When I’m sitting in my office ticking off the tasks in my planner, I like to break the silence with Christian Contemporary music (interspersed with the occasional country hit). Recently, I was struck by a particular song, or more specifically, a very perplexing set of lyrics: “Cause all religion ever made of me was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet.” Hearing it the first time, all I could do was listen to the rest of the song, and as I listened, my heart sunk more and more.
“Give me rules; I will break them. Show me lines; I will cross them. I need more than a truth to believe. I need a truth that lives, moves, and breathes. To sweep me off my feet, it’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in, more like losing my heart than giving my allegiance. Cause all religion ever made of me was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet. It never set me free. It was love that made me a believer in more than a name, a faith, a creed.”
The lyrics were more than a little provocative. Hearing them made me cringe, made me want to defend my faith, my creed, the religion that I so loved. But after hearing it again, those lyrics also caused me great pain- pain that my faith should be so misunderstood, and pain that a man should be led to believe this all to be true. In truth, having a relationship with Christ is not an either/or- either you love Christ or you love your religion. You can love both. You should love both Christ and the Church, because at her heart, the Church is the Bride of Christ, His very Body, and He loved her to the point of death.
This love is not an either/or; it’s a both/and. We are called to love both Christ and His Church, and in growing in love for one, we will fall more in love with the other. But loving the Church is more than just another way of saying that we must love her Head, Jesus Christ. We must love her entire body, a body that is composed of rules and lines, truth that demands belief and fidelity, a particular name, a particular faith, a particular creed. Yes, Christ desires a more intimate relationship with us, a relationship that will go beyond following rules and swearing blind allegiance, but that relationship will always be born within the context of His Church, His Body manifest here on earth. To strip Christ of His Church is to strip him of the hands reaching out to us, the arms longing to encircle us, the legs that desire to walk with us.
When Christ is separated from His Body, His Bride, the Church, faith becomes about mere feeling, the sensation of “falling…in love”, as Christian Contemporary artist Jason Gray writes. But what happens when the feelings fade? What happens when you hit a dry spell, and instead of falling more in love with Christ, you feel as though you are falling speedily into a dark pit?
As a very wise man once told me, “you don’t fall in love; you fall in a ditch.” Now, am I going to deny that I felt like I was falling in love when I first found Christ? Of course not. I remember those first few weeks as a newly-returned Catholic. Mass gave me goosebumps. Prayer left me with butterflies in my stomach. I felt like I was walking on cloud nine, and nothing would be able to bring me down. The feelings that I experienced during those first weeks and months of being a “revert” were very much akin to the sensation of falling in love, and as I prayed, meditated on Scripture, and turned to the Eucharist over and over again, I found myself falling more and more in love. The feelings were strong, but they were also fleeting.
In time, the feelings inevitably fade. And when the feelings are gone, we are left with a choice. We can continue to love, even when the butterflies have faded and the goosebumps have settled. Or we can give up, and seek something else with which we can fall in love. If the feelings are all we have, the choice will be a simple one. We will look elsewhere for love so that we can experience those feelings again. But if love transcends feelings, if love is ultimately a choice, then we are called and challenged to choose Christ day after day, again and again. Even when it’s hard, even when we are tired, weak, or feeling empty, even when we don’t fully understand what it is that we are choosing.
On a daily basis, Christ gives us opportunity after opportunity to choose Him, to fall more deeply in love with him. We choose Christ when we follow the rules He has given us, even when we are tempted to break them. We choose Christ when we are faced with a line that we have been asked not to cross, and we obey. We choose Christ when we give our hearts and our fidelity to the Church that is as much His Bride as it is Himself. We choose Christ when we profess faith in the one Lord, one faith, one baptism that unite us. These are the stable rocks, the truths that will not change, regardless of our feelings. When we are spiritually dry, down, or drowning, this truth remains. When we don’t feel like we’re in love, we choose to love. And when we’re falling madly and deeply in love with our Lord Jesus Christ, we’re choosing love then too. Sometimes it’s easy, and other times it’s hard. The strength of the Church provides us with loving arms, a strong embrace, to encircle us and hold us up when our legs are too weak. This is the Body of Christ, here on earth.
I am reminded of the Act of Contrition that I first learned as a child: “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” As children, we often make choices because we are afraid of potential punishments, or because we have been bribed with some reward. We don’t fight with our little sister because doing so would mean a time-out. We clean up our room because we will get dessert, or a sticker for our chart, or whatever other reward we might have been offered. Our morality is very consequence-driven, and thus immature.
In time though, our morality deepens, becoming less about what we will get, and more about the person we love. We make right choices not merely because we desire heaven and dread hell, but because we love God. No lover ever desires to harm his beloved. We accept all sorts of boundaries and rules to ensure that our beloved will never come to harm intentionally through our actions. We respect those boundaries, do not cross those lines, follow those rules, because we are in love. It’s true with human relationships, and it’s also true of our relationship with God.
Falling more deeply in love with a person does not mean that the rules, boundaries, and lines become superfluous. I will never reach the point that my love will render such things meaningless. I will never say to Andrew, “I am so comfortable with our love, and so deeply in love with you, that I can flirt with other guys and never feel at all attracted to them.” I love Andrew, so I will not flirt with other guys. That’s the end of it- no need to consider feelings, or what I might or might not do in the heat of the moment. I would never put myself in such a precarious position because I love Andrew. These rules, just like the precepts of the Church, are meant to help us, not hurt us, and for this reason, they are meant to be respected, not broken.
My heart aches for Jason Gray, someone who is clearly hurting. He longs to fall more in love with Jesus, but by denying His name, the creed, and the true faith, he is not drawing any closer to the heart of Christ. As long as he continues crossing the lines, breaking the rules, and shirking obligations, he will find himself between a rock and a hard place, loving Christ and pushing Him away at the same time. Those rules, lines, and obligations were given to us for a reason. They are meant to strengthen us in moments of weakness, protect us in times of temptation, guide us when we have lost our way. Because we all feel weak, tempted, and lost from time to time, and when the feelings have faded, it’s the lines, rules, and obligations that will carry us through. They are the arms that embrace us, the hands that hold us up, the weight that supports us. We are blessed to be so held.
The Church keeps us grounded here on earth, providing us with limitations and lines so that we might not stray. She is the fence that keeps the sheep safe, constructed by the Good Shepherd, the Gate Himself, Jesus Christ. And she is the Gate of Heaven as well, and it’s through the waters of Baptism, through her sacraments, that we are adopted as children of God and are given access to Heaven itself. The Church is not a stone tied to the feet of sinners, but the rock against which the gates of hell will not prevail.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!