Wonderful, Frustrating, Incarnate: Reflections From a Catholic Convert
Last May, I wrote about my own decision to convert to Catholicism. As a follow-up to that post I’d like to share my reflections on my Confirmation in the Catholic Church, and the important insight I gained from a life-long Catholic.
A couple of weeks after our RCIA class joined the church, we gathered for a dinner reception. After we enjoyed a sumptuous meal—-and perhaps gained a pound or two each–our parish priest stood up and asked us all to reflect upon the Easter Vigil Mass. What was it about that experience that touched us and stayed with us?
When it came to my turn, I didn’t talk about the beauty of the liturgy-—I’d attended several Easter Vigils as an Episcopalian—-or the experience of being confirmed—-as powerful as that was. Others had talked about those subjects already. Instead, I shared what my wife—-who was also my sponsor—-said when we returned to the pews:
“Welcome to the most wonderful and the most frustrating club in the world.”
The room erupted in laughter.
“I laughed too,” I said. “But then I thought about it and I realized that she was right. We’re all human, which means that though we are made in the Image of God we will always come up short of that Image. We are fallen, we are sinful—-close enough to God to see what we should be but at the same time so far away that we will never come close to closing that gap on our own–but we are also the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit dwells among us and within us, as a community, as a church. That is an amazing gift, a gift beyond words.”
“So tonight I would like express how overjoyed I am to be a part of the most wonderful and the most frustrating club in the world.”
This is the only thing the church can be. Like the Word become flesh, Jesus Christ, the church shares in the immense frustration of our humanity, and in the infinitely greater wonder of his divinity. Through the Incarnation, our humanity became his humanity, and through the Cross and the Resurrection, his divinity has become and is becoming our divinity. This is the Mystery of Faith: what the Orthodox call Theosis, Catholics call Purgation, and Methodists call Sanctification. God became Man, living, dying, and rising to new life, in order to transform each of us and all of us more and more into the Image of God.
But, as St. Paul notes, the glass is still dark. That is why the same visible church that has produced war, persecution, inquisition, prejudice, and oppression has also produced peace, love, forgiveness, humility, and self-sacrifice. The same visible church that gave the world tyrannical popes, bishops, cardinals, and kings has also given the world many more saints both known and unknown–along with some of the greatest art, music, philosophy, theology, and literature that the world has even known.
All the human-inspired frustration is more than countered by all the divinely-inspired wonder.
And you, my Protestant brothers and sisters, must recognize much of the same frustration and wonder in your own church communities. After all, we are joined to Christ and to each other by our common baptism. And this may sound irreverent–I don’t mean it so–but lately at least, I’m seeing the Catholic Church as The Church in part because it is at the same time the most frustrating and most wonderful of all churches. No matter what frustration you can cite in your own communities, I sincerely believe I can come up with worse, And no matter what wonders you can cite in your own communities, I sincerely believe I can come up with better.
An unusual boast, but to quote St. Paul “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.*” And in his Church.
The Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in the depths of its humanity and the heights of its holiness is truly the most frustrating and most wonderful community in the world.
*1 Corinthians 1:31 (NAB)