Towards the Truth

It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve left you all hanging for a while for the next chapter of my conversion story. Sorry about that.

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

Deep in history

The year I taught at Veritas brought great progress in what, I’d finally realized, was my search for the Church — or at least, I thought then, for a church. I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree, moved out of my own, gotten a job, and was instructing young people in history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary. Last time I wrote about how my teaching of the Latin and Greek languages became a guiding light to me. Even more than that, history paved my path.

When I studied history in college, I fell in love with the Church Fathers, the good and faithful and virtuous forbears of our faith. I acknowledged and understood that their Church, in its unity, orthodoxy, order, and charity, was the true Church of Christ. I had concluded that that purity and truth had been lost, that the Catholic Church had fallen and necessitated the Protestant renewal. As a budding historian then, I believe I was beginning to understand — though I had not even acknowledged it to myself — that there was nothing Protestant about the Early Church or any of the Church Fathers. I still took for granted, out of ignorance, the Protestant precepts of sola scriptura and sola fide and the rest — but my commitment was to Christ and His truth, never to the Protestant Reformation as a thing in itself.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great, a Christian of the sixth century.

When I taught, I brought these same understandings and commitments to the classroom, and was forced for the first time to follow them to their logical ends. My task for the upper class at Veritas was to teach the history of Europe from the Late Antique period to the Protestant Reformation — a period that was, essentially, the age of the Church. Teaching at a Christian school, I felt, gave me the prerogative and mandate to approach that history from a perspective of faith. And so I immersed myself in the history of the Church more completely than I ever had before. Perhaps someone should have warned me about being deep in history.

I longed to introduce my students to the heroes of the Church who had so captured me: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory. Benedict, Bernard, Bede. At the beginning of class each day I listed important figures on the board, popes and bishops and theologians and saints. I peppered every lecture with Greek and Latin etymologies of familiar Christian concepts — understanding many of them for the first time myself: what it meant to be a bishop (“overseer”), a deacon (“servant”), a monk (“alone”), a pope (“papa”). I was beginning to realize, nascently, just how deeply the doctrines of the Catholic Church — from the episcopate, to the papacy, to confession — were rooted in Scripture.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Climax: The Reformation

The climax of my course to the students was the Protestant Reformation. Recognizing the diversity of my flock (a Reformed majority, but also Evangelical Protestants and several Catholics) and the potential for disagreement, I made an appeal to ecumenism from the very first day: Despite our divisions, we were all brothers and sisters in the Lord. I brought the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to class one day for us all to read together. My students seemed to accept my appeal; at least, no one disputed it. I was very pleased, and more than a little fascinated, by the picture of Christian unity my class presented. Was there hope yet for my finding a safe port?

I had the idea in my head that, to facilitate a focused class study of the Reformation, the students could write their research papers on various Reformation figures — each student a different one — and present a report to the class. To most people, even Protestants, I thought, the only Reformers with whom they were familiar were Luther and Calvin, or if one really knew a lot, Zwingli or Melanchthon or Beza. So I proceeded to make a list of possible topics — and I was stunned. I knew there were more than a few — but I found that there were actually dozens of Reformers and Reform movements going on at the same time. I had been under the impression, somehow, that there was some rational, intentional sense of order and orthodoxy to the Protestant Reformation, an effort to restore something that had been lost — but it began to dawn on me that it was in fact exactly the opposite: it marked the breakdown of all order and orthodoxy. Rather than an ordered and deliberate revision and restoration, the Reformation became a chaotic free-for-all with every “Reformer” clamoring for “reform” according to his own grievance. The doctrinal confusion and uncertainty I’d been feeling were nothing new: it had been part of the very fabric of Protestantism from the beginning. (I gave up on assigning my students Reformation topics.)

Abraham's Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902)

Abraham’s Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902) (WikiArt.org).

The church I was looking for

During this time I felt increasingly alienated, again, from my parents’ church, the church I grew up in, which I was again attending (a church of the Assemblies of God in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, in case you are new). It no longer “fit” me, I thought, if it ever did. I felt intellectually and spiritually unchallenged, if not completely unwelcome as an academic. I found no real fellowship or support, and little opportunity within the church for me to grow or improve. I prayed and reflected and read the Scriptures, and began to see more clearly than ever before the direction in which I thought God was leading me.

I wrote a lot in those days about searching for a new church, seeking to understand the nature of the church and where I fit in it. Why do Christians go to church at all? What’s to be gained from worshipping communally that can’t be attained worshipping privately? The most important purpose of the church, I concluded, was community — having something in common with fellow believers; sharing fellowship with one another and supporting one another, whether spiritually, emotionally, or materially. That being so, I decided, it was important that a church have a community of people I had things in common with: people of my own age and state in life, to whom I could relate. Second, I decided, preaching and teaching were an important purpose: to raise up and educate believers as disciples of Christ, and nourish them in their Christian walks. And teaching should be rooted in Scripture, challenging both intellectually and spiritually: educational and not just inspirational, motivational, or evangelical. I wanted to learn, to mature as a Christian, to grow in understanding and faith. Finally, I resolved, the purpose of the church was service — to carry out the mission of Christ to the world: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and seek the lost.

I began to see, I thought, the kind of church I was looking for. But how could I find it? I visited a number of churches during that time. And I confess, though I said previously that I had shut the door on Calvinism, I continued to be drawn to the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition: I actually visited several Presbyterian (P.C.A.) churches and found them appealing.

Several times I visited the Presbyterian church where Veritas met. I appreciated it a lot and was drawn to a number of the things they were doing: a liturgy of worship, including singing the Psalms, kneeling at appropriate moments (rather awkwardly, given the absence of kneelers), recitation of the Nicene Creed, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I knew nothing of Catholic liturgical practice at the time, but looking back I see a definite appeal to more traditional forms. I do not know if any of this is common in other Presbyterian churches, or if this palatable flavor was distinct — but the taste, I now see, was distinctly Catholic. Some there were aware of it, too: in the liturgical booklets the church produced, they were especially careful to note in the creed that “catholic” meant “universal” and did not refer to the “Roman Catholic Church.”

I might have stayed at that church, if not for a certain feeling of alienation: I was the only single adult in the congregation, made up largely of couples with young children. So I decided to visit another Presbyterian church, a large P.C.A. church in Huntsville at which I knew some people. I only attended one or two Sundays — but I liked it a lot. They had a vibrant young adult Sunday school class to which I was particularly drawn. I was drawn to the community and to the worship — I gave little thought at this time to theology — but I do not know what path I might have taken, had not the calendar intervened: I soon was involved in visiting, choosing, and moving away to graduate school.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez.

Into sacred spaces

In my private devotion too, this time brought great spiritual renewal and growth. It was during that year that I discovered early sacred music. Entirely by accident, via Last.fm, I happened upon musical settings of the Mass — especially those of Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, and Lassus — and fell in love with them, these angelic voices, these echoes of the heavenly liturgy. This, probably more than any other single happenstance, paved the final stretch between me and the Church: Unexpectedly and unintentionally, I was receiving the holy words of the Mass into my soul. And I felt holy: I remember commenting that I “felt monastic,” by which I guess I meant that I felt a single-minded devotion, cut off from the worldly affairs around me. I was entering into a sacred space, set apart from my workaday life and mundane home, and drawing closer and closer to the Lord in prayer and study. I felt my heart burning within me. I felt a deep longing, more sharply than I’d ever felt it, for a faraway home. What was happening to me?

More and more — in everything I did — I found myself drawn to the ancient faith of the Church — which I still did not yet identify with the modern Catholic Church. In a quest for greater spiritual discipline and rigor, I sought out and read the Rule of Saint Benedict. To delve deeper into the wonderful music I was hearing, I looked up the Latin Mass and read along. I had always been fascinated by the saints, by the great Christians of ages past, and it occurred to me that a convenient way to learn about them would be to follow the traditional calendar of saints — so I incorporated it into my own calendar. From there, seeking an orderly way to study the Bible, I discovered the lectionary of the Catholic Church, which arranged Scripture readings throughout the calendar. I found an app for my new Android phone which brought them to me daily. I even began to read and enjoy the daily meditations on Scripture that were featured in that app.

So the summer of 2010, as I was poised to move off to graduate school, I presented a ridiculous picture: I was listening to and reading Catholic liturgy; reading traditional Catholic, monastic texts; observing the Catholic calendar of saints; and following the Catholic lectionary in my personal Scripture study and devotion, and reading Catholic meditations, using a popular Catholic phone app. And yet if you’d asked me, I would have vehemently denied that I was becoming Catholic. I wasn’t the least bit interested in it. I could readily rattle off a long list of reasons why the Catholic Church wasn’t for me: they dictate the proper interpretation of Scripture; they dogmatize and define away every mystery of the faith; they limit the believer’s personal relationship with Christ by the imposition of a priest; the very heart and fire of faith had been subjected by scholastic reasoning and dead works. I felt fully assured of where I was heading spiritually, and the Catholic Church wasn’t it. But the truth is, I was completely oblivious to where the Lord was leading me. I wouldn’t realize where I was going until I was already there.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Catholic Church, Dead in “Religion”

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Cardinal Newman famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If any single sentence could sum up the reasons for my conversion, that would be it. Yet there are many, many well-educated and thoughtful Protestants, who seem thoroughly versed in the facts of the history of the Church, for whom that hasn’t been true. I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately, how and why that could be, but have up till now refrained from writing, fearful that I might stray into polemic. I pray now that God give me the graces to consider it fairly.

Learning History

My first inclination is to say that as a history major in college, I had a fairly secular and unbiased education — but I’m not sure that’s true. I did attend a public, state university, and at least in the beginning, was prescribed standard textbooks of Western Civilization, which presented a fairly balanced account of Church history. But as I progressed, most of my tutelage came under Dr. G, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and a medievalist, with a flair for the great men of history, who simultaneously held as heroes Luther, Erasmus, Bernard, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. That is the stump from which my developing view of the Christian Church sprang, and if there was any self-contradiction in it, I didn’t realize it then. Dr. G also loved the great historians, and looking back, many of the ones he had us read were anything but favorable toward the Catholic Church: Gibbon, Burkhardt, Huizinga. But we also read the Catholic Friedrich Heer, and Arnold Toynbee, who probably better than anybody represents where I eventually found myself: loving and admiring whatever was great in all Christianity and every religion. (And recounting all of this makes me want to dust off my old history books.)

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I grew up a Protestant, so naturally I viewed the Protestant Reformers as heroes, as having accomplished something good; and in Dr. G’s accounts of Luther, he confirmed me in that. But the more I studied the early and medieval Church, the more I fell in love with the Church Fathers. And the more I read of the Church Fathers, the more I longed for the order and consistency of the Early Church, the sure orthodoxy each of these men affirmed and upheld, and the coherency and unity with which they viewed themselves and the whole Christian world as “the Universal Church.” Those things were clearly lacking from the churches I knew in my day. Where had they gone? I presumed, as a Protestant, that they had been lost somewhere over the ages, along with the true faith that Luther and the Reformers later sought to recover; I believed that they had been destroyed and were irrecoverable. I knew nothing of the modern Catholic Church then; I was only vaguely aware of it, that there were Catholic churches and there was a pope. I presumed, as a Protestant, who in my own upbringing had been taught a distaste for “dead religion” — that is, the regimented and ritualistic and institutional; anything that would impede a “relationship” with Christ — that “dead religion” is all that was left of the Catholic Church; that all the spiritual life had been choked out by dogma and rote and rituals and rules; by scholastic definitions and speculation.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

I wonder if this isn’t the view that many Protestant historians of the Church have: even if they have an admiration for the Early Church, their understanding of what the Catholic Church became being rooted in assumptions and prejudices and ignorances. Of course, it is my own assumption that an historian, having studied the Early Church and the Church Fathers, must admire it! I suppose there are two understandings the Protestant historian could take of the Early Church: either as something bright and new and pure and glorious, the thing that the Church today should long for and strive to recapture; or as something gradually corrupted and misled and fallen and apostate, the thing they presume had departed from the pure (and Protestant) teaching of the Apostles.

There is a lot more coming from this vein, and hopefully soon! This one’s really gushing (I wrote this all straight through in one sitting)! Stay tuned!

Veritas

My blog motor has been sputtering. I’ve been doing other things: reading, learning, changing. I’ve been receding deeper and deeper into my hobbit-hole. My prayer every day is that God pour me out and fill me up with His love. I have several posts that are simmering half-stirred, but none of them have really motivated me. So I thought I should take a step back, a wider look, and return to what I originally set out to do: to tell the story of how and why I came to the fullness of the Catholic Church.

I’ve been telling that story at length, and I was getting close to the end — that is, back to the beginning and up to the present. Now this next chapter has been on my mind a lot lately as I find myself once again at a similar place: having finished a degree, standing at a juncture, wondering what to do next.

Veritas Classical Schools

To my surprise and my unexpected blessing five years ago, I found myself a teacher at Veritas, a classical school and homeschool cover. There were a lot of things happening then that were important to my journey, but in this post I thought I’d recount how my time at Veritas led me nearer to the Truth of the Church.

It’s often said that one doesn’t truly understand a subject until one teaches it to another; and I certainly found that to be true. I also found that I loved teaching. I was teaching a full bag of subjects: Medieval European history to the upper class (grades 9 through 12, or approximately ages 14 to 17); Post-Reconstruction U.S. history (that is, ca. 1877 to ca. 1965) to the lower class (grades 7 and 8, or ages about 12 to 13); English grammar and vocabulary to both classes (with a focus on Latin and Greek roots for the lower class); Latin to the lower class; and Koine Greek to a few brave souls of the upper class.

Catholici me docent linguam latinam

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

St. Thomas Aquinas (15th century), by Carlo Crivelli. (Wikimedia). St. Thomas is a patron of educators and academics.

In my Latin class, per the direction of Mr. H our headmaster, I taught the Ecclesiastical Pronunciation of Latin — that is, how Latin is pronounced in the Roman liturgy. I had been taught at university using the Reconstructed Classical Pronunciation. To illustrate the difference very briefly: in the Ecclesiastical pronunciation of the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), we say, Pater Noster, qui est in caelis, with the caelis pronounced ˈtʃeː.liːs (chē-līs or chay-lees: ch as in cherry; ay as in pay; lees as in lease). In Classical Pronunciation, one says ˈkaj.liːs (kai-līs: kai as in kayak; lees as in lease).

Now, I was accustomed to Classical Pronunciation, and at first Ecclesiastical Pronunciation sounded very strange and foreign to me. But it so happened that even in this generally Reformed stronghold (Veritas met at a Presbyterian church, you recall), even deep in the Protestant territory of North Alabama, I had a small handful of Catholic students, including a smart young man named John D who reminded me a lot of myself. John and his family, I soon learned, attended a Traditional Latin Mass in Huntsville — and John was very quick to correct me when I slipped back into Classical Pronunciation as I so often did. Before too long, Ecclesiastical Pronunciation was like honey to my ears: so natural and beautiful, the way Latin lived in our world and the way real people pronounced it. At the height of the year, the whole class actually learned to say the Pater Noster in Latin like good Catholic schoolchildren.

Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J.

Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J. (1909–2001), as president of Georgetown University.

The reason for our using Ecclesiastical Pronunciation was that the textbook we were using was Henle Latin by Fr. Robert Henle, S.J., which has found a popular following among classical, even Protestant, homeschoolers (mostly by virtue, I think, of being old and not-newfangled). And it was a decent book, despite being directed primarily toward teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars: our vocabulary consisted mostly of military terms and words for killing (so the girls especially complained, and I agreed). But we also learned that Maria orat Christianis (Mary prays for Christians) and various other Christian concepts with a distinctly Catholic flavor; and the book was complete with charming illustrations of Catholic life. I didn’t realize at the time how much I appreciated it. After all, if anybody else had a fair devotion to the Latin language, it was the Catholics.

Φῶς Ἱλαρόν (Phos Hilaron or “Hail, Gladdening Light”)

My Greek class, sadly, was not very successful. The half an hour or so we had each week just wasn’t enough time to effectively teach a language so foreign to everybody; and only a few students, mostly the ones who were new to Veritas and out of the Latin loop, chose to participate. I consider it a victory that I was at least able to introduce them to the Greek alphabet and hopefully open up a curiosity in the Greek New Testament for them.

Hagia Sophia

Light shines through the dome of the ancient church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

When it came time to teach the Latin class the Pater Noster in Latin, I thought it would be cool to teach my Greek students something to recite also. At that time, David Crowder Band, one of my favorite groups, had recorded a translation of the Phos Hilaron, one of the earliest recorded Christian hymns outside of Scripture. I don’t think anyone else got as excited about it as I did. But I got excited about it! Here I was, peering into the very dawn of Christianity in its very native tongue! In both my Latin and Greek classes, I felt the deep sense that I was approaching the historic Church — which, at that time, I had not yet identified with today’s Catholic Church.

But day by day — though I still had no idea — I was being drawn to her.

And that’s still only the half of it! Stay turned for more, as I taught medieval history to the upper class, with a mindful focus on the Christian Church.

The Sovereignty of God, or, My Brush with Calvinism, Part 2: A Crisis of Faith

The next post in my spiritual autobiography, and the conclusion(?) to my account of my struggle with Calvinism. I don’t know; maybe there will be more. I thought I would nudge a couple of Reformed friends in case they might be interested in my thoughts.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

I grew a lot as a person and as a Christian over the next few years — though still in short spurts, leaps, and sometimes stumbles. Over the last couple of years of my undergraduate career, I continued to have occasional flirtations with Calvinism. I hung out a few times with the fledgling RUF group on our campus, and attended the nondenominational Campus Crusade from time to time. But I struggled to feel that I fit in in any meaningful way. I visited the churches of several friends, but for reasons I don’t entirely understand looking back, I never settled down. I remained restless, insecure, and lonely.

In the spring of 2009, thanks be to God, I finally graduated. Over the next summer I flailed around uselessly looking for a job — and then, in one of the clearest manifestations of God’s providence that I’ve experienced, one came to me. One day my friend Gloria, who had been one of my dearest Christian friends in school and always an example to me of how to live one’s faith on campus, wrote on my Facebook wall. “Hey, Joseph, would you like to teach Greek at a Christian school?”

The Trivium

The Trivium.

Would I! I don’t think there could have been a more perfect job for me at that time if it had been custom-tailored. All through my undergraduate degree majoring in history, I had never given any serious thought to teaching or pursued teaching credentials — but to my great surprise and joy, I loved teaching more than anything I’d ever done. My year at Veritas Classical School, teaching history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary to grades seven through twelve, was a monumental landmark in my journey as a student, teacher, and Christian.

But more on that later. In coming to Veritas, my road brought me face to face with Calvinism.

That year also — not coincidentally — brought my walk with God closer than it had been in many years. Becoming a teacher, I felt an obligation to be a model and example spiritually, a mentor and tutor and protector as well. I prayed for my students before I even met them, and for myself that I would be worthy to stand before them. For the first time I read the whole New Testament with an eye to serious Bible study. For my thirtieth birthday I bought myself a new Bible — the Reformed-friendly ESV Study Bible. It was a time of great growth, and I felt that that — towards the Reformed — was the direction my faith was moving in.

Calvin with books

As it turned out, the teacher I was replacing at Veritas was Megan, whom I had known years earlier as a member of the Society. (The pool of students in North Alabama trained in classical languages being small, this was not as big a coincidence as one might think.) She had recently had a baby and was leaving the school to be a mother. In my preparation that summer, I visited Megan’s home a couple of times to discuss curricula and planning. I was immediately impressed with the bookshelves of Megan and her husband: tome upon tome of Christian literature, particularly Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and other works of the Protestant Reformers. Could this be the intellectual foundation for my faith I’d been looking for? In talking with Megan, I was struck with a major emphasis of her teaching: history as a product of God’s sovereign will.

Veritas met in the building of a small Presbyterian church, and though at the forefront I’d been told that its reach was ecumenical — that I would have students of all different Christian traditions, and that no particular doctrinal position was expected of me — I learned very quickly that in its wider affiliations, Veritas was by and large Reformed. Toward the end of that summer, I attended a few days of workshops with the founders and leaders of the Veritas organization, at a large Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area.

The Apostle Paul

(This is the Protestant Paul.)

It must have been the will of God that I would be reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that week, that specifically I would have arrived at Romans 8, 9, and 10. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’d read a passage of Scripture and had the nagging thought, What if the Calvinists are right? But the morning of the first day of workshops, I remember sitting in the beautiful garden of the home that had so graciously hosted us, reading those chapters. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the rising panic, as the words seemed to confirm what I feared: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:21–23). As I review my notes from that day (I kept a journal of my studies), I see that I made a surprisingly sharp exegesis then — which I can only credit to the Holy Spirit — as my mind reeled, clawing for an understanding of the passage that didn’t entail what it appeared to entail.

Over the next several days, as I was pondering these words, I found myself cast into an increasingly alien and uncomfortable situation: Veritas seemed to be an overwhelmingly Reformed phenomenon; every teacher whom I met was motivated by a Calvinistic outlook on faith, on education, and on history. Not only that — but I’d had up till that point only marginal contact with homeschooling and its mechanics and philosophy and culture; here I was thrown into the thick of a stirred pot in which everyone around me was a native and veteran and I was a lost foreigner, not knowing the terminology or concepts or attitudes. I heard lecture after lecture on incorporating a Christian worldview into education, and on that worldview’s inherent opposition to my whole, secular, academic educational background; how the whole world I had known, everything I’d been taught, was opposed to God and the Christian formation of young people. I wrote in my journal, amid my lecture notes and observations, God, I’m scared. God, I’m so terrified. A page or so later: More and more horrified. I can’t do this. I have absolutely nothing in common with these people. By the second day of this, I had all but resolved that I would resign my position at the first opportunity.

Van Gogh, Man with His Head in His Hands

Man with His Head in His Hands (1882), by Vincent Van Gogh (WikiPaintings).

As these ideas worked through my head, and my reflections on Romans 9 continued to mushroom, I felt more and more alienated and alone: and this brewing storm soon blossomed into a full-brown crisis of faith. I began to seriously question whether I was even a Christian, if I even knew God at all. I remember sitting at a table there at that Presbyterian church, feeling more alone than I ever had, as the thoughts I’d been collecting finally coalesced: How could a loving God, a God who is love, create some flesh with no other purpose but to be damned? That rather than loving every creature, He only “endures with much patience” those “prepared for destruction” whom He doesn’t love at all, they existing only to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,” those predestined for glory? How could a loving God deliberately and arbitrarily consign some on His creations to hell and save others, based on no merit or fault or choice or action of either? How could it be that many of the people around me, those whom I knew and loved — the very neighbors whom Jesus commanded us to love and serve, for whom he called us to give ourselves wholly — were “objects of wrath,” of mere tolerance in God’s eyes, and not of love? were hopelessly damned from the beginning of the universe? were bereft of any hope at all of salvation? The notions I had understood seemed to undermine the whole gospel of Christ as I knew it, to reject the essential dignity of all men and women, to call into question my entire moral fabric: if some men are not worthy even of the love of God, then why love the hurting or seek the lost? why feed the hungry or clothe the poor or bind up the brokenhearted? I began to understand, I thought, so much of what I saw in the world around me, why so few Christians in America seemed to care about the plight of the least of these: they are not “of us,” so they must be “vessels prepared for destruction.” As my horror reached it peak, I came to a conclusion: If this is the God I’m being asked to serve, then I want no part of that god.

Of course, so much of this was overreaction, and the fruit of everything else I was feeling at that time. These thoughts are not fair representations of the ideas or formulations of well-minded people of the Reformed faith. But I still feel truthfully that these are the logical implications and consequences of Reformed propositions.

Crossroads

As I went home after three days in Atlanta, I had come to a sense of peace. I don’t remember even acknowledging it consciously, but my conclusion had reduced to an absurdity: That couldn’t be the God I love and serve, therefore the premises from which I was proceeding must be false. The Calvinist understanding of Romans 9 must be mistaken: for it otherwise contradicts all the rest of Scripture and revelation. Over the coming weeks, I devoted myself more and more to Scripture study and prayer. I delved into Paul’s meaning and context, and at last came to understand; looking back, my notes upon my reading that first day were pretty dead on. It was an epoch in my journey: I never again seriously considered Calvinism as a valid theological option or the Reformed faith as a destination for my pilgrimage.

In the end, I stuck with Veritas. The director of our school was so very reassuring and so supportive. He restored my faith in my own calling and gifts, and in the promise of Veritas. He never asked me to teach in a way with which I wasn’t comfortable, and stood behind me through my entire year there. And the students and the parents and the environment made the most loving, nurturing, enriching educational experience I’d ever been a part of. I loved teaching more than I ever could have known, and loved my students with all my heart. I left convinced of the merits of classical education and homeschooling — but more on that next time.

The Sovereignty of God, or, My Brush with Calvinism, Part 1

The next chapter in my conversion story, a long-promised episode that I think will be of interest to many of my Reformed brethren.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

In the year or two after my revolution, I began searching for God and for my true spiritual home, more earnestly than ever. Despite all my wanderings and stumblings, I still had the notion that I was somehow in control of my destiny, that I would find God on my terms — that somehow, I could flesh out the truth in my own mind and order my own path. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far with that attitude. But then, a series of events conspired to demonstrate to me, more than ever before, God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives.

In this period, for really the first time in my life, I found myself presented with Calvinism, the teachings and interpretations in the tradition of John Calvin, what has come to be known as Reformed theology. Since my youth I had been seeking greater intellectual rigor in my faith, a faith tempered by reason and thought — and, like so many young people today, I discovered Calvinism, without really ever looking for it.

John Calvin Richardson (1853–1930), my great-great-grandfather, who, as far as we know, was a good and God-fearing man who lived up to his moniker, and a Baptist.

John Calvin Richardson (1853–1930), my great-great-grandfather.

Growing up, of course, I had heard of Calvin. One could say he was in my blood. My great-great-grandfather was John Calvin Richardson (1853–1930), and, as far as we know, he lived up to his moniker, being a pious and God-fearing man and a Baptist. I knew very little of Calvin the theologian, only that he taught predestination, which, even to my young, evangelical mind, seemed an unpleasant and frightening doctrine. In school, reading Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mary Rowlandson, we examined the Calvinist themes of providence and the sovereignty of God. I learned the TULIP and its contrast in Arminianism, and realized for the first time that the theology I’d been brought up with was Arminian. I was fascinated and briefly wrestled with the ideas, but resigned myself that I had no authority to come to a conclusion. To my unschooled mind, Calvinism and Arminianism were the only two theological choices.

It was around that time that a friend invited me to her church (coincidentally[?], the caring friend of this episode), the first time I’d visited a church other than my childhood one in years. It was my first encounter with hardboiled Calvinism, and to my surprise I found the preaching compelling and the congregation welcoming and friendly; I made several friends. This was an outpost of Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the sect founded and led by Rev. Ian Paisley — and so it had rabid anti-Catholicism bleeding from its pores. Although this prejudice showed itself even in such far-flung followers as these in Alabama, those I met there were not hateful people — most of them.

The doctrines I’d been exposed to, particularly the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, made an impact on me and fascinated me. I was referred to some A.W. Pink to read. And then — to put an exclamation point on it — came another of the most pivotal moments of my life. Early in 2007, my dear grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. And even as we prayed for his healing, it became increasingly clear to me that God had other plans.

Milton Aldridge

Milton Aldridge, my Granddaddy, while serving in Europe during World War II.

The day he passed away in September was a private, family time, and I won’t compromise that moment by putting it on display here. But on that day we all gathered at his bedside at home — all except my brother, who was working in Huntsville an hour away teaching classes, and whom we didn’t think could get away in time. We finally got in touch with him, too late, we thought.

Doctors say that a person is not conscious or aware during his death throes — but Grandaddy knew; he held on, painfully, until John got there, and was able to say his goodbyes. And then, peacefully, he was gone. It was a beautiful and terrible moment that I cannot write about even now without tears.

I left that day convinced beyond a doubt, more surely than anything had ever convinced me before, that God is the Master of Life and Death; that He had orchestrated that moment, and taken Granddaddy when it was his time, to His glory and eternal rest. That event would shape me in so many ways that I’m still only now realizing: it was the first time I had truly looked death and eternity in the face and not wanted to run away; it was the time when I finally, after years of desperately trying to hold on to everything, to let go.

Compassion by Bouguereau

“Compassion” (1897), by Compassion by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

I remember having thoughts in the months that followed that at the time alarmed me: thinking of Grandaddy in his suffering, in his weakness, in his broken and dying body, as Christ suffering on the cross. But wasn’t this terribly sacrilegious? Granddaddy wasn’t Jesus and wasn’t my Savior; why was I thinking that way? It’s only now, looking back, that I understand. It’s only in Catholic thought that I can make sense of it. God was showing me the meaning of Grandaddy’s suffering: how what seemed so senseless then, He used salvifically; how in His suffering, Christ is united with every one of us who suffers, and we with Him partake of his saving death and Resurrection. “By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion” (CCC 1505).

More: “The Sovereignty of God, or My Brush with Calvinism, Part 2: A Crisis of Faith

Corpus Christi: The Latin Corpus of Christ; and the Real Schism (in my mind)

Yes, I have a thesis to write, but inspired by Laura’s brilliant and succinct one-post conversion story, I figured I had better get on the stick and get to the end of mine, and thought I would spend a few minutes on another chapter. If you’re new here, here’s the story so far.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

I’ve written some before about how the Latin language led me to Dr. G and The Society, our university’s society of students and professors devoted to the study of ancient languages and literature — and how Dr. G led me to the Church Fathers, and finally to Rome itself — the literal, actual city of Rome, not yet the Church. Dr. G and the Society have been such a powerful influence on my life in so many ways. They were my society. For so many years, I devoted myself to the Society and served it faithfully. I was the secretary in perpetuity, and I loved my office. But after my new lease on life, I decided that I had more to give.

So I ran for imperator (that is, president; technically, I ran for vice imperator, the heir presumptive to the next year’s imperator). I presented at my election that I already had a packet of readings planned for my year; and it was to be Christian Latin. I had a list of so many greats from whom we would have readings — St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Cyprian, Saints Perpetua and Felicity! The first semester would be the Latin of the Church Fathers, and the second semester would be Medieval Latin. I was excited about it, and my excitement was infectious, for a time.

St. Jerome Writing (1606), Caravaggio. (Wikimedia)

St. Jerome Writing (1606), Caravaggio. (Wikimedia)

Except, of course, that I hadn’t really read the Church Fathers. I knew them by name and reputation, but I hadn’t read their writings. So over the course of the next year, I immersed myself in patristics. I discovered, to my delight, that my university, otherwise a backwater to classical learning, had a not-insignificant collection of the Church Fathers, not only Schaff's Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers in English, but a fair many Latin editions. I discovered J.P. Migne's monumental Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca — not in our library, sadly, but in the ether of the Internet, where all things, both hideous and wonderful, from every part of their world, find their centre.

If I wasn’t already in love with the Church Fathers and with the faith of the Early Church, that love affair began then. I discovered such deep, such uncompromising, such uncomplicated faith — so real and immediate and passionate and personal. Christ was their Way, their Truth, and their Life, in a way that our modern world seemed to have lost sight of. I lamented more and more the loss in today’s evangelical Christianity of — something. I still couldn’t quite comprehend or put into words what it was that was missing. It was authority — a firm, absolute security of doctrine, apart from any issue of “interpretation”; a reliance on something concrete and settled and institutional that we today no longer had access to. It wasn’t just a “personal” faith in Christ, in the “individualistic” sense that it had so much come to mean. It was a deep and thoroughgoing commitment to the Body of Christ as a whole, to unity and orthodoxy and universality. It was a devotion to Christ’s Church, One, Holy, and Apostolic — and Catholic.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

St. Thomas Aquinas (15th century), by Carlo Crivelli (Wikimedia). If I had known St. Thomas then, I might not have been so hard on scholasticism.

If anybody had approached me then and suggested that I examine the modern Catholic Church, I would have politely refused — and I did, repeatedly. My friend Hibernius had converted to the Catholic faith after discovering the Early and Medieval Church in Dr. G’s history courses. I had been to Mass with him once in the States, and then to Mass in Rome itself! But in my mind, still, the Catholic Church was something dead, cold, and empty — something that had once been alive and on fire, in the glorious days of the Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors of the Faith in which I was then consumed, but which the cool rigor of scholasticism had quenched. In seeking to combine faith and logic, scholasticism had defined everything, even defining away miracles and mysteries. It had subjected a real, living relationship with Christ to rules and regulations, formulae and liturgy, rote and repetition. It had sought to put God in a box, and instead buried any sense of true faith. What was lost from the Church Fathers, I admitted resignedly, was something that couldn’t be regained.

Abelard

Abelard.

I blamed Abelard. He was one of the pivotal figures in Dr. G’s accounts of the history of the Church, and his confrontation with St. Bernard over Abelard’s “strange doctrine” was one of the turning points. St. Bernard became for me a hero — the last breath of a real, personal, emotional relationship with Christ, one that combined faith and reason without subjecting either to the other — the last bastion of Christianity as Christ intended it, winning the battle against Abelard but losing the war. Abelard represented to me everything that I imagined wrong with the Catholic Church — faith buried under logic; a need for being holy subjugated by a need for being right — and he personally someone dissolute and arrogant and insufferable. (I still to this day, despite having studied him a bit more and coming to understand him better, have negative feelings toward Abelard.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

From the point of Bernard and Abelard’s conflict forward, I imagined, was the root of the true schism in the Church: the Catholic Church into a terminal scholastic death spiral, the inevitable end of which would be the awakening of the Protestant Reformers and their struggle to regain the true faith — and their overcompensation, casting away so many blessed babies with the dirty bathwater, ultimately severing any connections with history and authority and reason, leading the way for the individualistic, purely subjective and emotional Christianity — in so many ways, equally empty and equally lost — from which I’d run away as an evangelical.

So that was where I stood five or six years ago, and I continued to stand there stubbornly for another three or four years, right up until the time I first went to Mass at St. John’s in Oxford. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” I was one of those millions, not too terribly unlike many of the anti-Catholic Protestants I talk to online — though I was rather sad about the perceived state of the Catholic Church, and lacked any real commitment to Protestantism, either.

But for the time being, I delighted and reveled in the Church Fathers, and longed for what it was they had that we no longer had. Their Church was the true Church. I fully comprehended that modern, evangelical Christianity resembled in no way the Early Church — not even those evangelicals who claimed to be “re-creating the biblical model of the church.” I grasped vaguely that something more than “Scripture alone” might be needed to regain the faith I longed for, and I regretted the antipathy of my evangelical brethren for anything that had preceded themselves. I understood more and more that the Catholic Church — at least, up until the Middle Ages — carried forward the faith of the Church Fathers. But there was still a disconnect between that realization and any affinity for or even interest in the modern Catholic Church. And it was ignorance, and prejudice, and stinging bitterness. God would have to sweep those away, in a babbling brook of cool, fresh water, before I could open my eyes.

In the Vineyard

The next chapter in my conversion story.

vineyard

In my youth, my faith was like the seed that fell along the path, that was devoured by the birds — my doubts, my questioning, my hurts. The next period of my life was one of new sowing; but my heart was rocky, my soil was shallow, and my faith sprang up quickly, only to wither away in the sun (Matthew 13).

My years of drifting away, and finally running away, had brought me to calamity. But God in His mercy spared me and gave me another chance. After my accident and remarkable healing, both physical and spiritual, I found myself at a crossroads, and had at long last chosen the road of God once again. But I was immature and full of pride. There was still so much that needed to be rooted out of my life before my heart could be ripe to bear true faith.

The Sower (Sower with Setting Sun) (1888), by Vincent Van Gogh. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Sower (Sower with Setting Sun) (1888), by Vincent Van Gogh. (WikiPaintings.org)

I had all the overweening zeal of a new convert, and went on a vehement and public crusade against the sins that had shackled me for so long and had brought about my ruin. It is painful to read my old journal posts from this time, to see how self-righteous and moralistic I was. My faith had no roots; no grounding. I thought I could make up for my lack of foundation with sheer fervency. Thankfully this time only lasted a few months: the first time I was faced with a real trial, a real temptation, I fell flat on my face.

I didn’t understand then that I was just a seedling. I needed to be regrown from the ground up. I had been reborn, but I was an infant in faith. I needed to be supported and cultivated. The Vineyard became my nursery.

The Vineyard was the young adult Sunday school class at Calvary. It was a little ironic to me even then that a group should be called “the Vineyard” in a church that was generally opposed to drinking alcohol, but it was built on the words of Jesus (John 15:5):

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

I had been alone for so long. And this was what I needed: to be truly grafted into the Vine; to find communion and fellowship with fellow Christians; to be loved and nourished. The Vineyard was that place for me.

It was never a place of any especially deep scriptural or theological study like I thought I needed — Calvary was never the place for that — but it was a place of love. There were in truth only a few people there I really connected with — our leaders Mr. Barry and Ms. Leisa, and Shelly and Michael, and a few others — but we became a tight group, and they made me feel loved and welcome and needed, like I belonged and mattered, like my thoughts and observations were valuable and important. It was something I had never known before, at that church or any other. And it was exactly what I needed.

Christ Pantokrator (10th century). Cefalù Cathedral.  Cefalù, Sicily, Italy.

Christ Pantokrator (10th century). Cefalù Cathedral. Cefalù, Sicily, Italy.

I remember my thoughts turning to historic Christianity in my life of faith for the first time. The seeds that had been planted in Rome began to bear fruit. I spoke up in class more and more, making observations about the historical connections of our faith to the Early Church. On more than one occasion, someone objected and said, “Wait, isn’t that Catholic?” But Mr. Barry and Ms. Leisa stuck up for me. I felt validated; I felt I had room to grow as a Christian, even an intellectual Christian.

I loved the Vineyard, and the dear brethren I found there. I don’t know where I would be today without them. There were times of trouble ahead, that would bring me to my knees. But I had found my roots; I had learned to abide in the Vine.

Resurrection Chapel: Or, God Makes a Home for the Lonely

Nesterov, Resurrection (c. 1892)

Resurrection (c. 1892), by Mikhail Nesterov. (WikiPaintings.org)

As I’ve relocated, I have lamented most of all leaving behind my mother parish, the one that gave birth to me as a Catholic and nourished me as a neophyte. It is not easy for me to make friends, but at Saint John’s I found such love and welcome and hospitality and cultivated several friendships that I will always cherish.

The parish here in my hometown is much larger and rather overwhelming. In the year I’ve been occasionally hearing Mass there, in times I’ve come home to visit, I have yet to make a new and real connection. This, I know, is partially my own fault, for not stepping out of my shell and introducing myself; but I just don’t do well in crowds.

I have dreaded the loneliness and the struggle to make friends and find a place here. But I should have remembered that God has always taken care of me, every step of my way. Though I tend to be a loner, I have never been alone. He has always provided, placing just the right people in my life at just the right time. And He has done so again — in a most prodigious and unexpected way, as if to affirm that every step of my road so far has been His, and to remind me that He continues to order the road ahead. Though it may appear dark and unknown, He will always provide a lamp for my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119:105).


Tintoretto, The Resurrection of Christ (1565)

The Resurrection of Christ (1565), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

My first week at home was a struggle. Saturday I went Christmas shopping with my family, and missed the scheduled time for Reconciliation in the parish at home. I felt I desperately needed to go, and feared going another week without His Eucharistic presence. I was browsing MassTimes.org (a very handy website) and found a listing both of Mass times and Confession for parishes in my area. And then, my eyes lit on something unexpectedly familiar.

I have known for a while that there was a small mission parish in Lawrence County, Alabama, the neighboring county to mine, the root from which some dozen of my family lines sprang, and also (not entirely by coincidence) the county on which I’m focusing my thesis research. The last I heard, the Catholic mission in Lawrence County was meeting in Moulton, the county seat, and did not have a permanent church building or a priest. That, as it turns out, was old information. No longer a mission, they still do not have a priest, and rely on visiting priests from all around the diocese to celebrate Mass on Sunday evenings. They have since inhabited the building of an older church that had disbanded, a very old and storied church — among the oldest churches in Lawrence County, that gives its name to the surrounding community: Morris Chapel.

My eyes went wide. Morris Chapel, once a Methodist Episcopal church, is also the church where a number of my ancestors were members. My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Dr. William Alldredge, and his family were, I believe, members there; and my great-great-great-grandfather, Rev. Thomas Benton Parker, was at one time pastor of the church.


Dr. William Alldredge (1809–1880), ca. 1850.

Dr. William Alldredge (1809–1880).

Dr. William Alldredge is one of my more illustrious ancestors (in my own family, anyway). He was among the earliest settlers of North Alabama, coming down the river from Tennessee with his father in 1816. During the 1850s, he traveled to New York to attend medical school, and returning home, he settled in Lawrence County as a country doctor. Dr. William was also a staunch Methodist, of whom the story is told that once while engaged in a heated and lengthy argument with a Baptist friend on the issue of predestination, he struck the friend with his riding crop, arguing, “I couldn’t help it. It was predestined.”

Rev. Thomas Benton Parker (1844–1913) and his wife Frances Jane (Gray) Parker (1839–1910).

Rev. Thomas Benton Parker (1844–1913) and his wife Frances Jane (Gray) Parker (1839–1910).

Thomas Benton Parker was a longtime and well-known Methodist circuit rider and preacher in his day. I do not know a lot about his personality, don’t have any letters from him or stories about him, or any sermons that he preached (though some of these might exist). But I know that he must have been a good and faithful man and an inspiring preacher, because he was the father, father-in-law, or grandfather of some half-dozen Methodist ministers after him — including a young William Warren Aldridge, Dr. William’s grandson and my great-great-grandfather, who was saved and called to preach as a member of Thomas Benton’s flock, and married Tom’s daughter.

And Thomas Benton Parker lies buried there in the cemetery at Morris Chapel — which is what especially struck me in learning that a Catholic church now occupied the site.


Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel

Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel.

I was elated by my discovery — and relieved by the fact that the church offered Confession before Sunday evening Mass. It being only a few miles away, I resolved to attend, for the sake of Reconciliation, for curiosity, and to share my connection.

I found much more connection than I expected: an intimate, personal atmosphere in which I truly felt communion with the people around me and with the Lord. The parishioners — of whom there were only a couple dozen on this stormy night — were gracious, kind, and hospitable, more than any church I’ve ever been a part of. They immediately embraced me as a member of the family. Rick Chenault, the church director, in the final stages of entering the permanent diaconate, warmly welcomed me, and invited me to stay for a meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul: this parish, though small, gives abundantly to do God’s work of caring for the poor, such that even other churches in the area send their cases to them. Everyone I met there heartily introduced themselves and treated me as a brother. And to my surprise, I already knew several of them, from school and work years ago. I had the distinct feeling that I was home.


Inside the church

They have made some additions since this photo was taken, but you can still tell it was once a country Methodist church. Also, it's not easy to retrofit Methodist pews with kneelers.

Resurrection Chapel was founded in 1992 by Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic society dedicated to reaching and serving the spiritual needs of the Catholic faithful in rural areas across America, and to spreading the Gospel of Christ and the Catholic faith into new areas. Currently, all of their missions are in the rural South, in traditionally evangelical, but today heavily unchurched, areas. Now in their own church building — at Morris Chapel — Resurrection Chapel is a growing and dynamic parish, full of love and life and faith. (I can attest to this even though I was there on such a stormy, messy night.)

I was surprised and again elated to learn that the first Catholic Church in North Alabama, in what would only in 1969 become the Diocese of Birmingham (that’s /ˈbɜrmɪŋhæm/, or bur´•ming•ham, for you Brits), was established in Moulton in Lawrence County in 1835 by Rev. Peter Mauvernay, to serve the local community of Irish immigrants. It lasted only a few years, until Fr. Mauvernay was called away to become the president of Spring Hill College in Mobile. Now, so many years later, we are striving to be a Catholic presence in such a heavily Protestant region.


T.B. Parker grave

The grave of T.B. Parker.

My dad quipped that T.B. Parker would turn in his grave if he knew that Catholics had now taken hold of his church — and that might have been the case in his earthly life. But I like to believe that Tom, now living with Christ, has discovered the truth of Christ’s Church, and was instrumental in bringing Resurrection to Morris Chapel, and bringing me there, too.

It is sad that the Methodist congregation of so many years has passed away; but the labors of the Methodists are a seed that has fallen to the ground and borne good fruit here. Resurrection is a more than apt name. Resurrection Chapel is a light in the darkness — both to the lost of Lawrence County, and to me.

It’s been a good while since I’ve believed in mere coincidences. And here are too many to stack up: that I would be longing and praying for a Catholic family in my new home; that Resurrection Chapel would be longing and praying for a permanent church home themselves; and that our needs would coincide, and we would find each other on the very ground my ancestors trod and laid down their dust. I am still overwhelmed and amazed by God’s providence — truly a home for the lonely (Psalm 68:6, NASB), and another signpost in the road.

Like the Dewfall

My reckless path over the past months had left my way littered with a lot of brokenness — not least of all my own. The most gracious Healer had been to my bedside — but still I shut Him out of my heart, the most wounded part of all.

Though I’d made a miraculous recovery from my accident, I was still, for the first few months after coming home from Ohio, in need of a lot of attention. I relied on my parents, especially my mother, to get myself to class every day (that one class I insisted on taking), and to doctor’s appointments, and to social gatherings, and for anything else I needed or thought I needed. I wish I could say that I was a grateful and cooperative patient, but the truth is that I wasn’t — especially the more she and I came to talk about God and religion.

To my friends, too, I was becoming intolerable. I felt the need to talk about my accident ad nauseam, to tell everyone I spoke to about it. I appreciated the loving concern that so many people had shown me, so much that I thought I deserved it and could selfishly demand it. What is worse, I began to grow angry: angry at the truck driver, and at the circumstances, and at God, for taking away my car and my freedom; angry at my parents for not bowing to my every whim and demand; angry at my friends for not making me the center of their universe.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Anger

Mouths swell with anger, veins grow black with blood (Ora tument ira, nigrescunt sanguine venae) (Anger from the Seven Deadly Vices), by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1558).

One friend in particular came to bear the brunt of my anger. The harder I pushed and the more attention I demanded, the further she drifted. I do not blame her at all, in retrospect, for what happened: she, too, broke off contact with me. I was infuriated. Never before in my life have I been, and I pray I never will be again, so filled with rage. It is true — I learned firsthand — that Wrath is a Deadly Sin — because as the days and weeks wore on, this blaze grew higher and higher, and consumed more and more of me. My mind was filled with horrifying, violent thoughts to the point of hatred. And it was killing me. My performance at school, my relationships with family and friends, even my health, was becoming unhinged. I was self-destructing.

And then, everything changed.


Praying girl

This isn’t her. It’s a stock photo.

It started with a phone call. Halloween night, a caring, Christian friend called to check on me, to see how I was recovering since the accident. But she wasn’t doing so well herself, struggling with health issues of her own. She said that she was praying for me. I said, reflexively, as my twenty-five years of Christian upbringing had taught me, that I would pray for her, too.

But as I hung up the phone, I realized that I was lying. I wouldn’t pray for her; I didn’t pray at all, and hadn’t in many months. Going to sleep that night, I resolved to do something about that, for my friend.

The next day, remembering my resolution of the night before, I unceremoniously knelt down in my bedroom to pray. And suddenly I found myself face to face with the Most High, the God I had been actively avoiding and running from and pushing away for the past six months. I stammered. What could I say for myself? Here I was to make a request of Him, and I had hardly spoken to Him or acknowledged the priceless gift of life He had already bestowed. Feebly, I fumbled, “I know I should probably get back into a church one of these days…”

Rain

My friend’s simple act of charity, her kind words and her concern, had been but a drop of moisture; but it reminded me in a distant way of the Font from which all mercies flow. My own simple gesture, reaching out to pray for her, was, however small, an acceptance of His grace and an act of His love. And with this drop of water on the parched soil of my soul, the rain gently began to fall. It came as soothing droplets to my burning heart; like the first trickle from the floodgates into a scorched riverbed.

There have only been one or two times in my life when I have heard God’s voice clearly and absolutely. This was one of those times. It came like a thunderclap that knocked me to the floor. The words were almost audible as they formed in my mind, in answer to my halfhearted offering: “Go back to Calvary. This Sunday.”

Calvary

Calvary: the church I grew up in, towards which I’d held so much anger and bitterness for years; the place I blamed for failing me in my time of need and leading me down a dead-end path. If there was anything I would have expected God to say, anywhere I would have expected Him to send me — that would have been the very last place. When I’d suggested going back to church, it was more an excuse than an intention: I didn’t have the slightest idea when or where I would ever go back to church, or much of a motivation to do so — but I absolutely had no thought of going back there. But suddenly, out of the ether, I had an answer, the last one I would have ever chosen for myself. It hit me not as a passing thought; not as an idea desperate or compromising that I struggled against or had to wrestle with to accept; but as an unambiguous, authoritative command that it never even occurred to me to question. “Yes, Lord; I will obey,” is all I could answer.

It was November 1, All Saints’ Day. I did not celebrate it then, but I was aware of the fact.

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

The last time I’d been made to go to church with my parents, I’d scowled and grumped through the whole service. That Sunday morning, to their surprise, I volunteered. This time, my attitude was entirely different: I was hurting; I was starving. From the moment I entered, I had the feeling of coming home; of comfort and security. As the call was given to come down to the altar, I all but ran. As I knelt there, and one of the pastors, and my parents, laid their hands on me and prayed for me, the tears began to flow. A sense of peace came over my restless heart. The thorns of anger and pain and hate I’d allowed to dig into my heart, the barbs of hurt and bitterness and unforgiveness that had bound me for so long — began to slip away.

Sunrise by Albert Bierstadt

Sunrise, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

It was a night and day difference — the night of my darkness and waywardness and confusion, and the day of His light and warmth and guidance. The shadows lifted, and I began to see the road again, the way out of my ravine. The next days or weeks or months were not easy — there was so much I’d allowed to take over my life that needed to be rooted out, and it was painful going — but I continued to pray and seek God’s face. I continued going to church at Calvary with my parents. But about a week after that first time, I drove out to the country to be alone with my Bible and Every Man’s Battle. There, tearfully, I finally laid down my fight, humbled myself, and surrendered my life wholly to God, for probably the first time ever.


Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630)

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630).

I believe that my accident was a kind of baptism by fire; that my restoration mirrors the new birth in Christ that a Christian experiences at his baptismal regeneration. I believe in some small measure, I tasted Christ’s Resurrection power — that on that day I stood at the threshold of death’s door, and was brought back. I believe that every Christian does: this is Christ’s power over Death and the Grave that every Christian receives at baptism as the old man is buried and the new man is raised up in new life. I believe I was given a tangible sign, a sacramental experience, by which the invisible, spiritual transformation was writ large in visible, physical actions.

I still don’t know why God spared me that day, but I am grateful every day for the opportunity to find out and for the life I’ve been given. I live every day in the faith that God has some purpose and calling for my life, some reason for keeping me here. The road ahead wasn’t always smooth. I made a good many wrong turns, and had a few more minor collisions (spiritually speaking). But I was on the road again.

The Damascus Road

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

My wandering had come to running and rebellion. My soul was crying out — I was lost, and could not find my way — but I was hurt, angry, fighting, and unwilling to humble myself before God, to lay down myself and seek in Him the guidance I needed.

Thank God for a praying mother — God’s messenger in my life, who would not let me go. She harped on (so I called it then) my need to get back in church and to get right with God — and I resisted. I said some cruel and terrible things to my dear mother during this time. But I remember one moment in particular when I retorted, not so much in annoyance as in desperation, “If God wants me to turn my life around, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul.” If only I had the certainty of such a direct encounter, I thought.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:1-8
Accident scene overhead

A satellite view of the accident scene. (Google Maps)

In August 2006, I set out on a misguided errand of mercy, one with good intentions but ultimately selfish, sinful motives. The insane plan was to involve a major road trip and multiple hops by plane, flying out of Cleveland, Ohio — only I never made it to Cleveland. A few miles north of Columbus, while attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a two-lane highway, my car was broadsided on the driver’s side by a dump truck loaded with concrete going some 50 miles per hour.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

The damage area diagram from the accident report. My car (bottom) versus the dump truck.

I have no memory of the accident. I don’t know by what mercy — whether angels, or saints, or gifted safety engineers — my body was spared being crushed with the rest of the driver’s side of my car. I was airlifted from the scene to Ohio State University Medical Center with severe head trauma. Arriving in the emergency room, I was completely unresponsive — I bottomed out with a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep coma or death. “A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It’s dead,” says a recent report.

It was August 15 — the feast of the Assumption.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8:5–9
Accident report: Crash diagram

From the accident report, the accident reconstruction.

I know that there were dozens if not hundreds of dear people praying for me from the moment of the crash — many even whom I did not know, thanks to prayer chains in half a dozen different churches. But most of all my beloved family — my parents and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — were standing with me in prayer. And I have no doubt that my family in heaven, all my dearest saints, were praying for me, too. My parents came to my side as quickly as they could, and didn’t leave until I was home.

Wrecked Honda Civic

The remains of my car.

Somehow, I was still alive, but I remained insensible. The doctors offered no immediate prognosis. Given the elasticity and unpredictability of the brain, the best they could offer was “wait and see.” The only other injuries I suffered, incredibly, were a few broken ribs; a cracked sacrum; a nasty, black-and-blue bruise on my left hip, where the imploding car door had hit me; a sprained left wrist, which I tend by habit to thread through the handle of the steering wheel; and just a few deep cuts on my forearms and the left side of my face where I had been struck by flying window glass. My car, a 1998 Honda Civic (may she rest in pieces), had no side curtain airbag, but the driver’s side frontal airbag did deploy.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Matthew 8:10, 13
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (1578)

Christ Healing the Blind (1578), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

I remained out of my senses for about a week. Then, gradually, I began to return. My memories from this time are very foggy, like a half-remembered dream fading in the light, or like my earliest memories of childhood. Just as my brain was still forming as a child, my brain then was snapping back from a major traumatic injury. The world seemed so unreal; it was another few days before I could admit that this had really happened.

Even after I regained consciousness, my prognosis remained doubtful. It would be a long road to recovery, the doctors said. I would most likely suffer long-term deficits. I was little aware of this at the time. I have little memory of my time in the hospital now at all.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4–6
The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Some week and a half after the accident, I was released from the main hospital, but was still in no shape for travel. I was moved to the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital on the OSU campus. After a week and a half there — with time spent with physical, occupational, and speech therapists — I was released to go home. Against medical advice, I returned to school, to the semester whose start I’d just missed, to hobble through a course I wanted to take, whose professor was about to retire. Within three months, I was back to driving and getting around on my own. The only lingering effects of the accident were a slight and occasional stutter or slurring of words, a minor impairment of my short-term memory, and an inability to process alcohol.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13–16
Brain scan MRI

An MRI scan of the brain (not mine).

Medical professionals are reluctant to label miracles; the most anyone would say was that I made a remarkable recovery. But over the next months, seeing rehab doctors for periodic checkups and reading literature online, it dawned on me just how remarkable it was. Only some 20 percent of patients with initial scores of 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale survive. Of these, less than half have what is termed a “good outcome” (a 4 or 5 on the Glasgow Outcome Scale); the gross majority remain in a persistent vegetative state or have permanent, severe disabilities. Even of those who do well, most face years of painful and difficult recovery, and never regain full function. A recovery as complete as mine, in the brief time in which I made it, is virtually unheard of.

As I was leaving the hospital, I signed up for a long-term medical study of traumatic brain injury outcomes. Every year or two, someone from Dodd calls me to ask how many hours a day I’m able to be out of the house, how much assistance I require getting dressed or using the bathroom or walking, if I’m able to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, etc. I think my answers — that I suffer no functional impairment at all — are entirely anomalous to their expectations and probably skewing their results. And I’m reminded just how blessed I have been.

Saints Damian and Cosmas, icon

Icon of Saints Damian and Cosmas, physicians used by God and martyrs to the Christian faith. (Wikipedia)

The fact that I even survived the impact of the accident; the fact that I sustained such a severe injury to my brain and lived; the fact that I recovered as completely as I have, in such a time as I did — convinces me with certainty that my survival was a divine miracle. I believe that God, more often than through extravagant or ostentatious wonders, works His healing and mercy through the mundane, through natural processes, through the hands of physicians and through medicine (Sirach 38:1–15). I know that my healing was for me, and that my testimony will not convince anyone else; but as a pivotal juncture in my road to Rome — as the turning point of my life — I am compelled to share it.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
Psalm 6:1–5
1998 Ford Louisville dump truck

A 1998 Ford Louisville (L-Series) dump truck, the make and model of my fateful messenger.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt a close affinity with the Apostle Paul. I asked for his lot — and that, I believe, is what I got. I don’t know what I saw in the road that day — whether there was a literal flash of light, or whether a big blue dump truck was the message meant for me — but I was halted in my reckless path. I believe St. Paul was interceding for me even then.

Looking back today, I can only give all the glory to God. I have no doubt that I am here today as a testimony to His overpowering mercy and healing. I did not deserve this, by any merit of my own or due to any faith of my own. I am not even sure that if I’d died that day, I could have been saved. But the Catechism teaches that God heals the body when it is conducive to the healing and salvation of the soul: I was certainly in need of such healing. I can only credit the faith of the many who prayed for me — my parents who would not let me go — and the overabundant mercy of my God.

In the days and months that followed, as I fully grasped what had happened, the question began to eat at me: Why? Why had I survived when so many people die? Why had I been healed, when so many others are not? Why should God be so faithful to me, when I had all but abandoned Him? Who was I to deserve such a gift? My parents insisted that I owed my life to God — but rather than grateful, I was confused, even troubled. I did not have a true grasp of His grace and love and mercy. As I recovered, and yet continued my stubborn refusal to turn my life to God, my mother grew frustrated — and I grew angry. The accident had brought me to my knees, but I had not yet laid down the fight. There was yet one more showdown.