By Kiki Hayden
"I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean." (Romans 14:14)
In the fall, the streets are decorated with candy skulls painted in dizzying florals. Last year, I even found a Day of the Dead display in a Catholic Church; grinning candy skulls surrounded a flowered cross. At first, I balked at this morbid fascination with death. But after Mass, the priest explained that the decorative skulls were a visual reminder that Jesus made a mockery of death, inviting us to eternal life with Him. Suddenly the skulls didn't seem so ominous.
This doesn't mean that every custom is wholesome and correct. Those of us living in border states have seen the cult to La Santa Muerte (Lady Death), which is factually wrong and can lead to dangerous spiritual untruths. There is no anthropomorphic grim reaper; Jesus is the only One who can bring us to the Father (John 14:6).
In an increasingly global world, we are exposed to many different cultural perspectives and customs. Sometimes the morality of these practices is clear, and sometimes things get complicated. What about yoga used as exercise? What about pouring libation to our ancestors? What about wearing Halloween costumes? How can we discern which aspects of a culture bring us closer to Jesus and which ones distract our attention away from Him?
God the Father understood when He created humans that we would try our hardest to understand and love Him—and that sometimes we would mess up. Badly. That’s why He provides guidance through the Sacraments, Scripture, and the examples of the saints. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can discern how God is revealing Himself through human cultures—and we can also recognize which cultural practices are contradictory to our faith. In the words of Saint Paul, we can "examine all things; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
When we learn to love Jesus, He directs our attention to Himself in all things—and He decreases our desires for anything that would distract us away from Him. In my experience, the best way to know Jesus's Sacred Heart are attending Mass, receiving the Eucharist, and praying in Eucharistic adoration. And we have another advocate in the Trinity: the Holy Spirit is eager to guide us. He nudges us in the right direction when circumstances seem unclear; He opens our eyes to the fruits of different traditions so we can see whether a custom leads us closer to or further from Jesus's heart.
But sometimes my emotions get in the way of interpreting the Holy Spirit's guidance, which is where Scripture comes in. God has a lot to say about human cultural practices, and He is pretty clear about which traditions are harmful (such as idol worship; see Psalm 115, Isaiah, Hosea, and most of the Old Testament), which traditions are helpful (such as celebrating marriages, recognizing Liturgical feasts, and eating in community; see the gospels), and which traditions can be harmful or helpful, depending on the situation (such as eating meat previously sacrificed to pagan idols; see 1 Corinthians 8). Saint Paul emphasized that in complicated situations, we must consider our own intentions as well as the intentions and understanding of those around us. We should aim to bring ourselves and others closer to God, and to avoid situations that cause anyone to sin.
For further examples, let's turn to the saints. Two saints who have guided me through cultural discernment are Matteo Ricci and Kateri Tekakwitha. Both saints carefully discerned the wisdom of God revealed through multiple cultures while avoiding harmful spiritual practices.
Ricci was from Italy, a largely Christian nation, and encountered God in a non-Christian culture when he was sent to China. He spoke Chinese, dressed in the robes of local scholars, studied Confucian philosophy, and used Confucian language to explain that Jesus came to fulfill Chinese culture—not to replace it. He encouraged mutual cultural exchanges between Europe and China. Ricci affirmed the veneration of ancestors (doesn't that sound a lot like praying with the saints?). But there were certain cultural practices, like prostitution, that he did not support. With a solid Jesuit formation, he understood the difference between spiritually healthy and unhealthy practices. He deeply respected the wisdom that the Holy Spirit had given to the people of China—and he proclaimed the gospel of the Trinitarian God. During Ricci's time in China, thousands of people converted to Christianity while remaining faithful to their own Chinese culture.
Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Native American, grew up practicing a non-Christian religion. As a teenager, she encountered some Jesuit priests and fell in love with Jesus. But she did not give up her identity as a Mohawk. In fact, even after her conversion to Christianity, she continued to practice Mohawk prayer traditions, especially when praying for the conversion of her people. She understood how to differentiate between worship of false gods and worship of the One True God through Mohawk traditions.
During my lifetime, I have been invited to pour libation to my ancestors, meditate in a Buddhist style, pray in pagan temples, pray in a Mosque, read the Quran, exercise in Western-style yoga classes, and participate in many different traditions. Before making a decision to accept or decline such invitations, I ask Saints Matteo Ricci and Kateri Tekakwitha to pray for me. And I keep my heart focused on Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). By spending time in prayer, receiving the Sacraments, studying Scripture, and following the models left for us by the saints, I feel confident that the Lord can teach me which customs to avoid and which ones to embrace. I can learn about new and different cultural practices without fear. What may seem strange on the outside might help me pray to Jesus if I only listen closely.