The Antiseptic of Our Creeds

Some years ago, while chatting with a friend who had come to Catholicism largely through her encounter with the Rosary, I ruefully admitted that my own cradle-Catholic appreciation of the devotion was wishy-washy.

It took so long, I whined to her. She disagreed, but admitted that perhaps the prayer went faster for her because she routinely omitted the Apostles’ Creed from her start.

“You just jump right into the thing, do you?” I asked. “Well, I kiss the crucifix and then say, ‘Yeah, you know, I believe all that’ and then start.”

When I thought about it later, I realized that I had a habit of rushing through the Creed so quickly and unmindfully that I too was essentially omitting it from the Rosary. My friend was at least acknowledging that she believed all that was contained within the Creed, even if she did not speak it. I was speaking it on autopilot, and rendering it an utterly empty exercise.

Words without thought are dangerous, flighty things to begin with, but what sort of madness is it to repeatedly say, “I believe … I believe … I believe,” while paying no attention to what follows? In a world full of things “seen and unseen” what sort of havoc might such mindlessness provoke amid the forces of dark and light who are doing battle all about us? I imagined the angels saying in my defense, “She’s saying the words; even an imperfect declaration is a declaration.”

“A declaration without root,” the devils cackled back. “She’ll crumble when challenged.” It was true, and I knew it. Flannery O’ Connor’s fictitious “Child” may have “thought she could be a martyr if they killed her fast enough,” but my inability to be present to a solid statement of faith for the space of approximately 30 seconds did not speak well for my own chances, did it? Martyrdom creates saints, but the conviction that supports heroic witness must be founded upon something.

Grateful for what I saw as an angelic prompting, I made a conscious decision to encounter the Apostles’ Creed anew. I began to pray it mindfully, every day, even if I was not beginning a Rosary. For the first time in my life, I was really thinking about what I was saying, and actually consenting wholeheartedly to every bit of it: Yes, I believe in God the Father; yes, I believe in Jesus Christ His Son. Yes, I believe He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Yes, I believe. I believe this.

A remarkable thing happened. I could feel my connection to Christ Jesus and His church strengthening. With my every assent I realized I was connecting with, and conforming to, God’s giant and ongoing “YES,” which formed and sustains all of creation. I went from speeding through this preface and prayer to lingering on it, meditating upon its mysteries, finding consolation within its every idea and, eventually, discovering an utterly new confidence in my faith. The Apostles’ Creed became my go-to prayer in times of stress, whether that meant the dentist’s chair or an emergency room — the foundational support to all of life’s “little martyrdoms” that condition us for what is ahead: I believe in the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. In those words are weapons to sustain us through any desolation and fear. Loving the Apostles’ Creed meant going further; it meant becoming present to that other Creed that taxed my patience, the Nicene Creed we declare each Sunday. It meant foregoing the absent-minded mouthing along in order to swim within its unknowable depths — born of the Father before all ages — and then own them as best I could.

In Rumer Godden’s novel “In This House of Brede” a Benedictine nun contemplates the first confusing fallout from the Second Vatican Council and says, “The Church has got blood poisoning; I think because it has lost the disinfectant of the Creed.” Our times are no less troubling. The good disinfectant of our Creeds can help to build our spiritual immune systems, rendering them strong enough to endure martyrdoms large and small.

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com.