A Pentecostal Discovers the True Working of the Holy Spirit

[I outlined this post a few Saturdays ago but got busy and didn’t finish it. It refers to the day’s prayers at Mass. For the record, they are from Saturday, March 18.]

worship concert

Growing up as a Pentecostal youth, pretty much the sum of my Christian experience was in waiting for, proclaiming, or savoring the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. High-powered, emotional worship services were all about experiencing the Holy Spirit through ecstatic detachment, “getting lost” in Jesus. I’ve written before about how this emotional experience of God was difficult to maintain, especially for a teen who struggled with depression and anxiety, and how ultimately it lacked a lot of substance in terms of real commitment or intellectual depth. It was about momentary excitement and stimulation, but after the emotion was passed, this didn’t always amount to a real change.

Whether it lasted or not, core to my faith in God was the belief that Holy Spirit is immanent in the Church and in our lives; that He works in us and through us daily; that He moves in us powerfully, inspires us, changes us, heals us. I believed in miracles, both in wondrous physical healing and in changed lives through spiritual transformation.

Holy Spirit

None of this faith was lost when I became Catholic. Though it’s true I’ve grown more skeptical of the sensational and the ecstatic, I still believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the Church, and that He has the power to change us and to heal us. I’ve often heard the complaint that the liturgical approach to experiencing God feels regimented, constricted, and limiting; that it “quenches the Holy Spirit” and does not allow Him to work; that unless we are free to “get lost” in worship, we are not giving God the freedom to move in us.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though at times it may seem, as it did to me early in my journey to Catholicism, that Catholic practice marginalizes the Holy Spirit or downplays His work (I once suggested here that Catholicism made the Holy Spirit a “tag-along”), in fact the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to everything the Church does and Christians do, to all our prayer and all our liturgy, to every work of God’s grace that we do and that God does in us, most of all to the Sacraments.

Come, Holy Spirit

Antiphon Veni Sancte Spiritus

A key difference that I observe between the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal or Charismatic one is that the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit is introspective, focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in us, while the Charismatic approach tends to focus on outward signs and manifestations. This is evident in the very ways in which we invoke the Holy Spirit. Charismatics very often speak of the Holy Spirit “filling this place” like an atmosphere, or “feeling the Holy Spirit here” as something external, as “the presence of God.” A popular song implores:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord

The presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Charismatic, is about “God showing up and showing out” — as I often heard. It is something that manifests itself most of all in a show of power and wondrous signs; something that overpowers the senses and overcomes the person.

The differences in the Catholic view can be seen in our own hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”):

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is chilled,
correct what goes astray.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to your faithful,
those who trust in you,
the sevenfold gifts.

For the Catholic, the coming of the Holy Spirit is not so much about “filling this place” as about “filling our hearts“; not about outward displays or manifestations so much as about inward sanctification, healing, and transformation.

The Holy Spirit in the Sacraments

Holy Spirit EucharistThe essential ground of the Holy Spirit is the Sacraments. When I was first becoming Catholic, I was so accustomed to looking for the Holy Spirit in outward signs and wonders that I mistook that He was missing or absent from Catholic life altogether. Far from being absent, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on the earth, and is present in the Church, in everything we do, and most of all in us. In each of the Sacraments, God works in our lives and communicates His grace to us through the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5-7); we are washed, regenerated, and renewed (Titus 3:5) — and the agent is the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of Confession, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who forgives our sins and accomplishes the same cleansing (1 John 1:9). And most powerfully and intimately in the Eucharist, it is the Holy Spirit who makes present the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in His Paschal mystery. I was struck today by how the Mass’s prayer after Communion highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in us:

May your divine Sacrament, O Lord, which we have received,
fill the inner depths of our heart
and, by its working mightily within us,
make us partakers of its grace.
Through Christ our Lord.

In a real way, both physically and spiritually, the Sacrament fills us — but it is the Holy Spirit Who through it, fills the innermost depths of our heart and works mightily within us. I don’t think I had made this connection before, between the reality of the Lord’s Presence in the Eucharist and the presence of the Holy Spirit as worker. But certainly I had always felt this innately.

From the very first time I received the Lord in the Eucharist — and every time since — I have felt this powerfully and viscerally: the Lord Himself working powerfully in my heart, more intimately than I had ever experienced before — an overpowering sense of being touched, inhabited, seized from within. This working is transformative: Coming to the Sacrament from the greatest places of darkness and despair, it has never failed to bring light to my heart; from the deepest hurt, it has brought healing and restoration; from the brink of the greatest temptation, it has brought strength and respite; even from moments or boredom, disinterest, and not wanting to be there, it has brought, unexpected and unlooked for, a renewed focus and friendship with the Lord. In the truest sense, I am overcome by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, in my encounter with Him.

The Bread of LifeJesus worked His miracles through physical touch, visiting His people in the flesh and impacting their lives by direct and physical interaction. He gave us the Eucharist using the same physical language of encounter: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) As He invited sinners throughout his earthly ministry, He invites us to sup with Him and share a meal with Him (Revelation 3:20). After He ascended bodily to Heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to be our Paraclete, He nonetheless left us with the possibility, in that meal and through the Spirit, of such an intimate encounter with Him. As He touched us physically during His earthly ministry, through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he continues to touch us physically in the most intimate communion, and through that touch to work powerfully in our hearts and spirits. The Sacraments are the means by which the Holy Spirit enters, is poured into our lives. He literally fills us and transforms us.

Key to Protestant misunderstandings

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 - 1531).

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531).

It occurs to me that understanding of the Holy Spirit’s central role in the Sacraments is the key to several Protestant misunderstandings. Of the Eucharist in particular, it is easy for the mind to trip over the physical claims about the real presence of the Lord, when the truth is not one of material at all but of encounter and indwelling, concepts Protestants readily understand in speaking of the Holy Spirit.

Even more important, Protestants routinely charge that Catholic claims about receiving grace through the Sacraments amounts to a system of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow we are subjecting the reception of grace to what we do or to human working. It is only in the understanding that each of the Sacraments is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, given to us in grace, that this myth can be dispelled. Where is the “human work”? In requiring that we do something? Humans need only be there, to receive the grace. In placing the Sacraments at the hands of a priest? The priest is only a servant, a vessel, a tool; it is only the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the work. Is it in making grace about something more than “faith alone”? It is only the most radical misreading of Paul that presumes even the Sacraments of the Church to be “works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5, which is one of the most explicit references in Scripture to the efficacy of Baptism as “the bath of regeneration” by the Holy Spirit). In neither the views of Jesus or of Paul does “faith” exclude action: Jesus asks His listeners to step out in faith in order to receive their healing (e.g. Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 17:11-19; John 9:1-7); Paul, as above, holds forth sacramental means of grace (et. e.g. Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:27) rather than a bare “faith alone” — which threatens, as much as any charge against Catholics of “works’ righteousness” to make grace subject to the action of the person (having faith) rather than the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the glue of our faith: In a Trinitarian sense, neither the Father nor the Son, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from both. He is the medium of grace, the means, the actor and worker in our lives and in the Church, by which we are filled, renewed, healed, and transformed. It is in the Holy Spirit that we are bound to God and to each other in communion. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on earth, the person through whom we encounter God and Christ — and that encounter, the place of our God entering our lives and working in our hearts, is most viscerally and tangibly in the Sacraments.

The Church, Lost and Found: My First Concise, Complete Conversion Narrative

Introduction

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where I entered the Church.

Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church, after more than thirty years as an Evangelical Protestant. I do not think of my story in terms of “leaving Protestantism.” I never thought that I was leaving or abandoning the faith I grew up with; in my mind, I was a coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the truth. I would not say that there was anything fundamentally deficient in my faith as a Protestant that would cause me to abandon it; instead it was incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. If my journey must be put it in the terms of leaving Protestantism, it is true that I did have to let go of some particular doctrinal formulations; but nothing I believe now is a contradiction or renunciation of anything I believed before. I feel that I now see the fuller picture, and have a fuller, more fulfilling relationship with God.

Growing Up

The story of my journey truthfully begins years and years ago, in my earliest childhood and earliest experiences as a Christian. I can see a thousand signposts all along the way that ultimately led me here, small realizations and inclinations and longings that didn’t find fulfillment until years later.

Pentecostes, El Greco_1597

El Greco, Pentecostés (1597).

I grew up mostly in a Pentecostal, Charismatic sort of Christianity; for most of my growing-up years I was a member of a vibrant Assemblies of God church in Decatur, Alabama. I had spent my earliest childhood in a small nondenominational church, then several years in the United Methodist church, visiting various Baptist churches along the way. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when I was three years old, was baptized when I was twelve, and had a committed and sincere but pretty superficial faith for most of my childhood. I never had much formal Bible study or instruction in doctrine. The few times I encountered any form of deep study, I lapped it up voraciously.

In high school I had a very dynamic youth pastor, who inspired me to be “on fire” for God and to strive to win my school for Christ. It was a very fervent and emotional faith. Being emotionally volatile like many teenagers, however, this also made it a volatile faith, and not a very firm foundation for a relationship with God. By the end of high school, I ended up feeling very hurt and abandoned by my church, and I fell away from church involvement, though I always prayed and claimed to be a Christian. I entered a long period of spiritual wandering.

The Church That Was Lost

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

In college I was drawn eventually to the study of history. My first important mentor in history, Dr. G, was an old-school medievalist and classicist with a burning love for the great men of history. He taught me Latin, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of learning and sources; and he taught me the history of Christianity. Some of the most important classes he taught me were the History of the Christian Church, from the beginning up through the Reformation, and Medieval Latin, in which we read firsthand, in their original languages, the writings of Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bede, and a dozen or so other Church Fathers and medieval Christian thinkers. Dr. G was the son of a long line of renowned Lutheran ministers. When he taught Church history, his lectures came alive with love and admiration for the Church Fathers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Gregory, Bernard, and many more—and with equal love and admiration for the Protestant Reformers. He presented this dichotomy without conflict or cognitive dissonance. It laid the foundation for the intellectual development of my faith.

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

Through all of that study I came to a great love of the Church Fathers, too. Reading them, I found a purer, realer faith than anything I had ever known in church, something immediate and profound that seemed unclouded by the doubt and uncertainty I had always felt growing up. I never associated the Church Fathers with the modern Catholic Church. In my mind, the modern Catholic Church was something of “dead religion,” caught up in empty ritual and cold theology and devoid of any sense of a real relationship with Christ. When I read the Church Fathers, I had the sense that their Church and their faith was lost and irrecoverable, and I lamented its loss.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, Rome.

At the culmination of that study, I went with Dr. G and a group from school to Rome, the Eternal City. Over a two-week course, we traversed the 3,000-year history of Rome, having lectures in the morning and then going out in the afternoon to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s era of history. I was especially—and unexpectedly—moved by the churches. Standing at the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, I was overcome with emotion, as all Paul’s words in Scripture that had meant so much to me flooded back, and I knelt tearfully at the altar, thanking God for His servant. That trip became a pilgrimage for me. It was the first time in years I had really felt drawn powerfully to God and to prayer. I admired the beauty and art and history of the Catholic churches I visited, but it didn’t make me seriously consider being Catholic—this was still seven years before I would.

Striving

"Lord, Give Me Eyes to See." (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

“Lord, Give Me Eyes to See.” (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

But my pilgrimage did awaken in me a desire to get back in church and have a renewed relationship with God. I felt very wary of my childhood faith and church—of placing so much emphasis on emotion and experience—so I read and studied and tried to come to an intellectual understanding of various systems of doctrine and reason out for myself what I believed and what church I belonged in. It was a daunting task, not having any firm foundation in theology, and I became frustrated. I eventually resigned myself to the conclusion that each of the various camps had strong arguments for their positions, that Scripture wasn’t clear enough for me to discern, and that I would study and admire the different schools equally and hope God could sort it out. During this time, I visited a lot of different churches, especially Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

My car (may she rest in pieces) versus the dump truck.

After a year of this endeavor of striving in myself to find where I belonged in God, I again grew frustrated. I felt hurt, and rather than running toward God, I again found myself running away. I had once commented, after my years of wandering, that if God really wanted to get my attention, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul. I wished for his lot: I should have been careful what I wished for. While I was on a road trip, just north of Columbus, Ohio, my car was struck on the driver’s side door by a concrete-laden dump truck. I was medflighted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where I was found completely unresponsive, with tests indicating a deep coma or brain death.

It very well might have been the end of the road for me. I was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, the likes of which most patients do not survive, or if they do, most face serious disabilities for the rest of their lives. The doctors offered no prognosis. But my family, my friends, even many people I did not know, surrounded me with their prayers. Against the odds, I recovered. Not only did I recover, but I recovered completely, without lingering deficits, and I recovered remarkably quickly. A mere three weeks after the accident, with broken bones, I returned home to hobble through the semester of school I’d very nearly missed for good.

This near-death experience, though it took some time and some humiliation to realize it, reaffirmed my faith that God had His hand on my life and a plan for me. Swallowing my pride, I returned to church, to the church of my parents I had left so many years before. There God began a period of spiritual recovery, of rebuilding walls that I had torn down. My home church was a safe harbor and sanctuary, for a time. But I felt that it was only a waypoint, that God still was leading me onward to a fuller knowledge of the faith. I continued to visit churches and read about theology. I felt especially drawn to the intellectually rigorous Reformed theological tradition (Calvinism), and even bought myself a handsome leather-bound ESV Study Bible for my thirtieth birthday.

Veritas

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in history, I went to work teaching at Veritas Classical School, a homeschool co-op. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with Calvinism in a way I hadn’t ever been before. Most of the teachers in that school system were strongly Reformed, and in my teacher training I was encouraged to teach history from that doctrinal commitment. I was fascinated by the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition; I enjoyed attending Presbyterian churches and loved the Reformed friends I made; but faced with apprehending and accepting some of the specific tenets of Calvinism—especially belief in an absolute sovereignty of God such that God ordains all things, even evil, and an unconditional election such that some people were created to be damned and had no hope whatsoever for redemption, by God’s sovereign decree—I blanched. Over the long weekend of that training, I was plunged into a deep despair; I resolved that either God was a monster and I had no wish to serve him or that the Calvinist understanding of God must be mistaken. I backed away from that and never seriously considered Calvinism again.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

But while I was at Veritas, I was tasked with teaching medieval history, Christian Latin, and Koine Greek. They were the very things that had brought me so much love for the Early Church and the Church Fathers and the Medieval Catholic Church in the first place, and I filled my lectures with all the sentiment and longing I had ever felt for those things. I affectionately introduced my students to great popes, bishops, abbots, monks; to Church Fathers and theologians and councils; to the rich etymologies of the terms of early and medieval Christianity, and their scriptural foundations; and in teaching all this, I had to study it even more deeply than I had before, and I realized more fully than ever what a firm foundation it all was. At the beginning of the year, I had my students all read the Nicene Creed and affirm the common faith of us all—since among my students were Protestants of all stripes and even a few Catholics.

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

The semester culminated in the Protestant Reformation, which in my view going into teaching it, was a flowering of Christian thought and a reaffirmation of Christian principles. I tried to bring the same glowing passion to the Reformation’s characters as Dr. G had; but in the process of preparing my lessons, I was stunned to discover that the reality of the Reformation was anything but the majesty I had imagined. In addition to the heroic Luther and Calvin, I found numerous other scattered and disparate movements and sects; wide, fundamental disagreement even from the start; and the beginnings of the general factiousness that had been my experience of Christianity all my life. I realized for the first time the stark contrast of this with the glorious Church I had been proclaiming the rest of the year. Dr. G could apparently pull off the duality of presenting both without cognitive dissonance; I could not.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, master of Renaissance polyphony.

While I was immersed in the medieval Church over the course of that year, I discovered Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony, which struck me as something heavenly and transcendent that guided me to a deeper life of prayer and Bible study. I read through the Rule of St. Benedict and the Order of the Mass. I began observing the calendar of saints as a way of remembering great Christians of the past. I even downloaded a Catholic app on my phone and began following the Catholic lectionary as a handy method for organizing my Scripture readings—since, I reasoned, somebody else had already done the work of distributing the Bible throughout the calendar. Through all of this, I denied vehemently that I was becoming Catholic or even interested in becoming Catholic. When the question was raised, and it was, I rattled off rehearsed reasons why the Catholic Church was fallen and apostate, et cetera; why I disagreed with Catholic doctrine; why I wouldn’t have any of it.

The Church That Was Found

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. (Source)

When I went to graduate school the next year, I had no intention at all of becoming Catholic. I made a list of churches to visit in my new town, and the Catholic Church wasn’t one of them. And yet completely by accident I had made a Catholic friend when I visited the campus. When she invited me to Mass, I decided to go. To my amazement, rather than the dryness and empty ritual I had expected, I found a rich, moving spiritual experience that brought me the sense that I was kneeling in communion with Christians of all ages past—and with the Lord. The next week, hungry for more, I went back.

Young Catholic adults

Young Catholic adults, incidentally at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (Source)

After all my years running away from experience as a criterion of faith, it was ultimately my experience of Catholicism that brought me over the threshold. Those weeks of witnessing the Mass, as I exulted in the presence of the Lord, something was happening intellectually that I hardly even realized at the time. All of those reasons I had been reciting against Catholicism were collapsing, as I saw that everything I had ever believed about Catholics was wrong: Catholics do have a very close, a very committed, a very real relationship with Christ; the theology I had dismissed as cold was living and vibrant; the ritual and liturgy was not empty, but every bit of it meaningful and worshipful.

The Mass

It didn’t take me long to realize that the faith and the Church I had always admired so much in the Church Fathers was still there and still alive in the Catholic Church; that the Church still embraced, upheld, stood upon, and celebrated that heritage and foundation. The truths of the faith held by the Fathers, the ancient doctrines they affirmed, were still there and still held true. And I found that so much of what I had always been longing for and searching for was there, even the longings I had never known how to articulate. After a few months of attending Mass weekly, I began attending daily. I admitted at last that I was onto something, and decided to begin the RCIA class when it resumed in the fall.

This is not the end of the story. I had been brought into the antechamber of the Church, but there was still a process of catechesis and formation, dialogue and the occasional dispute, and studying and working through Catholic doctrine, coming to terms with what it meant in light of my experience so far. But it is the end of the beginning, the turning point of my faith journey. Now, four years after entering the Church, I feel a fuller, firmer, and more committed faith, and a deeper understanding, than I ever had before. I don’t look back on my days growing up Protestant with any disdain at all, but with a lot of love and appreciation for the firm foundation it laid, and the road it paved that led me the fullness I have found.

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.