It was one of the most interesting and meaningful small groups I've ever attended. I loved the women I met there, and I found the Catholic faith to be beautiful. As I studied with them, my understanding of church, history, and faith communities broke wide open. It was the first time I considered the ancient nature of Christianity, just how big and unchanging God's love really is. But at the time my husband was in leadership in a conservative neo-reformed church. It was terribly disorienting, taking a Reformed approach to a Catholic study. For a year or so, I was the baby in Solomon's court, straddling two worlds and carting around the tension of a centuries-old conflict as though I could personally resolve it. Eventually I split in two. I stepped away - first from the Catholic study, then the Reformed tradition.
But the beauty of Catholic practices never left me.
The liturgical calendar, for example. Throughout the year, I would watch my friends decorate their homes, recite prayers, give up chocolate or coffee or tv, throw kid-friendly parties for important feast days. And I loved it. I loved the rhythm, I loved the way their faith was a natural part of daily life. It felt comfortable, soothing, and I felt starved for that calming repetition in my own life. So I did what Reformed people do - I studied their habits. I asked questions, I read the history of the practice, I researched meanings of each individual piece and what is most appropriate for each season. I studied and studied. As is the Reformed custom, I assumed the more I knew about the liturgical seasons, the more effective it would be. I studied and I waited for the comfort of their faith to stick in my own life.
It never worked.
It was miserable. I had my nose pressed to the glass of this beautiful, ancient tradition, with my fingers inching along the wall, looking for the door. In time I gave up, assuming I would have to convert to Catholicism to "get it." Since I wasn't converting, I resolved to just appreciate the beauty of liturgical practices, and search for God another way.
Then I joined the Anglican tradition.
The Anglican approach to faith has been the perfect place for my faith to heal after a turbulent few years. I haven't studied a thing, I haven't asked questions about differences, I haven't tried to prove I am good enough, holy enough, or smart enough to this congregation. I've simply stepped into an ancient faith, and allowed it to heal me. Each week I can stand in the liturgy, as messed up and uncertain as I am, and hear again the ancient truths of our faith.
It is refreshing, it is freeing. I think I've finally found my spiritual home.
But in a year marked by babies, head injuries, and homeschooling, I simply have not had time to put much energy into following their practices. There was no Advent wreath in my home this year, and I missed the lighting of the candle every single week because I am ten minutes late everywhere I go. I love the rhythm of a liturgical life, but this just has not been a year I could intentionally incorporate the Church calendar into my day.
So I was shocked to realize how different Christmas felt this year.
For the first time, I felt like I actually experienced a season of hopeful anticipation. All of those previous Advents, when I'd studied and fervently prayed and tried so hard to experience it, I'd felt nothing. No peace, no joyful hope. Nothing. This year, when I had done practically nothing to try to drum up that experience, it came naturally.
As I sat in the service on Christmas Eve night, listening to the Scriptures telling the story of Christ's birth, I realized something important: you can't study the liturgy. You have to experience it.
I read about parenting, but until I had a baby I couldn't possibly comprehend how it felt to be a mother. I attended premarital counseling, but talking about marriage is a pale comparison to the experience of it. There are a thousand books describing friendship, but reading them does not in any way compare to the experience of a lifelong friend.
Years ago, I tried to study my way into a spiritual experience, and I walked away empty-handed, frustrated and disconnected. But this year I have walked through the liturgical seasons, often without much reflection or conscious thought. I finally found spiritual peace, and the natural rhythm of a life of faith I wanted all along.