Just Do It: How practice makes Catholic

Our outward displays of religion have been watered down by secular culture. This is unfortunate, says Father Robert Barron, because in order to know Catholicism, you must continually practice it.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST TERMS USED TO DESCRIBE CHRISTIANITY is the simple but evocative word Way (Acts 9:2). This signals something of great moment: Christianity, before all else, is a form of life, a path that one walks. It is a way of seeing, a frame of mind, an attitude. But more than this, it is a manner of moving and acting, standing and relating. It is not simply a matter of the mind but of the body as well. In fact, one could say that Christianity is not real until it has insinuated itself into the blood and the bones, until it becomes an instinct, as much physical as spiritual.

Perhaps the most direct description is this: Christianity, the way of Jesus Christ, is a culture, a style of life supported by a unique set of convictions, assumptions, hopes, and practices. It is like a game with a unique texture, feel, and set of rules. As such, it is a milieu into which one must be introduced through a process of practice and apprenticeship.

When a young man came to a Renaissance painter in order to learn the craft, he moved in with the master, watching him at close quarters, catching the rhythms of his movements and the overall pattern of his life. In time, he might be given a simple task to perform--say the crushing of pigments--and this he would do for many months or even years.

Only gradually would he be initiated into the more complex dimensions of the artist's realm of activity: draftsmanship, composition, application of color, use of chiaroscuro, the depiction of philosophical and mythological themes. During this entire process, he would scrupulously follow the direction and style of his master who, in his youth, had learned the same techniques from his elders. Only at the end of his years-long training, having moved, body and spirit, into the milieu of the painter, would the novice perhaps develop his own approach, find his own path.

Something very similar unfolds when a boy steps onto a baseball diamond to begin his initiation into the game. His coach moves him through a series of drills--throwing, catching, swinging the bat, fielding the ball--designed to place the requisite skills of baseball into his muscles and mind. When necessary, the master of the game might demonstrate with his own body the pivot or slide that he wants the novice to make.

If he is imaginative, the coach invites his charges to watch videos of great baseball players, encouraging them to mimic the graceful swing of Ted Williams or the energetic baserunning of Roberto Clemente. He might introduce them to the lore of the game, relating stories of the 1976 World Series or the Yankees' 1927 season; he might pass on the wisdom and strategies of successful managers like Tony LaRussa and Leo Durocher, and he might share the goofy eloquence of Casey Stengel. At the end of this process of apprenticeship, the youngster, it is hoped, will see and think and move as a baseball player--and will love the entire form of life that is baseball.

When I was 19, I entered a program in philosophy at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. This was the beginning of my apprenticeship to a whole series of masters and my entry into a world that I still find enchanting.

One of my professors in the first year of the program required us all to write a two-page paper each week on a single argument from Plato's dialogues. His critiques were ruthless and his grading was draconian: He would return these papers (that we thought ranked with the classics of Western thought) covered with lines, question marks, exclamation points registering his shock, corrections of grammar, and, hovering over all of it, a desperately low grade. One of his commonest remarks was,"You are just repeating standard arguments here; you are not philosophizing." What exactly philosophizing was none of us knew for sure, but the master's criticisms and humiliations were compelling us to find out.

The most memorable moment for me in the process of apprenticeship took place midway through my second year. After spending several months studying the issue of human freedom and divine foreknowledge, I raised a challenging question one day in class. My professor gave a brief response that I found inadequate, and I pursued the issue. Looking at me with a combination of delight and surprise, he said,"OK, make your case." With some trepidation, knowing that the entire class was listening avidly, I then began to philosophize--not so much commenting, learning, analyzing, but thinking on my own, following the argument where it led. Sensing my excitement, the professor kept guiding me, spurring me on with questions and comments. Suddenly I was not studying a Platonic dialogue; I was in one.

In that moment, still fresh in my memory all these years later, I entered, however tentatively and imperfectly, into the great conversation of Western philosophy. In the course of that exchange, I became a brother, however unworthy, to Parmenides, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Kant.

What happened in the course of those three years was that I entered a new world. At the end of the program, I had not simply new ideas and information, but new eyes and a new mind. I spoke a different language and related to my environment in a discernibly novel way. Those who knew me before my philosophical initiation realized that afterward something was radically and irreversibly changed in me. That is what a true apprenticeship does: It converts you.

Moving in with Jesus
The first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John are addressed to two former disciples of John the Baptist:"What are you looking for?" They respond, somewhat surprisingly,"Where are you staying?" One might expect that, in the presence of this new rabbi, they would have answered,"the truth" or"enlightenment" or"peace." Instead, they answer the question elliptically with another question--and this odd non-answer is, in fact, the key to the exchange.

What they seek, what they want to know, is not so much the teaching or wisdom or perspective of the rabbi; they want to know him, more to the point, precisely where and how he lives. In the mystical vocabulary of John's gospel, the verb menein (stay or remain) refers to the source of one's life and meaning. Therefore, in asking where he"stays," the disciples are wondering about the form of life that sustains him, the source of his power.

Obviously pleased by their response, Jesus says encouragingly,"Come and see." And then, John tells us,"They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day." In this simple and understated narrative, we see that the form of Christian discipleship is not primarily listening or learning but rather moving into the"house" of Jesus, discerning his mode of life, being with him at close quarters.

After this visit with the rabbi from Nazareth, one of the disciples--now identified as Andrew--emerges with enthusiasm, running to his brother Simon and exclaiming,"We have found the Messiah." It seems clear that the body--"staying with him"--in a significant sense conditions the mind--"He is the Messiah"--the way of life shaping the conviction.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus certainly teaches his disciples, but the instruction always takes place in the far more elemental context of following him, as though the learning would never take place uncoupled from the life. In a word, Jesus invites his friends into an apprenticing relationship with him, encouraging them to"catch" his way of being through proximity, imitation, and love. And the processes traced in the examples above--practicing, watching patiently, repeating, disciplining the body--are all at work as one is grafted onto Christ.

The Way of Jesus has, over the centuries, given rise to myriad expressions in theology, liturgy, architecture, poetry, ethics, and spirituality. Staying with Jesus has resulted in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the Divine Comedy of Dante, the Cologne Cathedral, the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, the silence and suffering of Saint John of the Cross, and the radical nonviolence of Catholic Worker cofounder Dorothy Day.

What can be lost or forgotten is the connection of all of these to the originating apprenticeship, to the form of life from which they flowed. Thus, Dorothy Day's protest against a culture predicated upon militarism arose not simply from her reflection, but from the conditioning of her body through a lifetime of spiritual exercises; and Thomas Aquinas said explicitly that the depth of his theological analysis came not so much from the acuity of his mind, as from the intensity of his prayer. Both Dorothy and Thomas were disciples who had"come and seen." Both had stayed with the Master and learned through practice a new way of being in the world.

Catholic exercise

Beige, bland Christianity
I have been dwelling on this embodied and distinctive character of Christianity precisely because I fear that, in recent years, we have largely lost sight of it. The culture that is Christianity, the sacred Way--expressed in movement, practice, and apprenticeship--has become, too often, a faint echo of the secular culture or a privatized and individualized set of convictions. The dense texture of the Christian Way has been worn thin, and its bright colors allowed to bleed into beige. This attenuating has been due to an accommodation to the characteristically modern frame of mind: skeptical, rationalist, and dualist.

Let me illustrate this with one simple but vivid example. Every year, a group of students from the seminary where I teach makes a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The sojourn usually coincides with the Muslim penitential month of Ramadan.

What strikes these American Catholic seminarians is how unavoidable, vivid, and"in your face" the practice of Ramadan is. Simply to walk outside one's residence and open one's eyes and ears is to know that something powerful is going on. Ramadan affects the way the people behave, move, gesture, do business, eat, and celebrate.

The rhetorical questions I have posed to my students when they share these impressions are: If a foreign visitor came to largely Catholic Chicago during our penitential season of Lent, would he or she particularly notice anything? Would it be obvious in any sense that something of religious significance was underway? Would you see Lent in people's faces, bodies, movements? Does it change the way they buy and sell, advertise, eat, and sleep?

The answer to all of these questions is, alas, no. And that is the problem. What does indeed affect our bodies, what does mark the way we move and sleep and do business, what has profoundly written itself into our muscles and bones, is the modern ethos, the secular religion. And a beige, bland, attenuated Christianity is no match for such a powerful and focused counterculture.

Put it into practice
A key insight of the American psychologist and philosopher William James is that the knowing mind is not to be isolated from the will, the passions, the desires, and the movements of the body. Sometimes, he says, knowledge comes in a flash of insight. But more usually it arrives as the result of a long and complex process involving attention, feeling, and, above all, action."We need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real."

This is not "wishful thinking" but an acknowledgment that deep desire and the conformity of one's body to a practice can open a person to a truth that would be, otherwise, unattainable.

A good friend of mine, an Irish priest, makes a yearly pilgrimage to Lough Derg, a penitential site in the northern part of the Irish Republic. In the Middle Ages, it was known as "Saint Patrick's Purgatory" and was featured on maps from that period. Lough Derg is a place of intense Christian practice. The pilgrim arrives at an island in the middle of a small lake and is immediately instructed to remove his shoes. He is to spend the next three days barefoot.

For the first day and night he performs a series of penitential and contemplative exercises--walking, kneeling, praying the rosary, confessing his sins--and he does this without benefit of sleep. During that first long night, if he begins to nod off, one of his fellow pilgrims pokes him awake. My friend has said that this fighting off of sleep is one of the most difficult and dramatic elements of the experience."Sleep hunts you like an animal," he says.

The next day, the same round of practices is repeated, and, at the end of that day, the pilgrims are permitted to sleep. They leave the island the next afternoon, following a morning of prayer and fasting. Now there's some Celtic spirituality for you!

When I first heard a description of this process, I was a bit horrified by its severity, but I have to admit that I was fascinated at the same time. Part of my interest came from the surprising bodiliness of it. At the end of a Lough Derg weekend, you would know, in your flesh, that you had been through something. My friend confirmed this when he reflected on the curious practice of going barefoot:"Whatever happened to me during that experience," he said,"came up through my feet." It didn't so much"occur" to him or"dawn" on him; it invaded him bodily. And he would never have been so affected had he not actually gone to the place and walked the walk. In the spirit of William James, he acted his way to a deeper truth about himself and God.

Take action
What are some ways that we can practice the faith? How do we learn with our bodies and souls how to walk the Way, apprenticing to the Master? Dorothy Day said that everything a baptized person does should be either directly or indirectly related to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy--a typically blunt and uncompromising remark from the woman who, much to my delight, consistently confounds the keepers of the pure flames of liberalism and conservatism. I think what she means is that real Christian love has a form. It is not a bland abstraction about being kind or just, but rather a set of very concrete things to do.

When someone says,"I'm for peace and justice," a legitimate comeback is"whose peace and which justice?" After all, every political thinker from Plato to Karl Marx has a proposal about the nature of justice and peace. Dorothy Day's challenge is to put a distinctively Christian form to such abstractions. Christian justice and peace looks like something: It is giving food to the hungry (yes, that hungry man you meet downtown) and sheltering the homeless (yes, that street person you see at your rectory door), and visiting the sick (yes, that disabled child on your block), and counseling the doubtful (yes, that student struggling with faith), and bearing patiently the troublesome (yes, that annoying person you would love to be rid of).

Dorothy Day was uneasy with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal precisely because it turned concern for the hungry, homeless, and unemployed over to the government, rendering at best abstract the particular Christian's own work of charity. I think she would be delighted if we moved today from the bland rhetoric of peace and justice to the hands-on practices of the works of mercy. I think she would be pleased if we taught our kids the corporal and spiritual works and, more to the point, showed them how to perform those works, taking them to nursing homes and homeless shelters and into the rooms of the sick and the psyches of the suffering.

When idealistic young people came to the Catholic Worker House in New York City, full of romantic fantasies about being with the poor, Dorothy always told them,"There are two things you should know about the poor: They tend to smell, and they are ungrateful." What she was communicating to them was the hard truth that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy cost--and that they will mark the body and soul. These exercises, these practices are, I think, ways of apprenticing to the Master, a means of access to the culture of Christianity.

Calling on a friend
Thomas Merton once commented that the discovery of a new saint is like the finding of a friend. It is connecting to someone with whom we can converse, from whom we can learn and upon whom we can rely. Like the intimacy of friendship, devotion to a saint is a process of knowing and being known.

Basic to the Catholic understanding of the communio sanctorum--the communion of saints--is that the holy ones in heaven, precisely through their intimacy with God, are linked to us. Looking at God in the beatific vision, they are, necessarily, looking at what God loves, because God is love. And what God loves is the world. Therefore, we can and should call upon the friendship of the saints, confident that they want to befriend us.

What does this practice look like more concretely? It might involve reading about your saint/friend, researching her career, studying her letters and writings, memorizing her famous quotations, becoming an expert in her life and times. It could also entail the imitation of her virtue and style--not, to be sure, a crude mimicry of her every move and manner of dress, but an embodied entry into her way of being and moving.

Just as an aspiring hitter might conform his stance and swing to those of outstanding Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, so the devotee of Saint Edith Stein might model her intellectual life and mode of prayer after those of the saint. And it might inspire one to make a pilgrimage to the site of the saint's birth or burial: Friends like to be together and move into each other's worlds.

Finally, it would include the act of calling on the saint, asking for help. Though this can quickly start sounding like Chicago's old Democratic Machine, the Catholic conviction is that God loves to offer himself in many and mediated ways, using nature, the cosmos, angels, ordinary events, and the saints as conduits of grace. So ask your saint for help, and make sure you thank her when she comes through--after all, a favor is a favor.

A case for the rosary
In the fall of 1993 I attended the Parliament of the World's Religions. It was a wonderful and colorful gathering of representatives from practically all of the faiths and spiritualities of the planet.

At one of the sessions, I found myself next to an exotic figure, a man swathed in the robes of a guru, his head covered with a hood, his forehead marked with the distinctive Hindu symbol of the circle and, in his hand, something like a rosary of prayer beads. When the talk was over, this mysterious figure raised his hand to pose a question. I turned to him expectantly, waiting to hear a mystic comment in the dulcet tones of India. Well, he sounded just like me. It turns out that he was an ex-priest from Cleveland!

I had to smile because, though I couldn't prove it, something told me that when that man was a Catholic priest, he wouldn't have been caught dead wearing a cassock or Roman collar or carrying a rosary. Somehow, distinctive clothing, bodily practices, concrete forms of prayer are OK when they're found in an exotic context--but they are hopelessly retrograde when found in our own religious settings.

How can I use this little anecdote as a justification for saying a word in support of the much maligned rosary as a practice?

First, the rosary is concrete, densely objective--it is something you hold in your hand. Anthony de Mello said that the simple feel of the rosary put him in a mystical frame of mind.

Second, the rosary is a way of disciplining what the Buddhists call the"monkey mind," the mind that leaps impatiently from branch to branch:"What's my next appointment? Why did she say that to me? What am I going to do about this? Do I have my tickets?" As long as that mind--skittish, superficial, obsessive--is dominating, we never move to the deeper realms of the soul. The rosary prayer, precisely as a mantra, is meant to dull and quiet the monkey mind and allow the depths to rise.

Third, the rosary slows us down. Even my Irish grandmother, who prayed the rosary at 95 miles an hour, took 15 minutes to get through it! The spiritual traditions witness to the fact that the soul likes to go slowly.

The surface of the psyche is in constant motion, hurrying to its next thought, its next objective, its next accomplishment. But the spiritual center likes to see, to hear, to savor. Repeating the Hail Mary 50 times (or 150 times if the entire rosary is prayed), moving in a circle, not getting particularly anywhere, is the sort of thing the deep soul loves to do. And so does the body for that matter--just think of a slow romantic dance. In this regard, the rosary is like the Stations of the Cross or that ancient prayer form now in vogue: the walking of the labyrinth.

Ewert Cousins, a theologian at Fordham University, has said that the genius of Catholicism is that it never threw anything away. How sad that so many Catholics run to the religions of the East and to the New Age to find embodied practices of prayer when we have them in spades in our own ecclesial attic!

soup and breadGet in the game
Christianity--like baseball, painting, and philosophy--is a world, a form of life. And like those other worlds, it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful. A youngster walks onto the baseball diamond because he finds the game splendid. A young artist begins to draw because she finds the artistic universe enchanting.

Once the beauty of Christianity has seized a devotee, she will long to submit herself to it, entering into its rhythms, its institutions, its history, its drama, its visions, and its activities. And then, having practiced it, having worked it into her soul and flesh, she will know it.

The movement, in short, is from the beautiful (It is splendid!) to the good (I must play it!) to the true (It is right!).

A mistake that both liberals and conservatives make is to get this process backward, arguing first about right and wrong. No kid will be drawn into the universe of baseball by hearing arguments over the infield-fly rule or disputes about the quality of National League umpiring. And no one will be enchanted by the world of Christianity if all he hears are disputes about the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae and the infallibility of the pope.

Christianity is a captivating and intellectually satisfying game, but the point is to play it. It is a beautiful and truthful Way, but the point is to walk it.

Father Robert Barron is assistant professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He is the author of Heaven in Stone and Glass (Crossroad, 2000). This article appeared in the October 2000 (Volume 65, Number 10) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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