Thursday, February 21, 2008

Almost Catholic


Today’s interesting read: Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice, and Mystery of Ancient Faith by colleague and friend Jon M. Sweeney.

Jon, like Thomas Howard a generation ago, is a cradle evangelical turned Episcopalian. When I was confirmed by an Episcopal bishop in 1982, Tom happened to be visiting my parish. After the service he said to me, “Welcome to this branch of the Catholic church.” Tom’s last book, published the year before he became fully Catholic in 1985, was titled Evangelical Is Not Enough. I wonder if Jon is on the same path.

Jon, like Tom, loves liturgy and literature. He practices assorted spiritual disciplines with an attentiveness foreign to most cradle Catholics. His notes include more novelists and poets than theologians—Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Hijuelos, Walker Percy, Richard Crashaw, and many others.

Unlike Tom, however, Jon has little time for hierarchy, favors experience over doctrine, and never mentions the Magisterium. Jon’s Catholicism is neither liberal nor lite (he apparently likes the current pope and is quite smitten with the catechism, stances Catholic liberals rarely take), but it is definitely post-modern. He tells us where he stands, makes no claims for absolute truth, shares with us his loves, and does all of this using words and forms harking back to venerable ecclesiastical traditions.

Sometimes feeling more like a collection of columns than a book, Almost Catholic offers interesting observations on topics ranging from the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the meaning of hell. The physical expression of spiritual experience—what Jon calls “the carnality of faith”—is a theme running throughout. Quoting Tertullian’s assertion that Jesus “loved his own flesh,” he comments:

To love our flesh as Jesus loved his own is to fill the physical events, stuff, interactions of life with spiritual meaning because they are indeed full of meaning. We can wash the dishes, repair shoes, prepare and eat a feast, and love doing these things—not because we’ve turned our mind elsewhere but because Christ showed us that physical life is marvelous. (75–76)

I am surprised at how little emphasis Jon gives the Eucharist. His “eleven steps to becoming a truly Catholic Christian” mention it obliquely, if at all—and yet, as Jon says when he finally brings it up in one of the last chapters, “there is nothing more central to Catholic faith than the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (200). That short chapter, called “Kissing and Eating,” makes a compelling case for gathering with other Christians for corporate worship.

Like Jon, I was “almost Catholic” for many years. I too loved liturgy and sacrament. Eventually, however, I felt that almost wasn’t enough, and I was confirmed by a Catholic priest. Jon writes, “Even as I envy the habits of devotion that often characterize the cradle Catholic, I can also see how being almost Catholic may even be preferable” (209). Well, a lot of people think being “almost married” is preferable to actually saying those vows, too—but is it even possible to be almost married, or almost Catholic? Or is Catholicism, like marriage, best understood by actually participating in it, risking diminished romance, multiplied struggles, and probable heartache? Jon's observations from the outside looking in are welcome and helpful. Should he someday decide to go totally Catholic, the church will be the richer.

3 comments:

Jana said...

Thanks for this review. I have quite a bit of Catholic envy (esp for the saints) and should add this to my ever-growing reading list.

kabloona said...

This was a refreshing post.

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