On dotCommonweal, Fr. Robert Imbelli posted Mother Thekla’s letter to a potential Orthodox convert, and started a good thread. I liked this exchange:

Jean Hughes Raber: I really wish Mother Thekla’s letter (or Flannery O’Connor’s letters to her convert friend, or something like them) were the starting point for RCIA. Instead of talking about what form you may have been baptized with or whether you’d been divorced, it would be nice to be challenged with, “Have you faced Christ Crucified?”

I feel that Americans, even those who regular church-goers, are losing the language with which to talk about God and religious experience. Many of us us walk around with this vague yearning for real dialog, but what we get after Mass (Anglican or RCC) is usually gossip about the neighbors. The people I find myself talking about God with tend to be evangelical Protestants. These are faith-filled and lovely people (though they’re a bit heavy on the Daddy Jesus imagery for my taste, and, big drawback, no saints). But they have retained an enthusiasm for talking about faith that’s lacking in many mainline Protestant congregations and Catholic parishes.

Jeanne L.: Jean Raber, what do you mean by “facing Christ crucified”?   How do you personally “face” Christ crucified?  What do you believe about why he was crucified?  Was it to “redeem” human beings for their sins because otherwise God would send every human being to hell because there was no blood sacrifice? Or is it some other reason?  What does the crucifixion say to you?  I find that a lot of people drop phrases/questions like that (such as “face Christ crucified”)  but when I ask more, they can’t really elaborate much on what the phrase or question really means to them.  If you were running an RCIA class, what would you tell the students? Is there a “right” or “wrong” answer to “have you faced Christ crucified”?  I wonder how many different ways people would answer that question.

Jeanne Hughes Raber: Jeanne, I don’t know how to give your questions a simple answer. Here is a stab, which will perhaps illustrate my point about our losing the language with which to talk about faith:

1. I don’t think you can “personally” face Christ crucified. I don’t believe in a Christ who is my “personal” savior. If Jesus were right here and I said, “Thank you for being my savior,” I think he would heave a great big sigh and tell me he is everyone’s savior, and why aren’t I doing a better job helping spread the word? For more in this vein, see Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body but yours.” I think you meet Christ in community with others through the sacrament of communion (whether you take it physically or, like me, hope for spiritual communion at Mass). Watching the breaking of the bread is a reminder that we are part of Christ, broken, but that we have, perhaps, the power (if you want to call it that), to call Christ to us and heal.

2. No, I don’t believe Jesus was sacrificed like a goat for a God with a taste for blood, though I know a lot of people who think that. Maybe they’re right. But I believe Jesus showed us what love does when love is pushed to the limit. Love crawls up on a cross and dies rather than punishes others for their stupidity and sins–even when Love has the power to end the whole show with a great big flood or bolt of lightning.

3. Looking at a crucifix asks me what I am willing to die for. What means more to me than saving my own hide. Would I truly follow the Prime Directives: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself if it meant I have to die for them? Um, well, I think I could probably figure out ways to let myself off the hook if push came to shove, which is why we all need to be fed with the bread of heaven in some form. So that in “eating” Jesus we can be consumed by him and become more like him. It’s a mystery. It’s a paradox. Some days I get it. Some days I don’t.

4. There’s no way an apostate like me is ever going to run an RCIA class.  But the first question out of my mouth would not be, “Now, how are your marriages? Because if you decide you want to come into the Church by Easter, we need to get the paperwork rolling.” Some candidates don’t even know what the RCIA people are talking about.

5. Is there more than one right answer? I don’t know. It took me 60 years to be able to answer questions 1-4.

Read the whole comments thread. Lots of good stuff there.

Some people on the Commonweal thread, as well as on the Mother Thekla one here the other day, complained that Mother Thekla said nothing about the happiness of the Christian life. I think they’re missing the point. As Flannery O’Connor put it, people think that when they come to Christianity, they’re going to get wrapped up in a nice electric blanket, when in truth it is the Cross. Of course joy follows from embracing the Cross; it’s a mystery that’s hard to explain to someone on the outside. If you come to Christianity seeking happiness, or something exotic (which is one thing putative Orthodox converts find attractive), or anything else except dying to yourself, you’re going to miss the mark. The other day, reflecting on Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XIX, we considered the Siren Dream he had, in which Death came to him disguised as a beautiful woman, who offered him sensual delights and comfort if he would call off his quest for Heaven. Virgil, prompted by a “saintly lady” (Beatrice?), unmasked the Siren and saved Dante. The point is that anything short of the Cross is a lie. As Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”