This morning I had to listen to a eulogy given by someone who was a Christian but not a Catholic. There was the common love for Jesus apparent in that eulogy, the same passion and the same commitment to trying to know and live the Christian faith. But it seems that the lines become drawn when it comes to rituals and being religious, with the Catholic Faith being perceived as ritualistic and restrictive, and lacking the depth of a personal relationship with God. I do not know that much about Theology but what the pastor said about rituals and about being religious made me think about the structure of my personal relationship with God. Do I have a personal relationship with Him? How do I know that I truly love Him? Almost every day, the highlight of my day is to open His church and light up the candles for Him, to set up the altar and then, after mass, I clean up, put out the candles and turn off the lights. To anyone who might be looking, what I am doing would probably appear as mechanical – just a repetitive series of actions done day after day after day, probably fitting nicely into what a “ritual” is. But then I look at the quietness of the church with my heart; I look at the Tabernacle and feel overwhelmed with gratefulness that I can do not only something like that almost every day, but actually being able to start my day by caring for the Sanctuary. If that is a ritual, then that is a ritual that I always pray He would allow me to do as long as He wants me to. It is my prayer, it is one of the ways I show Him I love Him. Going to Mass and receiving Communion of course also fit the definition of being ritualistic and being religious. I used to hate going to mass, I used not to understand it, and I used to be one of those who say, I don’t have to go to mass or have a religion to have a personal relationship with God, to love God. For many years I stayed away from the Mass but throughout those years I deeply believed that I had the Faith and that I truly loved God, and I was convinced that I truly did.
What changed my attitude about not going to mass were the same questions I asked myself about loving someone: if I truly love someone, wouldn’t I do all the best I can to show that person that I love him or her? Wouldn’t I want to know all that I can about that person? Wouldn’t I want to get close to that person as much as I can? Ten years ago when I was in deep trouble and had nowhere to go, my memory of rituals learned saved me. It guided my steps and took me to a church, to the Mass, to the Eucharist. The Precious Host and the Precious Blood literally became my lifeline out of that dark abyss where I sank. As I kept going to the Mass, God unraveled the Mystery just so that my small brain would not recoil and explode at the awesomeness of it. Mary Magdalene was so overjoyed when Jesus drove away the demons from her that she became a grateful follower and broke a whole jar of precious perfume for His feet. With me, I have nothing spectacular except that as I light each candle in the altar, I light it also with my heart, full of gratitude. And now the Mass that I used to regard as a cumbersome ritual has become truly a banquet for me, a feast full of graces served on the table and freely given to me as I take them.
Now I see the Mass as the expression of a deeper communion with God, the sharing of a feast He has prepared especially for me. I do think that I have a personal relationship with God and since I do, I consider it perfectly natural to long to go to Mass because it is His special gift for me. What reason would I have to stay away from it? It wouldn’t make sense if I say I loved God, but reject the treasure He offers me. Listening to that eulogy also made me think about the way God has set up the redemption of humankind. He could have said, I forgive, and that would have been the end of the story. After all, He is the Word and whatever He says, becomes. But He set up the process of salvation in a series of steps, culminating in the suffering, death and resurrection of His Son. God could have merely said I love you and I forgive you without having His Son Jesus go through the Passion of Dying for us, but He did not. He sent His only begotten Son, God like Him, pure and sinless, to suffer the humiliation and consequences of our sins, to show, without a doubt, that He meant business and that He meant true when He says, come back to me because I love you and I have a personal relationship with you. The God who creates by simply uttering understands the very nature of our humanity and the very limited scope of our comprehension. We measure love by what we see and therefore, He gave us the visuals of that perfect love.
That eulogy moved me to be more grateful for the rituals and religion that the Catholic Church has protected for the past two thousand years. It is very true that at many points in my life I had uttered its “route” prayers and performed its rituals mindlessly and heartlessly, very much like the pharisees and scribes we read in the Bible. It would be a mistake though to think that having a personal relationship with God is incompatible with being a Catholic. Once I started asking God to let me know Him and to love Him, the route prayers that I used to babble became the very foundation of my understanding, providing me the road map to the pathways of the heartland of His love. The rituals of the Church that I already know become the structure that allowed me to experience in a fuller way the treasures in them that I failed to see before because of my pride. The repetition of these rituals become for me the gentle unraveling of God’s tenderness, layer by layer, as soon as I am able to understand and appreciate it.