Palm Sunday, 2014
I'm finding that I have less and less in common with most Catholics I know--particularly the ones in the mangagement class--because they have become so Protestantized. By that I mean, to stereotype somewhat, overly literal, overly moralistic, and lacking anything that remotely resembles a sacramental sensibility. So when I talk about Catholic or Protestant, I'm not talking about denominational affiliation so much as I'm talking about a question of cultural style, a sensibility, or a way of imagining the world. There are Catholic Protestants and Protestant Catholics. I feel closer to the first group. Although certainly Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air.
The classic Protestant style is to think of God as so utterly transcendent and of the yawning gulf that separates him from humans, who are unworthy and irretrievably depraved beings incapable of anything good. The Catholic style is more sanguine. It understands that we live in a fallen world, but understands it as wounded, not destroyed. And it understands that we humans are in our deepest depths good because we carry within us the image of God, broken but capable of being healed, and that grace is the necessary healing balm. For Catholics there has always been this sense of the fundamental goodness of creation, even if it is not what it could be or was meant to be.
And I think that Catholics are more sanguine because for them grace is more readily available, that it's more small 'c' catholic in its ubiquity, that we all of us humans are swimming in it, and that all we need to do is drink it in. For Protestants grace comes through a narrower gate, in the classical moment of conversion and choosing his salvation, and then that's pretty much it. Either it happens or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, well that's a sign that you're not one of the presdestined elect. After conversion, it's mostly a question of living a moralistic, stiffly upright life, which more often than not lacks any real joie de vivre. I think those conversion moments are real and important, but I don't think they are the only way. And these moments are like seeds that need to be sustained, nurtured, and grown to maturity.
And that's for me where the mass comes in, because in one's understanding of it lies another key diference between the Protestant and Catholic sensibilities. If you think this is just a memorial service, you're a Protestant, regardless of your denominational affiliation. (I read somewhere recently that somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of practicing Catholics believe this. Don't quote me on the number, but it was a big one.) But if you think it's the reenactment of the mystery of Good Friday, then you're a Catholic.
All of the other fine points of theological debate boil down to this fundamental difference. It starts with the idea that the mass is a reenactment of the sacrifice on the cross and everything that this implies. One of the Protestantizing effects on Catholic liturgical practice is now to call the altar the "table", commemorating the table of the Last Supper and also as an image of the banquet table to which all the lame and the poor and the outsiders are invited. I'm fine with that, but only so long as we don't lose the idea that there are two moments--the altar moment, then the table moment: first the sacrifice, then the banquet. If there is no altar moment, then there's nothing on the table worth eating.
The modern sensibility is offended by the idea of sacrifice, particularly bloody sacrifice. But if sacrifice isn't an essential part of what we understand is being reenacted in the mass, then quite frankly, who cares? I don't. It's a trivial exercise in nostalgia. The sacrificial part is key because it emphasizes a willing vulnerability on both sides. The willingness on the one side of a Being who, as the very antithesis of death and want, took death and want into himself, was penetrated to the core of his being by it, and was all but crushed by the weight of it.
On that side, the divine side, it begins on Christmas and ends on Golgotha. It begins with the kenosis, this willing emptying of himself of this superabundance of life and taking on the body of death, which in turn is emptied on the cross as we see the blood dripping from his wounds into the earth; it's a double emptying--the first spiritual in the incarnation, the second physical on Good Friday. Everything he has he has given away, and the final result is an interpenetration of the physical and the spiritual that we have not yet begun to fathom.
The Protestant imagination, it seems to me, stresses the continued separation of these two worlds rather than their having been conjoined by the events of Good Friday through Easter. While it's true that most Catholics think similarly, I think that the Catholic sacramental imagination permits the possibility of thinking of history since those events as a process that effects the gradual interpenetration of both worlds, the fallen and unfallen, and by it the gradual redemption of the former. And it leads to the possibility of someone like Teilhard de Chardin whose prfound sacramental sensibility led him to a magnificent, if preliminary, reframing of evolution in a spiritual key, and to see in it possibilities for the salvation, that is, the sacramentalizing of the earth.
The eucharist is in this sense a meeting place between two worlds, where a world defined by living, pleromatic superabundance breaks into a world defined by death, dearth, illness, and want. And for us on the human side of this transaction, vulnerability lies in the imitatio Christi, which is a kind reversal of the ur-sacrifice enacted on Good Friday. If during the mass Christ enacts the sacrifice of living into our death, we are given the opportunity to die into his life. We are, in other words, given a means to empty ourselves of death. Of course we'd much rather not do this, and since we are free not to, we find ways to distract ourselves. So rather than make the sacrifice required of us in order to live superabundantly, we choose to live small, safe lives circumscribed by inertia, habit, and fear.
If we were great souls, we would find a way to take the superabundance he offers us into us in one radical gesture of vulnerability. He would give it to us without stint. St. Francis had that greatness--and there are many other holy fools less well known who have had it as well. But since we are most of us not great and fear becoming fools, we are given instead the eucharist, which slowly, at a pace we can handle, feeds us this life, assuages our want, and in some, to the degree that they have found a way to be vulnerable to it, over time, find that this real life builds up enough in their souls to overflow into the lives of those around them so that then these around them are awakened to the possibility of living a life other than the death-soaked alienation that they take for the real world.
Catholics are for this reason incrementalists, and the danger for them is complacency. Protestants look for the one great moment of choice, and the danger is anxiety and despair if it is never made in some definitive way, or if after it is made nothing seems to change, and he slides into a joyless, boyscouty, bourgeois, heady moralism which is a species of alienation just as toxic as any other. For Catholics there is no one moment of choice; there is a lifetime of choices, and this choice is made, or should be, every time they go up to the altar/table to eat the bread and drink the wine, to take into themselves this fragment of superabundance, which like a hologram contains within it the whole thing, the whole of the real presence of the living Christ.
So for me the meaning of mass and receiving the eucharist, to the degree that I can bring any level of consciousness or intentionality to it, goes back to this old sacrificial idea of "giving up" in the sense of loosening my grip on the things that I cling to that prevent this huge thing from penetrating to my inmost core. For me the struggle is not with doubt that this superabundance is waiting there for its opportunity to flood my soul. The more significant struggle lies rather in my sense of shame for all the ways that I keep it at bay. But that shame is counterbalanced with a sense of trust that my persistence is chipping away at my resistance.
To most people these days the Protestant/Catholic rift seems irrelevant. As an institutional matter, I would agree. Who cares? The separations within the church are just another form of doctrinal tribalism and are silly. So I am not interested in arguing whose doctrines are closer to the truth, but rather in the development of a sensibility or a cultural style that integrates what's best from the 'spirit' of both traditions. The spirit of Protestantism emphasizes the individual conscience; the spirit of Catholicism, the goodness of creation and of our sacramental interdependence in the communion of saints. We need both.
As I get older I become more convinced that the basic spiritual cultural task is to find a way of reconciling opposites. This is the practical key to understanding the command to love one's enemies. So the reconciliation of the Catholic/Protestant polarity is the task for Christians of all denominations in the next century. It's the need to reconcile symbolists and iconclasts, mystics and intellectualists, antinomians and legalists, communitarians and individualists, universalists and sectarians, world affirimers and world deniers, immanentists and transcendentalists, sacramentalists and moralists. These are the things that separate us more than whether we are Calvinists or Catholics, eastern or western. We are, after all, one body; we are the Corpus Christi, and sooner or later we might actually look like him.