I discovered something like this when I entered the Catholic Church.
Today, the Church celebrated The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Writing this 2,316 miles from home, I participated in Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco. But I’m sure my church, The Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama, together with the Church all over the world, similarly celebrated the same Feast of Corpus Christi.
In The Gospel of Saint Matthew we read our Lord’s words: “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:33*). I read C.S. Lewis’ words in Mere Christianity to say something similar: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Something was not quite right
In my low-church-Protestant experience, there was neither liturgy nor church calendar. Prayers were extemporaneous. As we were taught, we believed Sacraments (only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to be merely symbolic. Being a reader and loving history, however, I sensed our Protestant communities were lonely outposts; little islands in the present, seemingly cut off from historic Christianity. There was the ancient Christian world, and then us; like we were born yesterday, but professing an ancient faith.
Lewis wrote favorably about a kind of church service completely foreign to my low-church sensibilities. For some reason it appealed to me:
They [referring to conservative laymen as opposed to experiment-prone Anglican clergy] have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, Harcourt at 4.
These ideas, like seeds that lay dormant many seasons, germinated and sprouted. Now, in the Catholic Church, liturgical worship, ancient prayers, church calendar and, of course, the Mass culminating in the Eucharist are part of my world. Fixed prayers and liturgies permit the worshipper to know what’s coming next. With the mind familiar and fluent with the content, the worshiper participates meaningfully with body and spirit. When seen from the inside, and the eye of faith, the ritual is far from mechanical, rote religion. Faith fixes on the Object of our hope, ever approaching the yet Unseen.
Needed: both form and substance
In the fervor of my Protestantism, the word “religion” was a bad word. We were spiritual, not religious. Religion was that empty thing that the self-righteous (who really didn’t know Jesus) did to make themselves feel better. Religion was their vain attempt to earn their own salvation. No doubt, high-church liturgy can be framework for empty religion. However, Protestantism affords opportunity for the same empty cocoon for cultural Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.
As I read Lewis over the decades, the grass seemed greener on the high-church side of the fence. It seemed we were always reinventing the wheel. Prayer was extemporaneous so it would be heart-felt, and therefore real. But you never knew what would be said during the prayer. Would it be orthodox or heterodox? How could one pray along and engage the spirit when the mind is constantly discerning what’s being prayed?
Lone-Wolf calling Wolf Den, over
I recall bristling on a Palm Sunday, a few years ago. Most Christians around the world were celebrating our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem amid Hosannas to the Son of David. As His hour approached, and children’s praise rang out in Gospel readings all over the planet, we were cut off. In our little PCA outpost, we continued right along with the exposition of the next few verses in (as I recall) Hebrews. Of course there is nothing wrong with Hebrews, but it was Palm Sunday! No, the rocks did not cry out, but something seemed wrong. The wheel had been invented long ago, and we were still looking for pi.
Aim for truth, get high-church thrown in
I did not choose the Catholic Church, as if one of many options, because liturgy and a calendar suited my personality. Rather, the Church made a claim against my conscience. I am Catholic because it’s true. To borrow a line from Luther: Here I stand, I can do no other. Once inside, truth was complimented by goodness and beauty. No longer cut off from Christendom, now liturgies, fasts and feasts unite me with fellow-Christians all over the world, remembering saints who’ve gone before in our 2,000 year history.
Give us this day our daily Bread
In the Mass, I am the blind beggar outside Jericho crying “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” (Luke 18:38). In the Mass, I am one of the children in the temple area on Palm Sunday crying “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:15). And, most solemnly at the high-point of the Mass, in the Eucharist, I am a disciple at the Last Supper. There the transcendent, infinite mysteries meet me Today, on the Day of Salvation. There I receive the Lord’s Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. There I proclaim His death and profess His resurrection, until He comes again.
Daily Bread never gets old.
ONE LORD. ONE FAITH. ONE BAPTISM.
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27
*New American Bible Revised Edition