The signposts converge

The next chapter in my conversion story, and the continuation of my post about the first time I went to Mass in Oxford, Mississippi.

Roma signposts

All roads lead to Rome. [Source]

So I checked the Catholic Church in Oxford off my list. Before I even moved to Oxford, I had made an informal list of churches I wanted to visit. It included, as I recall, Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and various other Evangelical churches (it had not actually included the Catholic church). I wanted finding a church to be a new experience and adventure, to finally find where I was supposed to be in the Body of Christ.

Alas, I was big on planning but short on fortitude. I was never able to show up alone to an entirely new church where I didn’t think I knew anyone. I visited the big United Methodist church in town several times with a couple of fellow teaching assistants, but I never felt like I belonged there. As the pressures and demands of grad school set in, I gave up, and within a couple of months, I was not going to church at all.

The first semester of grad school went very well; but the second semester got off to a very rocky start. I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I felt completely disconnected from people, more at odds with my classmates and professors than cooperative. I had no friends, I frequently thought. I had run into Audrey a couple of times at lectures, and she was just as friendly as she was when we met the first time, and though each time we promised to meet for coffee, nothing came of it.

I was washing out and I knew it. My classwork was suffering. I spent most of my time alone at my apartment. I went to bed each night with the overwhelming feeling of sinking. So I can only describe what happened next, something so personal that I’ve only told one or two others, as an act of God’s intervention. What I know is that this is not something I did, planned, or even expected at all.

Waking up

Roma sunrise

Sunrise over the Vatican. [Source]

I had a dream, about Audrey — about a friendship that was supposed to be. The dream was nothing at all romantic — she’s now married, and was very much taken even then — but it was real and personal and intense. I woke up feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time, and longing for that connection.

It was Saturday morning when I woke up from the dream, and suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to go to the library. I couldn’t explain it or why it was so important, but I felt that it was what I was supposed to do, like my life depended on it.

I was heading up to my study carrel, my hidden perch in the rafters of the library where I would withdraw and see no one else, when I almost ran into Audrey on the third floor landing. We stopped and talked. I remember being shushed (it is the quiet study floor), so we probably only spoke for a few moments. We talked about church — she must have brought it up, because I don’t think I would have.

She asked me where I was going to church, and I told her nowhere, and she said I should come with her sometime. I don’t think I mentioned my previous visit to St. John’s, but I started to rattle off my rehearsed list of Catholic objections: “I don’t like how the Catholic Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.” What Audrey said next was simple, but it made perfect sense, and I felt my objection crumbling: “It’s like authority for a historian.”

I’ve written about this conversation and this matter before, and I plan to write still more as I examine how I grappled with sola scriptura in my final approach to the Church. But the most important part of this meeting: she invited me to church, and I accepted; not the next day, I don’t think, but the Sunday after that.

Coming inside

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford. [Source]

The second time I attended Mass at St. John’s was an entirely different experience than the first. The first time I was frightened and unsure, a foreigner on the outside looking in to something foreign. This time I had been invited inside. Just that simple change — knowing that I knew somebody; knowing that somebody wanted me to be there; that I wasn’t a foreigner, but a welcome guest — made all the difference in the world.

I was taken aback by things I hadn’t noticed before. For one thing, this was the early Mass, on a typical Sunday (as opposed to the later Mass on an overcrowded Sunday I had witnessed before); and I got there early. People were quiet, reverent in the church, not socializing and carrying on, but kneeling and praying. I had never seen that sort of reverence before in church, except perhaps in Rome. Audrey had her magazine, the Magnificat, which had the prayers and readings from the Mass as well as reflections and stories about the saints. I was intrigued, and caught myself asking her about it in a normal tone of voice, not realizing that she wanted to pray and that I should be quiet.

From the very beginning of Mass, I think I was captured. The liturgical singing was according to traditional chant forms — I only knew that it sounded very ancient. As the cantor sang the closing, descending strains of Kyrie eleison, I imagined that what I was participating in reached back through the ages to the worship of the Apostles themselves.

[youtube https://youtu.be/Gzqnqan7r8w]

It was the same priest as before, the one I had thought was “goofy,” but somehow he didn’t seem that way at all this time. The difference, I think, was me: this time I was not there to be served but to earnestly seek. The people, the liturgy, the experience all seemed so much realer.

A Presence

Holy Eucharist elevation

The elevation of the Eucharist at the consecration. [Source]

When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, especially the consecration, I was overcome with an awe I can’t explain. I surely understood what Catholics believe about the Lord’s Supper, about Jesus’s Real Presence, and I had even entertained the thought in Protestant services; but I cannot say I was anywhere close to accepting it before that point. But in that moment, something came over me; I sensed something profound happening at the altar. It was more powerful, more immediate, more earthshaking than all the times in my youth I spoke of feeling the presence of God in the Holy Spirit; all the times I laughed or danced or was “slain in the Spirit.” It was not a fire, or a wind, or an ecstasy, but simply an overpowering presence. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” I said (as the liturgy of the Mass at that time read). Not only that, but I felt singularly unworthy to even gaze upon this mystery. “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I lowered my head and shielded my eyes, and did not look up again until we rose for the Lord’s Prayer.

For the longest time, I thought that what I was looking for more than anything in a church was community, fellowship with people like me with whom I could relate and share. That wasn’t what I immediately found in the Catholic Church: it was slow meeting people, and it was far from the social atmosphere I had envisioned. But then one day after I had been attending Mass for several weeks, as I was speaking the words of the Memorial Acclamation, I was again overcome by a feeling: I was not alone. More profoundly than I had ever felt it, I felt connected — not only with the couple of hundred people in that room, but with countless others whose presence I could only sense, not only connected by space throughout the world, but by time through all the ages: I was there, together with all the Christians who had ever lived, at the altar of the Lamb. It was still more than a year before I could partake in the Eucharist with the Church, but even in that moment, I felt the truth of true communion with the Lord and with His Body, the Church, in the Blessed Sacrament: the communion of saints.

I was falling in love with the Mass, both the visible and the invisible. I realized with a painful start that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church all those years, all the times that I presumed that it was “dead in religion,” bound up with empty ritual without any meaningful relationship to Christ. It was not the end of my journey to the Church, not by far, and there is still much to tell and share, how I dealt with doctrine and doubt. But this marks the beginning of the end: the day when I was finally confronted with, and brought to accept, the reality of where the Lord had been leading me for so many years. This was the destination of all my wanderings: my musical romance; my journeys with history; my long approach to Rome; my pilgrimage to the Eternal City itself; and every other landmark. All the signposts pointed here, I soon realized, with a gravity, finality, and not a little fear.

Oxford

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

The Lyceum, the University of Mississippi

The Lyceum at the University of Mississippi.

By the spring of 2010, I had narrowed my graduate search to three institutions, who each had accepted me to their history programs and offered me assistantships. I was not at all impressed with Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi; the less said about that the better. I was very pleasantly surprised by the faculty and department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But at the University of Misissippi in Oxford, Mississippi, I was immediately charmed and captured — by the town, by the campus, by the department, and by the people.

The Grove

The Grove.

I was especially swayed by the fact that, while at the other schools, I got the feeling that they were doing me a favor by extending their substantial assistantship packages to me and inviting me as a student; while at Mississippi, my impression was that they genuinely wanted me, that I would be doing them a favor by coming there. Even despite the generous offers of the other schools, the whole search and application process with them felt as if I were courting them, while at Mississippi, I felt that they were genuinely courting me. The graduate coordinator and the department chair both called me personally to invite me and offer their assistance. In meeting with the department chair, when I told him honestly that I loved what I saw, but that their assistantship was the lowest offer, he doubled the offer on the spot. A small cadre of friendly graduate students greeted me warmly, answered my questions, and generally made me feel welcome. I have no doubt that they had been requested to stay as a welcome party, but they stayed late into their afternoon to meet me, on Good Friday, when they didn’t have to; and as I later got to know them, I found them each to be genuinely friendly people.

Exploring the campus that day, I stepped into the library archives — since archives are among my favorite places in the world. I chatted up the archivist at the desk, who gladly answered my questions and told me how great the campus and town were. And then he told me that there was a history Ph.D. student working in the archives that day, and asked if I would like to meet her. He brought her back in a moment; and even more than anybody else I met that day, she was overflowing with passion and exuberance for history and for Oxford. She dropped what she was doing and for half an hour, poured out tips and advice that made this university and town a vivid prospect. And that was Audrey.

Audrey's Cup of Soul

I often think back and try to recollect how I became friends with someone; and often, it is simply inexplicable, other than to say that in that moment, something clicked. Perhaps, with Audrey, it was that we both shared interests in antebellum southern history, notably with the people, with farmers and planters. But neither of us is very outgoing, and Audrey, as an A.B.D. (“all but dissertation”) Ph.D. candidate, had largely withdrawn from interacting with new students. But from that bizarre moment, that chance meeting, that rare stroke of lightning, we were fast friends. I very much believe that this is something God designed: Audrey became one of my dearest friends, an encourager and fellow pilgrim.

That was Good Friday. When I got home, I added Audrey and the other students I had met on Facebook. And immediately I noticed the congratulations: Audrey had been received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil that Saturday night, and it was one of the other students I’d met, also Catholic, who was congratulating her! I felt a vague and somehat disquieting sinking in my stomach. Had I happened upon some sort of Catholic enclave? Even before I’d made a definite decision for Oxford, the thought occurred to me, with some misgiving: This is probably going to end up with me becoming Catholic.