The Church, Lost and Found: My First Concise, Complete Conversion Narrative

Introduction

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where I entered the Church.

Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church, after more than thirty years as an Evangelical Protestant. I do not think of my story in terms of “leaving Protestantism.” I never thought that I was leaving or abandoning the faith I grew up with; in my mind, I was a coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the truth. I would not say that there was anything fundamentally deficient in my faith as a Protestant that would cause me to abandon it; instead it was incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. If my journey must be put it in the terms of leaving Protestantism, it is true that I did have to let go of some particular doctrinal formulations; but nothing I believe now is a contradiction or renunciation of anything I believed before. I feel that I now see the fuller picture, and have a fuller, more fulfilling relationship with God.

Growing Up

The story of my journey truthfully begins years and years ago, in my earliest childhood and earliest experiences as a Christian. I can see a thousand signposts all along the way that ultimately led me here, small realizations and inclinations and longings that didn’t find fulfillment until years later.

Pentecostes, El Greco_1597

El Greco, Pentecostés (1597).

I grew up mostly in a Pentecostal, Charismatic sort of Christianity; for most of my growing-up years I was a member of a vibrant Assemblies of God church in Decatur, Alabama. I had spent my earliest childhood in a small nondenominational church, then several years in the United Methodist church, visiting various Baptist churches along the way. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when I was three years old, was baptized when I was twelve, and had a committed and sincere but pretty superficial faith for most of my childhood. I never had much formal Bible study or instruction in doctrine. The few times I encountered any form of deep study, I lapped it up voraciously.

In high school I had a very dynamic youth pastor, who inspired me to be “on fire” for God and to strive to win my school for Christ. It was a very fervent and emotional faith. Being emotionally volatile like many teenagers, however, this also made it a volatile faith, and not a very firm foundation for a relationship with God. By the end of high school, I ended up feeling very hurt and abandoned by my church, and I fell away from church involvement, though I always prayed and claimed to be a Christian. I entered a long period of spiritual wandering.

The Church That Was Lost

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

In college I was drawn eventually to the study of history. My first important mentor in history, Dr. G, was an old-school medievalist and classicist with a burning love for the great men of history. He taught me Latin, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of learning and sources; and he taught me the history of Christianity. Some of the most important classes he taught me were the History of the Christian Church, from the beginning up through the Reformation, and Medieval Latin, in which we read firsthand, in their original languages, the writings of Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bede, and a dozen or so other Church Fathers and medieval Christian thinkers. Dr. G was the son of a long line of renowned Lutheran ministers. When he taught Church history, his lectures came alive with love and admiration for the Church Fathers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Gregory, Bernard, and many more—and with equal love and admiration for the Protestant Reformers. He presented this dichotomy without conflict or cognitive dissonance. It laid the foundation for the intellectual development of my faith.

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.

Through all of that study I came to a great love of the Church Fathers, too. Reading them, I found a purer, realer faith than anything I had ever known in church, something immediate and profound that seemed unclouded by the doubt and uncertainty I had always felt growing up. I never associated the Church Fathers with the modern Catholic Church. In my mind, the modern Catholic Church was something of “dead religion,” caught up in empty ritual and cold theology and devoid of any sense of a real relationship with Christ. When I read the Church Fathers, I had the sense that their Church and their faith was lost and irrecoverable, and I lamented its loss.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, Rome.

At the culmination of that study, I went with Dr. G and a group from school to Rome, the Eternal City. Over a two-week course, we traversed the 3,000-year history of Rome, having lectures in the morning and then going out in the afternoon to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s era of history. I was especially—and unexpectedly—moved by the churches. Standing at the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, I was overcome with emotion, as all Paul’s words in Scripture that had meant so much to me flooded back, and I knelt tearfully at the altar, thanking God for His servant. That trip became a pilgrimage for me. It was the first time in years I had really felt drawn powerfully to God and to prayer. I admired the beauty and art and history of the Catholic churches I visited, but it didn’t make me seriously consider being Catholic—this was still seven years before I would.

Striving

"Lord, Give Me Eyes to See." (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

“Lord, Give Me Eyes to See.” (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

But my pilgrimage did awaken in me a desire to get back in church and have a renewed relationship with God. I felt very wary of my childhood faith and church—of placing so much emphasis on emotion and experience—so I read and studied and tried to come to an intellectual understanding of various systems of doctrine and reason out for myself what I believed and what church I belonged in. It was a daunting task, not having any firm foundation in theology, and I became frustrated. I eventually resigned myself to the conclusion that each of the various camps had strong arguments for their positions, that Scripture wasn’t clear enough for me to discern, and that I would study and admire the different schools equally and hope God could sort it out. During this time, I visited a lot of different churches, especially Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

My car (may she rest in pieces) versus the dump truck.

After a year of this endeavor of striving in myself to find where I belonged in God, I again grew frustrated. I felt hurt, and rather than running toward God, I again found myself running away. I had once commented, after my years of wandering, that if God really wanted to get my attention, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul. I wished for his lot: I should have been careful what I wished for. While I was on a road trip, just north of Columbus, Ohio, my car was struck on the driver’s side door by a concrete-laden dump truck. I was medflighted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where I was found completely unresponsive, with tests indicating a deep coma or brain death.

It very well might have been the end of the road for me. I was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, the likes of which most patients do not survive, or if they do, most face serious disabilities for the rest of their lives. The doctors offered no prognosis. But my family, my friends, even many people I did not know, surrounded me with their prayers. Against the odds, I recovered. Not only did I recover, but I recovered completely, without lingering deficits, and I recovered remarkably quickly. A mere three weeks after the accident, with broken bones, I returned home to hobble through the semester of school I’d very nearly missed for good.

This near-death experience, though it took some time and some humiliation to realize it, reaffirmed my faith that God had His hand on my life and a plan for me. Swallowing my pride, I returned to church, to the church of my parents I had left so many years before. There God began a period of spiritual recovery, of rebuilding walls that I had torn down. My home church was a safe harbor and sanctuary, for a time. But I felt that it was only a waypoint, that God still was leading me onward to a fuller knowledge of the faith. I continued to visit churches and read about theology. I felt especially drawn to the intellectually rigorous Reformed theological tradition (Calvinism), and even bought myself a handsome leather-bound ESV Study Bible for my thirtieth birthday.

Veritas

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in history, I went to work teaching at Veritas Classical School, a homeschool co-op. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with Calvinism in a way I hadn’t ever been before. Most of the teachers in that school system were strongly Reformed, and in my teacher training I was encouraged to teach history from that doctrinal commitment. I was fascinated by the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition; I enjoyed attending Presbyterian churches and loved the Reformed friends I made; but faced with apprehending and accepting some of the specific tenets of Calvinism—especially belief in an absolute sovereignty of God such that God ordains all things, even evil, and an unconditional election such that some people were created to be damned and had no hope whatsoever for redemption, by God’s sovereign decree—I blanched. Over the long weekend of that training, I was plunged into a deep despair; I resolved that either God was a monster and I had no wish to serve him or that the Calvinist understanding of God must be mistaken. I backed away from that and never seriously considered Calvinism again.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

But while I was at Veritas, I was tasked with teaching medieval history, Christian Latin, and Koine Greek. They were the very things that had brought me so much love for the Early Church and the Church Fathers and the Medieval Catholic Church in the first place, and I filled my lectures with all the sentiment and longing I had ever felt for those things. I affectionately introduced my students to great popes, bishops, abbots, monks; to Church Fathers and theologians and councils; to the rich etymologies of the terms of early and medieval Christianity, and their scriptural foundations; and in teaching all this, I had to study it even more deeply than I had before, and I realized more fully than ever what a firm foundation it all was. At the beginning of the year, I had my students all read the Nicene Creed and affirm the common faith of us all—since among my students were Protestants of all stripes and even a few Catholics.

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

The semester culminated in the Protestant Reformation, which in my view going into teaching it, was a flowering of Christian thought and a reaffirmation of Christian principles. I tried to bring the same glowing passion to the Reformation’s characters as Dr. G had; but in the process of preparing my lessons, I was stunned to discover that the reality of the Reformation was anything but the majesty I had imagined. In addition to the heroic Luther and Calvin, I found numerous other scattered and disparate movements and sects; wide, fundamental disagreement even from the start; and the beginnings of the general factiousness that had been my experience of Christianity all my life. I realized for the first time the stark contrast of this with the glorious Church I had been proclaiming the rest of the year. Dr. G could apparently pull off the duality of presenting both without cognitive dissonance; I could not.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, master of Renaissance polyphony.

While I was immersed in the medieval Church over the course of that year, I discovered Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony, which struck me as something heavenly and transcendent that guided me to a deeper life of prayer and Bible study. I read through the Rule of St. Benedict and the Order of the Mass. I began observing the calendar of saints as a way of remembering great Christians of the past. I even downloaded a Catholic app on my phone and began following the Catholic lectionary as a handy method for organizing my Scripture readings—since, I reasoned, somebody else had already done the work of distributing the Bible throughout the calendar. Through all of this, I denied vehemently that I was becoming Catholic or even interested in becoming Catholic. When the question was raised, and it was, I rattled off rehearsed reasons why the Catholic Church was fallen and apostate, et cetera; why I disagreed with Catholic doctrine; why I wouldn’t have any of it.

The Church That Was Found

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. (Source)

When I went to graduate school the next year, I had no intention at all of becoming Catholic. I made a list of churches to visit in my new town, and the Catholic Church wasn’t one of them. And yet completely by accident I had made a Catholic friend when I visited the campus. When she invited me to Mass, I decided to go. To my amazement, rather than the dryness and empty ritual I had expected, I found a rich, moving spiritual experience that brought me the sense that I was kneeling in communion with Christians of all ages past—and with the Lord. The next week, hungry for more, I went back.

Young Catholic adults

Young Catholic adults, incidentally at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (Source)

After all my years running away from experience as a criterion of faith, it was ultimately my experience of Catholicism that brought me over the threshold. Those weeks of witnessing the Mass, as I exulted in the presence of the Lord, something was happening intellectually that I hardly even realized at the time. All of those reasons I had been reciting against Catholicism were collapsing, as I saw that everything I had ever believed about Catholics was wrong: Catholics do have a very close, a very committed, a very real relationship with Christ; the theology I had dismissed as cold was living and vibrant; the ritual and liturgy was not empty, but every bit of it meaningful and worshipful.

The Mass

It didn’t take me long to realize that the faith and the Church I had always admired so much in the Church Fathers was still there and still alive in the Catholic Church; that the Church still embraced, upheld, stood upon, and celebrated that heritage and foundation. The truths of the faith held by the Fathers, the ancient doctrines they affirmed, were still there and still held true. And I found that so much of what I had always been longing for and searching for was there, even the longings I had never known how to articulate. After a few months of attending Mass weekly, I began attending daily. I admitted at last that I was onto something, and decided to begin the RCIA class when it resumed in the fall.

This is not the end of the story. I had been brought into the antechamber of the Church, but there was still a process of catechesis and formation, dialogue and the occasional dispute, and studying and working through Catholic doctrine, coming to terms with what it meant in light of my experience so far. But it is the end of the beginning, the turning point of my faith journey. Now, four years after entering the Church, I feel a fuller, firmer, and more committed faith, and a deeper understanding, than I ever had before. I don’t look back on my days growing up Protestant with any disdain at all, but with a lot of love and appreciation for the firm foundation it laid, and the road it paved that led me the fullness I have found.

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.

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.

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.