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.

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

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

John Calvin, by Titian

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

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

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

The Trivium

The Trivium.

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

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

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

Calvin with books

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

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

The Apostle Paul

(This is the Protestant Paul.)

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

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

Van Gogh, Man with His Head in His Hands

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

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

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

Crossroads

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

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