To be a Protestant is to be spiritually lonely.
I don’t mean that Protestants don’t enjoy spiritual fellowship with one another. The popular small group movement has for decades been a key dynamic in successful Protestant churches—megachurches especially. People gather weekly or biweekly to read the Bible or some devotional literature, share spiritual insights, and pray together. But anyone who has spent any time in such groups knows that the key to the meeting is not Bible knowledge or spiritual insights from the ages. It’s mostly a place for people to say, “This is what I think” and “This is what happened to me.” It’s attractive precisely because it’s a safe place where people can find a listening ear to talk about their spiritual struggles.
Some Catholics enjoy such fellowship as well, but as far as I can tell, such small groups are not as ubiquitous in the Catholic world. There are many reasons for this. One is the confessional, one of the many gifts of the Catholic Faith. There, Catholics have a place to unload their spiritual and moral struggles, and to be given objective absolution to boot.
Another element is the plethora of saints and angels that populate the Catholic imagination. You can hardly go five minutes in the liturgy before you are reminded that you are part of a great throng of saints and angels and archangels—“the great company of heaven!”—with whom you can share your spiritual concerns. Your spiritual life is not just about your “personal relationship with Jesus.” It is that, to be sure. But the characteristic Catholic relationship with God is not being “alone with the alone” but together with the Trinity and the great company of heaven.
Protestants of a liturgical bent—Anglicans and Lutherans, for example—tip the cap to this reality. But in the end, the Protestant faith is about one’s individual relationship with God. It’s a one-on-one religion. Saints may be historically interesting and even inspiring, but Protestants don’t have a relationship with the company of heaven. Angels are more or less an abstract idea to most Protestants and hardly figure into their spiritual worldview. Protestants are catechized, in fact, to be leery of becoming attached to any saint or place or even the church in order to bolster one’s faith, lest one fall into idolatry. When push comes to shove, Protestant pastors will tell you, if you want to grow spiritually, you are on your own.
A number of years back, a leading evangelical church examined how they were doing at helping new believers grow in their faith. They discovered that many of those converts initially grew in their faith but then stalled out. The members complained that the church didn’t offer anything to help them beyond the early stages of their faith.
The church’s response? Surprisingly, it wasn’t to revamp their Christian education and small group programs. As the pastor at the time put it, “We need to teach people to become self-disciplers.”
There is an element of truth in this rather odd way of putting it. I suspect that many Catholics, if they are anything like me (often spiritually lazy), need to stop whining about what the church doesn’t offer and become better “self-disciplers”—in other words, take some responsibility for one’s faith.
But when it comes to supporting believers to help them grow in Christ—or better, to enable Christ to grow within them—there is no better tradition than the Catholic Church. There are not only high and holy moments in which God comes to us through the Church—Baptism and Confirmation—there are weekly, even daily opportunities to receive afresh the grace of God in the Mass and the sacrament of Reconciliation. No Catholic priest will ever say “You need to become a self-discipler,” but instead will encourage the struggling believer to attend Mass, go to Confession, and pray to Mary, a saint, or their guardian angel for support.
For Protestants, the most characteristic way God works with people is one-on-one with no intermediaries. For Catholics, God hardly ever works without intermediaries, in this world or the world above. Protestants understand this partially because they often recognize that God speaks to them through another person. Catholics understand this and more—that God speaks and comforts them also through the great company of heaven.
Given the occasion—the Feast of the Holy Archangels on September 29—let me just note how one archangel has been a source of strength to me. One of the first prayers I learned attending my local parish, St. Michael’s in Wheaton, Illinois, is (as one might expect) this one:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do though, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
We pray this at the end of every daily Mass, and I pray it when I find myself tempted with one habitual sin or another. It reminds me that in many respects, the Christian life is indeed a battle, and the temptations I experience are not merely due to personal weakness. Without going into a full-fledged angelology and demonology, I live and move and have my being in the midst of a spiritual reality with some of it malevolent, and the malevolent forces are too powerful for me to face without some help. And more importantly, it reminds me of the angelic help I can expect to receive when I ask.
Could I not just go straight to Jesus with my concerns? Of course! “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (known as the Jesus prayer) is also a regular feature of my prayer life. But so is the Hail Mary. And so is my prayer to St. Michael. When I’m in the throes of temptation or doubt or anxiety, I’ll take all the prayers and help I can get. In Catholicism, it’s not an either/or (pray to God or to the saints and angels); it’s a both/and. Jesus uses saints, angels—the entire company of heaven—to minister to us in the same way he uses flesh-and-blood friends to do the same. And to be clear: these saints and angels are no more interested in being worshiped for their own sake than are my friends who pray for me. Mary is important because of the fruit of her womb. Michael is able to help because, as the prayer notes, he works “by the power of God.”
Yes, Catholics can become spiritually lonely because we are human beings who can be lazy and forgetful, and because we are prideful, trying to go it alone too much of the time. But if you’re paying attention to the liturgy and to the organic life of everyday Catholicism, you won’t be lonely for long.