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20 February 2011

Faith by degrees

Today in my CCD class, my kids asked some relevant and appropriate questions about their pending confirmation in the Catholic church. Their questions, and my responses to their questions, made me think about the meaning of faith and grace and reflect upon my own confirmation not-so-long ago.

In the Catholic faith, children are traditionally confirmed at about 15 years of age. (This tradition dates back to before the Middle Ages when the life expectancy was much shorter and girls were married off much younger. Children had to be confirmed in the Church prior to getting married and having children of their own. You know, like 16 years old.) This means that my current students are set to be confirmed in the next year or so. Hopefully none of them have plans to get married or have babies in the near future! Anyway, most, if not all, of my students come to class each week because they are forced to attend by their parents. They definitely don't choose to come each week, but, because their parents want them to be confirmed, they come. The majority of them don't actively participate in our activities, discussions, or their faith, and a good number of them sit and sulk like, well... children for the entire time. A handful or more actively engage but from a questioning and sometimes confrontational angle.

Today we started off discussing what it means to "participate" in mass and faith. Our conversation then moved to a discussion on what the mass and the Eucharist mean. And, so often with this group of kids, we then talked about the many reasons that makes Catholicism different from the other Christian faiths. I, too, enjoy these discussions, and I love that they are curious about their faith. This topic generally leads the kids to question why they have to be confirmed (when other faiths do not), especially if they don't feel it.

One thing I love about the current faith formation program is that we encourage our kids to question their faith. We don't want them to make such a big decision unless they feel that it is the right decision for them. Simply doing it because their parents require it isn't the point. When we tell them that it is their decision, their choice, they protest because they feel that they have no choice. They feel that they have to do this because their parents are forcing it. Of course, I remind them that it is still a choice. It's not an easy choice. It's a choice that will require conflict and heated discussion and the risk of disappointing their loved ones, but it is still a choice.

Tonight a few students raised a new point. They want to be confirmed in the faith, but they don't "feel" it. Moreover, they don't know what they are supposed to feel about their beliefs and their faith. They are expecting some miraculous moment that solidifies their faith -- a lightning bolt from the sky or hearing God's voice. But, unfortunately, it usually doesn't happen that way. At this point, I shared my own confirmation story with them. As an adult, I went through RCIA for over ten months, preparing to fully participate in the Catholic faith. I was eager, excited, and anxious to finally partake in the Eucharist. When the time finally came during the Easter Vigil. I expected great things to happen to me upon taking in the Host. You know, fireworks and trumpets and angels singing. When it finally came time for me to fully participate in our church's most sacred celebration, I felt more of a fizzle than a bang. I was disappointed to say the least. I had hoped to experience so much more.

But that lackluster experience didn't define my faith. Thankfully. It has taken time and learning and prayer and introspection to come to a more full and complete understanding of my faith. Now I do feel something when I partake in the Eucharist. Not every time and certainly it isn't monumentous. But I do feel a stirring within my spirit. But the point is that there isn't one defined "thing" that we are supposed to feel when we are in the presence of God. It is different for everyone. And, sometimes, it doesn't happen for a long time. And I don't think it can happen without prayerful reflection and consideration of who you are and where you are in relationship to your faith. It has nothing to do with outside factors; it is all about you and your faith. Looking for a pre-defined and canned sign of faith will leave you disappointed. And, like the tides, such signs of faith ebb and flow based on your spiritual needs at any given time. I'm not always moved to tears during mass, but it has happened on many occasions. I know that, in those times, God and Christ are with me more closely then before because they know that I need something. I may not know what the need is right then, but they are there, providing for me.

Faith, and the feelings that come with it, are unique for everyone. That is what I want my kids to understand. Even telling them my own story is in vain given that their experiences could be (and probably will be) totally different. But I think it important that they realize that they needn't look for some magically amazing epiphany to confirm their faith. It often takes time and effort and work to come to a point where you can fully feel your faith. Some may take more time and more energy than others, but, if we are willing to put in the work, God will be there to reward our efforts.

Hey, no one said faith was easy.
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