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The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Healing through Hunger

I've been hurt by ecumenical dialogue in the past, sometimes deeply. I have attempted to commune with Christians from different denominations on a number of occasions. More often than not, they tended to be from evangelical traditions. This was both in college and afterwards, as well.

I went into these relationships bright eyed and bushy tailed. I knew we had differences, but I was eager to interact with them and figured we could find a lot in common through our music, ministry and common ground. I was comfortable in my tradition, but open to what they had to offer. I wanted my church to be more "Protestant like" in a number of ways, so I wanted to see what it was all about.

The openness wasn't mutual. They didn't do a good job of hiding their sneers. They would sometimes begrudgingly tolerate parts of my tradition I would share, but it always seemed like an uphill battle. It felt like it took long discussions just to convince them that there was something "okay" about my faith tradition. It wasn't just that they disagreed with my beliefs or customs, but rather the very validity of my faith itself. There were also other times I was convinced they were moved in a positive way by parts of my tradition but just didn't want to admit it.

Once I became sensitive to it, I started noticing an anti-Catholic vibe just about everywhere, even among many so-called "liberal" Protestants. There are sly and subtle ways that the Catholic Church is dismissed in our culture on a fairly regular basis. It is one form of discrimination that is fairly well supported by our culture.

I just felt sad that the richness I was experiencing seemed totally lost on them. I was also disappointed by the closed mindedness. Was it some kind of inferiority complex, I wondered? I also wondered if the Catholic tradition was just an artifact from the past that I was lucky enough to have gotten an introduction to, but which modern folks just were not likely to connect to nor understand.

I became embittered and found myself in lots of "Catholic vs. Protestant" debates, fighting tooth and nail in the trenches.

Not all of my friends were mocking, of course, I have many non-Catholic friends who respect my tradition and we have had many wonderful moments sharing together. But when faced with the absolute hemorrhaging in membership that Catholics and other mainline Christians are losing to the evangelical churches, I just always felt empty. It was like there was a wonderful piece of artwork, and I was the only one who could see beauty, and I was trying to turn peoples' heads but they just weren't seeing what I was seeing.

An Unexpected Twist

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I blogged previously about the surprising draw that some evangelicals are having to parts of the Catholic tradition recently, with radio preachers going into long discourses about Augustine and the like. The other day I met some folks who came from an evangelical background who were eager for something different. They didn't just tolerate the Catholic tradition--they were hungry for it. They drank it up.

Normally, when talking to non-Catholics I try to talk it up or even apologize for my tradition to help outsiders understand what it is about. I always feel like I have to justify being a Catholic or put qualifiers into it. I didn't need to do that with these folks--they were all into it and understood the range of beliefs among Catholics. They were absolutely hungry for ritual and liturgy. They wanted nothing to do with "popcorn prayer." Chanting the psalms word-for-word is something they appreciate. They were independently doing deep research into the monastic traditions and the role of Eucharist in community worship. When they get together to worship they design liturgies and rituals and sometimes follow established ones from the Anglican or Catholic traditions. It was amazing watching them gather in a living room and put together a mass-like worship service, eager for tips and advice.

It was almost like watching the Dead Poets Society--or perhaps the early Christians--who gathered together to savor a special but forbidden practice--the sharing of the Eucharist.

One of them remarked how we are passing each other like two ships in the fog, waving. Many Catholics are looking for more improvisation in worship and trying to incorporate Bible study and other things that are more commonly part of Protestant traditions. Catholics are looking for a more personal connection. These people I met recently have been there and know the downside of that approach. They are looking for ritual, structure and longstanding traditions--not in some sort of rigid authoritarian way, but they realize that those things have a deep meaning. They want the magic and mysticism of ritual. Nobody likes the authoritarian tendencies of structure, but these people have seen what happens when you don't have those structures in place. They said they are part of a strong movement of former evangelicals moving toward Catholicism.

I also warned them that there are dangers when ritual becomes empty. Routine is important, and you won't always connect in a profound way each time you attend a service, but if an entire congregation stops singing on a regular basis you know your church is in trouble.

When I talked about attending to mass, they were eager to know where I went and any information about traditions I could share. Imagine! It used to be that mentioning "mass" in an ecumenical crowd was like dropping a dead animal into the room. The change in energy is profound from what I've experienced before. This wasn't begrudging acceptance--this was an open heart to where I come from and what my Church is about. I have never experienced this before and in all honesty I never thought I would. These are people who were raised in the evangelical tradition who are positively hungry for the Catholic churches--Anglican, Roman, etc.

There is still plenty of room for disagreements, and they shared many that I have and in some ways were more sympathetic to Catholic doctrines than I am. The point is that it feels totally different to be faced with this kind of openness. No doubt, this is the same kind of openness many former Catholics showed them as they were hurt in their tradition and started looking elsewhere, too.

I suppose outside affirmation can only take you so far, but it is nice to hear someone validate and echo what I've been feeling all along. After years of only a trickle it has been good to feel this kind of warmth and acceptance, and I believe it is healing for me. I am glad that I have been in a really good space recently and haven't been in my "Catholic vs. Protestant" mindset, so that when I met them I was able to receive them without having to work through my baggage or embarrass myself in the process.

So I have learned to trust the Spirit. If something is good--if it is really good--it will come back again. And of course, being Catholic is not just rituals and rules. There is mystery and tradition, storytelling and drama, beauty and imagination that goes with the tradition.

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