More than Going through the Motions

When I was a much younger man I attended mass on a regular basis for several months. I went most often to Saint John the Baptist Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I also visited some of the other, larger churches in the area.

I wasn’t interested in converting, but I was curious about Catholicism. The Church of Rome had, after all, given birth to Protestantism and we shared a common heritage. Her saints were my forebears. The creeds we sometimes recited were formulated by her thinkers. And all the first Protestants were, I knew, Catholics.

But I had come to faith in a church where attitudes regarding Catholicism were generally negative. I was told that Catholics didn’t believe in salvation by grace through faith. Instead, they tried to work for their salvation by performing the rituals associated with the Church, like attending mass, making confession, and abstaining from meat on Fridays.

Some of what I saw seemed to validate this view of Catholicism. Friends I knew complained about Friday fasts or just ignored them altogether. I met people who seemed to think of confession (and the Eucharist itself) as a kind of magic. It seemed to have no impact on their daily life, only on their final destination – or at least their timing in getting there.

Yet there were other Catholics I knew who didn’t fit that profile at all. I went to college with a couple of guys – men I liked and admired – who were planning on going into the priesthood. They were sincere men who loved God and loved the Church.

So I started going to mass to find out what it was all about. I didn’t presume to take communion, of course, and so I did not have a comprehensive experience of Catholic worship, but I found the liturgy helpful. While it was apparent to me that some people were merely going through the motions, others were obviously engaged in the sincere worship of God.

When I went to the Catholic Church, I had no thought of being converted. (And I wasn’t; I still disagree with Catholic doctrine and ecclesiastical practice on numerous points). But my attitude toward Catholics was converted. Of course many Catholics are just going through the motions, but is it any different on the Protestant side of the divide?

And going through the motions, I realized, is not all bad – if one goes through them with what St. Peter called a “consciousness of God.” One of those motions, associated in my mind with Catholic worship, is the act of genuflecting. To genuflect is to kneel (or touch one knee to the floor) as a gesture of respect.

At St. John the Baptist, I would watch as worshipers entered the aisle and knelt, touching a knee to the floor and crossing themselves. By doing so, these men and women involved their bodies, and not just their minds, in worship. This is important because we are embodied creatures. Whatever our bodies do (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis) affects our souls.

To kneel before God is to acknowledge his greatness and his authority over us. As Alcuin put it, “By such posture of the body we show forth our humbleness of heart.” Kneeling before God reminds us of who he is and who we are in relation to him. Until we get that right, nothing else in the Christian life can proceed according to plan.

Sure, some people make the sign of the cross thoughtlessly but that does not change the meaningful nature of the symbolism. When a person kneels and makes the sign of the cross, he or she is saying to God: “I acknowledge your greatness and my need, your holiness and my sin, and the only reason I can come to you is that I belong to Jesus, who endured the cross for me.”

A person who comes to God with that attitude will find him responsive. It might be said of that person, as St. Paul said in another context, “…anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/11/2014

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