I love thy kingdom, Lord, The house of thine abode,
The church our blest Redeemer saved with his own precious blood.
I love thy Church, O God! Her walls before thee stand,
Dear as the apple of thine eye, and graven on thy hand.
One thing most Protestants have all over Catholics is singing. I am, by no means, a great singer but when I’m at Mass I feel like I’m Whitney Houston or something. I mean really, many people just stand there when it’s time to sing the hymn, (and there are some great hymns in the Catholic Church) while others sing extremely quietly. Sometimes I have to look around to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Church is often packed to capacity and there is no way it sounds like that many people are singing. I have heard some Catholics lament this phenomenon of the phantom singing and I think it is a particularly hard thing for a convert to get used to, given the fact that much of a Protestant service centers around rocking out to a good song.
My childhood church did a good job of covering the hymnal. We didn’t just sing the same couple of hymns every week. I’ve been to some churches where they seem to have a very small repertoire and it can be painful. Maybe I’m just a big nerd but I really liked knowing all those hymns as a kid. I loved pondering the words and meanings. Protestant hymns are rich in theology, which is really what they were written for; to teach the faithful. (Now whether the theology contained therein is always right is maybe a post for another time, but for now I’ll stick with the topic at hand.)
I especially loved sitting next to my grandpa in church when I could. This was a rare treat, as my grandparents always sat on the left side of the church and we sat on the right. Even better, he never failed to have Spanish peanuts in his suit jacket pocket and sometimes butter mints and he would always share. The best part about sitting next to my grandpa, though, was hearing him sing. Sha-zowie, he was horrible! He sang loudly and very off-tune. There was something very comforting in listening to him sing, though. Maybe it was because it was clear that he was indeed making a joyful noise and he wasn’t trying to show off. You could tell he loved singing those old hymns and it made me love those hymns, too.
Among my favorite hymns are “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” and “Oh Worship the King,” hymns that speak of the majesty and mystery of God. I was always intrigued, though, by hymns about the church. They seemed to speak of another sort of mystery. We sang “The Church’s One Foundation” when we took communion and it particularly puzzled me. The church is a bride? She’s at war? She’s one? She longs for heaven? She’s a she? And then there was “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.” I was equally puzzled by the concept of “loving” the church. It made me think that I was missing something big since I didn’t really feel that I loved the church (whatever the church was, since I was under the impression it was just the collection of people within my specific congregation…and, well, maybe we loved other Christians if they shared our belief system.) The church described in these hymns seemed bigger than my church. It seemed like it had been around for a while and that it was fighting for something here on earth while yearning for something greater in heaven. Huh.
Did I love the church? This question persisted in nagging me into adulthood. I loved belonging to a group of people who loved me, and I loved the people in my church; there were all sorts of things I loved about my church but that did not seem adequate. What was I supposed to love besides the people? My denomination? Granted, I’d been a Baptist my whole life and while I had no intention of crossing denominations, I didn’t feel any particular affinity for Baptist history or its heroes- and take your pick from those, because there are countless different kinds of Baptists, all with their own history, (outside of the first Baptists, who formed out of a reaction against something else) if history is even acknowledged. So it seemed that loving the church was just another thing I was going to have to say I did even if it didn’t really have any basis in reality.
It really bothered me that the idea of “church” was so nebulous. The Church is described as the Bride of Christ, so why would that bride be such an amorphous blob? A bride knows her relationship to her husband, and at least in a good marriage, that relationship is defined. Furthermore, those on the outside can observe what that relationship is. So why would the prototype (the Church) be less definable than the copy (the bride)? I suppose this is why the claim by the Roman Catholic Church to be the Church instituted by Christ is so shocking. This claim gives shape to the blurred lines that those outside of the Church live with.
My journey into the Catholic Church has been long; I don’t think I can even pinpoint when it began, but sometime within the last year, I have realized that I love the Catholic Church. In some ways, it was an experience akin to when I realized that I loved Jason. It made me want to barf. In a good way. Falling in love signals a seismic shift; life will never be the same. Little by little I found my formerly narrow world of faith being filled with saints and martyrs, with the Church Fathers and the Mass. With cathedrals and prayers, feasts and hymns, yes, new hymns, and all of those things pointed to Jesus. What I’ve discovered in loving the Church is that I love her because she is wholly other. I love this behemoth of an institution that Jesus left to protect and nurture us. I love that the Church is one; every bit of it, good and bad, is under one roof. I love the ancient foundation that stands firm and doesn’t waver with the progression of time or the whims of culture. The elements I’ve come to love have little to do with my particular situation in time. They are not loved because I’ve suited them to my own needs, and I certainly didn’t make them. I came across a passage in ‘The Ball and the Cross’ by G.K. Chesterton that expresses this sentiment well:
‘THE Church is not a thing like the Athenaeum Club,’ he cried. ‘If the Athenaeum Club lost all its members, the Athenaeum Club would dissolve and cease to exist. But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us which is outside everything you talk about, outside the Cardinals and the Pope. They belong to it, but it does not belong to them. If we all fell dead suddenly, the Church would still somehow exist in God.’
It is as if, thinking I was an orphan, I suddenly discovered I had a family, and that they were always living just around the corner, waiting for me to come home. I love thy Church, O Lord. I finally get it, and I’m head over heels.