My mother’s only wish when I had my son Jack was, “Please, just let him make his First Holy Communion so I can see him walk down the aisle in a little white suit.” I had long since relinquished any allegiance to Catholicism, the religion I was born into. And because of the numbness I experienced throughout years of monotonous, sacramental and ritualistic jargon inside the church, much seeming utterly irrelevant to my own life, I had even put the importance of Christ aside. I had accepted him as a good man, an extraordinarily holy one, a social revolutionary. I had no certainty on whether or not he had resurrected; it didn’t seem to really make a difference to me because I had heard of so many ascended masters in India. I even contemplated that he might have been an alien who was sent here on a special mission to improve our human race, to help us wake up into love.
I thought the true path to God was realizing the God within. In my pursuit of many different meditative and mystical experiences, coming to know the “force” of the goodness of the universe, feeling it, sensing it, becoming it, I have come to see that this experience of God-energy is a sad copy of what true understanding of God really is. To my own surprise, within this last year I have relinquished my pantheistic ideologies, because as I continued to study further into New Age texts, I came across some very dark secrets in its foundations, (which I will get into in another article). So I walked away from the spiritual path I had followed devotedly for decades, which sadly in the end, revealed itself to me as a road to nowhere.
Upon coming back home to Christ, I did not come home to Catholicism. I am absolutely aware of the flaws of this massively organized and too often covertly political religion. But here I am 8 years after I scoffed at my mother’s comment when Jack was born, (and an exact 20 years after I ran off to India in the hopes of finding a holy guru), sitting in a Catholic Church pew. I have been attending and even enjoying weekly mass– something only a few months ago I swore I would never ever do again, even if I had returned to Christianity in some fashion. So now that I am a renewed Christian, I want to hear the Word and praise his name. Then why return to the Catholic mass and not attend a bible based church instead? Well because I have a whole internet community of Charismatic video makers, church history and prophecy scholars, and Born-Again bloggers I can learn from. I have the bible I can read myself, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it. But to get a fancy feel for Christ? Only a Catholic mass can provide that.
Sitting through the mass can be woefully painful, but when it is done correctly, it can be most humbling and heart-warming. It doesn’t have the jazzy feel of a mega-church, nor the folksy grit as some friendly Protestant sects might. It lacks the spirited heart of Charismatic movers and impassioned Baptist sermonizers. Rather, it is plain and routine. But it has a sort of calm, reverential approach to spending time with God. There’s just the correct balance between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It feels simple and right. But what I truly love most is its beauty and sensory appeal. There is nothing more lovely than Catholic hymns. Smells of burning incense, the sharing of the body and blood of Christ, the exquisitely carved relief storytelling of the Passion of Christ upon the Stations of the Cross all provide for me the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and his creation.
Nothing compares to the awe I feel when gazing upon the massive radiance of beautifully painted stained-glass windows; perhaps akin to watching a visually brilliant movie upon an IMAX screen. Emblazoned on the raised ceiling at my church are masterfully painted details depicting Christ’s heroic tale of betrayal, suffering, risen glory and final kingship on the right hand of the Father. Is this idol worship? Not in the slightest. It is adoration for the epic story of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. And oh yeah, I am also an artist. It’s called appreciation for beauty. Are we artists, even in the name of Jesus Christ, ever going to be allowed to express ourselves without guilt and retribution?
I feel sorry for the rigid Protestant who is afraid to enter the Sistine Chapel for fear of going to hell if his heart should stir when contemplating such artistic talent, a gift that is given by God with the expectation to be used. In witnessing in person the imagery of the angels and demons in Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgment, I wept like a baby. For the first time in my life, the Book of Revelations came alive with the breath of God’s imagination and suddenly held meaning for me. Should we not enjoy expressing ideas about God, bringing them into form and sharing these with one another? If the work is truly inspired by the Lord, should we not trust in its sanctity? Michelangelo’s Pieta is far removed from the Illuminati entertainment industry’s idea of art, and yet we invite that into our lives without a second thought. Manmade ideas of heroes and villains in cartoons and movies move us into excitement, but Christians shun compelling works of art that make us think about God because we are associating it with Old Testament references to pagan idols?
Don’t get me wrong. When I used to take a peek into my great grandmother’s tiny bedroom off the side of the kitchen and see all those pictures and statuettes of the saints of the church, I found it to be revolting. I always sensed a strange spirit essence in the air, like we were all being watched by something enshrouding us in ignorance and deception. Amidst all this weird imagery of holy haloed people, I found none of it to make sense. Praying to them meant praying to one who prays. Why was I honoring someone else for connecting to Jesus? Shouldn’t I be connecting to Jesus myself? Catholic imagery can border on the peculiar and mythical, almost in the same vein as Hindu god worship. But the difference is substantially clear. The saints serve one God, Jesus Christ. And Catholics just dig them for it. Sadly, Catholics often don’t think themselves as “good enough to be a saint,” (a phrase I often heard from my mother), so therefore, they cannot get close enough to hear God’s personal voice.
When I went to India and was befallen with a serious, life-threatening illness, I heard God give me instructions on how to get home. I followed his voice one step at a time, all the while completely scared out of my wits not knowing if the voice I was following was either a devil or an angel, and I prayed to the heavens it was an angel. I got home. I was saved. But it took me years to remember what that voice sounded like again because all around me I was bombarded with strange sensory input. Not only was there the standard old-fashioned imagery of robed and sandaled saints in Catholicism, but now the Eastern fever had moved in. I needed to sort through a whole new pantheon of icons and motifs. Stories of heroes and gods shown through Hindu art, and a whole slew of hocus-pocus paraphernalia that helped you space out into no-man’s land offering you nothing more than drums, trances and yoga stances. It took me decades to recover my connection to the Holy Spirit. Let’s not blame my betrayal of Jesus entirely on pictures of the Virgin Mary. At least that gives you an “idea” of the holiness of God’s Kingdom. (By the way, Catholics do not worship the Virgin Mary as a Queen of Heaven, that’s more of a term of endearment.)
If anything the Catholic Church can be credited with, it’s bringing Christ to community and cultural communities to Christ. Many Catholic countries have been traditionally poor and peasant, many have been from the Mediterranean and Hispanic cultures. So Italians like to get cross tattoos? So what? Jesus loves them. And Hispanic princesses like to wear gaudy crucifixes? Ok, so a white middle-class Jane Shmo from Kentucky might not, but she is no way any better than Lucia. The lifestyle and flair in many of these people’s customs sync well with that Catholic style; not really mine, but that’s fine.
But as it is my Italian heritage, I can understand the strangeness and not revere it. Just as Jesus sat alongside the prostitutes, I can pray alongside it but not be affected by it or get lost within it. I feel I can actually do more to help them find a true relationship with Christ in communion with them rather than in judgment over them. For Jesus commands us: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24)
Fundamentalists, keep to what you do best, teach the Catholics a thing or two about the Word of the bible, (something the Catholic Church has failed to do for many of her people). But don’t judge the Catholics for being preoccupied with imagery. They are by no means confusing the “thing” for the amazingly awesome thing it represents.