You Learn by Participating

Being the token Catholic in my family sometimes means feeling like I have to over-explain some things.

While visiting family but without much going on in the way of New Year’s Eve festivities, I opted to attend a late-evening Mass at the parish where I had attended Christmas midnight Mass.  As I was preparing to leave, my mother asked me quizzically, “So, is it a New Year’s Mass?”  I explained, not for the first time and with a hint of impatience, “No, it’s the Vigil Mass for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God.”  Having already been through a whole explanation of what a Vigil Mass is, she simply reminded me that she may need to have things explained more than once.  She then asked me whether I had learned all these things in RCIA – referring, I suppose, to all the practices I’m now taking as a matter of course.

“Well, some things you learn in RCIA, some things you pick up along the way.”  I paused a moment to consider my response.  “Like most things, you learn by participating.”

As I thought about it later that evening, that latter part struck me as the truest answer, and one that bears reminding even for a convert who can still take in liturgical feasts and ecclesial symbols like a kid in a candy store.  Having to answer questions from outside the tradition I’ve made a home in reminds me not to take for granted “all these things” that were once just as foreign to me.  You learn by explaining, too.

I am reminded that I once had a similar experience in relation to the tradition that formed me, at a time when I had been drifting away from it.  Being almost the sole representative of my Mennonite heritage to many classmates at my Presbyterian-affiliated college ultimately brought me back to it, reviving and deepening my appreciation of it in ways that remain profoundly influential in my life to this day.

I am also reminded that my initial long-term, life-altering encounter with the Catholic Church was nothing but learning by participating.  For several years afterward I had thought of this as “coming in the back way,” having first discovered Catholic praxis within a particular community and then learning the thought and teaching that underlay what I had found.  And then one interlocutor in the Vox Nova comboxes pointed out that most often for cradle Catholics, the “back way” is the only way.

In fact, as people of faith, we are all learning it by participating, whether we entered our faith traditions in infancy or some time later.  Much like learning language (whether native or acquired), while there are always some things to be explicitly taught, we also internalize much of the morphology and grammar and vocabulary and semantics of our faith subconsciously, through the practice of it.  And when we have to explain what we’ve internalized in this way, it often brings our understanding of it more fully into the conscious.  The benefit, then, of interacting with people who may not fully share the same language or habits of faith that we’ve learned is not only in learning about other traditions, but also in a better understanding of our own.

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