An analogy I’ve often used to talk about my religious seeking is that faith is kind of like a good pair of shoes- you have to find a pair that fits you. For some folks that might not have been raised with religion, it may take some time to find a right pair, or they may never even settle on just one. Others may find that they can fit into their parents’ shoes just fine and wear those, and others may find that they just prefer to go barefoot, and that’s okay, too.
When I was younger I took what I didn’t like about the church as signs that Christianity wasn’t for me. It didn’t fit, I thought. Yet if you’ve read my blog for this long you know that I’ve tried a lot of other faiths for a long time before finally admitting they weren’t working for me either, and I was still drawn to Jesus Christ, despite all my church baggage. It’s taken me quite some time to realize that perhaps what I needed was the right Christianity for me. So what is working for me now?
Something I’ve heard a number of times recently is that there is no ‘one’ way to be a Christian. Although the essence of our faith as taught by Christ (Mt 22:36-40; Lk 9:23) and passed down through the Apostles, disciples, and saints remains constant, the ways one can be a Christian vary by cultural context and by tradition. The way one is a Christian in Ethiopia or in Syria will be very different than the way one practices Christianity in the United States or in Guatemala. My experience of Christianity throughout my life has varied: I was raised as a Roman Catholic, I’ve visited a Seventh Day Adventist church, I have friends who are Presbyterian and United Methodist ministers, and I’ve worshiped in Episcopal churches. And that doesn’t even cover all the expressions of Christianity that are available to see and experience in my hometown. At the end of the day though, what I have stuck with are the more ‘high church’ liturgical traditions, and out of those, Anglicanism as practiced by the Episcopal Church.
A friend recently asked me why I was drawn specifically to ‘high church’ Christianity again when seeking Jesus. The simplest answer I can give is that it’s what I was raised with and what I know best. I’m a Catholic boy at heart, so I love the ‘smells and bells’, the holy water, the litanies, vestments, and so on. More importantly, I wanted, I needed a system of regimented prayer and worship in my life, which I found with Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church.
These days, my prayer life typically looks like this:
– I say the Daily Office every day. The Daily Office is a series of scripture readings and prayers that are said throughout the day, specifically at morning, noon, early evening, and night, though usually I just say Morning and Evening Prayer. Morning Prayer gives me the opportunity to be mindful of a new day ahead of me, full of opportunities to show God’s love to others and to awaken to God’s mysteries and workings in my life. Evening Prayer is an opportunity to review the day, to ask forgiveness for any wrongdoings, to be thankful for the blessings of the day, and to resolve to do better the next day.
– At 3pm every day, I pause to honor the Hour of Mercy. 3pm is traditionally the time when Jesus died on the cross. This is more of a Roman Catholic devotion, but it, like the Daily Office, offers a moment to be mindful of God’s love and mercy for me and all of mankind.
– I say either the Rosary or a chaplet (rosary-based prayer) as well as my own prayers at the end of the day, usually before or after Evening Prayer. Praying the Rosary is a major part of my spirituality with deep roots; I prayed it in Spanish with my grandmother growing up as well as in school with classmates. I appreciate the Rosary a lot more now that I’m older because it allows me to really contemplate the life of Jesus and the Blessed Mother as described in each of the Mysteries. Usually after that I offer up my own spontaneous prayers asking for forgiveness or for thanksgiving or sharing concerns.
– I go to Mass/Holy Eucharist weekly on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes during the week as well, if possible. The Eucharist is “the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself.” (from the Book of Common Prayer, p 859). I don’t just go to Mass as an obligation to ‘keep holy the Lord’s day’ but to commune with God in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, and join in fellowship with my church. I’m a lot more thoughtful and mindful now when I go to Mass, something I wasn’t brought up to do in Catholic school, admittedly. Sure, we had to go to confession before receiving. We were even encouraged to fast for an hour before Mass, but that was about it.
It wasn’t until I started going to church again and I heard these words of Saint Paul that I began approaching going to Mass differently: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11:28). That really left an impression on me. Paul’s words here are an encouragement to think about Christ’s sacrifice for me and for everyone; to think deeply about the things that need amendment and healing in my life; to think about the struggles I stubbornly hold on to instead of letting go and letting God handle them; and, most importantly, to contemplate the sins and wrongdoings that I haven’t owned up to before going to the Lord’s table. When I examine myself as Saint Paul cautioned, I find that I am much more at peace and much more present to the working of God in my life after I receive the Eucharist.
All of the above might seem like a lot to some folks. They may find it all to be a distraction, too ostentatious or superstitious for their tastes. They want to be able to have a relationship with Christ without all the rituals. While I respect that (and certainly learn a lot from my friends in more ‘low church’, non-liturgical traditions), I personally don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. The rituals, the prayers, and yes, the smells and bells even, strengthen my relationship with Christ and with other people more than anything else. This past Sunday, one of the priests at my church was describing litanies and how formulaic and rich they are, and she said these prayers are “like handrails for the Holy Spirit” to move through the mind. I think really of this whole tradition of prayer books and High Masses and Offices in that way. All these different parts come together to form a path in my mind and heart for God to work in. They really allow me to become more focused and listen more closely for the ways that God is speaking to me.
This, I think, is the pair of shoes that fits.
If you identify with a specific denomination or tradition of Christianity, why does it work for you? How do the specific practices of that tradition strengthen your relationship with Christ?