(The following is from on of my favorite blogs written by an Anglican priest turned Catholic. His words often echo my own thoughts and the following is no exception.)
PERSONAL FLOTSAM OR THE BARQUE OF PETER
A comment from a sincere Protestant:
"However good, however all-embracing, however truthful, however up-to-date, however correct or incorrect, however complete or incomplete - the teaching of any church cannot tell me these things: how my personal relationship with Jesus is, and may develop; how scripture and tradition apply to my personal situation now, my present joys and sorrows and difficulties and my relationships with other people; what God's purpose is for me to fulfil in life to his glory; how the Holy Spirit in glorious freedom may lead me down paths unknown and reveal to me things both old and new as I work out my own salvation in fear and trembling."
This is a nicely written and heartfelt comment, but it reveals the heart of the difference between the Protestant mentality and the Catholic. At the foundation level the Protestant's faith is between him and Jesus. It is subjective. He is the final arbiter of how his relationship with Jesus is, how to interpret and apply the Scriptures, God's purpose for his life, how the Holy Spirit leads him as an individual.
This is almost exactly the opposite of Catholic understanding. The longer I am a Catholic the more I distrust my own judgement. The more I doubt my own perspective; the more I question my own motives and my own understanding of the faith. I do so for several very good reasons. First of all, my understanding and vision is limited. It is limited by my education, my biases, my experience and my emotions. Secondly, my experience of 'my relationship with Jesus' is unreliable. How do I know it is Jesus I am "experiencing" and not just a fabrication of my emotions or my preconceived ideas about who Jesus is? What evidence do I have that it really is the Holy Spirit leading me in "glorious freedom" and that I am not just doing what I want and then claiming divine authority to do so? Thirdly, I distrust my own experiences in all these things not only because I distrust my own judgement, but because my own private judgement has so often run contrary to the will of the Church--the teaching of the Church and the judgement of the Church. Put simply--why should I be right and the Pope and a billion Catholics be wrong?
I am increasingly, therefore, (and with great gratitude) happy to subject my own "personal relationship with Jesus" to the objective, historical teachings of the Catholic Church. So, for example, I ask the question, "Where do I encounter Christ?" The Catechism says I objectively encounter Christ in five ways: 1. in the Church--the Eucharistic Assembly which is the Body of Christ 2. In the person of the priest. 3. In the Eucharistic species 4. In the Sacred Scriptures 5. In the person of the poor. These five are good enough for me. I may feel that I experience Christ in other ways, but while I appreciate them, I do not rely on them.
Furthermore, I have found that by subjecting myself to the the Sacred Scriptures interpreted by the Church and lived out by the examples of the saints, that my own spiritual life has not been curtailed or constrained, but amplified and expanded beyond my furthest imaginings. By subjecting myself as much as I can to the teachings of Holy Mother Church my life has widened out, not narrowed down. By striving to be obedient--even when it is hard--especially when it is hard--my spiritual life has grown, not diminished.
I am therefore to be judged by the Church--I am not to judge the church. I listen to the voice of the Bishops--even when I don't like what they say. I strive to understand and comply with the teachings of Mother Church because she knows better than I do. I strive to subject my will to the will of my bishop in what I hope might be holy obedience because through that act of the will and subjugation of the will my spirit grows far more than my own feeble ideas of 'glorious freedom'. It is within this holy obedience that I learn far more than if I had imagined that I knew everything already.
This is, admittedly, very difficult. In an individualistic age in which every man is his own spiritual director, his own Biblical interpreter and his own Pope, to believe and act as if the Bishops of the Church are Christ's own apostles, operating under his own divine mandate--is to believe and act (in the world's eyes) as a fool. But so be it. Let me be a fool for Christ, and if I die with a foolish smile on my face because my foolishness has confounded the world and bankrupted me, then that is the way I wish to die.
My greatest fear is that I would walk outside the church--somehow imagining that I know best. The one area of my life which I know least and which is the greatest mystery to me is my own spiritual life and my own spiritual progress. Because of my self doubt and agnosticism about my own holiness or progress I rely increasingly on the secure rock of Peter. I want to be in the barque of Peter. Not at sea clinging to my own piece of personal flotsam.