I went to school at a time when it was fashionable not to teach grammar. The theory was that as long as we could speak, read and write English, we would get through life. I arrived in secondary school knowing what a verb and a noun was, but that was about it. The poor lady who had the job of trying to teach us French was shocked that we didn’t know the difference between an advert and a preposition. She finally accepted that she would have to give us some English grammar lessons before she had a hope of trying to get us to understand French grammar.
In the same way, I only started learning Protestant theology when I began investigating Catholicism, in order to try to understand the similarities and the differences. As a child and young adult in the Protestant church, I had a good knowledge of what we believed, but I didn’t understand why we believed what we did. Theology is a bit like grammar. It takes what we do unconsciously and analyses it to understand the structure and the reasons behind it.
One of the big Protestant-Catholic differences which was flagged up in the books I read was the Protestant belief that we are saved by grace alone versus the Catholic belief that salvation is an ongoing process. Have I got that right? I’m not sure, and I get into such knots thinking about this that I am wondering whether the two positions are always so far apart when it comes to practical experience. I’m not going to discuss grace versus works from a theoretical viewpoint. However, I’d like to just say a few words from a personal point of view.
If someone had told me that we are saved by grace alone, when I was still in the Protestant church, I would probably have been quite surprised, and perhaps even annoyed, because it felt as if salvation was hard work. It seemed as if I was standing on tiptoes, with my hands in the air, and jumping up and trying to touch the sky. I knew that I would never manage to please God, but I had to try, because not making any effort would make Him even angrier …
This feeling of always trying and hopelessly failing was probably the main reason I left the church in which I was brought up.
I felt great relief, when I began learning about the Catholic Sacraments. I no longer had to try to do the impossible and stretch up and touch the sky, because God, through Christ, was willing to reach down and bridge the gap. All I had to do was open my arms and be ready to receive. Long before I became Catholic, I felt as if I could bring my struggles and the things which were bothering me to Mass. In abandoning myself to God, I could let go of my worries and failures and trust that God would do the rest. That’s what grace means to me.
I found this quote by one of the Greek fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, which describes how God reaches down to us:
So let us stretch ourselves in prayers upward to the more lofty elevation of the kindly Rays of God. Imagine a great shining chain hanging downward from the heights of heaven to the world below. We grab hold of it with one hand and then another, and we seem to be pulling it down towards us. Actually it is already there on the heights and down below and instead of pulling it to us we are being lifted upwards to that brilliance above, to the dazzling light of those beams.