, it seemed like the Real Presence was an indisputable doctrine.  When Jesus explained that in order to have eternal life, one must literally chew his flesh, many were dismayed and grumbled about this teaching.  It seemed to me that if He only meant for the Eucharist to be symbolic, He would have backtracked and explained that it was all just a metaphor.  But He didn't.  He stood His ground, saying "'Very truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.'"  (John 6:53-57)  And then the Bible says many of his disciples left because they could not accept this teaching.  After reading this passage several times, coupled with the writings of St Clement and St Irenaeus, I came to the conclusion that there could be no other faithful way to interpret Jesus' words about Communion.

Looking at the doctrines of various denominations, it became clear that only a select few taught the Real Presence.  Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox both teach transubstantiation, and Lutherans teach something just short of it - that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, although the species themselves remain bread and wine.  So the field narrowed fairly quickly.

There were several other hurdles I had to clear before I would be able to accept any of those three denominations though.  For years I had been frustrated by the lack of female leadership and authority in the fundamentalist churches.  I was told that as a woman I was easily deceived and unfit for teaching men or even boys.  I was informed that since my eldest son was nearing puberty, I needed to allow my husband to do all his religious instruction since he shouldn't have to be under the authority of a woman.  I was further instructed that I could not teach a mixed gender Sunday school class once the kids reached puberty since the boys needed to be taught by men.  Women, apparently, were only fit for teaching other women and small children.  (Which seemed a rather strange leap in logic to me.  If women are so easily deceived, why should we even be allowed to teach each other?  By the fundy logic, we wouldn't be able to discern if the other women were teaching heresy.  If women are truly more likely to teach error, it seems doubly imperative to have men teaching women and small children.  But I digress.)  I saw marriages that operated more like corporations with the dad/husband dictating orders like the boss and the mom/wife dutifully carrying them out like some sort of underling.  And it made me sad.  To me it seemed a perversion of the Biblical ideal of mutual submission and deference.  So I was quite wary of looking at churches that seemed to institutionalize the practice of male-centered authority.

At the time, we were attending an NALC Lutheran Church which ordained women.  I was happy there and the kids were making friends and growing.  But it still felt like something was missing.  Like it was a shade of the truth, but not quite the real thing.  But the other two denominations I looked at, RC and EO, both denied women ordination.  Still, I felt like I really needed to look deeper into what they taught regarding women and ministry and why they taught it.

What I found surprised me, as even though the RC and EO did not ordain women, the reasoning behind it was light years away from what I had heard in the fundamentalist churches.  It had nothing to do with women's innate ability to teach or lead, or from any supposed weakness or lack of discernment.  It had to do with biblical precedent.  They reasoned that if any one woman deserved to be appointed as a priest, it would have been the Blessed Virgin Mary, and yet Jesus didn't even ordain His own mother.  Instead, he ordained 12 men.  Furthermore, the priestly role is to be a stand-in for Christ, ministering as Jesus to the congregation. Jesus was a male, so the priests are male.  And although there are not female priests in the RC and EO churches, there are many roles for women.  Women can teach anyone, including priests and adult men.  Women are missionaries and heads of abbeys and cloisters.  Women are even Doctors of the Church, the highest honor given for theological learning in the Roman Catholic Church.  And much honor is given to many female saints and to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Men and women alike honor female saints and seek to emulate their holiness.  I came to the conclusion that the ideas of a male-only priesthood and the empowerment of women to teach and serve can be compatible.

But Mary and the saints were yet another potential stumbling block for me as I investigated the more traditional liturgical churches.  As a Protestant, I'd been taught that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians worship Mary.  I'd seen statues and icons and assumed that in praying before them or lighting candles, the congregants were indeed worshiping idols.  The Rosary was a mystery to me and I could not see the benefit (in fact, I saw peril) in repeating pleas to Mary for her intercession.  But, having found truths the resonated with me when I investigated the Eucharist and the church roles of women more fully, I was willing to dig deeper to see if my assumptions were true.  And once again, instead of error, I found truth.  Mary is never to be worshiped and neither are the saints.  Worship is reserved for God alone.   Instead, we are to look at them as holy examples of how a Christ-honoring life looks in many different circumstances.  I can ask "what would Jesus do?" in relation to my mothering, but looking at the lives of various saints who actually were mothers, I can see more clearly how to live out my vocation as a mother in a way that brings honor to Christ.  Both EO and RC churches teach that death does not separate members of the Body of Christ.  So asking a saint to pray for you is not the necromancy or sorcery forbidden in the Old Testament.  Instead, it is as simple as asking a friend to pray for you here on Earth.  Furthermore, James 5:16 instructs us that the "prayer of a righteous person is very powerful."  Whose prayers, then, would be more powerful that those saints who are already sanctified and standing before the throne of God in Heaven?

I learned that the various teachings about Mary (Immaculate Conception, Assumption, etc) were well established in the early Church and have deep and meaningful reasons behind them.  I found comfort in hearing that just as Jesus was the new Adam, so also Mary was the new Eve.  As Eve's disobedience brought sin into the world, so Mary's obedient "yes" to God ushered in the birth of the Messiah.  Every Christmas in the Protestant churches I'd heard sermons about how Mary was just an ordinary girl who said yes.  But I read in RC and EO literature that Mary was without personal sin, having been preemptively saved by the grace of Christ from ever sinning.  I learned that even Martin Luther and other Reformers held to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  While the EO denies the doctrine of original sin, the RCC teaches that she was, as the new Ark of the Covenant (Rev. 12), necessarily preserved from original sin so that Jesus himself would be preserved from the stain of original sin.  Mary's Assumption, like that of Enoch and Elijah, is a demonstration of the same resurrection we all look forward to as believers.  And reading about various Marian apparitions around the world, I noticed one thing in common.  They all point to Jesus.  Any time Mary has appeared to people, she has deflected all of the honor to her son and instructed believers to love and serve Him more.  The Rosary, when said properly, is far from just rote requests for Mary's intercession.  Instead, it is a deeply meditative set of prayers in which the believer considers key events in the life of Christ and how they apply to his or her life.  I began praying both the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet on a regular basis and was amazed at how much inner peace and strength I gained from the practice.

Several RC and EO convert friends of mine told me that they struggled at first with the idea of Confession, but this sacrament actually attracted me.  Even though many Protestant friends of mine scoffed at the idea of having to go to a priest for absolution, I longed to confess my sins and hear the words of forgiveness.  When I finally did convert, I was blown away by how amazing this sacrament is.  My first Reconciliation (the official name for Confession) was an hour long.  I had six pages of sins written out and while I was so nervous I thought I might toss my cookies, it was so very freeing.  I came home afterwards and burned the pages.  Since then I've tried to make it a practice to go to Confession about once a month.

As one by one my theological impediments to entering a liturgical church fell, I began looking at the solae of the Reformation.  Growing up Protestant, I'd always assumed that the Reformation was a good, necessary thing and that the solae (Scriptura, gratia, fides, Christus, Deo gloria) were good doctrinal statements.  But upon deeper investigation, I found them to be in large part unScriptural and often based on misunderstanding of Traditional teachings.  For instance, the Bible itself doesn't call Scripture the sole arbiter of faith.  In I Timothy 3:15 we are instructed that church itself is the pillar and foundation of all truth.  So I could not hold onto the solae as justified reasons for choosing the Lutheran church.

With the Lutheran church off the table, I came down to the EO and the RC.  The choice between these, for me, came down to what I believed about the apostolic authority of the pope.  And after reading the Gospels again, especially Matthew 16, I realized that Jesus had indeed established Peter as the first pope and given us the teaching office of the Church to guide us and keep us from error.  I realized that I was ready to wholeheartedly believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the fullest expression of the truth of Jesus Christ here on Earth.  While this doesn't mean that individual Catholics or even individual popes are necessarily holy or orthodox, I do believe the words of Jesus when He said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church He founded on Simon Peter.

At this point, I began RCIA (Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults) and entered joyfully into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church on November 24, 2013.  My husband is not Catholic, though we often engage in respectful conversations about our faiths.  We try as a couple to emphasize our theological similarities and our mutual faith in Jesus Christ.  We agreed to allow our children to choose when they get older if they would like to convert.  I am sharing with them as I learn more about the faith.  Pray for me, that I will become a more faithful Catholic and a more ardent lover of Jesus Christ.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing. When I went to ORU I was also presented with many conflicts due to my faith as a Catholic and it was there that people condemned me that I was going to hell of being an idol worshiper. Your blog brings a lot of clarity to many confusion. Anita

Tamara said...

I didn't know you were Catholic, Anita! I'm sorry you were treated poorly at ORU.