National Catholic Register


Some Questions from a Person Pondering Conversion

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 11/18/11 at 2:00 AM


I’ve been reading your blog semi-regularly for several months now, and I enjoy it very much. It’s been quite helpful to me; I’m a lifelong Protestant seriously thinking about crossing the Tiber. Insofar as I am on the road to Rome, however, I am traveling more cautiously than many others might. My wife does not get the appeal of the Catholic church (for her, arguments about apostolic succession and Roman primacy take a back seat to what she perceives to be rampant and intolerable spiritual apathy among the Catholic laity), and I think I owe it to her to refrain from entering full communion unless and until God makes it clear to me that I must do so.

Anyway, I have two questions (unrelated to each other) about which I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here they are:

1. I have been dabbling a bit in Catholic spirituality — occasionally praying the rosary, sometimes using the “morning prayer” link on my local parish’s website for my devotions — and am wondering if there is a recommended, systematic method for employing such practices. Most of my Christian life has been lived in the context of low church Evangelicalism, where spirituality consists almost exclusively of having regular “quiet times” (i.e., as I’m sure you know, personal reflection on passages of scripture; I believe that this is called lectio divina by Catholics). The more “liturgical” practices have a lot of appeal, but sometimes they seem a lot less personal, in a bad way, than Evangelical-style quiet times.

So, my question is this: Can you recommend an approach to the devotional life suitable for a typical layperson? What might a typical lay Catholic’s week look like in terms of prayer, meditation, fasting, and so on? How does praying the rosary, for example, fit in with lectio divina?

2. For many Evangelicals, the single biggest obstacle to becoming Catholic is the (apparently) low level of spiritual vitality in a typical Catholic church. I grew up in a largely Catholic (er, “Catholic”) community, and never knew a single Catholic whose faith seemed to be anything more than mere external ritual. Literally, not one. Attending Mass, one often gets the impression that a huge majority of the people present are merely going through the motions. Talking with such Catholics, they turn out to be utterly ignorant of even basic theology — often believing, for example, that our righteousness depends entirely upon the good deeds we have done. Of course, such talking must occur in the workplace or neighborhood, because everyone seems to fly for the exits as soon as the service ends.

By contrast, I’ve been involved in a number of different Evangelical communities where — minor problems aside — it is evident that the majority of people genuinely love Jesus. They’re serious about knowing and serving him and about loving and serving one another. Christianity seems to be lived out in a real way in those communities, and there seems to be minimal confusion about our need for God’s grace and the importance of a living faith.

The worry, I guess, I this: Even if one grants the Catholic Church’s claims about herself, the fact remains that we need fellow Christians around us in order to live the Christian life well. Given the choice between an impersonal, disengaged, but theologically orthodox community and a vibrant, Jesus-loving, Trinitarian-but-schismatic community, it looks like there are pretty compelling grounds for preferring the latter. What do you think?

As noted above, the worry raised in #2 is really my wife’s, not mine. I have some thoughts of my own on the matter, but it’s such a common objection from my Evangelical friends that I would very much like to hear your opinion. I’ve tried to frame it in the strongest possible way.

If you do decide to blog about either of these, I’d prefer to be anonymous. Few people know that I’m wrestling with these issues.

Many thanks

First of all, hello and welcome. You ask reasonable questions (though I’m not sure that my answers will be worth much.) I’m not so convinced that we Evangelical converts are all that qualified to appoint ourselves as diagnosticians of other people’s spiritual apathy. The Catholic Church is rather like a stained glass window. It can look dull and dark from outside, particularly to Evangelicals used to the bonhomie of Evangelical fellowship. But then again, we both know that Evangelical fellowship can mask some pretty deep pathologies and some pretty shallow theology and spirituality, too. There’s a reason we are famous for church hopping. So it can also happen that, when you get inside the Catholic Church and see the windows from within, all of a sudden you see sunlight streaming in where you least expected it.

One thing to be aware of is that Catholic and Evangelical cultures are very different. The former is feminine (whether you are male or female) and the latter is masculine (whether you are male or female). Where you or your wife perceive spiritual apathy may very well be a remarkable contemplative. I talk about this a bit here. Not that your complaint is without merit. I discuss the two cultures at some length in Volume 1 of Mary, Mother of the Son. Conversion to the Church from the warm fellowship of Evangelicalism can be a mighty lonely thing sometimes, and Catholics do not do ourselves credit when we try to say “It’s not a bug! It’s a feature that you can go for ages in a parish without anybody ever learning your name! Evangelicals are shallow and happy clappy!”

No. Evangelicals are human and need friendship and love like any normal human. Catholics should stop boasting about how lonely our parishes are and start facing it as the problem it is.

At the same time, I’m not convinced things are as bleak as you portray. Sure, it was tough finding companions on the journey into the Church. But not impossible. And I was received into the Church in the most screwed-up archdiocese in the country—Seattle—in the period of our maximum screwiness: the mid-80s. If I could find a parish where there was decent Catholic formation and fellowship, I think most people can. However, unlike in Evangelicalism, you have to make the effort to make it happen by creating a structure for it to happen. It doesn’t happen by itself.

What we did was form the Seattle Catholic Study Group (on our way into the Church) and, after entering the Church, a lay group of people who wanted to learn more about the faith by studying, praying and practicing together. Basically, it involved a common meal, common prayer, a bit of study (often a little talk by somebody on, say, a biblical passage as read by one of the Fathers, or an encyclical or a Catholic Thing of the Week (rosary, scapular, medal, or other bit of paraphernalia or furniture). Prayer in common is also essential, as well as the occasional field trip to go check out a church or liturgy or piece of art. No reason you couldn’t try the same thing with whatever confederates you might cobble together in your home or parish. It doesn’t have to be just converts. It can be cradle Catholics, too. And it doesn’t even have to be just Catholics. You may find others in your shoes: interested inquirers who are, for various reasons, still kicking the tires. The key is to be pro-active and make it happen and not be discouraged that somebody else isn’t doing the heavy lifting.

So after answering your second question first, that leads to answering your first question second: because prayer is essential here. The nice thing about prayer in the Catholic tradition is that there’s colossal variety and no particular “right” way to do it. The liturgy of the hours (from which your morning prayer is taken) is one good framework, as is lectio divina or the Rosary. As you intuit, lectio divina and the Rosary can go together nicely, because lectio is all about chewing over some passage of Scripture to “squeeze the juice out” and the Rosary is nothing other than a meditation on the life and effects of Jesus Christ on his greatest disciple, Mary. The point is that you are to “imitate her as she imitates Christ” (to paraphrase St. Paul). So focusing on some incident in the Rosary and ruminating on it (by, among other things, chewing over the Gospel account) is a fine way to pray.

One final caution: Don’t compare the best of Evangelicalism with the worst of Catholic culture. Sure, many Catholics haven’t acquired the skill at popping off answers to the sorts of questions Evangelical culture trains Evangelicals to ask (“If you died tonight why should God let you into heaven?”). Many Catholics will mumble something about doing good works and trying to be a nice person and the Evangelical will think, “Aha! No understanding of justification by faith!” But then again, that Catholic surprised by the pop quiz may have a very clear grasp of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. If you drill down further, you will like find that, of course, the Catholic does not believe we can get to heaven without the help of God, but that he also knows that “inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” That he never mastered the patter of Evangelical culture may say no more about his relationship with God than the fact that many Evangelicals are ignorant of the Eucharistic Real Presence means they have no relationship with Christ. When two cultures start by asking profoundly different questions, they often wind up with profoundly different answers. Doesn’t mean anybody on either side is necessarily bereft of a relationship with Christ.

The main thing is to keep on keepin’ on in your honest quest to hear and obey Jesus. Do that, and he will make your path straight and, I am confident, make a way for you to enter into to full communion with Holy Church. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.