Sunday, December 8, 2013
My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 5: Wandering Off the Path
I distinctly remember my priest chastising me after Mass one day when, in a fit of arrogant pride, I said that I was tired of learning about "Hey, did you know that the Catholic Church is run by the Pope?" content. I was slapped down pretty hard for this, and rightly so I think. I had forgotten humility, forgotten understanding, forgotten that everyone is at different levels of experience and knowledge, and had pridefully usurped it all in my intense searches through history and theology.
For a time, too, I fell off the beaten path and found myself studying existentialist philosophers - Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard - and began to transpose the ideas of existentialism on to my spiritual life. The Christian journey had not become a walk of faith, but rather a leap, a search for authenticity, and an agonizing experience. I lost my joy that I had had in the early days, with it being swallowed up in Kierkegaardian angst and bleak existentialist mindsets. In Kierkegaard, I saw a kindred spirit - a Christian who was tired of the mindless, habitual church attendance and reheated potluck dinners, who was tired of Christianity being presented as something easy, breezy, and fuzzy. This was something that he characterized as "spiritless" Christianity (cf. The Sickness Unto Death)
It surely did not help for me to expose myself in college to reading Jean-Paul Sartre's writings, especially his thoughts on our being responsible for everything that happens in the world, while studying the evils of the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags at the same time - but I wanted to confront these realities of the past, to try and understand the problem of evil that atheists often hurl at Christians.
It was only through the work of the Lutheran existentialist Paul Tillich that I found a way out of the darkness of atheistic existentialism, who spoke of this kind of existentialist rejection of God as "freedom without content."1
I left it behind, but not without scars. The existentialist outlook, both Christian and atheist, had influenced me deeply. I spent the rest of my classes in RCIA writhing through lectures, fuming at comments that I thought seemed so callous and ignorant to people going through spiritual angst, as if becoming Catholic were just all so very easy, as effortless as breathing.
Near the end of RCIA, I finally broke down. Telling my classmates that it was all "[expletive] nuts" and that the Church assumed everyone led Dick-and-Jane storybook lives, I walked out of the parish hall shaking with rage. One lone person took off after me, and while I cried in the middle of a cold downtown street, convinced me to keep coming. Our particular teacher at that time, a former Communist, arranged to have a Mass said for me.
My sponsor told me that it wasn't so much a matter of belief or assent that was central at this point, but one of being able to tolerate others, to make it through a class without looking like I was having my guts torn out.
I told him I would, but couldn't understand how that had anything to do with the Catholic faith in terms of belief - but it had everything to do with it. If I could not act Christian, if I could not walk the walk, then I would just be another clanging cymbal, as St. Paul puts it. If I had no love, then how could I be Christian at all?
With this in mind and heart, I proceeded to finish up RCIA. But what is ironic here is what provided me the heart of Christianity, and pushed me in spirit to keep going, and to live the Christian life.
1 - The Courage To Be, V