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Finding the 'Amazing Grace' of your religious practices


December 7, 2022

By Paul Magnano

Many of us have trouble speaking about the ultimate but mysterious dimensions of life. We need to rediscover the transcendent – the dimension beyond the physical, the dimension so many of us now struggle to name. For most of us these days, our only contact with the language of grace is through Bible readings at weddings and funerals. Language can be a vehicle for grace, or for disgrace, the most extreme example being the ease with which social media conveys insult and injury.

I myself am not by nature pious. I write with sympathy of St. Teresa of Avila who used to shake the hourglass to make her 30 minutes of prayer pass more quickly. I want people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” to reexamine religious traditions, and see whether there might be things of value they are missing out on. Why are people so wary of being thought “religious?” Is it because it suggests judgment, rules, moral tripwires? It might go back to when we ceased to live in communities and hold beliefs and practices in common.

And then if we go back to our earlier years, we see a refusal to accept what is inherited: the insistence that “I have to work it all out for myself. I’m not going to be told what to believe.” So what do people mean when they say “I’m spiritual?” They might mean, “I believe in the transcendent,” but they haven’t got a formal language to describe it. When people say they’re spiritual but not religious, they’re looking for their own language to express their experience of grace. Grace is at work in everybody’s life.

Pope Francis refers to the liturgy as “the first wellspring of Christian spirituality.” Prayer and liturgy are intertwined. With Christ at the center, we are given numerous people from the Bible with whom we may identify so that we can learn from their encounters with Jesus. “I am Nicodemus,” Francis writes, “the Samaritan woman at the well, the man possessed by demons at Capernaum, the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned, the woman afflicted by hemorrhages, the blind man of Jericho, the thief and Peter both pardoned.”

Religious formation must be grounded not in what we do, but in the faith-filled discovery of what Christ has done and is doing for us. The whole program of religion originates in God’s action, not our own. Placing desire of Jesus in first place, bears a resemblance to the passage on prayer found at the outset of the fourth section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There, the image of the woman at the well is used to make the point that prayer begins not with our thirst for God, but with God’s thirst for us.

Pope Francis uses the striking expression “the Bread broken” to refer to the Eucharist. This expression is found in the first-century document, The Didache. The expression “Bread broken” is richly symbolic. It points to the Eucharist’s communal nature, because bread broken is bread shared. It is precisely in its being broken and shared that the sign of bread achieves its fullness in the Eucharist. Francis joyfully points out that “from Sunday to Sunday the energy of the Bread broken sustains us in announcing the Gospel.”

Magnano is the parish priest for the Skagit Valley Catholic Churches.

Have Faith is an occasional column


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