A Transfigured Vision


It is hard to approach a question like Why I am (still) Catholic without falling into humor or sarcasm.  I can hear multiple one-line quips that range from stereotypes (“I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t.”) to philosophical (“Why not?”).  Such a response, would be much too short and would fail to take seriously a legitimate (and difficult) question.

I was reminded how legitimate a question it was a few days before writing this post.  I was in my class entitled The Fullness of Faith:  Spirituality that Results in Justice that I teach to men who are in training to become permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.  In the midst of discussion, one of the men raised a question about religion in India and also something related to the Buddhist tradition.  With my background in comparative theology, I was able to launch into a detailed and off the cuff answer regarding aspects of Indian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy and some Sanskrit terms.  As I finished my answer and asked if that was helpful, two hands shot up.

“How do you know all that?”

Realizing that these men only know me as a practicing Catholic who teaches prayer, theology and social justice classes, I had to explain that I teach about other faiths at the undergraduate level.  The next set of hands shot up.

“Do you ever get asked why you are still a Catholic?”

I smiled.  “All the time.”

“What do you say?”

I answered them but feel I didn’t do the question justice.  Here’s my second chance.

Why am I (still) Catholic?  Maybe it is the nature of the question that leaves me feeling unsatisfied no matter what I say about it.  How does one really answer that question?  I think the three previous posts for Shark Week have given tremendously insightful and helpful answers.  Answers, that I also share and can rally behind.  In fact, a lot of what has been said echoes my response.  But still, I am not so sure that it is the right question to ask.  To get at that, let me make two brief points.

First, I remain Roman Catholic because I believe in the tradition.  This statement seems obvious.  If I didn’t believe in the tradition, I would leave it.  Somehow I believe that in this messy, complex and ancient tradition — this broken vessel — the truth is revealed.  What do I mean by this?  In his book on the Apostle’s Creed, Believing Three Ways in One God:  A Reading of the Apostle’s Creed, Nicholas Lash points out that the Latin word credo or “I believe”, has a slightly different sense than how we currently use the phrase “I believe”.  He points out in the creed the word is much more performative and instead of describing or evaluating some state of affairs, it enacts what it announces, like the words “I promise” or “I pledge”.  It is in that sense that I make the statement, “I believe in the tradition.”  So when I state that I believe in the tradition, I mean something like “I believe into the tradition” or “I promise to perform the tradition” and in doing so I venture forth and risk that I and the world are better off for my belief.

Second, this belief is not a concept but a vision.  The performance of the tradition that I am talking about does not immediately result in my holding conceptual ideas, doctrinal litanies, or detailed moral codes to guide my life.  While all those things have a place and purpose, the performance of the tradition that I am talking about is an envisioning of the world.  It is a refocusing of one’s vision so one can see what is truly there.  It is, as Michael Himes calls it in his book Doing the Truth in Love, a sacramental vision.  This is the deep truth in the Catholic tradition that speaks to me.  Sacramental vision reveals the absolute self-giving love of God that holds all in existence.  This vision is by its very nature deeply incarnational and embodied and results in the sacramentality of the tradition.  Water and oil, bread and wine.  Physical things that point to the grace all around.  This vision requires one to bring it forth, to believe into it.  This vision requires a beholder:  one who is willing to trust this vision, who risks performing the tradition.

And in beholding, I am transfigured in every sense:  nothing is wasted, nothing is left behind; as Amanda points out, through my wounds I am healed; my perspective — the way I “figure things out” is changed.  In this beholding, as pointed out in a past post, I “participate in the divine outpouring upon the world:  incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection become conflated into a single moment of love.”

This kind of belief as performance requires critical engagement.  It takes time — time in one’s cell.  And if I take seriously the performative aspect of the Creed as discussed by Lash, Amanda’s insight that the four marks can be used as an ecclesial examination of conscience rings even more true.  The four marks can be viewed not so much as describing the current situation but more like directions where we are being led by the Spirit of the Broken One and the community of beholders who willingly hold Him in their gaze.

So maybe the question Why are you (still) Catholic leaves me unsatisfied because for me it is the wrong question.  The way I see it, the question I should be asked is:  Are you Catholic (yet)?