It’s been an interesting Christmas, I encountered my own Ghost of Christmas Past and finally, I think, have begun to put some of the pieces of my journey in perspective.
It began, innocently enough, when I invited a Protestant friend over for tea. We spar from time to time on the subject of faith, sometimes very pointedly. But I enjoy her company and there is no better time to share than as the year winds down, so we had a rendezvous at the house for tea while the regular chaos of my life--including an interval of no power that pre-empted tea and made eggnog a last minute substitute--swirled around us. We spent a good deal of time just catching up; she and her husband had recently been to Iraq on a mission trip and I was anxious to hear the news.
Eventually, though, as it often does, conversation wound around to the differences in our faiths. What, she wondered, is the difference I experience between being Catholic and being a high-church Anglican. I cannot shake the idea that she finds the Catholic faith not only odd, but vaguely un-Christian, though she has never said so. Otherwise why would it matter, if one denomination is as good as another?
I reflected a minute, more out of habit than out of necessity, for I’ve considered the question often enough. Only recently have I voiced the answer, even to myself. In twenty years as an Anglican, felt no need--ever--to share my faith with others, though I practiced it earnestly and regularly. Now that I am a Catholic, I cannot be silenced. One friend even noted that my groom and I are the mouthiest Catholics she’s ever encountered, and indeed, we may be. Having discovered a treasure, I want the whole world to know about it.
That is a great change from my former, live-and-be silent self. I am, in fact, a new and very different person, in many, many ways. More patient. More tolerant. More vulnerable. More open. More involved. Less caustic. Less political. Less guarded. Less fearful.
And what, she wondered, did I think was the reason for that?
Not a hesitation: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the full and lively sacramental life of the Catholic Church that brings me grace in ways I could not even begin to imagine before. Grace that must, in the end, change me, for that is the purpose of grace. Grace I never encountered before, at least not in that compelling and powerful way. My previous walk seems a distant impression, an image rendered in soft watercolors; my current journey a riot of form and color and texture, so much more vibrant and real is it.
Difficult sentiments to voice for a woman who spent a good deal of time loving a parish where the theology preached and expressed--including the Real Presence--was a lot like the Catholic faith, one of the reasons, I think, that crossing the Tiber was more of a wade than a swim for me. I’ve spent the last five years wrestling with the fallout of my conversion, trying to put into place my prior faith and my present one, in order to give the past the honor it is due. It has not been easy, and I have pushed the effort aside as often as I have encountered it. Easy to face the problems that drove me away from Lambeth Palace, harder to acknowledge the strengths of my Anglican life because it seems so confusing even as it is so dear.
The night we lit the first of the Advent candles began to bring it into focus. We still use the devotion that was our tradition in our former Episcopal community. I love the rich language of the collects that call us to put on the armor of God, the call to listen to the prophets, to bestir ourselves in God’s grace and to await the coming of Christ. And this year, succumbing to the residual house-pride I carry, one of our wreaths, a centerpiece in the dining room, had Anglican blue candles to match the decor. It became a subject of conversation among some of my Catholic friends.
There are still a few vestiges of my Anglican life, I excused myself as I lit the first candle in preparation for the devotion and grace. And this is one of them.
Of course, they responded, as well there should be. You, after all, all you have been as well as all you are becoming.
Later, I would find myself in the balcony of the church on Christmas eve, because it was SRO on the main level. I realized as I watched the mass from this unfamiliar perspective, that I have not sat in a balcony since leaving the Episcopal Church, though that was my location of preference then because there is no better way to watch the unfolding of the pageantry of the liturgy than from above. I wondered in passing whether it was an accident of the churches I attend, or an unspoken desire to make things different, and leave behind what had gone before. I decided that I did not know and that it does not matter. I felt a passing nostalgia for a prior place and time, the smells and bells and sights and sounds of Christmases past and it warmed my heart even as I realized the difference in where I am from where I was.
Then I lost myself in the mass. In the lovely, comforting, incomparable words of the mass, that once sounded so plain and ordinary to me when compared to that flowing, English poetry of the Anglican service. I realized that the beauty of the mass now transcended the words, and the robes and the ritual--it resided in the fact of what I knew, really knew, was happening before me: Christ made present in this place and time so that I may really, truly receive Him. The pageantry of a most solemn high mass is wonderful it is elevating, it is elegant--but it is, I realized, also somewhat superfluous in the grand scheme of things. Christ is as truly present in a humble parish as in the grandest Cathedral, from the hands of the youngest priest as from the hands of the Pope.
I recalled that this was the last Christmas I would hear these words, as there will be a new missal next year this time. And the good Father who brought me into the Church will retire, so that an unfamiliar voice will be saying unfamiliar words in a new rite that echoes back to the ancient words of the early Church, bringing the liturgy--and me--full circle. Away from what was to what always was. And bringing me deeper into the self that God has in mind for me.
For once, the change does not worry me--the biggest change of all, for in my past I considered change to be a four-letter word. I am confident that whatever happens with the words of the mass, Christ will still come to me in the Eucharist, and in the end, all will be well. For all their foibles and problems, I trust the Bishops and the Pope under the protection of the Holy Spirit, whose hand I see throughout the great sweep of Church history, to safeguard the deposit of the faith and thus, the essence and treasure of the Church. I don’t feel compelled to fight so hard to maintain the status quo--I have learned by experience that growing in faith means letting go of some things in order to let others in, as long as I remain focused on Who really matters, and trust in His providence and reside in His Church.
My Anglican past taught me to appreciate the rhythms of liturgy and the beauty of language. The rector of my parish helped grow in me a deep reverence for the Eucharist, for which I will be ever grateful. That community set me on the path to Rome by nurturing a love for undeniable Truth and the reality of Christ still present and acting in the world through the sacraments and the conditional baptism I needed. The ground was well and truly plowed and the seeds of faith deeply sown in that twenty years.
But it took the Catholic Church to bring them to flower, to provide the nourishment that brought forth real fruit, fruit that even I can see, change in abundance, grace overflowing in the manner, and in the Church, Christ prescribed. I am grateful indeed for the plowshare and the hand that held it, and the seeds that were dropped--but it is the message of the great bounty of harvest of grace and the garner of the Church into which it comes about which I find myself wanting to shout from the rooftops.
I am thankful for the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past. The incomparable, splendid joy-that-must-be-shared of Christmas present in my Catholic faith gives me life and I am home. And there is no place like home for Christmas.....