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.

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.

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.

Off the map

(It’s been months since I last posted an entry in my personal story. That’s because this next chapter is one of the most painful, and most personal. I was nearly inclined to skip over it — but it’s an important prelude to the events that followed. I’ve written three or four entries and discarded each as insufficient. Yesterday I wrote another one, what I thought was the final one — but it still felt too distant, too detached. So last night I read about a year of my journal entries from that period, and remembered the agony. I think now I’m ready.)

“Desert Road” (2008) by Matt Hintsa. (Flickr, CC-licensed)

My experiences in Rome had woken me from my spiritual apathy, and reminded me that there was a God who loved me. I knew in my mind that I needed Him. I set about, in my own striving, to seek Him. But I was still too caught up in myself — my life, my needs, my pain, my wounds — to truly embrace Christ’s.

I believed I was seeking God, but I was looking for fulfillment, for salvation, in the wrong places: in friends, in girls, in acceptance, in personal satisfaction. I bounced from one infatuation to the next with beautiful, godly women who weren’t the least bit interested in me. Time and time again I dashed my own heart against the rocks of heartbreak. All the while I was striving so desperately for love, when I didn’t even know what love was; I only knew selfishness. All the while I was seeking completion, the missing piece to my heart, when that could only be found in God.

Near New Market

“Near New Market,” by author. Taken on one of these wanderings.

It was a time of increasing restlessness. Some deep discontent was always boiling just beneath my skin. Most of the time I couldn’t put a finger on why — was I worried about money? about school? about my singleness? about the future? So often I would just get in the car and drive, not knowing where I was going — I just needed to get away.

This was the Baptist leg of my wandering road, almost by accident. I knew I needed to get back in church, but I couldn’t make up my mind where to start, or move myself to visit someplace where I didn’t know anybody. And then, thinking it might be a chance to get closer to some or another girl, I found myself in the Baptist church.

The Southern Baptist faith is the most deeply and essentially southern flavor of Christianity there is. It is the archetypical church in the southern mind, the kind of religion most people think of if you don’t specify otherwise. And so it was comfortable and safe. I liked the pastor and his preaching, and I liked the worship. But over the months I was in that church, I increasingly felt alone and out of place. Being about twenty-six years old, I was a part of the “adult singles” ministry; but I was the youngest person there by easily ten years. Every other “adult single” was older, divorced or widowed, with kids and a career. I, too old for the “college” ministry but still in school, never married, without a job or family of my own — had none of the concerns of these other people. In fact, there were few people in that church my age at all. It dawned on me more and more that they had no real place for me there. I felt disheartened and trapped.

Meanwhile, I had a blog in which I had come to invest an unhealthy degree of my self-worth. I posted every day, hoping someone would read me and validate me.* It was the golden age of LiveJournal, and I was one of those people. I had discovered a circle of blogfriends who were young (younger than me), educated, intellectual Christians who’d grown up with an evangelical persuasion but were searching for something deeper. The looming question for each of them was whether to convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy — and I believe every one of these people eventually did become one or the other. I admired them all a great deal — I longed for an intellectual faith like theirs more than anything — but having no foundation in theology or doctrine, I couldn’t follow their arguments or post anything intelligent in response. I felt like the lonely little kid chasing after the gang, eagerly wanting to play with the big kids, but left behind and left out every time. Oh, how I tried so hard to impress them — to be noticed; to be accepted — but just as I had always felt in my youth group growing up — for entirely the opposite reason — I felt an outsider.

* Now you see why I’ve been so concerned with blogging humbly.

There was one blogfriend in particular whom I considered an especially close friend — and then one day, she was gone. She dropped me from her friends list (ah, LJ drama!) and stopped answering my messages. In retrospect, I was entirely too dependent on my blogfriends for my self-esteem and emotional support, and letting go was the best thing for me in the long run; but at the time, I was fairly devastated. I searched and searched for reasons for this rejection, and the unfortunate conclusion I drew was that intellectual Christians, especially those inclined toward Catholicism and Orthodoxy, were arrogant, condescending snobs with whom I wanted nothing more to do.† I allowed the trauma to turn me away from Catholicism, from several favorite TV shows and books this friend and I had shared, even from C. S. Lewis, whom I associated with thinking Christians and this friend in particular. I didn’t take up any of those things again for a good four or five years. And so I came to associate Catholicism, even more than I had before, with coldness, rigor, and emptiness.

† In fact, as I later learned, the reason was that she had realized how unhealthy this sort of thing was for both of us.

Already unhappy and disillusioned with the church I was attending, I turned away from God in anger. My nascent search for a church that “fit me” — my first attempts to delve into Christian theology and thought — had brought me nothing but pain. I felt utterly rejected, utterly alone, even though my true friends were with me all along. My faith had been shallow, selfish, immature, and poorly rooted: I was the seed sown on stony ground that sprang up vividly, but met with affliction, withered away. If church had failed me yet again — what else was out there? Shaking off what I thought were shackles, I aimed to find out.

That was six, nearly seven years ago. For the first time in my life, I entered truly uncharted territory — a world not constrained by my Christian faith, which I left in tatters, flapping helplessly in the wind. Over the next months, I charged further and further away, deeper and deeper into the unknown. I hope I never go the places I went again.

But God was always there. By my Baptism, I was a Christian: one with the Body of Christ. And He still had plans for me. He wasn’t going to let me go so easily.

Seeing the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI, greeting the people just after his election was announced.

So when I left off my personal story, I was in Rome, on what became a pilgrimage of sorts: enthralled by the majestic churches, captured by the sense of history, drawn to God and Church for the first time in years.

We visited all four major basilicas of Rome: St. John Lateran; St. Mary Major; St. Paul outside the Walls, where I was powerfully moved at St. Paul’s tomb; and St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s in particular was overwhelming in its size and grandeur. I found the tomb of St. Gregory the Great, who was one of my favorite saints even then; and I’ve already told of my wonderings about St. Peter’s tomb. Some of the other churches we visited included San Clemente, the oldest of any church we saw, whose foundations reached back to the first century; Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where lay interred St. Catherine of Siena; and Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, built in the remains of the Baths of Diocletian. There is far more to tell of my time in Rome, and far more still that I failed to see for my closed spiritual eyes. I long to go back now that I’ve found the Church.

The façade of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

One more anecdote about Rome that I’d like to relate: I saw the pope. As I related briefly before, Pope John Paul II had died only weeks before our trip, and Pope Benedict XVI had succeeded him. Pope Benedict had only just taken possession of St. John Lateran as cathedral of Rome the week of our visit. (Many people don’t realize that St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s, is Rome’s cathedral church.) I was very sad at the passing of Pope John Paul, but I was glad, at least, that he was no longer suffering, and that I might have the chance to see the new pope.

Every Wednesday, the pope holds a General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. A group of my fellow students and I decided to attend. It was an overcast Wednesday morning when we set out, five or six of us, from our hotel — without umbrellas. It wasn’t very long before we regretted that lack of foresight. It came a downpour, and by the time we arrived at St. Peter’s Square and had been sitting there a few minutes waiting, we were soaked to the bone. Gradually the rain slackened to a drizzle, but it was still overcast and unpleasant.

Finally the time came for the pope to appear. He rolled out at one end of the piazza in his pope-mobile, to the cheers of the people greeting their new pontiff. Two giant projection-screen TVs broadcast his arrival for those of us sitting at a distance. He circled the square, waving to the faithful, before coming to the stage erected on the steps of the basilica, and exiting.

The pope stepped out onto the steps, and raised his arms in a blessing. At that moment, the clouds parted. The sun appeared, brightly and warmly. The rain stopped. It was as if God was smiling on this man and on us who had come to hear him.

He spoke for a few minutes. I suppose he was speaking Italian, since I don’t remember what he said. But I felt very glad just to be there, to be standing a mere few yards away from the leader of Western Christendom.

At the end of his address, he said a blessing over the people, and announced that all religious items brought to the square that day were now blessed. I suppose many of the Catholic faithful brought Rosaries, statues, icons, and other devotional objects. I happened to have a Bible in my backpack, a compact NIV my dad had bought for me before I left. It is a religious item, I thought. I considered it ironic that the pope had unknowingly blessed a Protestant translation of the Bible; but I nonetheless considered it meaningful and important. I inscribed the event on the frontispiece of the book, and have cherished it ever since as “the Pope’s Bible.”

As soon as the pope was done speaking and had left the stage, the rain resumed. The clouds returned to cover the sun. I considered it an amusing coincidence, and have often jovially told the story, as I am now — but looking back I see the experience as yet another subtle gesture from God to the authority of this man and this Church — a nod as if to say, I am looking after this foundation. Looking back over the years, through all that I traveled, I consider it no small matter that the pope of Rome prayed for me and said words of blessing over me: At very long last, after seven years, those words have brought me home.

The Eternal City

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy with Dr. G and a small class of students, most of them members of the Society (and so passionate nerds for Latin and antiquity like me). It was a course on the history of the city of Rome, and in two weeks, we covered some 3,000 years of Roman history, from Romulus to Mussolini. In the mornings, Dr. G lectured us, and in the afternoons, we went out into the city to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s period of history. The whole expanse of history is right there before you in Rome, to see and experience. It was magical.

This was the culmination of three years of tutelage under Dr. G. But all was not well. I had just run aground of two of the unhealthiest, most disastrous semesters in my entire college career, one after the other. My academic future stood precariously on the rocks, and even amid the wonder and joy of being in Rome, I struggled against despair and hopelessness. In a minor coup, I forced out a research paper in the week before I left — on the Christian Catacombs of Rome — and handed it to Dr. G as I was boarding the plane. And I tried to leave my catastrophe behind me.

The trip was too full and too vivid and too wonderful to cover here in any great detail. I kept extensive journals while I was in Italy, striving to capture every moment. Because of this, most blessedly, I am able to re-create my thoughts and feelings at the time of my experiences, unclouded by the years. More than any other fruit of this journey — though I had no notion of it at the time, and only now, seven years later, am realizing it — it laid the paving stones of my journey to the Church.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran

The Basilica of St. John Lateran.

We arrived in Rome on a Saturday. The next day, Sunday, we collectively decided to go to Mass — when in Rome, do as the Romans do. We picked the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, which wasn’t on our itinerary otherwise. It was only two days after Pope Benedict XVI had had formally taken possession of it as pope and bishop of Rome. It was a glorious choice for my first Roman church and my first Roman Mass. The account from my Roman journal:

We arrived at the church just as the ten o’clock Mass was ending. Outside it was impressive, but that was nothing compared to what I saw inside. Immediately upon walking through the doors, I was so awed by the size, beauty, and magnificence that I began to weep. The ceilings were high and vaulted, and everywhere was ornate work in gold. Splendid paintings and mosaics covered the walls. In alcoves along the walls were Baroque statuary of the twelve Apostles that looked as if the Apostles were about to come alive and walk among us. High above the altar rested the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul. I felt I was in the presence of God.

By this time, I had been drifting spiritually for about seven years. I always called myself a Christian, always thought of God from time to time; but I hadn’t been going to church regularly, praying, or reading my Bible for a very long time. I felt that God had forsaken me, when in truth I had forsaken Him, choosing instead idols and sins and spiritual oblivion. But in Rome, from this very first moment, I was awakened to His presence. If there was anywhere where I could encounter God, I thought, it was in these ancient churches in this eternal city, where saints and martyrs had walked.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

A couple of days later, we took a trip down to the EUR, Mussolini’s planned city district. Our plan was to visit the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization), with its scale model of ancient Rome — but when we got down there, it was closed. The rest of our day was now open; what else would we do? Hibernius, my Catholic convert friend, and I made the case for us to take the subway back up a couple of stops to St. Paul outside the Walls.

The high altar of St. Paul outside the Walls

The high altar of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls is one of the four major basilicas of Rome. It is also the traditional burial place of St. Paul, over which the Emperor Constantine built the original basilica in the early fourth century. Only months earlier, I had read the first whisperings of a remarkable discovery there: Vatican archaeologists had discovered Paul’s sarcophagus. The plaque over it read, “Apostle Paul, Martyr.”

I went to the church with this on my mind. We entered the church through the apse end, so I didn’t get the impact of the façade; but I was immediately impressed with the church’s size and grandeur. That’s not what really moved me, though. I made my way to the high altar. There I saw the representation of a tomb (not the ancient sarcophagus, I realized) at the foot of it. Being generally unfamiliar with Catholic churches and relics, I wasn’t sure if this was where Paul’s tomb had been discovered or not. I anxiously queried Hibernius, and he found a priest who spoke English and asked him. It was.

When I found out, I was overwhelmed. I knelt down at the altar, and tears began streaming down my face, as the words of St. Paul, which have always meant so much to me, echoed in my head, and I thought of the road to Damascus. ‘Thank you, Lord, for sending your servant Paul,’ I prayed.

St. Paul's sarcophagus revealed

Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, Archpriest of Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, shows the passageway through which one side of St. Paul's stone coffin is visible. (National Geographic)

I’m not sure how long I knelt there praying — ten, fifteen, thirty minutes? — but when I looked up, I saw my friends and classmates standing there looking concerned. They were ready to leave, but wanted to give me my time. As we left, several of them thanked me for bringing them there. Several people told me later that it was their favorite place to visit. It was certainly the highlight of my trip.

I had a touch from God that day, and I knew it — my first true religious experience in a number of years. From then on, my time in Rome became a pilgrimage. Visiting churches was what I most looked forward to; and I was acutely aware of God’s presence in them and my experience of Him. I remember commenting, thinking little of it at the time, that it was hard to stand in those churches and not want to be Catholic.

Before I left St. Paul’s, I bought a small statue of the Apostle. Even at the time I bought it, I was conscious of it being more than just a souvenir: it was an object of devotion. That statue has stood on my bookshelf ever since, watching over me; as I believe St. Paul himself has watched over me, and guided me home to Rome. I wasn’t aware of it then, but God was working, slowly but deliberately, to bring about my redemption.

A Musical Journey

I’ve already written a little about my first flirtations with liturgy: how I began listening to Mozart’s Requiem as “mood music,” at a time when I was feeling morbidly depressed. I listened to it repeatedly, reflecting on failure and death and loss; recalling the sad end of Mozart’s life, and the idea that he was writing music for his own funeral — it seemed the most pained, desperate thing I could manifest. I had little concept of liturgy or what that even meant, only the sense that these words in Latin were somehow sacred and powerful. I downloaded their text; I memorized it. This fascination was one of the motives that brought me to study Latin.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran, but someone who knew how to worship God.

My next contact with liturgy was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, a recording of it that came highly recommended. Honestly, at the time, I’m not sure I could have even told you what a “Mass” was, other than “something Catholics did.” At the time, it was just beautiful music to me; or so I thought.

But then, some four or five years later, something remarkable happened. It was after I had graduated with my bachelor’s. I was teaching at a small, Christian school. Preparing for class was one of the most stressful things I’d ever done. Peace was more a premium than it ever had been before. I had discovered Last.fm; I was listening, I think, to the J.S. Bach radio. And then, like a breath of fresh air, I heard this:


(The English translation on the first slide should read, “Hail, O sweetest Mary”)

Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa.

Voices so worshipful, so longing, so mournful, so penitent — the music pierced right to my soul. The composer was Carlo Gesualdo, Italian nobleman, musician, composer — and murderer. As a young man, he had murdered his wife and her lover. Later in life, wracked with depression and guilt and fearful for the fate of his eternal soul, he wrote some of his most expressive music in penance. The story of the man, and especially his music, immediately captured my heart.

And listening to Gesualdo on Last.fm led, soon, to Dufay, and Josquin, and Tallis, and Byrd, and others — my collection of early, sacred music quickly mushroomed in a matter of a few weeks. As did my obsession with it. Very soon, it was all I was listening to. It had burrowed into my soul — these sounds of so long ago, carrying such order and peace; this worship — for I understood immediately that it was worship, and worshiped God with it — so clean and bright and pure and heavenly. What affected me more than anything was the Mass settings. I felt the sense, very early, that the Mass was spiritual food.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, my current favorite composer (this frequently changes).

Prompted by the feelings of worship that the music stirred in me, I soon was devoting time every morning to daily Bible study, something I hadn’t done consistently for a very long time. I made my way through the whole New Testament in a matter of a month or two; there had been books, up until that time in my life, that I’d never read before. I played the music while I worshiped and prayed. I told myself that it “made me feel like a monk” — prayerful and contemplative and ascetic — this was a good thing. I felt I was drawing on some ancient, powerful store of spiritual power.

And I was. That store was liturgy. I was hearing the Mass every day. The music of the Mass was piercing my heart and drawing me to worship. The words of the Mass were pouring into my soul — even before I understood them or knew what was happening; though by this time my Latin was good enough that I understood them quickly. On a number of occasions I found the Roman Missal online, in Latin, and followed along. I began to practice the prayers of the Mass in my private spirituality. I had little inkling at this time that I was on the road to Catholicism; I had no intention, starting out, of ever attending an actual Mass. But the Holy Spirit was drawing me to the Church through the Mass, through liturgy.

Approaching Rome

So in a very real way, liturgy drew me to Latin; Latin drew me to history; and history drew me to Rome. I had begun listening to the Requiem Mass out of a desperate feeling, not any liturgical impulse. I chose to take Latin by a chance, extemporaneous decision. My conversion to a history major was a pragmatic resignation to forces that had been pulling for a long time. But in these moments I can perceive a gradual, steady progression; the gentle guidance of God’s hand.

Perhaps more significantly, Latin led me to the Society. The Society was our university’s classical language society, founded by Dr. G and held together by his gravity. The Society met weekly to read and discuss Latin texts (and occasionally texts in Greek and other ancient languages), gave public readings, and brought in distinguished academic speakers on subjects of classics and history. Dr. G actively recruited members out of his classes; I was drawn immediately. The members appointed me secretary the first time I attended. And suddenly, for the first time since high school, I had found a social and academic home; a sense of purpose and belonging. Over the next half dozen years, my association with the Society and Dr. G would shape me more as a student and as a person than any other influence.

The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede.

The next semester after my introduction to Latin, Dr. G taught his History of the Christian Church. I was still maturing as a student and as a historian, so I certainly didn’t get as much out of the course as I could have; but what I did get was profound: an historical, scholarly, and rational approach to Early Christianity — one that could coexist with matters of faith, that questioned them academically, but not polemically. Dr. G, the son of a long line of prominent Lutheran ministers, had an equal and unconflicted love for the richness and beauty of the Catholic tradition and the boldness and courage of the Protestant Reformers. As a medieval historian, he held a deep admiration for the Church Fathers and the saints, the world of popes and abbots and monumental cathedrals — this he conveyed to us as students. One student, Hibernius, a philosophy student and atheist, Dr. G’s course made a Roman Catholic. I discovered that semester the first of my many heroes of the faith, the Venerable Bede. I wrote my term paper on Bede’s account of the Synod of Whitby and its import. If listening to the Requiem had planted a seed in me, Dr. G planted a forest that semester.

The Baptism of Clovis

The Baptism of Clovis, a scene from Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks, on which I wrote my research paper for Medieval Latin.

That summer, having traversed Wheelock’s Latin, I took my first advanced Latin course — momentously, in Church Latin. Over the next weeks, I would immerse myself in the writings of the Church Fathers, medieval historians, hagiographers, and theologians, and come to love them not just in thought, but in letter and in word; not just as history, but as literature and life. My pantheon of heroes grew by leaps and bounds: St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory of Tours, St. Anselm, and others; and of course St. Bede. The process had begun in earnest: I was falling in love with the medieval Church.

Of course, I still had so far to go. This was still seven years ago. I still had so many misconceptions about the modern Catholic Church. I believed it was corrupt, bound up with baseless, man-made accretions that only served to keep man away from God; I believed it was so set in tradition that it could neither move nor change. Raised in the Protestant tradition, I never conceived that the Reformers might have been wrong — or that anything beyond the Protestant tradition might have been right. I had never attended a Mass; it never occurred to me that I might. But I was approaching, surely and steadily, even if I didn’t know where I was going. The coming year would bring me to the threshold of Rome itself.