I was raised Catholic. I say that often. Not that it is a bad thing. It’s just my experience. During my time in the Catholic church, through my childhood and early adulthood, I had no connection with God. I can’t lay the blame for that at the feet of the Catholic Church. That was just where I was.
When I became a Believer, when I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, my life changed. I also began to see the Catholic Church in a different light. I was never into the ritual and observance, which is a major component of the Catholic Church. Not that other denominations and religions don’t have central religious rituals. All religions have ritual observances and traditions.
Those ritual observances and traditions are not, in themselves, bad, but they can create a facade that hides emptiness, darkness and sin. They can create an appearance of piety with no spiritual reality behind them. They can be more superstitious than spiritual, like stroking a rabbits foot for good fortune. In these and other ways, ritual observances can become a substitute for relationship with God.
I want to emphasize, again, though, that ritual observances are not bad in themselves. Jesus instructed us to take communion in remembrance of him. in the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites many ritual observances for them to follow. King David, a man after God’s own heart, was an enthusiastic participant in those ritual observances.
The key, though, is that David was a man after God’s heart. The rituals for David were a way to connect with and celebrate God. If the ritual observances connect you with the living God, they are good. If the ritual observances get in the way of connection, or are substituted for connection with the living God, they are bad.
Rituals observances are useless if they are not an expression of our love, gratitude and worship of the living God. They may even be worse than useless if they only let us feel good about ourselves, when in fact we are still dead in our sins, having no connection with God who saves.
When ritual observances become a way for us to feel good about ourselves and to gain the approval of the people around us, we become what Jesus called the Pharisees, whitewashed tombs. We are clean and neat and appear to be pious on the outside, but we were dead, cold and empty on the inside.
My experience with the Catholic Church was an experience with a whitewashed tomb. In truth, I may have projected my emptiness on others. I was the tomb. I turned from it, realizing that I did not need the structure. I did not need a human intercessor for me. I needed my own personal connection with God who desired my heart, not just my observances.
This is not to say that a person cannot find that connection with God in the Catholic Church or in religious ritual, generally. We can find connection with God anywhere, literally anywhere. There is no place we can go that God is not there. I realized that not all was what it seemed to me, but my journey took me away from the pomp and circumstance to greater personal intimacy.
We can’t thrive as spiritual Lone Rangers, either. We are not meant to live in isolation. We are meant to live in community. We are meant to be part of the body of Christ. We need each other. God made us that way: to have relationship with each other and with Him. We do need the Church.
Whether we make our homes in the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the Greek Orthodox Church or an independent Christian church, we need to be connected to the body of Christ as surely as we need to be connected with God.
I know people who have grown up in less formal religious traditions who have gravitated toward more formal religious traditions, and they have done that because of a connection with the living God. CS Lewis was a member of the Anglican Church. GK Chesterton and JRR Tolkien were Catholics. There is nothing wrong with religious ritual if it is a vehicle for the person to connect with the Person of God. If the ritual gets in the way, however, we need to strip it away so that we can have that connection.
This is where I found myself after having become a believer. I was not interested in the piety. I was interested in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I did not want the façade. I wanted the real thing. At the same time, I recognize that a person can be a Catholic and have the same personal connection with God that I have.
It’s all a matter of perspective and personal orientation. Are we orientated toward God himself? Or are we orientated towards fulfilling ourselves and making ourselves look good to others without real interest in a connection with God. Are we content to substitute religious observance, or are we willing to settle for nothing less than the sacrifice of the self to our Lord and Savior?
In the end, it isn’t the church, the ritual or tradition that is the problem. Our own orientation makes all the difference as to whether we are filled with the Holy Spirit or contain nothing but spiritual emptiness, like a whitewashed tomb.
I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
I hate, I despise your feasts,
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. (Isaiah 1:11-14)
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)