Thursday, March 3, 2011

Does Standing in Your Garage Make You a Car?

Dear Leslie,

I wonder if you have thought about writing about the difference between being a churchgoer and living the teachings of the church. My mom grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school but became disillusioned by what she called "Sunday Catholics" (you could change really out Catholic for any religion), just meaning those people who go to church to say they did and give an impression to others but who don't actually live their life in kindness and the spirit of loving.

As an educated person and passionate Catholic, what do you think is most important and do you ever think that some people's need to take religious writings literally at all times can steer them away from the messages of love and respect and community that great churches can offer?

An Old Pal

Hello, Old Pal!

Thanks so much for your question! It's a good question that is complex and multifaceted, but let me offer a some reflection for now, and then perhaps we can continue the discussion in future blog posts, as well. That way, we can have more of a blog dialogue -- hey, let's call it a 'blog-alogue'!

First, in regard to the question of the difference between going to church and putting its teachings into practice, I think you'll like this quote:
"Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car."
G.K. Chesterton 
And then there is the famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi, who said,  
"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
My initial thoughts on the matter are this:
1. Just going to church doesn't automatically make a person a moral and loving individual;
2. But going to church can certainly be a start. Catholics understand that going to church on Sundays is one of the specific ways we honor and keep the commandments, and keeping the commandments is not an end in itself, it can certainly be a beginning. For as it says many times in the Psalms, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
3. There are many people who do live very good and upright lives who do not go to church; 
4. Still there is something important that church has to offer, not just in terms of moral formation and community, but also (and perhaps most importantly) in terms of grace -- a gift from God, freely given, that adds a supernatural dimension to our actions and our entire lives.
"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink."
G.K. Chesterton
5. Gandhi makes a convicting point about poor Christian witness being the reason for many people not coming to Christ.
6. Still, what he seems to miss is a crucial point --  while the Church is a divine institution, it's earthly component is made up of one very problematic and needy population: PEOPLE.

I don't know about you, but I sometimes think about how much more wonderful my life would be, or how much holier I might be, if there weren't all these other people with problems bringing a woman down. But then I have to be honest with myself and say, "You know what? Even if I was a hermitess, I would still be stuck with myself. And that, in itself, brings some serious problems."

One of the most amazing things to me about salvation history is that God chose to save people not as individuals, but in community, and at a certain point in human history he decided to become man to do this. Can you imagine how annoying it must have been to really be the Son of God, walking around in the midst of all these hard-headed idiots, obstinate sinners, and whiny-nosed brats? But no, that's not what Jesus was about -- instead, we see him siding with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, telling the children to come to him, and saying that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. When I consider that kind of humility, it's seems much more bearable for me to go to church alongside so many imperfect people, especially when I realize that I am the first in imperfections among them.

Yes, it is sad but true that many people can take certain Scripture passages (or other religious writings) out of their appropriate context and use them against other people. This is why I am personally a fan of the Magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Catholic Church -- this may seem a strange thing for a liberally educated modern American woman to be saying, but trust me, once you've seen and experienced the alternative it becomes much more understandable and appealing. But even with the Magisterium, there's still that problem of all of those imperfect people who misunderstand the most important thing: LOVE!

The Scriptures affirm this; the saints affirm this; and life itself affirms to each one of us that ultimately love, and love alone, is the purpose for our existence. Still, love is not devoid of content. 
“Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity… Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way." (Caritas in Veritate)
All in this world that is good, true, and beautiful points to love, and I believe that this extraordinary force of love has its origins in God himself, who is eternal love and absolute truth.

I hope this has been helpful!

Peace and all good,

P.S. I sometimes still think of that beautiful film you made, Old Pal, the one that showed the value of a girls' life even after a debilitating accident. It was so beautiful, and so Catholic in the truest sense of the word. It seems we might have your mama and her Catholic upbringing to thank for helping you share such a beautiful worldview and vision. I'm sorry she got disillusioned -- it happens to lots of us. Please send her my love, and let her know that the doors of the Church are always open to her if she wants to come back.

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