Christ with a cork

Today I’m revisiting the ever-present question: Why in the world am I becoming Catholic?

It’s becoming more important that I have an answer to this. Lent is just two weeks away, and that means that Easter is not far off after that. Pretty soon I’m going to have to sign on the dotted line and I’ll be ONE OF THEM. So, you know, the stakes are high.

I’m just going to throw a word out there, and then try to touch faintly on what some of this means and why it’s so important to me. Ready? The word is sacramental. 

When we sat down in our first RCIA session and talked about what differentiates the Catholic Church from other religions and denominations, it was this word that just about summed it up for me. There are plenty of things that I find appealing about certain Protestant churches, but I have to say the Catholics are winning in the sacrament department.

I’ve always been frustrated with Catholics for making such a big deal about the Eucharist. It’s a matter of semantics, I thought. In the end we all agree that celebrating Christ in this way is important, and some of us Protestants (PCA wooo!) even do it every week.

But this Catholic approach actually gets at a much larger question. In the Protestant vision, although grace is given to us, it’s up to us to respond to it (Let’s not throw predestination into the mix for now; it’ll only make things more confusing). Sacraments like baptism and the Eucharist, while lovely, Biblical symbols, are just that. It’s up to us and the divine to change ourselves.

A little lame, let's admit

A little anticlimactic, let’s be real here

Then see things for a moment from the Catholic vision. Faith is still important. Free will? Crucial. And yet Catholics believe that getting baptized or getting hitched or eating the wafer that the priest has blessed is not only a nice thing that will remind you of grace … it actually changes you!

I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely comforting to think that we have things that we can touch and taste that will help us along the way. Take the rosary, for instance. I for one am very easily distracted in prayer. Say what you want about Marian devotion, (actually, please don’t) but it’s nice to have something in my hands to keep me focused.

How much more so for something instituted by Christ himself, that most of us can agree is mystical and holy and timeless? To me the bread being Christ’s real body and the wine being Christ’s real blood is a reminder that just the tiny act of showing up and being faithful can radically transform your entire life, from the very humble inside of a church, out.

Yes, the doctrine is abused. At its worst, some Catholics focus only on getting what they feel like they have to, and high-tail it out of church as soon as they can. But at its best, Christ is shining through the cracks and breaking through to earth as it is in heaven, and we get to partake in that–eating it, smelling it, living it.

As an aside, not having believed something my whole life (that Christ is actually physically present at mass, for instance) makes it really difficult for me to turn around and then believe in it later. But that’s faith for you. It takes effort.

Annie Dillard has a wonderful reflection on all of this in her incredible little book Holy the Firm. Interestingly, she became Catholic later in life. But when there wasn’t a Catholic church out in the boonies, she wasn’t snooty about it: She attended a Protestant one, and even volunteered to pick up the communion wine each week. Read what she writes about walking up the hill with the newly purchased wine on her back.

“Here is a bottle of wine with a label; Christ with a cork. I bear holiness splintered into a vessel, very God of very God, the sempiternal silence personal and brooding, bright on the back of my ribs. I start up the hill …

Through all my clothing, through the pack on my back and through the bottle’s glass I feel the wine. Walking faster and faster, weightless, I feel the wine. It sheds light in slats through my rib cage, and fills the buttressed vaults of my ribs with light pooled and buoyant.”

I’m not going to try to interpret it and ruin it for you. But holiness splintered into a vessel … just think of that.

Photo courtesy of mattstone.blogs.com. 

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9 thoughts on “Christ with a cork

  1. Very few of my close friends are Catholic. But whenever I talk to a Protestant about someone becoming a Catholic, I hear the same tired trope about deadness and going to church once a week and then doing what you like the rest of the week. From where I sit looking around at the Protestant world, this is like a beaver criticizing the deer because they tear up the trees. All the Jesus talk notwithstanding.
    Thanks for a beautiful and thoutful piece. And yes-Holy the Firm. It has no parallel in literature.

    • Nice analogy, and thanks for the comment! And speaking of Dillard, I’m planning on re-reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read it about five-six years ago and feel like it’s time to visit it again.

  2. This is pretty close to the reason why I joined the Episcopal church. They’re a little more open to interpretation re: the physical/symbolic presence, but the idea is the same. If you ever have time, check out James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. He talks a lot about how sacrament and liturgy can shape and form people.

  3. Hey! It’s been a long time. Hopefully I’ll see you at the awards dinner post-drinks? (I can’t make it to the dinner itself.)

    Just wanted to stop in and say I enjoyed this post. I don’t identify as religious right now, but I grew up going to an Episcopal church, and my father’s side of the family is very devoutly Catholic. I recently went to my grandmother’s funeral and found that they were and are even more Catholic than I knew—nuns at my grandmother’s wake who I am distantly related to! the priest eating lunch with us after the mass! wait, my uncle went to seminary?—and it gave me a lot to think about.

    I haven’t parsed out what that all means in my life yet, but I came to one conclusion similar to yours. Rituals of taste and touch and feel are so very comforting. The funeral mass was the only time during that weekend where I felt at ease. I think it was because I knew exactly what was going to happen. My grandmother said the rosary compulsively, and I’m sure she found the same type of comfort in it.

    anyway. Talk soon, I hope!

    • Hi Amanda! I will be at the dinner and most likely drinks afterward! See you then!

      Thanks so much for your comment. That’s fascinating. I, too, am very much in the process of figuring everything out–it’s nice when we can admit we are unsure. I love the way you put it, that you felt at ease. There’s something calming about ritual. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but I think many feel the same way.

      Another interesting, somewhat related thought was what I think a priest said at mass one time– that the church calendar, with its observation of various seasons, helps break up the monotony that we could otherwise fall into. It’s a nice balance.

  4. Pingback: A heavenly feast | Iced spiced chai

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