Maybe it was just me. But as a Protestant, I squirmed when it came time to raise up my arms during worship.
I really didn’t feel “ready” to be that person. I wanted it to “well up from within me,” a spontaneous gesture of worship toward the Lord. I got the impression that only the most authentic worshipers had graduated to the point of raising up one’s arms.
Over-thinking it for the first five songs before finally doing it did not equate to “authentic.” Nor did I trust myself. I felt suspicious when someone immediately raised their hands from the moment the music started. Did that urge just come over them from the very first notes? Were I to raise my arms, I did not know if this was about God or if this was about me. As in, “Look. I’m the real thing now. I worship. Really worship.”
I suspect I was entirely too self-conscious to remain a Protestant for long–that is, if I were to advance at all in the spiritual life. Individual anything usually causes me to question my motives and wonder what other people are thinking about me. I don’t know if this is from growing up as an only child who was closely observed and received a lot of attention, or if it’s just that plain old fallen nature we all contend with. Ultimately, it’s a form of pride, thinking that one’s own process is something that other people are pondering to any degree.
With all the opportunities for self-expression and lay involvement, with all the spontaneity and contemplative Bible studies, I suspect I would not have improved much. When one does not have to humble one’s self before authority, or lose one’s self in the non-spontaneous liturgy, the Christian experience remains very self-oriented.
Protestantism, inherently individualistic as it is, founded on the very premise that man is man’s own authority, does not guide the average believer into a truly communal experience.
That is not to dismiss the communal experience that is had. Everyone has a communal experience of some sort if they are a part of a group of any type.
But if everyone is encouraged to be spontaneous and “do one’s own thing,” placing the “personal relationship with Jesus” as the main priority, unity becomes impossible to express. Humility, devalued as a virtue, remains something that some of us desperately need (ahem–me). Some more than others!
And for that humble person who does not struggle with attention, who stays in the background and feels no conflict about the timing of hands lifting into the air, who does not spend many moments worrying about what other people think, other than the gaze of our Lord: is it fair to insist upon the spontaneous self-injection of that person into the self-oriented Protestant experience?
I’m specifically thinking about confession right now. So often, in Protestant circles, this equates to a public divulging of personal sins heard by many people. Prayer requests may devolve into a chance to share information about someone else’s problems, often without any discretion at all. The juiciest prayer requests hang in the air that much longer and get reduced to concerned conversations after the fact.
The effect of all of this individualism is to elevate the person, our sins, and our will to an exalted state. Sins often will be rehashed and re-confessed as part of a “testimony.” And testimony is good. But shouldn’t the Lord’s grace and forgiveness and mercy be the ordinary part? If that is the only way to confess one’s sins, does the introvert have any hope to participate in this vital act upon which our salvation depends?
Becoming Catholic seldom feels good for converts at first. When the Lord’s urging to convert dawns upon the mind of a person, the person can become sincerely confused and disturbed. There is an imminent loss of individuality realized almost immediately.
The Church often has the reputation of being “rote,” of having practices that are “routine,” of having “repetitive prayers,” all of which can seem very strange and uneventful to a Protestant, accustomed as that person might be to spontaneous self-expression and personal time with Jesus.
Yet one notices almost immediately a relief descend as the priest gazes at the words in the Missal or the Liturgikon (in the Byzantine rite). He is not creating something new in his mind, or making up the words as he goes along. Indeed, he might be reading or chanting from a text which has been essentially the same for more than 1500 years. He uses words written by our Fathers in the faith, St. John Chrysostom, for instance, in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. He uses terminology which connects us to the catechesis of the Church from its earliest days. While words such as oblation sound strange to the modern ear, they convey the faith of the earliest Christians. Our bodies and minds can relax into the shared experience, speaking, singing, and moving in unison with one another as we communally worship God and beseech His Presence among us as one body.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, highly respected in Protestant circles (and by many Catholics), implies that the Catholic way of regular confession can border on evil. But is this fair? Does every confession have to involve gushing emotions? Is sin really that innovative? Confessing regularly, face-to-face or anonymously, but secretly with a priest, has the most effective way of reducing sin to its appropriate place. More importantly, the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ becomes encountered in a way that borders on–dare I say?–mundane.
Now, “mundane.” Perhaps that evokes negative connotations of somehow being overly secular and boring. But that’s not what I mean. The definition of “mundane” is “typical of this world,” “ordinary.” How blessed to have this encounter with Christ as one’s “ordinary” existence. Of course we know that it is not truly ordinary or truly of this world. It is other-worldly. But for the other-worldly to become commonplace is called the Kingdom coming, and God’s Will being done.