I had a conversation with my mom a few weeks ago about the things I’ve been discovering about the Catholic Church. A lifelong Protestant, my mother had the biggest problem with concepts like confession and obligations; she questioned why I would want a human being involved in my relationship with God. She asked my why I needed someone else to tell me I am forgiven, when the Bible says it and that’s all I should need.
The truth is this: I am weak, and prone to self-deception. As a teenager and young adult, I suffered greatly from what I have since learned is called scrupulosity: a type of spiritual OCD, where an individual loses the capacity to determine what is a true sin, and becomes overwhelmed by guilt and despair. For every verse I read about God’s forgiveness, I could find several verses about how I should be growing more and more holy every day, and how much God hates sin, and how reprehensible even tiny sins are. It was this sense of hopelessness that eventually drove me from Christianity altogether, unable to bear the weight of the standards I imagined myself to be under.
To my mind, one of the greatest blessings of having to confess one’s sins to a “religious professional” (my mom’s words) is that there is an objective person with greater spiritual training that I will ever have to give perspective to my internal chaos. To have had someone to clarify for me the true nature of sin, and to be a guide when I can’t guide myself, is an invaluable blessing that I can never thank God enough for providing. He didn’t just leave me alone with an inscrutable book and expect me to figure it all out myself; He gave me a physical, human structure to aid me in my infirmities.
On that same theme, I remember something that a friend told me after I left Christianity: I told her that the rules were too onerous, that I couldn’t assent anymore to something that brought my life so much agony. She told me that Christianity wasn’t about rules, but about a relationship.
That was something else I had struggled with as a Protestant: people spoke of Christianity as a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But, I thought, how can I be expected to have a “relationship” with a person who is invisible and inaudible? Even if He is God, and He arose, and ascended into heaven, how can I have a relationship with him? Usually, for a relationship to occur, there has to be two-way communication, not just one person reading another person’s words thousands of years after they were written. It would be like saying I have a personal relationship with Jane Austen because I read her books all the time. I questioned how I was supposed to relate to God when all I had was a book with his rules and sayings in it.
The Catholic Church’s answer is: you relate to God through His church and in the sacraments. It’s not just you and a book, it’s you and people, and places, and the power of God himself through baptism, and the Eucharist, and the family of God visible and active on the earth. If you are not strong and wise enough to relate to God solely based on reading words, then there are actions you can perform, people you can speak to, and places you can go.
I remember the first time I looked at a crucifix after starting to research the Catholic Church, and I was struck by a realization: “They believe that Jesus is here. He didn’t rise and ascend and disappear indefinitely; they believe that he is here, in their midst, in spirit and bodily in the Eucharist, and their crosses reflect that.” Unlike Protestant churches with their bare crosses and walls and windows, the Catholic Church puts Jesus in front of our eyes, and surrounds us with representations of faith. And that’s exactly what someone like me needs: something visible, tangible, to remind me all the time that God is present.
I will admit it: I don’t have the knowledge and the wisdom to determine what God wants. I am a lay person; I have other things in my life that I have to do, and I can’t spend every minute poring over religious texts and philosophies. It makes sense to me that God doesn’t expect that of all of us, that he instituted a Church that cares for us spiritually as we go through our lives. If you’re strong enough to do it on your own, more power to you. But for people like me, that’s why the Church is here.