I have a sense that a lot of people think of Christianity as an ‘easy’ faith. And when it comes to Catholics, in particular, the impression may be that our religion does not really ask that much of us – Mass on Sundays, no meat on Fridays and little else of any real substance.
But – as is the case with many common assumptions – the reality does not quite match the perception.
Tomorrow, Catholics will celebrate the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth. The story of this visit is recounted early in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Having just consented to become the Mother of God, Mary immediately goes “with haste” to visit Her cousin, Elizabeth, in the hill country. Entering and greeting Elizabeth, this older woman is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and feels the child in her womb leap for joy. Addressing her younger cousin as “the Mother of my Lord”, Mary then prays the prayer we now call the Magnificat – in this, She proclaims the greatness of the Lord while acknowledging Her own lowliness before Him. Saint Luke tells us that Mary remained with Elizabeth some three months – likely until the time her son, John (later known as ‘The Baptist’) was born.
For us as Catholics, this story offers us lessons – and the main one is this; that to truly live out our faith, it calls us to love God and to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, impelled by the love of God.
And that is where things start to become difficult for us.
Those two little commands seem so simple when written as words on a page. But living them out, day after day after day, is another matter altogether. It is in trying to do so – no matter how poorly – that we see the real cost of the faith we profess.
If you want an example of this, you need go no further than social media and how we use this to engage with others – often, people we do not actually know and with whom we share no real life contact.
So often, I read a post and my immediate inclination is to fire off a reply – what the other person says has annoyed or irritated me, or I have disagreed with their opinion. I judge them, condemn them, and publicly damn and dismiss them.
And then it occurs to me that Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman with deep kindness and compassion, which was very much frowned upon because she was generally considered to be less of a person and less deserving of respect and common courtesy.
Such a simple test and I have failed it all too easily.
Another poster is clearly struggling in some way. I read the post with no sense of compassion – my lack of empathy reminds me that this person does not matter to me in the least. I offer no word of encouragement. I offer no prayer. I have it within me to say something which, without my knowing it, might make all the difference to that person; but I say nothing and pass on by. Rather like the poor wounded man lying at the side of the road in another Gospel story, to whose aid almost no-one came.
Another example – in the real world, this time.
Out shopping in town, I pass a woman on the street who is begging for money. Casting my eyes upon her with some disdain, I have immediately formed a judgement of her within my heart – “I’m giving her nothing, she’s probably a drug addict”. I quickly pass by with my eyes deliberately avoiding her, not even acknowledging her humanity.
And so my judgement forms my response which, repeated often, then forms my habit. And my habit is to remain aloof and untouched by the need for compassion to be entended to another.
Despite an increasingly hardened heart which is more and more devoid of the love of both God and neighbour, I continue to go to Mass every Sunday. And I actually believe that my one hour of fairly superficial religious practice will get me into Heaven.
At that same Mass, I notice the presence of a young woman who is divorced, or a man living with another man. And I cannot judge both of them quickly enough, praising myself and my superiority all the while, just like the Pharisee comparing himself to the sinner in another Gospel account.
And just like that Pharisee – what a shock I have coming my way, when my eyes are finally opened and I perceive my coldness.
You begin to see, then, that being a Catholic or a Christian is a little more tricky than a casual glance at it might suggest. I’m not called to be Christian for one hour each Sunday, but for every moment of every day, in every situation which presents itself to me.
We often speak of ‘practising Catholics’ – and there is a very good reason for that; it takes a lifetime of practice and even then, we will likely make mistake after mistake, failure after failure. Be that as it may, perhaps what matters most is that we keep trying and never stop trying.
So, when I am at Mass tomorrow, I will think back to all I have written here today. And I will ask God to forgive so very many failures and such poor submission to His will in all things.
And I will look to Mary and Her visit to the older Elizabeth, and I will determine to follow Her example and – in doing so – to slowly (oh, so slowly) begin to do things just a little bit better.
‘The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth’ (1516) – school of Goosen van der Weyden, © National Gallery