The Gift of Incompetence

Becoming Catholic, said one convert, is like trying to become Japanese. I wholeheartedly agree. I may know the lingo and lots of facts about the church, but after eleven years as a Catholic I often feel as foreign as the day I was received into full communion in a Michigan country parish.

I habitually confuse the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, making me the most distracting person at the rosary and Mass. Similarly, I often mangle the response at the Gospels, saying “Glory to you, O Lord” when I mean “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” I always manage to clank the kneelers down on someone’s (usually my wife’s) foot. And what should be the most intimate moment of Mass is an occasion of fear.

I mean receiving Communion. Ever since my brief, unfortunate time as a high-school quarterback, I’ve experienced anguish at the mere thought of hand-offs. (My experience as a wide receiver was better but not applicable here.) Receiving on the tongue without kneeling involves the risk of biting the fingers of a priest. The only places where I have ever felt comfortable receiving Communion were Byzantine parishes where one tilts one’s head back baby-bird style while the priest, using his sacred spoon, drops the Body and Blood directly into the mouth. The psalmist says, “Open your mouth and I will feed you, says the Lord.” I’m with the Lord on this one.

No Catholic, the convert Walker Percy observed, thinks himself a good Catholic. Surely, though, one could at least feel competent? I marvel at school kids at Mass who respond, cross themselves, and genuflect with the graceful speed of Bruce Lee while I stutter and appear to be involved in my own private game of Twister. It’s hard to admit, but if I’m this much of a mess after eleven years, I will probably not improve much.

For many years this horrifying incompetence gnawed at me. Lately I’ve thought differently. Cradle Catholics often comment on how great it must be to be a convert—to have experienced the marvelous symphony of Catholic truth as a new thing, to have been able to learn it as an adult, in an adult way. True, this is no mean blessing. But, paradoxically, I’ve discovered that incompetence has been my most precious gift in conversion.

If grasping the faith intellectually in an adult way is great, failing to grasp the nuts and bolts of its ritual is greater. Every divine gift either becomes an icon, a window into the heart of God, or an idol, a wall separating us from him. The subtle temptation is to imagine that the biblical, theological, and historical knowledge the convert has gained on the way to the faith means he is a little bit higher on the ladder. More authoritative. Better. In an argument with my cradle-Catholic father-in-law, a fellow parishioner used the show-stopper, “Well you really can’t understand since you’re not a convert.” As St. Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up.” It’s an ugly sort of swelling.

A side effect of incompetence is, or can be, humility. We read in the Psalms, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” That I am never at ease in the Divine Liturgy reminds me how little I should be at ease in the liturgy of my daily life. Talking and writing about the things of God has the subtle tendency to make me think I love and serve God wholeheartedly; forgetting to genuflect, bow, or respond properly reminds me how little progress I’ve really made. If I entered Zion in the church, it still hasn’t completely entered me.

The temptation isn’t always related to knowledge, either. In one of his Catholic sermons, John Henry Newman explains the perfection to which Christians are called: “Perfection does not lie in heroic deeds, or in great fervor, or in anything extraordinary—many, even good men, are unequal—but in consistency. This is what old Catholics have when good, in opposition to converts.” Sometimes the convert gets stuck on the extraordinary and sometimes heroic deed of entering the church against opposition, forgetting that however stunning his conversion may have been, it was only the beginning. Consistency, from beginning to end, is the harder task.

The convert can find consistency impossible and incompetence (ritual and spiritual) cause for despair. I’ve decided that convert-incompetence is no cause for despair, that it is my own version of what St. Thérèse called the “little way.” “Thérèse came to believe,” writes Simon Tugwell, “that genuine holiness is precisely a matter of enduring our own imperfections patiently.” If I cannot have the kind of consistency I’d like to have, then I must seek the kind God wants me to have: humility, patience, and the divine gift of taking myself lightly.

Published in the 2008-08-15 issue: 

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a contributing editor to Gilbert Magazine.

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