Monday, September 8, 2014
Do Catholics Need a Personal Relationship with God?
Over the years of study and spiritual reading I have done, the call for a personal relationship is spoken of in very powerful language in the Scriptures, the writings of Church Fathers and Doctors such as St. Augustine, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (to name a few), through Church documents including the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, to the modern day writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. “Personal relationship” is probably too ambiguous a term though. People hear this and think that it means we have God as a buddy or pal; that it is a relationship of equals. Many bristle at this and so they should. Many try to have this kind of a relationship with God and find it wanting. To be clear, when the Church and the Scriptures speak of a personal relationship, this is not what they are talking about.
So what is meant? Perhaps a better term would be that we are called to have a familial relationship with Jesus and with the Trinity. I hope we would agree that the relationships in our lives that are the most personal are those we have with family. The New Testament shows us time and again this. Jesus is revealed as the Son. He reveals the 1st Person of the Trinity as ’Father’ and “Abba”. Jesus likens the relationship we are called to have with the Father as that of a trusting child to a loving father. How much more personal can you get? He calls all who do His will His “mother, brothers and sisters.” In this same spirit, St. Paul and the other writers of the Epistles predominantly use the term ’brothers and sisters’ to explain our interrelationship and St. Paul refers to us as the adopted sons and daughters of God; a spirit of adoption given through THE Son, Jesus Christ. It does not get any more personal than this.
So why do a majority of Church-going Catholics not believe that one must have a personal relationship with God in order to be a good Catholic? I would guess for numerous reasons. First, it is not talked about very much overtly. The language used in Mass can be commonplace enough as to be unnoticed, homilies usually do not use such language for fear of sounding too this or that, and other factors of the same sort. Second, the language was adopted by Protestantism and many Catholics think it is therefore a Protestant teaching. It is not. The writings of the saints through the ages and the very Scriptures themselves would attest to this. Third, it is a product of a society that grows more and more divided and isolated. Fourth, it is human nature. Human nature has a tendency to judge the worth of anything by what it can do for me with the least amount of effort. This isn’t because we are lazy, but because we are so over taxed with our time, energy, and resources. Anything that might call for us to change behavior is seen as just a greater imposition of our dwindling time and energy. It is why people are slow to, if not rebellious against, the need to alter eating and exercise habits, even when their health is dwindling. Human beings can be creatures of habits even when those habits are harming them.
Allow me then to make a case for why investing ourselves in a relationship with God and His people is to our betterment. Jesus Himself told us, “Come to me ALL you are burdened and I will give you rest.” Nurturing a relationship with God and His people reminds us that we are not meant to go it alone. Ideally, we are to find comfort in this relationship and allow God to help us bear the weight of our lives. We are also to find in our fellow Christians companions who through mutual love and respect find a band of brothers and sisters who are there for each other in times good and bad. In an isolated society where it is easy to hide behind the relative anonymity of a tweet, Facebook post, text, and such…knowing that not only are we not alone, but that others want to be with us is greatly comforting. I know it is my own feeling ( a feeling I know is shared by many others) that I tire of the divisions that seem to thrive in this society and are looking for any outlet through which to explode. What happened in Ferguson is a good example. What is happening in the Middle East is also a good example. Like many, I do not feel the necessity to walk this life alone. That is good thing considering the teachings and offer of Christ.
The catch is that like all good relationship, it will require change. That is hard. It is hard to change patterns of behaviors, even if we recognize that these patterns are toxic in our lives. It is easy to allow these to spiral out of control. The devil will always be there to tell us that either we cannot or do not need to break free from these behaviors. Being listless and helpless are bad places to be. These behaviors are not things we have to turn around before entering into a relationship with God and His people; to turn these behaviors around will require that relationship with God and the support of our brothers and sisters! God will give us the grace to do these things should we decide to do so. We should be supporting one another in progressing in good.
To support one another, of course, means we have to talk to one another and help without waiting to be asked. Catholics and small parishes can very cliquish. The parish in Corinth was. That cliquishness required St Paul to write two letters to them to remind them of just how inappropriate that was as followers of Christ. Pope St. Clement had to write them as well. St. James had to write another community because of their cliquishness. So any cliquishness that we feel in this parish is nothing new, it has been with us since the beginning of the Church. However, just as St. Paul, St. James, and St Clement wanted such things out of the Body of Christ, so must we. Cliquishness is inherently sinful…cliques divide what Christ came to unite! Cliques obscure, if not entirely block, many from seeking a relationship with God because the human face present in the parish doesn’t point to such a relationship. I just want to be clear that cliquishness is by no means exclusive to either any single parish or the Catholic Church (quite the opposite is true), but that the cliquishness harms us and drives people away. We cannot hold on to cliques and seek a deep relationship with God at the same time.
This is one of the things I would really like for us to work on with the grace of God this year. Parishes become the face of the relationship we are suppose to have with God. It is why God kept calling for the People of Israel to be His people who would be a light to the nations. It is why Jesus reminds us that we as His followers are to a light, salt, a city set on a hill, and his witnesses to the ends of the earth. It is why the Eucharist is at the very center of who we are! I know people in this parish who feel isolated, they tell me. It is easy to say that if only they more outgoing that they would find warmth, but it is not Christlike to wait for someone to come to us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus kept meeting people where they were at so as to lift them up. Hence, let us pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be the kind of parish that Christ Himself wants…a parish that will give witness to the life altering relationship that Christ comes to give us. We are called to be a family, not a clique. Let us cooperate with God’s grace to this end!