Twice in the past month men I know, good solid Catholic men who run circles around me in the holiness business, have mentioned in passing that they’re not so sure about this “Personal Relationship with Jesus” stuff. Larry Peterson did it here, and Tom McDonald did it here. Both articles are worth reading on their own merits. These are not wishy-washy lukewarm Catholics. These are men who have counted the cost of discipleship and have stepped up to pay it.
Both articles ran on Aleteia (which site I recommend — loads of good stuff), where Judy Landrieu Klein answered the question back in April with an unequivocal Yes: A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is indeed an authentically Catholic concept.
Because the question is still being asked, I’d like to answer it as well.
What kind of relationship do you have with a person?
To be human is to have a relationship of some nature with three divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, three Persons in God.
You might have an antagonistic relationship, a numb relationship, or a sorely neglected relationship, but you’ve got something. To be Catholic is to acknowledge, even if you don’t realize you’re doing so, that God isn’t some vague cosmic force or a misty feeling or a set of good thoughts. God is Personal, period. You literally cannot be baptized without acknowledging the Personhood of God.
Persons, even when it’s a Divine Person and a human person, are made to have relationships with one another. The question I think many Catholics struggle with is partly linguistic and partly practical: What should we call our relationship with God, and what should it be like?
Do Protestants own all the words?
Catholics used to be people who borrowed words shamelessly. Need a word to describe what a “Church” is? Hey, look, there’s a Greek word that we could use to get us started, grab it and run! Large swathes of the Catechism are littered with words that Catholics picked up off the sidewalk and put to work in ways those words weren’t previously used.
Like the Greeks and Romans and even those pagans who lent us the word “Lent,” American Protestants have a few useful expressions of their own. The concept of a Meat-and-Three restaurant, not to mention Macaroni is a vegetable! come to mind, but we’ll stick to theology for today. A “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is a phrase used heavily by American Evangelicals, sometimes beautifully and sometimes in ways that make you suddenly remember there was another county you needed to be in right now.
But they are words that, when used rightly, do in fact sum up Catholic spirituality. They are words that we now find helpful, in this era when many Catholics do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. They are words that counteract the pseudo-spirituality that infects the Catholic Church and reduces the reality of the Incarnation to supposedly-edifying legend.
Where do I find this in Catholicism?
Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.
May I recommend you purchase a copy of the old four-volume edition of Butler’s Lives of Saints? The writings and lives of the martyrs and mystics are soaked through with the intensely personal nature of a well-formed relationship with God.
When we speak of knowing, loving, and serving God, we aren’t speaking of rendering obeisance to some distant overlord who wants us to pay tribute. We are speaking of Someone who knows us entirely inside and out, and who wants to be known by us. Someone who chose to suffer grievously that we might again be able to walk in the garden together.
The concept of a “Personal Relationship with Jesus” is specifically about owning the Incarnation. Our Lord didn’t appear in the Heavens on His Throne and zap the world clean from a dignified distance. He took on human flesh that we might eat with Him, and care for Him, and lay His body in a grave. God seeks intimacy with us.
This is Catholicism.
Can poetic prayer be personal prayer?
It can be hard to say out loud the things we feel most deeply.
One of the hallmarks of the Catholic liturgy is that the Church gives us the words to express what we would say to God if only we knew how.
When we purchase a greeting card at the grocery store, we don’t have too much trouble with this concept. We look through the racks until we find the right words for the occasion, the words that best fit the relationship between ourselves and the recipient and the event at hand. Yes! That one says what I’d like to say! When we receive a card, we are moved by the sentiments if we know they come from a loved one who is genuine in sharing the humor or well-wishes or tenderness of the ideas in the card.
(And likewise: Nothing is more off-putting than receiving a card from someone who most certainly does not share the sentiment printed on the cardstock.)
But we live in an age with very little poetry, and which often mocks the beauty of previous generations’ rhyme and meter and melody. We can accept the idea that we might be truly expressing ourselves in the greeting card or when we sing along to a pop song on the radio, but somehow many of us have been deceived into believing that we our unworthy of higher art. We’ve been persuaded that too-beautiful words aren’t capable of being our words.
The Incarnation is Everything
The law of prayer is the law of belief, and if we pray the Our Father or the Glory Be convinced that somehow these are words too high for us, too mighty for us, we’ll come to disbelieve the Incarnation.
We’ll persuade ourselves that Bless us O Lord is the herald’s shout to Jesus on His Celestial Throne Who Can’t Be Bothered To Get Any Closer, not the simple few lines of people wishing to pause before eating to say a word of personal thanks to a Person who literally dwelt within our very bodies the last time we received Holy Communion.
This heresy is at the heart of our liturgical wars: It is it only “authentic” prayer if it’s folksy? Or is God so august that we must never approach the throne of grace with anything but fear and trembling? It’s a false dichotomy. In the liturgy I’m a child learning to say grown-up words. God the Father wants to rear me for His Heavenly Kingdom; God the Holy Spirit breathes supernatural life into my feeble attempts at prayer; and the God the Son is both there at table for me to lay my head upon His breast and raised to the great high throne in majesty.
My relationship with Jesus is personal because Jesus is a Person. I grow in that relationship the more completely I embrace the entirety of what Christ is. God humbled, God crucified, God glorified. All of it.
Related: Don’t miss Judy Landrieu Klein’s recent post: “Is God good all the time? Or only when we feel blessed?”
Today’s topic is important enough that I’ll be cross-posting it at Patheos as well. Share from whichever venue you prefer. Per my standard policy on blog posts, parish and diocesan publications have permission to reprint at no charge, please provide a link back to the original in your attribution.