The Greater Blessings

By David Mills

The other day I was already thinking about gratitude when I started reading about old students and friends suffering from the continuing — the continuous — degeneration of the Episcopal church. Some of them faced losing their jobs, or had already lost them, but most of them suffered simply from seeing the communion they had so loved become something completely different, and having no real hope of its recovery. There is an answer to their sufferings, but it is an answer only some of them can, or maybe will, hear.

This brought me, a convert from the same body, to reflect again on all the blessings of being a Catholic, and the fact that the blessings always turn out to be greater than you expect and, in fact, often turn out to be greater than you want.

The convert sometimes finds that he’s not completely comfortable with how Catholic the Catholic life actually is. He may come to the Church with all the slobbering, tail-wagging enthusiasm of a hungry beagle hearing table scraps hit his supper dish, but he can suddenly turn into an overfed cat when he finds out what’s in that supper dish.

He’s a little like the man used to meals in those expensive French restaurants with tiny servings, where everyone talks in hushed voices at tables spaced well apart. Tired of always being hungry after dinner, especially after paying all that money, and of eating with one companion, he thinks he wants a good old-fashioned feast and goes off to a restaurant that promises him a good solid meal.

The waiter seats a gang of people at his table, who talk loudly and laugh uproariously and keep slapping him on the back, and then puts down in front of him a huge steak and a pile of fries and a salad that could feed hundreds of rabbits and an enormous glass of wine, while he watches with alarm as the dessert cart rumbles by and men who have finished their meals start lighting cigars.

He thought he wanted a feast, but sitting in the middle of a real feast, he’s not so sure. He had been thinking of something less sumptuous and more decorous. He feels he wanted a feast and got a bacchanal.

In the same way, the convert happily says the Hail Mary and starts learning the rosary, but he may balk a little at praying to all the other saints. (I’ve seen this firsthand.) Or he may happily pray to the major saints, especially the ones who died a long time ago, but finds himself uncomfortable praying to some of the obscure saints, or the sentimental ones, or the ones who lived recently. St. Polycarp and St. Theresa of Avila, yes; St. Therese of Lisieux and Bl. John XXIII, no.

Or he may happily pray to all the saints, but doesn’t like to pray to anyone who’s not officially recognized as a saint, even if he’s a great and godly man. Or, finally and most commonly, he can’t even think about praying to someone he knew, like his grandmother, who loved the Church but tended to disapprove of nearly everything else; or the godly old man who taught his RCIA class but suffered from gas and bad breath; or old Father Luigi, who smoked like a chimney and did not suffer fools gladly.

It’s all too much. To be able to talk to the Mother of God, or to St. Joseph, or to the great martyrs of the early Church, or a favorite medieval theologian — that’s great. It’s simple and straightforward. You’re a private saluting the generals. The Episcopalian has already some idea of the spiritual hierarchy and, finding the connection between himself and those at the top so much more intimate than he imagined, is thrilled.

But then it begins to get complicated, with the multiplication of people with whom you have a real connection. And worse, this group includes people you’ve known well. It can include people you’ve seen in embarrassing situations or whose sins you’ve witnessed. You’re a private saluting . . . other privates. At least it feels that way.

That, in my experience, is where the convert tends to balk. It just doesn’t feel right. Even after eight years as a Catholic, when someone I know says, “I was praying to X,” naming someone we’d both known, I still want to respond, “What, are you nuts? X?”

The convert believes in the Communion of Saints, but then finds that it’s a lot bigger than he thought and isn’t arranged the way he expected. It includes too many people, and a lot of them aren’t really the kind of people he thinks of when he thinks of saints — especially the kind of saints he wants to pray to.

He knows the teaching. He just didn’t expect the teaching to be played out so thoroughly. He had understood it through the truncated vision of things he brought with him and finds to his surprise (and, often, discomfort) that the Church’s vision is much broader and deeper. It’s a lot more Catholic than he ever dreamed.

That is something to be thankful for, at least for those of us who came to the Church from outside. God gives us not only infinitely more than we deserve, but vastly more than we think we want, and in giving us more He expands our desires. The Communion of Saints is a great blessing when it includes Our Lady and the great saints, but it is an even greater blessing — though a blessing that may take some getting used to — when it includes people like our friend X.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on June 22, 2009.