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February 27, 2012
A physical faith
By Brian Caulfield *

By Brian Caulfield *

As the father of two homeschooled boys, I have the great privilege of teaching them religion each evening. (My wife takes most of the other subjects during the day.) One boy is in the sixth-grade and the other is a first-grader, and I look forward to coming home from work and sitting, reading and (yes) memorizing with my boys.

I have a master's degree in theology, but I still learn a few things from the simple presentation of the tenets of our Catholic faith, taken from the St. Joseph edition of the Baltimore Catechism and a supplementary text that has reprints of beautiful Catholic artwork.

How wonderful it is to review the Commandments and the sacraments from a child’s-eye view, and tell my boys stories about the day they were baptized, or when I received my own First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation – way back in the old days!

My older boy is looking forward to Confirmation in a few years. He enjoys hearing about how in my day the bishop gave a tap to the cheek of each person receiving the sacrament.

“Was it a real slap, dad?” he says, swinging his arm in a roundhouse manner.

“Sort of,” I say, jokingly, “and we were only fourth graders at the time. I wonder if I still have the scar on my cheek.”

My son is not quite sure if he is happy that the bishop today simply lays his hand on the forehead while making the Sign of the Cross with holy chrism. He thinks a little rap on the cheek would make the experience sort of fun and scary – and memorable.

I tell my boys about our Catholic faith’s unique emphasis on the physical, the Church’s insistence that we express our faith not only in spirit, but with physical gestures – standing, sitting, kneeling, laying on of hands. We fashion physical things to signify spiritual realities, using water, bread, wine, oil, gold chalices, huge crosses, stained-glass windows, and larger-than-life statues.

My son has it right, all these physical signs and gestures make the faith memorable, indelibly imprinted not only in our minds but in our flesh. How appropriate this fact is to a religion that professes “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

This physical attachment, I think, bewilders and intrigues our evangelical brethren, who have a faith more of intellectual assent.

They often say they “believe on” the Word of God, as if words were something you could hold on to in physical way, perhaps expressing a hidden wish for more physical realities in their mode of belief.

They shake their heads, and sometimes their disapproving fingers, when Catholics claim to love not only Jesus, but the Church – in both senses of the term, the mystical body of Christ and the brick and mortar building where they worship on Sunday.

No, brother, I hear my evangelical friends insist, you must set your sights above, not become bound to things that will burn away on the last day. I gently correct their implied dualism, and tell that that in the world to come we will have the flesh of humans not the breath of angels.

My sons understand this fact instinctively. They sense that in every physical reality there is a shadow of immortality.

The stuff of this world may be burned away, but it will be with a purifying fire. This world will pass away, but some things will be reclaimed and renewed through God’s own refreshing breath.

After all, he told us himself that what he created is good, and we “believe on” his Word.

Brian Caulfield is editor of the website Fathers for Good, an initiative by the Knights of Columbus that features regular articles, videos and other multimedia on the subject of Christian fatherhood. A father of two young boys, Brian writes on the spiritual truths found in daily life and the issues men face while striving to live out their vocation.
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