Salvation Pinball & the Devotional Life of Catholics (Part 4 of Becoming Catholic)

Jan 22nd, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Yesterday we examined difficulties that Catholic converts experience in the context of family life. Today we look at how how your devotional might change when you become a Catholic. What would change?

For a Protestant looking in from the outside, it might appear that Catholics are mechanical about their devotional life. I remember seeing Catholicism as a giant machine with handles and levers. Catholics scurried around it pulling levers and pulling knobs hoping that grace would come out. As a Protestant, I thought that being a “good Catholic” was like working a soft-serve ice cream machine or a soda fountain. If you learned how to use the system, you can get grace and hopefully earn salvation.

More accurately, I suspected that the Catholic salvation was more like a pinball machine. The ball was grace and Catholics were constantly mashing the buttons to keep the flippers moving and the ball in play. However, all pinball players know that eventually the ball gets past you and your game is over. How could Catholics honestly believe that human effort could keep the ball in play for decades and decades of human life? Why can’t they just trust in the finished work of Christ and relax…?

So now that I’m Catholic, am I playing salvation pinball?

I don’t think so. Salvation only appears mechanistic to Protestants because they haven’t experienced it. For example, the sacrament of Penance is not at all like getting your time card punched. There is a real human being behind that screen! He asks questions. He challenges you. He loves Christ. You love Christ. You’re both praying that you will grow in Christ. It’s extremely intimate and the opposite of mechanical.

Take the Holy Mass. Most Protestants are not familiar with liturgical worship. What they see seems robotic. But when you know it, it’s like an elegant waltz. You can even do it with your eyes closed. If you don’t know how to waltz and you’ve never seen it, one might look at people waltzing and say: “This is so hard and those people are slaves to this music. How could they be enjoying this?”

Yet the couple might be having the dance of their lives…the formal aspect makes it all the more intimate.

All important things in our lives are ritualized – Sunday dinner, weddings, sports, and anniversaries come to mind. The repetition makes them more important and more intimate.

In order to understand Catholic devotion, don’t think of it as a machine…think of it as a mother. Mothers and babies seem to have a mechanical relationship. Baby sucks milk from breast. Spits up. Mommy cleans it. Baby cries. Mommy bounces. Baby poops. Mommy changes the diaper. Repeat cycle, non-stop, for nine months. But that is not all there is. They are the cues. There are the moments when the mommy gazes with love on the nursing baby. The nursing baby caresses the hair of the mother. The mother smiles and talks to the baby during the diaper change. It’s all very loving and intimate. To an outsider looking in from the outside, it could appear like an endless hell. But ask any old lady and she will tell you that those were great days. And all of us are grateful for the maternal care. None of us think of mom as “mechanical.”

Of course, you won’t ever experience this if you don’t become Catholic so you won’t ever really understand. I hope that if you’re reading this, you’ll take a moment and pray to Christ and ask Him to give you special gifts of the Holy Spirit. You have to deal with the Catholic question, so you be sure that you pray to Christ at every step of the way.

Please read Taylor’s Parts 1, 2, and 3 on “Becoming Catholic” by clicking here.

ad Jesum per Mariam,

Taylor Marshall


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  1. Great analogies Taylor. You have a knack for explaining things briefly and well.

    One on my pet peeves even when I became Reformed was the way low church evangelicals see liturgy/sacraments as mechanical, yet they choose to ignore the dozens of “mechanical” things they do at their Sunday service and during the week. How many times as a Pentecostal did I pray before a meal and not even have my mind on what I was saying? How many times does the worship band play the chorus to Our God is an Awsome God “one more time” in supposed free movement of the Spirit? When it happens every week, it is just as much a “mechanical” liturgical action as the most rigid liturgy. The altar call that happens every service is an obvious replacement for sacraments. It can seem very forced and mechanical after you’ve seen it hundreds of times. And the spontaneous prayers as opposed to the more formal liturgical ones? As far as the potential for being “mechanical”, what is the difference between starting out each and every prayer with “Father we just thank you…” and winging it for 10 minutes, and with making the sign of the cross and saying a beautifully written formal prayer? Either way we can be engaged or not, either way we can touch the divine or not. It is up to us whether it is mechanical. And when a dark day comes when we simply don’t have the words for prayer and feel empty, those memorized “mechanical” prayers like the Anima Christi or the Act of Contrition come in real handy. We can say the prayer and ask God for the grace to conform to the words. A spontaneous prayer in that dark moment can often simply fizzle for lack of clear vision.

    The point of liturgy is not “if” but “which one”. The point is for us to get involved with what is happening. Taylor’s waltz example is a great one. We can sit back and mock the dancers for turning romance into something cold and informal, or we can learn how to waltz and take romance to the next level. This is why every woman in America loves Downton Abbey right now. They see that a high level of social “liturgy” can produce a higher level of human respect and romance.
    Of course we can always decide to mechanically join the dance and not really enter into the experience at all. But I believe this can happen far easier for a non-Catholic low churchman than it can for a Catholic.

  2. I am a Catholic revert now (First RCIA session is tomorrow night!), but over the years spent in Protestantism, I have found myself trending toward more and more “structure.” But this was not a search of structure for the sake of structure or formality for the sake of formality. It was because I believed this is what God wanted for all Christians. The assumption in evangelicalism is the less formality, the more sincere and intimate the worship is. The Catholic mass, Stations of the Cross, and the Rosary were “vain repetitions” to me. (That’s what happens when you take sound bites at face value.). For six years, I was Reformed Presbyterian, but I flirted with the idea of becoming Federal Vision Presbyterian or Reformed Anglican (like NT Wright). Those bodies had a high view of the institutional church. I realized that only salvation could come through it. But those bodies were not in agreement with each other. How was I to find “the Church”?

    Now to me, structure is a beautiful thing! I once heard the rosary being prayed over Relevant Radio and was moved to tears by it. To be fair, all ecclesial communions have some sort of structure or liturgy, too. Do they not rev up the crowd with an upbeat worship song, settle down with a love ballad, preach for 40-50 minutes and close with an altar call? I understand that all Christians have their own subjective preferences. But isn’t obedience the most important thing?

  3. I can tell you from my own experience that I am capable of a mechanized Christianity in any type of church. As a Baptist, I learned well the nauseating cycle of sin and private repentance. While I agree that, as a Protestant, I had misunderstandings about Catholic devotional life, I now understand, as a Catholic, that I was then guilty of these same blind machinations.

    I loved the illustration of the mother with her baby!

  4. Andre,

    Welcome (back) Home! I earnestly pray that your RCIA time is helpful and nourishing. I was a convert to the Church, from an extremely nominally Protestant background, in the mid-1990s. My time in RCIA was, unfortunately, not helpful, and it contributed to my eventually leaving the Church and becoming an anti-Catholic Calvinist. I wish that I had known better (meaning, *understood* better) at the time. With that said, my brother, I do want to encourage you– you *are* moving back to the Church which truly *does* have an authoritative Christian teaching voice. I hope and pray that your RCIA classes reflect this objective fact. Keep your Bible and Catechism close. God be with you, and Godspeed!

  5. Interesting analogy.

    The first thing it brings to mind is polytheism. Polytheists old and new need to find ways appease different gods which control different aspects of nature. Anyone who has read the Iliad knows that this often leads to tragic consequences because different gods often want conflicting things from their worshipers.

    Socrates got around this problem by saying that all gods want the same thing, namely the “Euthyphro dilemma” which states that the gods are just because they all submit to a higher standard of good, called The Good, which is in harmony. So all stories where Zeus acted immorally are either outright lies or are corruptions of an earlier true story. This higher morality is one reason why, of all polytheists, Platonists were often tooked favourably by many early Christians including Augustine.

    In a very real sense Catholics have a similar Platonic understanding of saints. On earth and in heaven, a saint is only a saint in so far as he or she is in submission to God.

    “Praying to saints” is fuzzy terminology derived from the old English word “pray” which means “ask”. It no more means worship than the modern phrase “Pray tell, what is the time?” means that I’m praying to you to know the time. This once clear language has become fuzzy since the Reformation, but all Catholic prayer and catechisms and encyclicals that I’ve come across avoid any talk of “praying to saints”. In standardized prayers (including the Litany of the Saints), saints are often asked to pray for us or with us. Vatican documents often speak of “invoking the saints”. But praying is only mentioned by people who do not know Catholic theology or terminology.

  6. David Meyer writes: The point of liturgy is not “if” but “which one”.

    Amen! The question for me is this: should I worship God in my way, or His way?

    God gave the Jews their liturgy, and it took over a thousand years for that liturgy to be completely formed. The Jewish Temple liturgy practiced on Mount Moriah is a type pointing to its fulfillment in the liturgy of Christ’s church.

    Why would I think that as a disciple of Christ, that I can wing it and invent my own liturgy? What possible reason can I come up with to think that God does not care about liturgy, given the reality of God’s direct involvement in the formation of both the liturgies of the Jews and the Christians?

  7. I think there is somewhat of a truth behind the myth here. Most Protestants first get this idea from an unspoken anti-Catholic aura that is passed down in Protestant tradition, but it is sadly often confirmed when they see ignorant Catholics going through the motions with no visible change in lifestyle. This is why as I’ve come to be more devout, I’ve also come to realize the serious danger of the sin of Scandal.

    The key here is to educate. For example, many Protestants will say “You Catholics just go to Confession so that you can turn around and sin again,” but don’t think anything of what they’re saying. When this kind of situation comes up, I point out that Confession requires you to be truly sorry and have the desire to avoid sin in the future, otherwise you’re not forgiven; it’s not a punch-card at all. Also, it’s important to point out that many Catholics are not living as good Catholics and their salvation is (objectively) in jeopardy, so don’t lump them in with those Catholics who try to live good lives.

    The more I’ve come to think about these issues, there emerges a serious irony (which other Catholics pick up on as well): many of the accusations Protestantism has projected on Catholicism are actually things Protestants are guilty of themselves, often more so. In the Confession example, most Protestants either believe in OSAS or that salvation is ultra hard to lose, which translates into many Protestants not having to have heartfelt sorrow for their day to day sins, and even trivialize the mortal sins since all sin in Protestantism is equal. Repentance in Protestantism becomes the heart being sad for a sin that their mind knows their soul is perfectly safe from. And as David points out, Liturgy isn’t abandoned in Protestantism, it’s replaced with their own mechanistic rituals (even if stripped of external images). If there was no ‘form’ to worship, people wouldn’t be able to gather each week to worship; thus even in the low-church denominations there is a routeing of opening prayer, music, talk, altar call, prayer, music. This, to them, is how worship is done, and anything else comes off as terribly strange. They just don’t see the double standard.

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