Monday, January 27, 2014

"Come as You Are" Revisited: Is the Church for Saints or Sinners?

Just over three years ago, I wrote a post in this blog called "Come as You Are;" the post had nothing to do with Kurt Cobain but the title was ideal. The post shared an observation about my mother-in-law's feelings about the Catholic Church; while the faith and moral teachings are very important to her, she takes pride in the fact that it is a place where sinners and the down-and-out in general could approach God without being turned away or judged.

I then went on to make some observations about how she saw this as a contrast to the various new denominations that have begun proselytizing that country in recent times.

For most of the time since then, I was rather doubtful of that post, thinking that I had probably gone off track.  Yet, I justified it by the fact that I was not yet Catholic and only just beginning to take a renewed interest in my Christian faith.

Looking back and re-reading the post today, however, I realize that I really was onto something, at least in the general sense.  I have come across some new ideas and had some new experiences that help put the idea of "come as you are" into a more solid context.  Most importantly, I see that the message was not just for others, but also for me.

Two Opposite Errors

When it comes to opening a church to all alike, there are two opposite errors which both essentially keep people from really coming as they are - both push people to pretend they are someone they are not.  One is to assume that everyone who passes through the doors of a church must be a saint, or become one quickly.  The other is to deny that sin exists and just declare that everyone is a saint regardless of how they live.

Closed Congregations

I'd guess that just about everyone has had the experience that when they walk through the doors of a church and suddenly get an urgent feeling that they are very out of place. Putting the truly closed congregations aside, there are many ways a church can deliver this message even if their doors are quite open.  Most kinds of uniformity can do this.  For example, in Mexico men of certain denominations will wear golf shirts, tucked into casual dress pants and have a neatly combed side part.  While such dress is certainly tasteful, anyone who's been to Mexico knows that it is also very unusual.  Thus, the average Mexican (or even expat) wandering through the doors to worship God on Sunday morning  would find himself standing out like a sore thumb, and probably immediately being approached to be welcomed as the new-comer.

As this last example shows, some of the factors which tend to close off a congregation are meant in truly good will and kindness.  Yet, the experience I just described is quite off-putting to many people.    The way of dressing is certainly connected to a saintly way of life and albeit given in warmth and kindness the invitation includes an unspoken assumption that your differentness is an indication of sinfulness.

Many people desire a church of more "saintly" Christians, and all too often outward signs that even unofficially indicate this can be a way of alienating outsiders.

Open Doors and No Walls

Then their is the opposite situation.  The idea that sin simply doesn't exist.  A question that shows a concrete parallel is this: what is the point of having open doors if your church has no walls? While a church like this may give the impression of welcoming everyone, the truth is that they welcome no one; no one is given the benefit of approach God as a sinner, which we all must do.

A Field Hospital for the Sick

One of my favorite images from Pope Francis so far is his comparison of the church to a field hospital after the battle.  The problem with both situations I describe above is that both assume that the church is here only for or primarily for saints; (one tries to make quick work of sanctifying everyone, the other simply declares everyone a saint.)  Christ said the opposite; he told us he came for the sick, not the sick, not the healthy.  Like Christ, his church is here for the sick and the wounded.  This means two things - first of all that we must acknowledge that nearly of all of us have been wounded in the battle, and secondly that we must have our doors open to the most deeply wounded.

Here is one of the hardest things I have learned, and a point I still struggle with in action; when the wounded come in fresh from the battle field, unsure if they will make it or not, they must not get the impression that they are in the company of the healthy, and have made a mistake by entering a place they don't belong, as in my first point above, but the should see clearly that they have indeed made it to the hospital, the place where the wounded have gathered for healing - for care and for medicine.

This seems like a paradox, since the first aspect most of us will judge in a church is how "good" the people are; yet, I can guarantee you that a newcomer will feel much more at home in the company of those acknowledge their own faults than those who pretend not to have any - and, most importantly, it is simply the truth - pretty much all of us are sinners in need of the Great Physician.

Everyone must become aware of their sins, not so they feel ashamed or out of place at church, but on the contrary so they feel confident to bring their sins with them and know they can leave them there, just as everyone else does.

Confession to a Priest

Three years ago, when I wrote that post, I had a sense of arrogance.  While I was convinced that I was coming the fullness of the faith, at the same time I was sure that I would have a good deal to "teach" most Catholics, who knew so little about the Bible and even their own faith.  When I wrote about "come as you are," I was, somewhat subconsciously, writing for the "others," those real sinners out there.

What I have learned the most since then is that "come as you are" is for all of us, not just those who have done (or are doing) the more obvious or sins.

For a church really to be open for all to "come as they are," even those stable within the church must have the benefit of being allowed to come as a wounded person, finding medicine for their wounds, forgiveness for their sins.

The best and easiest way for this to happen is sacramental confession, where you confess your sins to a priest who absolves those sins.

One of the surest signs of an unhealthy Catholic parish is an empty confessional; not because the people are more or less sinful, but because it indicates that the most regular church-goers are not ready to recognize their own short-comings - they are not prepared to come as they are.  How can we expect others to come as they are we do not?

Rosaries and Freedom of Worship

Yet, it is important that recognize that not everyone is ready or willing to receive such medicine.  Not everyone arrives ready to confess their sins (and consequently not ready to receive Christ, physically through communion, or otherwise.)  Even these people need medicine, perhaps more so than those who are in line for confession.

Whether people have come prepared to receive Christ or not, I would say one of the most helpful things a church can do is to allow people to focus on God and pray in the way they are best disposed to do.  I think one of the biggest obstacles we place create in worship is uniformity in worship.  When you walk into a church and everyone else stands and sits at the right time, says all the right responses, is swaying their hands in the air during the music, or hugging everyone around them at some point in the service, it likewise creates pressure for everyone to be a good, joyful Christian.

Christian joy is wonderful, and necessary, but the bottom line is that not all those wounded in battle will enter the field hospital bubbling over with joy; and if they aren't, they shouldn't feel that they have to pretend they are. (Just like those who are should feel free to show it.)

In recent decades, much has been said about people praying the rosary during Mass - for the most part, the practice has been condemned; people shouldn't be distracted from paying attention and participating.  Yet, while the rosary is certainly not the ideal form of participation, it is most certainly one good example from Catholic worship of an easy way for people to focus on God and worship him on a day that for ever reason their mind might otherwise be distracted and wandering.

It's not about defining some sort of requirements; quite the contrary, I would say that the best situation would see a bit of everything - during a hymn, for example, some people may be singing loudly, others re-reading the Gospel reading, others on their knees praying quietly, etc.  It allows all (regulars or not) to come as they are and worship as they need.

(I imagine this picture is from the
outside of the churching looking in)
Come as You Are

When I walked through the doors of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Playa del Carmen several years ago, I was impressed that while words from the pulpit were not minced or spared when it came to sins, so many sinners came willingly as they were.  The confessional always had a line up that lasted through the first half of the mass.  Even those arriving late would go to kneel in front of the altar, light a candle and say a prayer before going to confession or joining the service.  All those sinners, I could see, were welcomed and taken care of. 

What I didn't realize at the time is that the part most appealing to me, what ultimately drew me closer, wasn't that others could come as they were, but that I could come as I was (and as I still am) - as a sinner, wounded in battle and in need of medicine.

No comments:

Post a Comment