Grappling with Sola Fide, Part 1

St. John Lateran, interior

Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, interior. (Wikimedia).

So as I journeyed to the Catholic Church, sola scriptura didn’t put up much of a fight. I don’t remember ever even considering, at the earliest stages, whether a particular doctrine could be found in Scripture: if it could be found among the teachings of the early Church Fathers, that was good enough for me. I felt that I was rediscovering the lost treasures of the faith, those that my Protestant brethren had cast away.

I had begun reading books and reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For some six months, I attended weekly and daily Mass at St. John’s, falling in love more and more deeply with the Mass and longing to receive my Lord in the Eucharist. I went up every time for the pastor’s blessing. He praised my diligence and dedication in attending, even though I couldn’t receive. Catholic friends elsewhere asked why I put up with it for so long, why I attended like that for over a year, some fifteen months, when I probably could have asked to enter the Church some other time. For me, it felt like an important part of the journey: traveling with the Lord and learning more of His Church’s ways, as I longed to be with Him in more and deeper ways.

It is probably a good thing that I took the long road. Though the going seemed to go easily at first, I did come to rough terrain — Catholic doctrines that I really struggled with — and when they came, they came on fiercely.

Salvation

Conversion experience

As an Evangelical Protestant, naturally, my conception of salvation consisted almost entirely of the conversion experience: Of an emotional coming to Jesus moment, an altar call, a “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to be Lord of my life.

It occurs to me that it’s possible I might have Catholic readers who might not be familiar with the dynamics of all this, so perhaps I should give a brief explanation. This is not going to be any sort of comprehensive summary of how Evangelicals understand salvation, but rather how I myself did. — And so begins, I now say after writing everything below, my next not-so-brief series.

Bernhard Plockhurst, Jesus Blessing the Children

Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907), Jesus Blessing the Children (Wikimedia).

I still remember vividly the images on the transparency: of Jesus knocking on the door of my heart, and of the Holy Spirit, a dove, coming to live in me. This is what I understood, at the age of three, when a team of young evangelists came to our small nondenominational church. I remember the smiling young man very well who asked me if I wanted to ask Jesus to come into my heart, and who prayed with me when I said yes.

I had no appreciation of theology or soteriology or probably even sin then. All I understood was love, and I felt it. I do think this was a genuine experience, a true encounter with God. In the terms I was taught then and understood as an Evangelical, I was then saved.

This is how Evangelicals understand salvation: typically in terms of a conversion experience, of turning from one’s sins and confessing Jesus is Lord, usually in a dramatic or emotional moment. This moment is supposed to be a landmark, the end of one’s old life and the beginning of a new life: the moment of being “born again.” After this moment, the believer in Jesus is saved, from that point forward.

Sin and Repentance

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter (c.1625-1629) (Wikimedia).

Growing up, of course, I did eventually come to a full knowledge of right and wrong and understood doing wrong to be sin. I remember feeling remorse, and the need to ask God for the forgiveness of my sins continually. I don’t think this is something that was ever taught to me, just something I intuited.

As an adolescent, I remember having changing feelings and attitudes. I remember struggling with depression. I remember one day, in the car in front of my cousins’ house, a long conversation with my mom, and she asking me if I thought I was saved. I said I wasn’t sure. I cried and we prayed the prayer again together. It was the second of many times.

I remember, as a teenager struggling with the sins of youth, a constant tension between the idea that Jesus had paid the price for all my sins and they were all covered, and the message of preaching that I needed to get right with God — the implication of this being that when I sinned, I wasn’t right with God. This is, I guess, not very good Evangelical theology — but to this day, I don’t really know how to understand or deal with this situation as an Evangelical: If all our sins are already covered, what are the consequences of continuing to sin? In classical Protestant theology, in which God overlooks all our sins and sees only the righteousness of Christ, is it even possible to “not be right with God”? If not — what incentive is there to repentance or holiness? And if a believer persists in sin, even to the point of falling away, are there still no consequences? I have only ever heard vague and unsatisfying answers to these questions from Evangelicals; especially the unsatisfying answer, especially from those of the Reformed (Calvinist) persuasion, that the believer who falls away was never “saved” to begin with.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

This answer completely undermines and dismisses the reality of a believer’s struggle with sin. Scripture is very clear that even Christian believers do still struggle with sin (Romans 7:15-20, 1 John 1:8-10) — and Protestant theology acknowleges this, as in Luther’s famous dictum of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”). And it is true that God gives the believer grace to resist temptation and overcome sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 5:14). But to conclude that a believer who struggles for years with sin and grace, repentance and reconcilation, only to at last lose hope, give up the fight, and fall into defeat was never “saved” to begin with, is presumptuous, arrogant, and uncompassionate — the very image of the church who shoots its own wounded — the subjection of the reality of human suffering to a theological ideal.

Struggling

Repentance, altar call

So yes, I struggled with sin as a youth. I suffered, with depression, anxiety, and obsessive and compulsive behavior. In the Arminian theology of my church (which I did not understand then, but only years later), it was possible to “backslide,” to fall away from the Christian life, which we certainly understood to endanger the soul. So I found myself, almost weekly, answering altar calls, declaring myself a wretched sinner in need of grace, asking Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart anew every time. And I did find comfort in this, for the moment. But days, even hours later, I would again be on my knees.

agonizing

Baptists and their ilk stress the assurance of salvation, the idea that a believer can be sure he is saved, despite any struggle or vicissitude; my church never taught this. This notion seems to be based in Reformed (Calvinist) principles, even for those Evangelicals not generally of that persuasion. Would such a teaching have helped me, given me some consistent comfort? It’s possible. But I think it far more likely that I would have concluded — in keeping with the common Reformed conclusion about those who fall away — that I wasn’t saved at all. I would have given up the fight completely. As it stood, I eventually fell into complacency, essentially giving up in the opposite direction: accepting the premise that Jesus had covered all my sins and drawing from this that He understood my struggle, He understood that I was just a sinner, and that even though I was making no efforts toward holiness, I was saved anyway.

This was the wilderness period of my life, and it persisted into my early twenties. I had become a thoroughly defeated Christian, and though I never formally renounced my faith, I had all but fallen away: not attending church, nor praying, not striving.

When I started this article, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about grappling with sola fide. I thought I would give just a few words about the Evangelical view toward salvation. But now that this post has turned in this unexpected direction, I think it’s safe to say that like sola scriptura, I had been grappling with sola fide for a long time before I ever approached the Catholic Church.

I went to Mass and didn’t like it: Faltering steps in my journey to the Church

The other day was the three-year anniversary of my entering the Church. And as I’ve been helping dear ones through their own conversions this year, it occurs to me that once again, I’ve left my own conversion story hanging. Here is another chapter.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

The first week I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school, I visited the Catholic Church. I guess I was thinking of Audrey and the other people I had met when I visited, and hoping to make some kind of social connection. I was desperately afraid that unless I quickly formed some kind of support system in this new town and university, I would not be able to cut it in grad school.

My thinking on the purpose of the church at that time was that it existed solely as a community for the support of the fellowship of believers. So that is exactly what I was looking for the first time I attended Mass at St. John’s in Oxford: for social connection; for fellowship with people like me who could support me and encourage me. And I couldn’t have been more disappointed and discouraged.

Packed pews

I went to the eleven o’clock Mass on what I later learned was one of the busiest Sundays of the year, the Sunday of move-in week, when the families of all the undergraduates were in town to get their children settled and off to a good start. The place was packed, standing room only, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. From the beginning, this worked against my social anxiety and my comfort level. I was further dismayed that no one greeted me, in the way I had come to expect as a Protestant. No one seemed to notice I was there. I narrowly squeezed into a seat in one of the back pews.

Several key things stand out in my memory from that visit. First, I thought the priest was goofy. He seemed not entirely put-together, dignified, or solemn as I expected a Catholic priest to be. Second, he was reading the liturgy! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was deeply bothered by this: Much as many Protestants feel that composed prayers, as opposed to extemporaneous ones, are somehow less real and less genuine, I felt that this priest did not really, sincerely mean or even understand these words he was reading out of a book about God, Jesus, and salvation. Did he even have faith at all, or was this just the “dead religion” I had been fearing for so many years? How does reading prayers out of a book make them applicable to me? How does reading prayers out of a book serve me? It contradicted my whole understanding of what a church service was supposed to be.

Hands raised in worship

Emotion is what I grew up with.

Perhaps most important, I didn’t feel anything. I did not feel the presence of God. I did not hold this up as a standard — this focus on my own feelings had defined my existence as an Evangelical, whether and how I felt the presence of God, and I understood this had been a problem for me and one of the main reasons for my searching — but nonetheless it troubled me a lot. It wasn’t that I was closed-minded to any part of the experience; indeed, I had felt God’s presence profoundly when I had been in Catholic churches before. But I wondered that day if God was really there in the Catholic Church at all.

At Communion, I went forward to receive a blessing at the invitation of the priest. I was in the line of a lay extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a female, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there awkwardly crossing my arms. She seemed impatient and frustrated (I’ve since learned that laypeople really ought not to be giving blessings at all), and I felt unwelcome. I took a visitor card and filled it out, but had a difficult time finding anyone to give it to. I ended up giving it to the same extraordinary minister, who again acted (I imagined) as if she had no idea what I was doing there if I wasn’t Catholic.

I did not see Audrey or anyone else I knew. Not only did no one greet me, but no one really spoke to me at all. I left feeling singularly foreign and unwelcome, disappointed and unfulfilled, and more than a little disheartened and disturbed. What I came looking for — a social community — was nowhere to be found. I had been in denial for a while about my attraction to the Catholic Church, maintaining a ready collection of objections to Catholic doctrine. Now those objections were bolstered, and I added one more. This was a major setback: I would not consider the Catholic Church again until some six months later.

Expression vs. Impression in Liturgy and Worship

Mass

This is my 100th post here, apparently. Time flies, and the counter runs up quickly, when I post every day like I have been this month!

Brad posted this video, and I’ve seen it floating around the Twittersphere — and it’s excellent: a short but very powerful piece on liturgical reform by the Catholic News Service (CNS), the official news agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It underscores and makes vivid everything I’ve been writing recently: the Mass of Paul VI (the new form of the Mass since Vatican II) is meant to be every bit as reverent as the Tridentine Mass (the pre-Vatican II Latin form), and every bit as centered on God; that it is the people, and their insistence on expression of self in worship, that have led churches into bad liturgical practices. This is worth six minutes for any one of my readers, even you Protestants, to get a brief taste of the reverence of the Mass.

The highlight — the “money quote,” as Brad called it, and I agree — on the loss of reverence in the Mass (at 1:00):

The missal of Paul VI does not presume any less reverence at all than the Tridentine missal. We Americans . . . have come naturally to think that in the liturgy we want to express ourselves, and if it doesn’t feel like us then we don’t want to say it. But the whole tradition of liturgy is not primarily expressive of where people are and what they want to say to God. Instead it is impressive; it forms us and it is always bigger than any given community that celebrates.

And this is precisely one of the many aspects of Catholic liturgy that I love over evangelical worship. As much as the Mass shapes us as a Church and as a people, it also defines our entire mode of approaching God in worship. I have written before about emotion in worship: how dependent on emotion evangelical worship and the evangelical experience of God always seemed to be. Evangelical worship is even more about expression — the expression of outward joy, outward worship, the expression of ourselves — and it’s probably this tendency that’s led some to demand the same from Catholicism. In evangelical churches, I was so often made to feel, when I was feeling down, that my worship wasn’t reaching God, that it was invalid, if I wasn’t singing, dancing, shouting, expressing. In the Catholic Church, it doesn’t have to be expressive of myself to be “real.” It is more impressive — I decrease, I recede, so that God can increase in me. I raise my worship to God through my participation in the liturgy, through being a part of the Body of Christ and its Sacraments — through laying down myself before God, and taking up my Cross.

Emotion and the Leap of Faith

I wondered if receiving the Real Presence would feel any different than any other time I’d taken Communion in my life.

Eucharistic adoration

I wondered if the Sacrament of Confirmation would evince any inward or outward change in me — if I would feel that, too.

Through the years of confusion I experienced as a Pentecostal, I learned to be very distrustful of my emotions. If I feel a sensation, I wondered, can I rightly ascribe it to God? By what justification? How do I know it’s God, and not my own self-stimulation? Because I know well how easy it is to drive myself to feel, even to believe, things that I dearly want to feel and believe. How do I know if it’s real?

It all, of course, comes down to faith. What can be observed empirically and proven objectively about God never quite reaches all the way across the chasm of unbelief. There has to be a leap of faith* — and I’m pretty sure this is by design. No matter how much God reveals about Himself, He always leaves that ever-so-slight gap, foiling any attempt at absolute proof. Because of what value would faith be if everything about God could be explained and proven — if the existence of God and the truth of Christ were as certain as the physics of the sun and the moon? How could believers be a people set apart if every scientist and every joe on the street had to believe, however grudgingly, or if God were as obvious and as commonplace as Barack Obama? How could we trust God with faith like a child if we could pin Him to a specimen board and probe Him with all our powers of scientific observation?

(* I am told Kierkegaard wrote about this “leap of faith” and in fact coined the phrase, but I’m not much of a philosopher and haven’t read Kierkegaard — though I’d like to.)

And this is where, I think, there’s room for experience and emotion — especially for people like me who experience strong emotions. I cannot found my faith on emotion — this for years has been my greatest fear: to build my faith on the shifting sand of emotion, and to have it all collapse out from under me yet again. But if emotion, deep feeling, sensibility to the stirrings of the heart, is a gift that I’ve been given — can it not be another set of eyes, one more lens to edge me yet a little closer across that chasm?

I also have a rational brain and acute intellectual tools — but these are faculties I’ve had to build and cultivate and train; my natural inclination is to follow my heart. I have had to discipline my heart and my mind; temper my strong emotions with the moderation of reason. I hear so many reactionary Christians lash out against academia and education in fear and anger — but this is what the academy has done for me: not destroyed my faith, but given me the implements to build a sturdier and more secure foundation for God to base my faith on. My faith is stronger and more unshakable, by worlds, than at any moment of the fervency of my youth; and paradoxically, by equal measure, it’s also more passionate and deeply felt. When I believe with my reason that the object of my faith is real, then I am free to feel with my heart all the love and joy and peace with which I have been blessed. When my faith is founded upon what I know and can observe and can reason, then emotion becomes the beautiful and glorious ornament built on top that reaches even higher: all of my most soaring effluences of feeling become exultant spires raising to the heavens.

So did it feel different? Yes, it did! I went back to my pew, ruminating on what had just happened: I had just consumed, taken into my body, the true, real, physical Body and Blood of my Redeemer. I had joined my flesh to His flesh and my spirit to His Spirit; I had communed in His very elements; I had been touched by God. And it felt like the most intimate thing I had ever experienced. The most beautiful, most precious feeling I had ever felt: a feeling of total love and absolute acceptance.

Holy Spirit as Dove

And my Confirmation: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” Father Joe spoke. The Sign of the Cross on my forehead: the oil of chrism marking me as Christ’s for all eternity. It was the sweetest smell I had ever smelled in my life; I didn’t want to wash my face that night, but even after I did, I could still smell it. I could still feel the mark there; I still can. It felt like the most precious kiss of heaven: a sign, both temporal and eternal, of love and belonging and protection; a brand identifying me as Christ’s and binding me to His Church, a member of His flock for all time. Now, I believe I have known the Holy Spirit for quite some time: but this most certainly marked a fresh and special outpouring; a total immersion in His grace. And I feel like a completely different person.

The Passion of the Lord

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632)

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632).

The liturgy of the past two days has been intense, emotional, overwhelming — more moving than any Christian service I’ve ever been a part of. I have been in some truly ecstatic, sensational services in my day — experiences routinely described by the people around me as “powerful” and “awesome” — but even then, it always felt somehow empty to me. When the ecstasy passed, the power faded and there was no change. All along this path, I’ve been saying that one of my main reasons for being drawn in this direction is a desire to get away from that empty emotionalism of my youth, to base my faith on something more than that. So it’s ironic that even not looking for it or expecting it, I’ve discovered a deeper and fuller and truer wellspring of emotion and faith and devotion than I ever could have imagined.

Because Christ is really there. In His Body and Blood, He is there. One can speak of a “move of the Holy Spirit” all one wants, and raise one’s arms and dance in the aisles and weep for joy — and I do not disparage those experiences or doubt that those people are genuinely moved — but when Christ is really there in the elements; when our entire liturgy is based on the Word of God; when what we do and what we celebrate is more than a symbol, but spirit and life — then the move of the Holy Spirit becomes tangible, visible, sensible. We partake of Christ and share in His divinity; we join in Holy Communion with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit and all the saints. There is substance in that, more than ethereality and ephemerality.

And I haven’t even come to the table yet. I know that tomorrow will be even fuller.

I want to share the experiences of the past two days, but I know that I can capture only fleeting glimpses. I fear overscrutiny and oversharing will demean them. This is my moment with Christ; not the end of my journey but the beginning. Last night, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: praying and worshipping, I had the overpowering sense, more than ever before, that Jesus was really there at the table breaking Bread. The humility and service of seeing Father Joe, who in so many ways has become Christ to me, kneel down and wash the feet of the men of the church. The cantors’ stirring and unexpected (for I am new to this) rendition of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus — which has long been a favorite piece of mine, but I had never before realized its true import and meaning in its proper context — it hit me like a flood. The crushing moment of Christ’s betrayal, hitting me in the gut, as the Host processed around the Stations of the Cross to rest in repose, knowing all the times that I have betrayed Him, too. The altar stripped bare; the Tabernacle flung rudely open and empty. Tarrying an hour with Him, realizing more fully than ever the weight of what He did for me.

Tonight, the Passion of the Lord: the austerity and emptiness of the altar; the sight of the ministers lying prostrate. The Adoration of the Cross: kneeling to kiss that instrument of torture and execution, knowing that Christ’s death and sacrifice is my life; adoring that terrible and blessed device, like swallowing a bitter pill or drinking the cup of pain, as Christ did for me. Seeing the Cross lifted even to the lips of young children, who even in their youth owe everything to Christ and to the Cross, and who too have crosses to bear. The distribution of Communion: knowing that when it was gone, there would be no more, as Christ gave His very broken Body and poured out His very last drop of Blood for us.

Tonight, He lies in the tomb for us. Sunday, his glorious Resurrection — and our rebirth into His new life. And I will come to the Lord’s Table, and to His Holy Church.

Nearing the Altar

Tomorrow begins the Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter: Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And then, the Easter Vigil — at which I will be initiated into the Church through Confirmation and receive my first Holy Communion.

It seems surreal that this moment has come. All of the long years that have brought me to this point have been a blessed romance, in which God has slowly shown me more and more pieces of the puzzle. These months that I have actively been seeking have been a long engagement, as the picture finally began to come into focus. And now, I am nearing the altar. This week has felt so much like the long-awaited arrival of a wedding — my wedding, at which I’ll be introduced into the most holy mysteries of Christ; at which I’ll partake most intimately in the Body and Blood of my Lord, my Creator, my Savior.

And yes, like any blushing bride, I have cold feet. I’ve had nagging thoughts over the last few days that I’m not ready, that I’m not feeling it, that I need to back out, put this off another year. All of the things that I’ve had a difficult time grasping — Mary, the saints, Purgatory — I realize that I still haven’t fully embraced; I still haven’t warmed up to them.

My feelings haven’t warmed up. But this journey has been about more than feeling; it’s been about conviction, intellectual and spiritual. A faith based on and bound by emotion is what I’m leaving. And I am here. I have arrived. The Communion I have been longing for so long is a few breaths away.

My Lord Jesus, guide me into Your Church; make me ready to receive You. Holy Mother, pray for me; embrace me; guide me.

Motion and Emotion

My posts here, after starting so strong and frequent last semester, have slowed to a trickle now, it seems. I regret that. The troubles and stresses and demands of school have dogpiled on. And, more significantly, I am grappling with serious depression.

Growing up, I always heard that “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” — with the understanding that Jesus is the same, living, victorious Savior, no matter what we’re going through; that we should remain hopeful and thankful and trusting. But in the emotion-centric Christianity I grew up in, this usually amounted to, “Be happy anyway! What, you’re not happy? You don’t have the Joy of the Lord?” If I wasn’t visibly happy, rejoicing, dancing — if I didn’t feel the joy, the excitement, the high emotion — then there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t getting through to God.

It’s true that St. Paul writes, in one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4 ESV). But I don’t think Paul is writing about emotion here. The rest of the passage is key: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He’s not talking about joy and peace and anxiety as emotions: he’s talking about an attitude of hope and trust in God toward suffering. Even when desperation is facing, we know that our Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Or, as we Catholics would say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church, especially in these times, is something that as a Protestant I never thought I’d say: I love that I can go through the motions. I love that even in the days and weeks when I’m not feeling it, there are motions laid out through which I can approach God anyway, without the engagement of my emotions — prayers and actions laid out by holy men through the ages that are a time-proven formula for worship. Participating in the liturgy is itself an act of worship — even if I’m feeling like crap, my being there and taking part honor God and bring me into his presence, through doing and not feeling. And the liturgy, through leading and guiding me through those actions, keeps me on a proper track through the wilderness; it gives me a framework for raising myself to God, for pulling myself up off the bottom. It makes it easy to worship God, to do the things I’m supposed to do; the things that ultimately bring me back to peace.

In an evangelical church, my worship felt empty if it wasn’t heartfelt; in the Catholic Church, my worship is efficacious because I’m there doing it. I always used to deride “just going through the motions” as “empty religion” — and certainly, if there’s no true conviction behind them, if they become habitual and routine and insincere, that is a problem — but it’s just as equally empty if there’s all emotion and no conviction. And sometimes “going through the motions” is all I can do; and in those times, at last, I am assured that it is enough; that God meets me where I am.

Catholicism is a faith of motion, not emotion; of doing, not feeling. Certainly often I feel, and feel deeply; but even when I don’t, I know that my worship is moving me toward God.

The Wilderness

Toward the end of high school, I entered a dark period of my life. The wounds from this time have now mostly healed, but their scars are still a tender, vulnerable part of my soul. Let us not linger here very long.

I had built my faith upon emotion — upon the conception of a Christ who moved in ecstasy, whose presence was marked by thrills and good feelings, by a “high” I saw all around me in my friends at church. The high was an idol, a false savior I pursued with everything I was. Wrapped up in it were all my feelings of self-worth, my feelings of acceptance by my peers. Pastor Pat, our youth pastor, kept us pumped up to the heights of that high; he had us at the church every day of the week for youth group or prayer or youth choir or drama team; he sent us on a mission to “take our school for Jesus.” Meanwhile, I was struggling with the sins of youth. Every week after I left church that high would fade, to be replaced by emptiness and guilt: and I thought that Jesus was forsaking me, that I must be the most wretched of sinners, worthless in my savior’s sight. Every week I would go down to the altar to “get saved” again; I would sing and dance that I had been forgiven and redeemed; I would return to the high again, only to fall again.

I often wonder if this cycle, being buffeted constantly by the most exultant highs and the most infernal lows, wasn’t itself at the root of the onset of the mental illness that impacted me during this same season. In any case, the two went hand in hand. By the end of high school, I was barely functional. Nonetheless, because I had been offered full scholarships, I felt it was imperative that I pursue a college education immediately. But I was in no condition, psychologically or emotionally, to be on my own. My cataclysm was all but foreordained.

My first university

A photograph I took at my first university.

The one or two bright spots I recall from my time at my first college were harbingers of my future path. My major, in theory, was biology/pre-med, but I don’t think I ever actually studied any biology. On this lovely, old, southern campus, I was immediately taken with a deep fascination with my school’s history. I spent most of my time copying buildings’ dedication plaques, and researching the people for whom the buildings were named, and the subjects of the portraits who watched over me. I explored local cemeteries, learned the names and biographies of all the past university presidents — meanwhile, I entirely neglected the courses for which I was supposed to be studying. The root of all this was a paralyzing, pathological anxiety and avoidance; I was unable to face my work; but even through it all, it never occurred to me that I would rather be studying history.

The Good Shepherd (Pastor Bonus), Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome

The Good Shepherd (Pastor Bonus), an early symbolic representation of Christ, from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome, mid-third century.

I also remember, in this, the golden age of the History Channel, seeing a show one night that captured my imagination and has never let go: In Search of History: “The Catacombs of Rome.” (In Search of History now seems to have been absorbed into History’s Mysteries; I haven’t watched the History Channel in years.) The fascination with the Apostles and Early Church that had briefly taken hold a few years earlier was now reignited, and joined to my obsession with cemeteries. Here was a tangible, visible record of the earliest Christians in Rome. Here were the oldest, the original, Christian cemeteries. The antiquity of the art and belief compelled me; that eerie feeling of death and eternity and continuity; the realization that this was where my faith began. Little did I know then that my path would someday take me to that place.

In time, not very much time, my fall did come. I returned home in disgrace. The feeling that this had been my destiny, that my twelve years of schooling had brought me to this point, and that I had failed, hit me with a finality and fatality. I sank into a deep despair. I naïvely expected my friends, my pastor, my church family, to care for me and support me; but they were all a bunch of kids, caught up in their own world; they took no notice. In the midst of all this, Pastor Pat had unceremoniously left Calvary. I was not the only one whose faith, for so long confused with emotion and hype, abruptly collapsed when the man was no longer there to keep it pumping. I felt abandoned by my friends, my church, my God.

Dark ForestI had entered the wilderness. Though the darkest part of it lasted only a couple of years, for some eight years, I didn’t pray, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t go to church, with any regularity. I was angry, hurt, and bitter from my experience at Calvary. Though I still called myself a Christian, I had turned my back on God, and convinced myself that God had forsaken me. I was the man insisting that he was blind, all the while unwilling to open his eyes. Not looking where I was going, I fell into a ravine of sin, and rather than striving to get out, I only wandered deeper and deeper into its recesses, and got myself more and more lost. In time, I made myself comfortable, and deceived myself into thinking that this was the lot God had set aside for me; that he was okay with where I was; that even my sin was not really sin, but a necessary salve to my wounded soul — that I was only human and weak, and Jesus understood and forgave me.