The Wandering Road

The Winding RoadIn the next phase of my life, I spent a great deal of time on the road. I took several grand road trips, taking off all across the Southern United States. I was always going somewhere, if only to the next town or county or state. At the time, what I thought I felt was freedom, liberation, the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted. But I was irresponsible with my money and time, impulsive, and foolish. In retrospect I can see that I was actually in flight — fleeing to escape the pain of my failure; to escape who I was and where I was; to be someone else, somewhere else. Many people fall into drugs or alcohol out of similar drives. I never went to those places, but I fell to many other sins during this time. The chief among them, though — the root of everything else — was always that escapism.

After several years, I returned to school, to a more local university to which I could commute. Out of practical concerns, I began a degree in computer science. Programming was always something I had enjoyed, and I saw in it a good career. Immediately, though, history was once again a compelling interest. Whenever I picked up a course catalog, I dreamily eyed the history section, imagining all the history courses I would somehow have time to take. The first history course I took was Western Civilization from ancient to medieval. The topic I chose for my research paper, picked from a preselected list of topics, was the Great Schism. At the time I picked it, I was thinking of the Great East–West Schism that formally split the Western and Eastern Churches — a topic that interested me, and still does; I would still like to learn more about it. I remember being initially confused that there was more than one “Great Schism” — and whatever sources I found led me to write instead about the Western Schism, an event I had previously been unaware of. Although I’m not sure it presented a very positive picture, that research gave me my first introduction to the medieval papacy, and my first academic look at the Catholic Church.

For my second history course, the second half of Western Civ, from Renaissance to modern, I carefully studied the faculty bios of the history department. I chose Dr. G, who impressed me as being the most erudite and the most learned about what the course would be on. I was not disappointed. I had never had a teacher like him, who enriched his lectures with only the drama of history, but a sense of the underlying forces that drive history. He taught socratically, challenging me in new ways and urging me to do more than sit back and take notes. Initially, I did well. But towards the middle of the semester, a nagging anxiety and perfectionism took hold of me. His research paper called for a historiographic approach — something many students never hear about until graduate school — and paralyzed with fear, rather than seek help, I sank.

Mozart's Requiem

A page from the autograph of Mozart's Requiem.

I remember an episode during this dark time that presaged my journey to Rome, and my entire future course, more certainly than anything else I can think of. Like many a depressed and struggling young man before, having visions of my own impending doom, I turned to Mozart’s Requiem. I listened to it obsessively, often on my commutes to school. It was Latin; I wondered what its words meant. I went online and printed off a transcript of the Latin and its translation. Within a few weeks, I had memorized it. I had little concept then that was I was learning was liturgy, or even what that meant; but it planted a seed that was to bear fruit.

I tanked completely that semester. It was the first of many times I failed, usually in the face of term papers and major projects. I ran away and medicated rather than faced my demons. But I returned. The next semester was better. It wasn’t until a year later that I dared attempt another history course — but rather than avoid the situation and the man who had defeated me before, I recognized the value of the challenge Dr. G presented. I registered for his course again, and charged once more unto the breach.

This time, I excelled thoroughly. I clearly had an aptitude. I wrote my research paper, the historiographic one, on different historians’ interpretations of Charles I and the Battle of Naseby. That time, it presented little difficulty. I remember staying up all night (oh, to still be able to do that) the night before the final exam, rewriting and memorizing my notes backward and forward: I blew the exam out of the water. It felt to me a great coup, the first victory in overcoming my demons.

In order to major in computer science, I would have had to minor in mathematics. At one time, when I was younger, I was pretty good at math. But that part of my brain had atrophied over the years, partly because it had then been five years since I had graduated from high school, but mostly because I had lost interest in it. It had become something painful for me, and even worse, I was unwilling to devote the time necessary to study for it. The next semester after my triumph with Dr. G, it was time for me to face Calculus B. The first day of class, the professor, a kindly man named Dr. M, gave a pre-test to assess where we stood coming into the course: I missed every single question. Afterward in his office, with concern in his voice and not a trace of condescension, he asked me if I was sure I needed to be in his course. “No,” I answered, quavering.

So I needed another course to fill out my schedule. That semester I was also taking another course with Dr. G, a survey of ancient history. In all of Dr. G’s courses, he peppered explications of the etymologies of words, to uncover the deeper meanings of concepts: I was fascinated. As it happened, Dr. G was also the professor of Latin at my school, and he frequently plugged it in his history classes. Poring over the course schedule, looking for something I could fit in, I fell upon Latin. I thought back to my fascination with the Latin of the Requiem Mass. It could work, I thought.

Wheelock's LatinI went to Dr. G’s office, and told him that I was thinking of transferring into his Latin class. By this time it was three or four days into the course, but he didn’t hesitate, and didn’t give me the opportunity to. “Well, come on; it’s about to begin.” He handed me a copy of Wheelock’s Latin.

Immediately, the Latin language seized me. I went home that night and wrote in my journal that I didn’t think there would be any turning back. And there wasn’t. If I was abandoning math, then logically I would have to abandon computer science also. And I did: within a year, I was a history major. The next summer after taking Latin, I translated the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass on my own. So marked the first, real steps in a journey that has led me to Rome.

Pilgrim Dreaming

Don’t forget about me; I’m still here. I have been having some major issues the past couple of weeks: a collision of being laid low by illness, a mountain of student papers to grade, rising panic about writing my own papers, a thorough sense of being overwhelmed, and my mind and heart being anywhere but there.

The catastrophe is beginning to relent. I got through the first round of student papers last night. This morning I need to attack the second half, go back through both sets to clean them up and write proper comments, and then, hopefully, approach the paper of my own that has had me bound up for about a week.

This morning, I had thought I would stay at home and work all day, but I woke up before my alarm, in time to make early Mass, and I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit that I should go. And it was such a salve to my soul. One of my commissae (it seems an appropriate enough word to coin: we having been sent together) commented this morning that I seemed “perkier” than I have been. I do feel a great relief. But I’m not out of the woods yet.

St. Peter's from the Tiber by féileacán

"St. Peter's from the Tiber" by féileacán (Flickr)

My heart has been yearning for Rome, more and more each day. There was so much the first time I was there that I didn’t see; so much that I didn’t experience because I wasn’t looking with open eyes. My first journey was the first steps of a pilgrimage; now that I am nearing the end of my entrée, I long to go again, to lay my head in the heart of the Mother Church and receive her blessings as a lost child coming home. I am to the point of actually planning my return. I have been pricing plane tickets for months, and researching hostels. I tacked up my map of Rome this morning. I’ve ordered a couple of travel guides for pilgrims, including this one I’m pretty excited about: A Catholic’s Guide to Rome: Discovering the Soul of the Eternal City. This morning I discovered this great wiki of the Churches of Rome. Tentatively, I am planning a trip for December 2012 or January 2013. Ticket costs will be at their nadir then, as well as the tides of tourism. I will start setting aside some money every month, and with any hope, I will be able to afford a truly grand pilgrimage. My mind is exploring all the possibilities of an unlimited train pass, and all the other saints whom I could honor: St. Francis in Assisi, St. Ambrose in Milan, St. Augustine in Pavia… O, come back, my heart! I have things yet to do here in the States!

I Heart My Parish

Magnificat, October 2011Yesterday morning at early Mass, absentminded as I am, I laid down my copy of this month’s Magnificat, and walked off. I’m not sure where I left it — either in the pew in the nave, or outside in the piazza where I sat with Audrey eating donuts.

I didn’t realize I was missing it until last night when I got home from RCIA, and was preparing for bed and evening prayers. This is the first month I’ve received Magnificat, but already I’ve grown very attached to it, and was rather distraught to be without it. I prayed on my own, read the Bible for a while, and resolved to go back to the church as early as possible today to look for my magazine.

There were two other Masses yesterday following the early one. It was a crowded day on account of football traffic; several hundreds of people passed through the church yesterday. Anyone could have picked up my book and left with it. And yet when I got there this morning, there it was on the table in the narthex.

And I had little doubt that it would be. I heart my parish. I trust the people in it. Everyone I’ve met here has been good and loving. The Church is full of all kinds of people, sinners and saints alike; but combine Christian charity and virtue, Southern honor and manners, and small-town respect and reciprocity, and you get a generally good and honest bunch of folks here in our parish.

Another Analogy for Church Authority

Here’s another brief analogy I thought of for the authority of the Church:

The U.S. ConstitutionTake the United States Constitution. It’s a two hundred-year-old document that has been amended twenty-seven times, and has been subject to constant and continuous interpretation and reinterpretation throughout its history. Suppose, though, you hand it to the founders of a new republic, and ask them to re-create the American government from nothing but that document. They could probably come up with something — but it would be rough, lacking definition. The Constitution lays out the framework of government that needs to exist, but it conveys nothing of how to implement such a government. It conveys nothing of the historical context in which the document was produced. It conveys nothing of the specific interpretations and definitions that have been worked out by the courts over the years.

In the United States, we’ve inherited a rich and complex legal tradition, not just from the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, but from English common law, several centuries of statute law, and other precursors and precedents. Whatever your position on constitutional interpretation — whether you are a strict constructionist, believing that the Constitution means what it says, on its letter, and that we should follow the original intent of our Founding Fathers in writing it; or a loose constructionist, believing that the Constitution is a living document, constantly evolving with the nation’s views — our understanding of the Constitution is informed by our legal tradition. To understand the original intent of the Founders, we have to read what they wrote and understand what they believed. To understand the Constitution as a living document, we have to understand the definitions and interpretations that legal minds of the past have hammered out. To create a replica of the United States government, we would need not just the Constitution, but the web of statutes that Congress has woven to implement it.

The Supreme Court, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken legal tradition of the United States in its hand, and of being made up of nine men and women held to be learned and capable legal minds, is the highest authority of law in our nation. It alone has the power to interpret the Constitution with binding effect. In making their decisions, the justices of the Supreme Court consider all of the resources at their disposal: case law, the past decisions of the Court, the writings of the Founding Fathers and other legal minds, just to mention a few. Those decisions and those thinkers haven’t all agreed with each other, it is true; but considering this entire body of law, the Court can arrive at the correct interpretation. The Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the Constitution because that is the authority it was given; that’s what it was created to do; that is its purpose.

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome)

Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

Likewise, the Church, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken tradition of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles in her hand, and of being made up of the body of bishops held to be learned and authoritative by their merits and their inheritance from the Apostles themselves, has the authority to interpret the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. In making her decisions, the Church considers all of the resources at her disposal: Scripture itself, the writings of the Church Fathers, the dictates of bishops and popes and councils over the ages, just to mention a few. Most of all, she prays and seeks the guidance and discernment of the Holy Spirit. The Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition because that is the authority she was given by Christ — the authority to bind and loose, to decide points of interpretation of the law with binding effect, given explicitly to St. Peter.

Handing the Constitution alone to founders of a new government, detached from its history and tradition, is like handing the Bible to a new religious sect and asking them to create a church, sola scriptura. This is essentially what many Protestant groups have done — sought to create a “pure,” “biblical” church, with Scripture alone as their guide, without any accretions of tradition. Some have taken it further than others. Most Protestants, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are as rapt followers of tradition as any Catholic: they follow, with little deviation, the traditions of Luther, or Calvin, or Cranmer, or Knox, or Wesley, or even of their own grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Tradition pervades the way they worship, the way they practice, and most of all the way they interpret Scripture. They adhere to a body of essential Christian tradition that not even Protestants have abandoned: Sunday worship; the shepherding of a Christian flock by a pastor; the liturgical practice of baptism and Communion; the celebration, according to an established liturgical calendar, of Easter and Christmas; the canon of Scripture itself. Take even a “contemporary,” “hip,” “non-denominational” evangelical “worship center.” A worship service will begin with songs, followed by a sermon, in a tradition of order as ancient as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. Typically such a church’s doctrine — whether it even admits it has doctrine — is loosely Reformed or loosely Arminian; relaxed but nonetheless exclusive of certain doctrines rejected by the Protestant tradition (“oh, we definitely don’t believe that“). If sola scriptura is followed as rigidly as some Protestants insist, then some practices and doctrines must be excluded because they are not explicitly described in the Bible — for example, the Churches of Christ’s insistence on no instrumental worship, or the Seventh-Day Adventists’ insistence on Saturday worship. A church that literally followed sola scriptura, with no inkling of tradition anywhere in it at all, would be a strange-looking beast indeed.

Tradition and Authority

Eyes to SeeOne of the greatest struggles in my journey of faith has been finding a point of authority in matters of faith. Protestants stress sola scriptura as a rule of faith — that Scripture alone is their authority. Especially those Protestants of an evangelical or fundamentalist bent believe that biblical doctrine is clear on the surface of Scripture, without any interpretation. But at once this presents a problem. If Scripture is so clear, and if biblical doctrine is so self-evident, then how do various Christians and various denominations reach such diverse interpretations and such diverse doctrines? And more important, how could I, observing intelligent, rational people supporting each position, and finding merit and value with each, discern between them? What gave me, a man, the authority to dismiss some views as incorrect and declare another the right one?

This problem perplexed and frustrated me for years. It was the source of unending turmoil, every time I dared approach it. During my time in the wilderness, and especially more recently, I tried on many occasions to study doctrine and theology and Scripture, and determine, once and for all, what it was I actually believed, and therefore what church I belonged in. But I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, I reached an impasse at the point of authority.

After years of beating my head against it, I reached a solution to the problem that satisfied me, I thought. If there was no authority — no point from which to argue that any position was any more correct than any other — then they all must be equally correct. The correctness of doctrine must be relative. If God saves souls and changes lives in a variety of different Christian traditions — and this I observed, and believed, and still believe — then all of our doctrinal differences don’t amount to a drop in a bucket in God’s eyes. It was a position of thoroughgoing ecumenism, or even doctrinal relativism; a belief that all (or at least all orthodox) Christianity was equally valid. One’s choice of a church was merely a matter of preference, of what worked for each person individually. This was comfortable. I learned to respect and value all different Christian traditions, to learn from them and seek to understand them (this is a lesson I hope I never lose). Deep down, though, my position felt empty. If the correctness of doctrine was relative, then ultimately, doctrine was meaningless and inconsequential.

This was the position at which I stood when I began this Catholic journey. I had written at length to myself about the characteristics and values I was looking for in a church, and planned to go “church shopping.” My ideal looked very little like the Catholic Church — at least, not like my preconceived image of the Catholic Church. It was only by a happy accident that I stumbled onto this road. Once again, I don’t believe in happy accidents.

In the very first conversation I had with Audrey about Catholicism — the first time she invited me to Mass — I mentioned to her, off the top of my head, one of the problems I had with Catholicism. It wasn’t even the chief problem, I thought, but one that seemed innocuous enough for an initial conversation. “I don’t like that the Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.”

Her response was simple, rational, clear. It made sense. It didn’t sink in at the time that it was the key to unlock my riddle, or that she was the only person who could have answered it for me this way. “I see it like authority for an historian. We base our arguments on authority, on the arguments and interpretations of the past. Each generation builds on what was done before and gains a deeper understanding of the truth. And the Church has 2,000 years of authority behind her interpretation of Scripture.”

The Gettysburg Address

A primary source (the autograph of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address).

As an historian, how do I discover the truth? I go to the source: I take the testimony of the most reliable, most primary sources toward the event in question. But sources don’t speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted. No source says, “This is exactly how it happened, and these are exactly its implications” — if there were such a source, then it, too, would have to be interpreted: Who would have the authority to write in such a way, and how could they be so certain? And so historians, naturally, also look to other interpreters of a source, to understand how that source has been interpreted in the past. Due weight is given to those interpreters who speak from authority — who were closest in time to the event, who knew the people and events and circumstances involved, or whose interpretations were qualified by extensive study or academic credentials. Historians build their interpretations on these older, authoritative interpretations, creating an historiographic, interpretive tradition, with each generation adding to the store of knowledge and furthering their understanding of the truth.

Likewise it is with the Church and Scripture. Protestants may treat the Bible as a contemporary, self-evident source whose meaning is clear to the modern reader; but the truth is that it is an ancient, 2,000-year-old collection of documents. The first step in interpreting it, necessarily, has to be understanding how it was received in its own time — how the first generations following Christ received and understood his words and teachings, and how the faith of the Apostles was passed down. This tradition is the essential context to interpreting Scripture. The Church Fathers — those learned men of the Church’s first centuries — commented on Scripture at length. Their interpretations necessarily have far greater authority than mine, that of a layman 2,000 years departed.

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of the Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

And even more important, the Church itself claims the ultimate authority to interpret Scripture, through the Holy Spirit. The Church, because of who she is, because of the tradition she has inherited, has a far greater authority to interpret Scripture than I do. The Magisterium of the Church — the bishops in communion with the pope, as successors of the Apostles — is alone in a position to speak with true authority.

This kind of claim to authority simply isn’t present in the Protestant world. The Protestant Reformation consciously severed all ties to authority. In most evangelical churches, the highest authority in matters of doctrine and discipline is the local church: authority rests with the pastor or the body of elders. And that person’s authority is only as strong as his personal integrity and ability. If the congregation doesn’t respect it, then its members are free to — and so often do — split away to form their own churches or denominations. Since the Reformation, in the absence of any unifying authority, Protestant churches have splintered into so many thousands of fragments.

But the Catholic Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. It has the authority to teach the truth of revelation and doctrine. When my path lacked any definition at all, the Church showed me the marked road, and gave me a compass. And this is key that has at last made sense of my journey.

Semper reformanda

Blessed Pope John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII.

Today is the liturgical celebration of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963, r. 1958-1963). I note that the date of his celebration is not the day of his death, but that of his historic opening of the Second Vatican Council on 11 October 1962. I don’t remember “Good Pope John,” but from all that I’ve read he was indeed a good and beloved man.

As a newcomer to the Church, I don’t know what to make of Vatican II. I feel like I’ve walked into the room in the middle of a conversation. Most of what I hear about Vatican II is filtered through the media from disgruntled Traditionalist Catholics. Lately, I have heard some more mixed criticism among friends at church, and on the one Catholic blog I have been reading regularly (recommended by both Audrey and Brad), New Liturgical Movement.

My basic understanding of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II comes from Dr. G, my undergraduate mentor and doctor in Latin and history, who is not Catholic but Lutheran in background. According to him, Vatican II allowed (or ordered?) the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular. This, to me, seems a good thing, in encouraging the participation and understanding of the Mass by the lay faithful. It also, I understand, simplified the liturgy of the Mass considerably. Also, according to Dr. G, it required Mass to be celebrated versus populum (toward the people) rather than ad orientem (toward the East), resulting in some awkward and unattractive arrangements in the grand churches of Rome — tables set up in front of the altars, since the altars themselves were built for ad orientem. This prescription, apparently, is a part of the 1970 Roman Missal, rather than Vatican II proper. (The 1970 Missal must be what I’ve seen referred to by an author on NLM as “the great mistake of 1970.”) Personally, I like the versus populum Mass, but also respect and value ad orientem, especially in the grand old churches. Father Joe celebrates the evening Sunday Mass ad orientem; this was the first time I’d ever seen an ad orientem Mass, or even realized that it was still allowed. Is my understanding of the changes correct? What is it that has Traditionalists so upset?

NLM ran a piece the other day that provoked a lot of thought about this for me, an interview with Dr. Alcuin Reid entitled “The Council, Organic Development, Rupture, and Continuity.” This introduced me to some of topics of the ongoing debate, especially the idea of whether Vatican II represents continuity or rupture with tradition, in terms of liturgical development:

3. Continuity or Rupture? Could one say that “traditionalist” Catholics agree with the thesis of a rupture?

I am not a “traditionalist”. I am a Catholic. I am also a liturgical historian. As the latter I can say that there is evidence that those responsible for the reform intended rupture – ritual and also theological. They did not want what was handed on in tradition. They did not want to develop that. They wanted something new, something that would reflect ‘modern man’ in the 1960’s and what they thought he needed.

This is an historical reality, not an ecclesio-political position. Liturgists from ‘both sides’ agree that the reform was radical and a rupture. As a Catholic I regard this as a significant problem, because it is unprecedented in liturgical history and it is not what the Council, out of respect for liturgical tradition, called for.

This troubles me. Certainly, one of my primary affinities for the Catholic Church is the sense that it represents liturgical and theological continuity. Has there been a rupture? More important, can it be repaired? I have gotten the sense that the present pope, Benedict XVI, has been working, cautiously but deliberately, to return the Church to her traditions, to recover what may have been lost at Vatican II. Am I right in this understanding?

I have been trying to do some research — which has been difficult, since views on this controversy are so wide-ranging, from Traditionalists to Liberals, and I don’t know who to listen to. I trust, on its face, NLM, based on the recommendations of my friends, and on my agreement so far with the views and attitudes it has espoused. I trust, perhaps naïvely, Wikipedia, on the belief that on such controversial subjects, the Wikipedians do well to police themselves and find a middle ground.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI.

I trust the pope. The more I read of Benedict’s writings, the more I admire him and am glad for a Holy Father of such deep intelligence and erudition, and of such thoroughgoing conservatism and commitment to the faith of the Church. In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, he spoke of how to interpret Vatican II, in either a “hermeneutic of continuity” or a “hermeneutic of rupture.” He explained the reasons for the council, its challenges and issues, and its outcomes:

The Second Vatican Council, with its new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.

The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues “her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes. . . .

This dialogue must now be developed with great openmindedness but also with that clear discernment that the world rightly expects of us in this very moment. Thus, today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council:  if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

Is the new English translation of the Roman Missal a part of that continuing renewal? I have read some critics of the changes, calling them awkward or even promoting theological confusion, but others, such as the writers on NLM, have praised them for their accuracy and dignity.

If my understanding is correct — if Pope Benedict, and other forces within the Church, are working to restore the continuity and dignity of our liturgy, where it may have been compromised — then this is an exciting time to be entering the Church. I look forward to the full transition to the new Missal in a few weeks. I also look forward to Brad’s and Father Joe’s take on Vatican II when it is taught in RCIA. The Church moves at a glacial pace; but I pray that it is moving in the right direction.

Update: See my follow-up to this post, after getting some answers: “Semper reformanda: The Continuity of Vatican II with Catholic Tradition.”

The Questioning

Also toward the end of high school, I began to question my faith. This questioning isn’t associated in my mind with the other struggles I was having, but it was no doubt connected. What I was doing wasn’t working. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was searching for something more.

The apologetic works of Josh McDowell, his Evidence that Demands a Verdict series and More than a Carpenter, among some other books, were reassuring to me for a time. In this phase of my questioning, reassurance, more than anything else, was what I was seeking. I was looking for reasons to believe what I believed. But a broader challenge was yet to follow.

My senior year, I was a co-leader, with my friend Josh the Baptist, of our school’s Bible club. (I remember, notably, that there was a Catholic girl in our group. I was curious about her faith; it was the first time I’d ever known a Catholic — at least, it was the first time Catholicism had ever come up with someone I knew. We never really talked about it, though.) I took an aggressive posture in planning to get the word out, finally set to “take my school for Jesus” like Pastor Pat had urged. But it all was steam. I remember one day before biology class, I was pushing some religious view or another, when an Indian friend challenged me. I don’t even remember what he said, but it probably had something to do with evolution. I was entirely unprepared for it. Suddenly, all my gung-ho and bluster fell flat. I realized in an instant that for all my bold insistence and assertions, my beliefs had no intellectual foundation. My punctured faith rapidly deflated.

More than searching for why I believed what I believed — for which I now seemed to have no adequate answers — I also began wondering why I believed this, instead of something else. Why Christianity, out of all the other religions in the world? I realized how little I knew about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I realized how little, ultimately, I knew about the big bang theory or evolution or scientific theories of the beginning of the universe. I went to the library and checked out books.

The Big BangMy search, admittedly, was never as deep or far-reaching as I know many others have sought. I remember in particular only three or four books that I read: one book about the big bang theory — the evidence for it, and different scientific interpretations of the evidence. I remember the “oscillating universe theory” provoked a lot of thought. It was the first time I truly wrestled with the idea of eternity and infinity, of when and how the universe began its existence from non-existence. And I remember a book, a broad, unbiased, comparative examination of a number of major world religions, especially Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I remember there being attractive elements of each of them, but deciding ultimately that Christianity was the “best fit” for me, and that I had no reason to put my faith in anything else, or to disbelieve what I believed. My quest at that time didn’t do much to strengthen my weakened foundation, but at least it brought me to a point of rest, however precarious.

I first found that my faith had no intellectual foundation, but was founded instead on emotion; then I discovered what a weak foundation emotion could be. Pastor Pat left Calvary, abruptly and unceremoniously. His successor, Pastor Glenn, was a good guy, much more down to earth and less fiery. But the excitement and hype of Pastor Pat’s time were quick to evaporate. In its absence, I fumbled for something else to stand on. To my dismay, I found so much of what I’d been building to be a house of cards. It only took one good gust to knock it down.

I must have been having inchoate doubts for a while. I must have been reading Scripture. But one weekend I went with the youth group to our state youth convention. The guest speaker was a particularly fiery one I’d heard a number of times before, one popular and well-liked. But something was different this time. Very suddenly and all at once, something hit me. This is all wrong, I thought. Finding no peace in the auditorium, I retreated to the restroom with my Bible and a notebook, and sitting on the floor, began furiously scribbling notes about all that I saw that was wrong.

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia.

Charismatic Christianity, of which Pentecostals and the Assemblies of God are an element, centers on miraculous spiritual gifts, including prophecy and especially speaking in tongues (see 1 Corinthians 12-14); charismatics believe that these gifts continue to this day, and didn’t die with the Apostles. Charismaticism, at its essence, is very emotional — some would say ecstatic. Glossolalia itself is commonly defined as “ecstatic speech.” Being “moved by the Spirit” generally entails being moved to high emotion. And at that moment I realized the fallacies of being led by emotion. How could one know what was God and what was just excitement? I noticed that the louder the preacher shouted, the more excited everyone became. I noticed that when it came time for an altar call, the musicians would begin to play something sentimental to pluck at the crowd’s heartstrings. Most troubling of all, I noticed the preacher speaking in tongues before the crowd, babbling into the microphone — something plainly contrary to Scripture on its face:

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
(1 Corinthians 14:27-28, ESV)

There was no one to interpret; it was only empty babbling. And this was, and is, a common occurrence. Charismatic Christians, who claim their belief in miraculous spiritual gifts has scriptural support, ignore the guidelines of the very Scripture they claim for support. (Granted, this by itself doesn’t undermine the validity of speaking in tongues — those people could, it could be argued, just be undisciplined and practicing disorderly worship — but another time for that debate. At the time of this realization, it seriously undermined my faith in charismaticism.)

I had filled up several pages that night before I was done. It all flowed out like water, like a dam bursting. When I got home, I made an appointment with Pastor Glenn. I brought him my list of challenges. He had no answers for me.

I believe I stopped going to youth group soon after that. I had lost faith in the brand of Christianity I had been pursuing. The intellectual and emotional foundations of my faith had been tested, and proved to be weak. In short order, when my world fell out from under me, I would have no faith to cleave to. I was stranded in the wilderness.

But even through all those years of darkness, of being lost, of feeling abandoned, I never seriously questioned that God was there. I couldn’t find him — I felt he had forsaken me — but deep down, at the core of my being, I had a kernel of faith: I believed in God. Even when I doubted everything else, this much I knew. Even when all my world was shaken, this much I could I could stand on.

The Wilderness

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

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

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

My first university

A photograph I took at my first university.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Since I’ve been on this road, I’ve been reluctant to use the term “conversion” in referring to my becoming Catholic, since in common parlance, “to convert” connotes a changing of form or character:

con·vert (kən-vûrt´) v. con·vert·ed, con·vert·ing, con·verts
1. To change (something) into another form, substance, state, or product; transform: convert water into ice.
2. To change (something) from one use, function, or purpose to another; adapt to a new or different purpose.
3. To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief.
. . .
[convert. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 9 2011 from]

And I’ve insisted that I’m not changing form or character, or even changing faiths; I am continuing as what I’ve been all along, a Christian. In many ways, though not formally initiated, I’ve been outwardly and inwardly a Catholic Christian for a while now. I’ve preferred to say that “I’m joining the Catholic Church” rather than “I’m converting to Catholicism.” “Conversion” is a scary word; somehow it feels that if I “convert,” I will no longer be what I was before.

Though the majority around me doesn’t think in such terms, I know, I have always seen through the English to the Latin root: converto — I turn around or turn towards a new direction. I want people to see that my conversion is not a change of character, but merely a reorientation.

Last night, I read at length in the Catechism about the sacraments of penance and reconciliation. I was surprised to read of a “second conversion” — the ongoing process of a baptized Christian in growing towards holiness and eternal life — something that I’ve never heard referred to in any Protestant circle. Sure, I’ve heard of “discipleship” and “maturing spiritually,” but generally the evangelical attitude seems to be, “Poof! You’re a Christian! Now live like a Christian!” My ongoing struggle with sin, even though I was supposed to be a Christian, has been a constant source of trouble and confusion in my life. The Cathechism:

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] always follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. [Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1428]

Another name of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion. It is the process not only by which sinners are reconciled to God and the Church, but through which we are inwardly healed and changed; through which we turn away from sin and toward God:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. [Catechism, 1431]

I want to be converted, in my whole being. Even more than converting — reorienting — toward the Catholic Church, I want to turn toward God.

The Catholic Church, through its sacrament of reconciliation, understands the need for this continuing conversion in Christians, and how it is effected. I know I have heard some Protestants, the wise ones, acknowledge that growing in Christ is a process; they surely recognize, by experience, what isn’t formally taught in evangelical churches, but should be. So much of my youth was spent in agony, needing to confess and be reconciled, but instead making the same mistakes again and again, never growing, never converting, until I became calloused and complacent.

Today at Mass, as if to confirm this was a lesson I needed to pay attention to and take to heart, Deacon Ted spoke about this ongoing conversion in his homily.

Seeing the stars in the sky

NightfallIn the Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” the inhabitants of a planet that knows perpetual daylight, orbiting multiple suns, are overwhelmed the first time they witness a total eclipse, and see, for the first time, the multitude of stars in the sky.

Tonight I realized how many Catholic blogs there are out there.

I’ve never been one to follow blogs. It’s all I can do to keep up with my friends. I’m frequently stressed just trying to keep up with my own e-mail. Usually both my inbox and my feed reader have huge backlogs. And that induces a panicky feeling of drowning. I think it’s better for my mental health if I don’t try to follow any more blogs.

But… what about all the things I’m missing? What if there are things out there that would be valuable to me in my journey? What if there are fellow travelers on this road I’m on, invisible to me?

I’m not looking for readers. These writings are mostly for me. I don’t imagine what I have to say is particularly meaningful to anyone else. And I guess I’m okay with that. I am content to have a few friends and loved ones read and occasionally leave encouraging words.

I guess lately I’ve just been feeling overwhelmed in general. Catholicism is a huge sea to get lost in. But, I guess there are probably thousands of Baptist blogs out there, too.