Click here for the beginning of my story.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

IV: A Miraculous Resuscitation

My spiritual journey had taken an ironic twist. I had gone from being a merely nominal Christian, to being an on-fire born-again evangelical Southern Baptist Christian, only to end up an avowed non-Christian, all within two years.

I truly did not consider myself a Christian. I was also not afraid to tell Christians I knew why I was not one, and why they should not be one either. They did not provide any compelling responses to me and I became more confident that there really were no good answers to my objections. Yes, I had become arrogant.

But I was drifting aimlessly, and I knew it. I still believed in the existence of God, and constructed several theories about Him in my mind. These theories evolved over time into the general shapeless idea that all religions were equally valid paths to the same Divine Being. God was too big to be contained in one religion, I thought. The problem was that I was not convinced enough to settle into any one of these religions myself, and so I drifted along with no solid direction or purpose in life.

I long to hasten past this sad and grey period and to describe the time, still nearly nine years in the future, when God would bring me home to the Catholic Church. But before that I must relate how God got me out of this spiritual wasteland.

Despite my having ceased to wrestle with my doubts any longer, and having walked away from the Christian faith altogether due to my persistent anxiety over those doubts, there still remained in me a restless discontent. I had found no peace in abandoning the war. Although I tried to slip back into my prior worldly life, there was something different. The secular amusements with friends did not have the same draw for me that they did before. I had a gnawing sense of unease about living without a purpose. I had not had a sense of this before, when I was simply living as a nominal Christian. I suppose at that time I was in the ranks of the blissfully ignorant. Now, despite my best attempts to return to that state, I could not be content with it anymore. I had tasted what it was like for my existence to have a profound meaning. Now that I had lost my grasp on that meaning, the void it left behind tormented me. My head was swirling in a thick fog, and I stumbled through successive days with no clear sense of where I was going.

Then a strange impulse quite unexpectedly pierced through the fog and stirred something deep within me. I hesitate to describe it, as I will surely fail, but it was like a peaceful light, very subtle and very brief, but very poignant. It was momentous, but at the same time it was very simple - a fresh awareness of the most ordinary things in life - a wistful almost nostalgic sensation. I recall that I was in a local “home-cooking” restaurant and I saw an old-fashioned rocking chair. Of all the things to catch my attention, it was a plain old wooden rocking chair. Yet it caused me to imagine, for a brief yet vivid moment, a venerable old man rocking on his front porch, serenely gazing back over the good long life he had shared with his kindly wife, and all of the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren who had filled his life with laughter and joy - the memories and love they all shared together. Infused throughout this image was a particular quality that will have to remain undescribed because there are no sufficient words for it; words like Joy or Peace do not go far enough. I don’t know, but the way the sunlight came through the window, the smells of the food cooking, the rocking chair - all of this struck a peculiar but powerful chord in my heart. It was a sort of interior glimpse of all the innocent delights of life - simple, clean, innocent delight - of a warm smile from a fellow human being, of family and good friends - the warmth of a home in winter, good conversation. All of this hit me with a swift yet gentle blow and was gone.

I gazed silently out of the window at a world that for me looked familiar and yet at the same time somehow new. I gazed also as if watching whatever had touched me in that moment drift away, and wishing that it would return. I had no name for it, but I knew that I wanted it, and for it to be my life.

This momentary experience laid out a road before me to follow, a goal to pursue. Although it contained within it an idyllic vision of settling down with a family in a wholesome and innocent life and love together, there was that additional “something” beyond all of that which eluded description, and was the real heart of it all. In examining this in the following days, I realized that everything in the “vision” was founded largely upon the peace and joy and moral ethics of Christianity. An essential unspoken assumption in the picture was of a family involved in a common spiritual life together, and the wholesome influence that the Christian faith had on every part of their life. It necessarily involved the traditional central role of involvement in a church as a family. This, of course, left me in a quandary.

During the period after my rejection of the Christian faith, I had retained a moral conscience, and my religion, if it could be called that, was to live by this conscience. I would do that which I knew was right and I would not do that which I knew was wrong. This conscience, I believed, was what God had placed within each person, and each person was in turn expected to live according to it. It was what God used to judge people after they die. I had nothing more sophisticated worked out, but this was what I was striving to live by.

However, it did not take me long to realize that I could not follow my conscience and live a good moral life on my own strength. As a community college student still living at home, I knew that I was on the cusp of entering a wide world, full of attractions of all kinds, and very real moral dangers. I felt the great weight of its pull and I did not like it. I wanted to be good, but the world that I was about to enter into did not hold goodness in high esteem. I was frightened that I would not be able to live by my personal moral code, because I knew how weak I was in myself. The great gravitational pull of a sinful world loomed heavy on my mind. What foundation did I stand upon, and could I stand there for long? My feet were not on solid ground and I knew it. I needed something to hold me up.

I eventually lacked so much peace about this that I could not sleep at night. Restlessness burned inside my head like a fever. At times it seemed that a great darkness was intent on swallowing me, especially in the quiet hours of night. I would lay there staring up and would feel the weight of a terrible darkness bearing down upon me.

During this time I began to have the sense that was going to die soon. I felt fragile and helpless. I felt the intensity of a dark and fearful presence, but at the same time I felt that God was close as well. One night, I sent a prayer out into the oppressive darkness: “Help me!” A strange calm descended upon me, although the darkness was still very close, and I sensed that my prayer had been received.

I still clung to the simple innocent joy that I had glimpsed, the promise that there was something deep and wonderful out there which alone could satisfy the longings of my heart, while at the same time I felt the rumble of dark forces closing in on all sides to keep me from obtaining it. I eventually decided, out of pure desperation, to take a drastic and irrevocable step to achieve peace.

I thought about all of the devoted Christians I had known. They seemed to possess a certain measure of that peace and joy that I longed for. None of the alternatives to Christianity attracted me in the same wholesome and innocent way. I realized that, for better or worse, Christianity was still interwoven into my being as a vital ingredient to a happy life. Many people I knew seemed like blissfully happy Christians. I began to wonder: was it possible for me to decide to live a Christian life, even while having mental reservations as to the actual truthfulness of its specific doctrinal and historical claims?

I had the thought that if there was a religious system which taught that the only way one could go to Heaven was to commit suicide, then for someone to actually go ahead and do that would be an act of complete faith, though mistaken, because it would be an irrevocable decision. If the person went to Hell instead, they could not take back their choice; they would have to endure the consequences of their decision. I began to think that I could do that sort of thing with Christianity.

I was aware that there was evidence to support Christianity which had convinced millions upon millions, many of whom were much more intelligent and knowledgeable than I was. Their lives shone with a light and a hope in an otherwise dark and hopeless world. It would certainly not be a blind faith in a new untested religion for me to choose to believe.

Therefore, I wrote out a contract with myself, which said something like “I will believe that everything in the Bible is true for the rest of my life”. I looked that statement that for a long time. I considered all of its implications; I was taking this very seriously. I wanted the decision to be irrevocable. I told myself that even if Buddha returned to Earth one day and the claims of Christianity were finally proven false, I would still have to believe and suffer the consequences of that belief. There was no going back. After a long period of sitting there and letting the decision sink in, I signed the contract.

There was nothing spectacular that happened immediately afterwards. In fact, as was expected, all of the old doubts that I had battled with before returned to taunt me: Noah’s Ark and the other “improbable” Bible stories, the unexplained difficult passages of Scripture and all of the rest. However, this time I responded differently.

Instead of trying to reason with my own logic why Christianity was true in spite of the seeming evidences to the contrary, I responded to these doubts with the simple statement: “I believe”. Even if these things do prove the Bible false, I told myself, I still have made the irrevocable decision to believe. This change in my response actually made a huge difference. The difficulties were no longer an unendurable torment for me. And when I no longer obsessed about them, they began to fade out of my conscious thought. This was going to work, I thought. I could build my life on the foundation of the Christian religion. Millions of others had done so and had found peace and joy and moral strength, and so could I. It did not bother me that I was not convinced that it was actually true.

Then a miracle took place that changed everything.

I remember vividly the moment it occurred. I was walking down the hall at my community college, surrounded by throngs of fellow students, when the sudden simple realization came to me that Christianity is true. It was like a dark veil had been suddenly lifted from over my eyes and I could see. At that moment, I knew with certainty that Jesus was there with me; the reality of His presence could not be denied. I realized that He had been with me all along, to bring me around to that very point. He had guided all of the circumstances, and used my own longings and fears, tenderly leading me along to make a leap of faith, a leap truly into His loving arms.

I then recalled the prayer for “further light” that I had made back when I was in the throes of my doubts nearly two years prior. Even though I had since lost hope and had forgotten to actually wait for Him to answer, He had mercy on me anyway; and in His time He granted me the light of faith - the gift of spiritual sight - to truly see Him, to know Him and in knowing Him, to love Him. I had been stumbling around in the dark but I had never really been alone. God was patient with my doubts and brought my steps around in a most unexpected way back to Him, and I owed Him my life and all that I was.

What happened with the doubts that so overwhelmed me before?

I had been given new eyes of faith now, and when faced with objections to Christianity regarding those difficult scripture verses I could be content to know that it was “somehow” true, even if I did not understand exactly how myself. Proverbs 3:5 became a key verse for me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” I had sought to rely on my own understanding too much before, and fell away. But now I knew with certainty that Jesus was real and worthy of my total trust. To deny this would be like denying that the sun was shining on a cloudless day.

I have never doubted the reality of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Gospel since that day. I was given the marvelous gift of faith, along with a great desire to seek God and to allow Him to accomplish His perfect Will in my life.

Nothing was going to hold me back.

To be continued in Part 5 of My Conversion Story: "Protestant Passion."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Darkness and Light

While writing my last post, I realized anew how dark some of the portions of my journey were. But at the same time, comprehending the full story to the present, I appreciate the fact that, as in many great paintings, the dark shadows serve to offset and accentuate the bright and beautiful elements which constitute the main subject of interest. I have passed through several deep and fearful valleys in my journey towards God only to arrive on the other side at a higher and more glorious peak than before. The tentative and faltering steps at the beginning of the spiritual life can lead later, by God’s grace, to mountaintop vistas where one is moved by what is seen to cry out:
O Light! O Love!
     O Beauty Resplendent!
O Brilliance encompassing
     all things else!
O Refulgence Cascading!
     O Glittering Radiance!
O Bliss! O Hope!
     O Gladness Unforeseen!
O Great and Boundless Good!
     O Beauteous Nameless Joy!
O Serene and Golden Light
     from a clear and cloudless sky!
O Enchanted Blessedness!
     O Sight Most Fair!
O Sweetness! O Treasure!
     O Loveliness Beyond Telling!
O Lamp of Clear Wisdom!
     O Splendour Most Pure!
O Light! O Love!
     O Life! O God!

And from these heights one can look out upon the lands through which one has journeyed, and indeed upon the whole world, and see that:
In a marvelous way the world is changed
with nothing altered or rearranged
The facts themselves remaining true
each one gains a golden hue
the fair, the foul, the good, the bad
the mundane, the happy and the sad
all beheld in contemplative sight
become infused with a glorious light
each detail sharp and crisp and clear
each illumined with a meaning dear
and all together in perfect peace
serenely move and never cease
around the core of Love unmade
shining through each with glory arrayed
and rising upward one can see
what is past and what will be
and what is now seamlessly sewn
and in circling together is clearly shown
a Light, a Love infused throughout
and not one particle or thread left out
making up a glorious glorious world
a manifestation of Love unfurled!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

III: The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith

“Radically Saved!” My t-shirt said it all. I was indeed saved and soaring high. In the months after “getting saved” my enthusiasm did not lessen but steadily grew and consumed my whole life. I was learning a great deal about the Christian Faith and could not get enough. An intense hunger to read the Bible filled me and I set aside significant time each day to study. I sent off for free Bible courses and read anything I could get my hands on about following Jesus. I learned to spend daily “quiet time” alone with Him in prayer, which I faithfully did as I sought to get to know the One who had saved me. However, although my personal devotion was commendable, I really had no sense of the importance of any larger Church community in decisions of doctrine or faith. It was the Bible alone, and whichever interpretation of the Bible sounded most reasonable to me.

Although I was a Methodist, most of the material I read was from a decidedly fundamentalist angle, in that I was learning to take everything in the Bible as literally true. This made sense to me because, being God’s Word, it only followed that the Bible had no errors in it. I needed a firm authority to tell me what was true, and for me this was the Bible alone. I was not aware of any other approach to Christianity. To me, if one was a Christian then by definition one believed that the Bible was God’s “instruction manual” on how to be a Christian. There was no other authority needed. A bumper sticker popular at the time stated this doctrine succinctly: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!”

One shift that had taken place in my life which demonstrated how serious I was taking all of this was that the music I listened to completely changed. I jettisoned all the secular "worldly" music that was so much part of my identity, in favor of Contemporary Christian Music artists like Petra and Michael W. Smith. This was indeed a tremendous sacrifice for me to make at the time but it was important for me to surround myself with all that was explicitly Christian and to make a clear break with “my old self”. I was shifting into this new life with all of my heart.

I was talking about Jesus everywhere. I brought Him up at home, at work, and at school among my friends. People told me how different I was, that my attitude was better, and that I seemed happier. Ever sarcastic before, I felt more inclined now to restrain my biting remarks and jokes and treat others with more kindness. At church youth group, my friends and I had formerly been the troublesome crew in the back of the room, but now I spoke up with fervor about my new life in Christ and the leaders and my fellow youth seemed amazed. At times, however, my bold fervor spilled over into spiritual pride: Why wasn’t everyone like me and on fire for God? Why wasn’t everyone excited about Jesus and the difference he can make?

Another significant change took place in my life around this time as my family decided to change denominations. After attending a Methodist church for all my life, our Sunday mornings now found us in the pews of a local Southern Baptist church. This suited me fine, as Baptist evangelicalism seemed more in keeping with my passionate enthusiasm. I considered the more liturgical Methodist church services as “dead” when compared with the livelier and less formal Baptist gatherings.

While in the Baptist church, I was soon taught that the baptism which I had received as an infant in the Methodist was not a “real” baptism. I needed “believer’s baptism”, now that I had made my own decision for Christ. I went along with this teaching because it was based on certain Bible verses which seemed to show that baptism was only meant for people who are old enough to decide for themselves. This act was seen as a good way to demonstrate publicly that I had become a true Christian. So one Sunday evening in November 1989, I stepped into the large tank of water behind the choir loft at Central Baptist Church and the pastor fully immersed me, making me an official Southern Baptist believer. I enjoyed a warm welcome into the church community and all seemed to be going very well with me.

But in the midst of these bright golden days of evangelical sunshine, a dark cloud began to form. It appeared small at first but in time it began to loom larger over me and the sky lost a great deal of its brightness. A strange specter began to haunt the halls of my mind, disturbing my peace and mocking my enthusiasm. The name of the specter was Doubt.

It ironically sprang from my voracious reading of the Bible. I took for granted that the Bible was completely true and free from error in every historical fact and detail. Being analytical by nature, my mind wanted answers to all the questions that were raised by certain passages that I read. I wanted to know how God made the Universe in six days only a few thousand years ago, according to the apparent timetable in Genesis, when science seemed to demonstrate that the Earth itself is millions of years old? How do the fossil records and the dinosaurs fit into the Biblical account of Creation? How did Jonah live inside the belly of that fish? The story of Noah and the Ark bothered me greatly, as I could not see how all those animals fit on the Ark and lived there together for a hundred days and nights. A related question was regarding animals like the kangaroo and koala and how they got from Noah’s Ark all the way to the island of Australia, which is the only place where they are found. These questions seem so juvenile to me now, but they were the types of questions that I really wanted answers to at the time.

I also had questions about the miracles of Jesus, which for some reason sparked incredulity in me whenever I read them. Just how did Jesus multiply those few loaves of bread into enough to feed thousands or walk on water? These events seemed too unreal to be believed literally.

Above all of these, I think it was the inconsistencies that I noticed in the various accounts of the Resurrection as given in the four Gospels that most confounded me. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection and encounter one angel (Matt. 28:5 and Mark 16:5), while in Luke the same group encounters two angels (Luke 24:4). The Gospel of John relates an entirely different sequence of events and tells of Mary Magdalene coming alone to the tomb that morning and encountering no one. She returns to the tomb after Peter and John inspect the empty tomb. After the disciples leave again she sees two angels and then Jesus Himself (John 20:1-18). This matches the Gospel of Mark which states that when Jesus “rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Mark 16:9), but Paul seemed to indicate in his first letter to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to Peter first (1 Cor. 15:4-5). These passages and many like them left me thoroughly confused. In my mind they could not all be true, as they contained conflicting statements, yet the Bible was supposed to be without error from cover to cover. The ground under my feet was starting to rumble.

I sought feverishly for answers to all of these questions in various Biblical commentaries and Evangelical apologetics materials, but unfortunately I found less than satisfying explanations or the difficult issues were glossed over or ignored altogether. My doubts persisted and expanded until I began battling with questions that struck deeper into the roots of the Faith: There are so many religions in the world, so how did I know that Christianity was the only one that was true? If I was born in another part of the world, I may have been brought up in a different religion and would have thought that religion to be true. How could I think that I just happened to be born into the one true religion? How did I know that the New Testament was not just made up by some people 2000 years ago? Perhaps Jesus never lived. How could I know for sure? Questions like these swarmed around me like stinging flies. I looked for proof after proof to force them away, but nothing was effective. I examined the prophecies in the Old Testament and how they related to Jesus, but my mind instantly sabotaged such efforts by formulating counter-arguments: perhaps the people who wrote the New Testament simply made their fiction fit the prophecies about their expected Messiah. The moment I thought that I had banished one difficulty another one would materialize. While dealing with that one, the previous difficulty would reappear with renewed strength. I could not ignore these doubts, but the more I struggled to confront them, the worse they got. I poured out prayer after prayer, but these were met only with silence.

At the local public library one afternoon, searching desperately for some book to help me, I came upon one volume bearing the inflammatory title: “All of the Contradictions and Inconsistencies in the Bible”. Unfortunately, I picked up this book up and began reading. One by one the author laid out apparent contradiction after apparent contradiction. I tried to deal with them the best I could, but to no avail. Some were petty (such as pointing out that Jesus called the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds” (Matt. 31:32), but it is now known that there are many seeds much smaller than the mustard seed). Some were truly perplexing, many of which I had never thought of. It was pointed out that there were parallel accounts of the same incidents in the Old Testament (for example, in the books of Kings and Chronicles) which, when compared to each other, contained contradictory information and details. Of course, the author also took delight in emphasizing the similar inconsistencies which I had already noticed in the various Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.

I began to truly get overwhelmed but I could not put the book down. I had been taught that every word in the Bible was true and without error, and yet there were all these apparent mistakes and contradictions which I would not explain away. I did not want to admit defeat, so I kept trying to convince myself that all these supposed errors in the Bible were not really errors. However, I was still new to Scripture study and did not have sufficient knowledge in myself to combat this threat. God seemed so silent and I felt very much on my own.

The unresolved doubts began to pile up and smother my newborn faith. Standing there in that library aisle I felt a sinking feeling that I had been duped. I thought for the first time in my life that it was quite possible that Christianity was not true. I felt that those who had taught me about Christianity had held this back from me. They knew about the Bible’s self-contradictions and yet continued to teach that it was true. I had been tricked. There was a deep deep emptiness that settled upon me. I truly wanted to believe but my mind would not let me. I could not force myself to believe something when I could not logically see how it could be true. The doubts were all that I could see whenever I prayed or read the Bible and I could not see beyond them.

I did go talk with the pastor at my Baptist church and spilled out honestly what I was dealing with. Both he and the youth pastor listened to what I was saying and seemed to be eager to help. However, they did not have any answers for my many questions. They acted like these questions really were not that important. In the end, they took a sort of jovial approach, and with a slap on the back sent me on my way with the admonition to “plow on”. The only other comment I recall them making was “The devil’s really workin’ on you, isn’t he?” I thought to myself that that did not help me at all because I was having serious doubts that there even was a devil or anything else that the Bible taught. I was not encouraged after this meeting and I slipped further away into my doubts.

How long can one keep up the fight against persistent doubts? It was an ever-present obsession in my mind. I doubted when I woke up in the morning and I doubted all day long. I doubted at night when I laid my head on my pillow and I lay there doubting in the darkness until I drifted uneasily into sleep. This went on for weeks and months until I think I just collapsed from sheer exhaustion. After a year and a half of flying high, my faith laid down and died a pitiful death.

I grieved this loss in silence for some time, but my life had to go on. It had been an exciting period of newfound faith, and it was disappointing to have it live such a short life, but there was nothing I could do to revive it. I entered into a period of a sort of “agnostic deism”. I retained a belief in a Divine Being as this was evident to me from the created world, but I did not know if this was the God of Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism or some other world religion, or perhaps of no organized religion at all. Perhaps He was not even directly involved with the world after He created it. God seemed distant again and I was alone to figure out the rest of my life.

I recall at that time writing a poem, which was based on a “Christian Agnostic” book I read. I have since lost the poem, but I still recall the title as it was the same as the book: “Awaiting Further Light”. This phrase appropriately describes my life during that period because I did send up a sort of prayer to “God”, whoever He was, to give me more light and to show Himself to me. However, as the currents of time swept on and I passed from high school into college, this attitude of waiting faded and I forgot about that little prayer. I lost any hope that it would ever be answered.

But God had heard my prayer and had not forgotten me. In His time and in His way He would answer that prayer and quite unexpectedly bring my faith back to life again.Continued in Part 4 of My Conversion Story: “A Miraculous Resuscitation."

(Read a reflection on "The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith" here).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Protestants Accept Catholic Traditions

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

As it has now been over 11 years since my conversion to the Catholic Church, the length of time has provided me with a different perspective on my Evangelical Protestant roots. I look back fondly on my years as a “Bible Christian”, as this was the context in which I first fell in love with Our Lord. However, I now see even more clearly the many shortcomings of the Protestant view of Christianity.

Protestants boldly profess that the Bible is their only authority for their doctrine and practice. In view of this, several questions could be asked:

1) Where in the Bible does it teach that the Bible alone is our sole authority in matters of doctrine and practice in the Christian Faith?

2) Where in the Bible does it tell us which books belong in the Bible?

3) Where in the Bible does it tell us who wrote the four gospels named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? What about who wrote the books named Acts, 1 2 3 John, or Hebrews? Again, how do we know that these books are Scripture?

4) Where in the Bible do each of the New Testament writers state that their writings are inspired by God and are to be considered as Scripture?

5) Where in the Bible does it tell Christians to have their main day of worship on Sunday, and not on the Saturday Jewish Sabbath as taught in the Old Testament? Where does the Bible tell us to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?

6) Where in the Bible does it tell Christians to construct buildings to meet and worship in, instead of in believers’ homes? Where are steeples on church buildings mentioned in Scripture? What about crosses displayed in the sanctuary?

7) Where in the Bible does it tell us to have wedding ceremonies, where vows are exchanged before a minister? What about the wearing of wedding rings?

8) Where in the Bible does it tell us to celebrate the Birth of Jesus every year on December 25th? Where is the word “Christmas” found in the Bible? What about the season of Advent leading up to Christmas?

9) Where in the Bible does it tell us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus every year? Where does it tell us how to determine the date of Easter every year? Where is the word “Easter” found in the Bible?

10) Where is the word “Trinity” found in the Bible? Who coined this term?

11) Considering this Scripture found in the book of James: "You see that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24 NIV), where does the Bible say that salvation is by faith alone? Why do Protestants use the language "we are saved by faith alone", when Scripture clearly states the opposite in James: "not by faith alone"?

12) Where in the Bible does it authorize individual Christians to break away from the One Church which Jesus founded when he was on Earth if they do not agree with its doctrine and practice and to set up rival churches of their own?

After considering all of the above questions myself during my journey to the Catholic Church, it became clear to me that none of these traditions are found in the Bible at all. Yet Protestants accept and follow each of them without considering why, all the time denying that they are following tradition and firmly insisting that they are relying on the Bible alone. Many of these questions demonstrate that Protestants even in their bedrock basics are adhering to Catholic sacred tradition, without which they would have nothing. They oppose the Catholic Church with vehemence, without realizing how many of their own beliefs and practices, including the very Bible itself, rely upon the Catholic Church to exist. It is like people who prefer the light of the Moon, and despise the Sun. But if in their zeal they pull down the Sun they would lose the light of their precious Moon as well.

May the Holy Spirit continue His mighty work in these days, of granting His Light and Grace to us all and restoring Unity to the Body of Christ, to prepare for the end of the age, when Christ our One Head returns to be united with His One Body the Church forever! Amen.

Coming Soon: Part 3 of My Conversion Story: “The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

II: The Rapture that Never Happened

Anyone who has ever been to a small town in Georgia has likely encountered a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Its jolly pig face logo is as familiar in the rural South as Baptist churches and sweet tea. My first real job was at one of the three Piggly Wigglies in my hometown of Warner Robins. Throughout my four year career there as a bagger, and later as a check-out clerk, I learned some valuable lessons in life, such as responsibility, punctuality, and working with the public. I also learned how to swiftly sack an entire household supply of groceries, load it all onto one buggy and fit it into the trunk of a car without cracking the eggs or smashing the bread. Back then, we did actually cart the groceries out for customers, and I found this a welcome break in the monotony of the beep-beep of item scanning, and of asking every customer “paper or plastic?” Everyone has seen the teenage boy pushing and tugging a line of twenty or so carts back in from a grocery store parking lot. Now picture this boy clad in a white shirt and a tie, khaki pants, and a particularly bright red apron tied in the back, and this was me at age sixteen. I did not mind the job so much, as it provided me with enough income to pay for gas money, car insurance, and fun out with friends, which at that age was my main preoccupation.

One late summer afternoon, while I was carting out a load of groceries, I noticed a small white booklet lying on the floor under the pay phone in the lobby. I noticed it again as I came back inside but, although I was somewhat curious, I did not stop. After several passes however, my curiosity increased and I thought “what is that?” Why my interest should be so peaked over some little discarded booklet I did not know, but I finally went over and picked it up.

It was a strange double-sided publication, essentially two books in one. One side read: “On Borrowed Time”, and when I flipped it over the other side read: “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988”. It being August of 1988 at that time, this second title certainly grabbed my attention. After quickly skimming the contents, I discovered that the author was predicting that the Rapture would occur sometime during the 11th 12th or 13th of September 1988. My alarm went up as I realized that this was less than one month away! I really was not entirely clear on what the Rapture was but I did know that it had something to do with the Second Coming of Jesus. I had to read more, so I pocketed the booklet until after my shift, with my imagination soaring and my heart racing underneath my red Piggly Wiggly apron.

I was not a very religious person, which was a curious thing as my family and I had attended the First United Methodist church across the street from our home for my whole life. I had been baptized there as an infant and had attended Sunday School each Sunday before church, as well as Vacation Bible school in the summers. I completed the Methodist confirmation process in the 8th grade along with many of my friends. I had been involved in the youth group and had gone to various Methodist youth camps and activities. Additionally, I had even attended Catholic parochial school from grades 5 through 8 at the small parish in town. Although we were Protestant, Sacred Heart was the best local private school and my parents had made significant sacrifices to send me and my siblings there.

My mother and father had provided me with a wonderful childhood. My mother in particular had taught me from my earliest days about God and had made sure that I prayed, memorized Scripture and was involved in church activities. I see clearly that my life was set upon fertile soil, but despite all of the seeds which had been sown none had yet sprouted up into even the tenderest shoots of a budding spirituality. At adolescence, I retained only a vague general belief in God, and in Jesus, and this paltry belief did not exert any great influence upon my life. At sixteen I had no prayer life and did not read the Bible. I was just going on my own teenage way, oblivious to any need for God. He seemed more like some distant great-uncle I had been told about who was living in another part of the country, but with whom I had no real relationship. I was only interested in hanging out with my friends, and getting through high school. I had not given much thought to what would happen after graduation, much less at The End of the World. In that way I suppose I was a typical teenager.

Clocking off from my job that day with “88 Reasons” burning a hole in my pocket, I went home and read it with great interest. The author’s startling, detailed, and to me authoritative, calculations that in a few weeks Jesus would appear in the sky and take all of the Christians on Earth to be with Him forever in Heaven was for some reason very exciting to me, even intoxicating. My wide-eyed gullibility over the claims which the author made is humorous to me now, but this was a genuinely seismic moment in my life. For in the midst of all the excitement which I was experiencing about the imminent return of Jesus, the thought grew in my mind that I was not ready. My life was not a Christian life. Why would Jesus take me to Heaven, when I had been basically ignoring Him all this time? I needed to do something to change this while there was still time. I had to prepare. It was then that I set my feet down upon the road towards God.

I began voraciously reading the Bible, and also some Evangelical books which I had gotten my hands on. This material provided with a basic formula for salvation, which was new to me, and involved my acknowledging the fact that I was a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins. I needed to truly repent of my sins and ask God for forgiveness and He would then forgive me. I would at that point be sure that I would go to Heaven when I died - or when the Rapture occurred. I also learned then the full meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus, that he not only conquered death, but He also provided me with the power to live a new life of obedience to Him. I did not recall ever learning that before, although we celebrated Easter every year. Looking back, I am sure that I had heard the meaning of the Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in church, and at home, but perhaps I had not been ready to really receive it. Now I was indeed sufficiently motivated, although it was mainly out of fear. I prayed “the Sinner’s Prayer” and asked Jesus to “come into my heart as my Lord and Savior”. I experienced nothing spectacular after this prayer. It was easy and painless. I was satisfied though that I was “born again” and guaranteed a place in Heaven. This of course brought me a certain sense of peace with the prospect of the Rapture occurring soon. I then fully indulged in the excitement of anticipation. In my zeal I got several of my friends excited as well about the Rapture, and they followed similar paths in taking Christianity seriously before the Great Event.

We then passed through a strange waiting period during the days of September 11th - 13th. I went through my normal activities, but the thought of the impending Rapture was always there in the background. The recollection I have is of gazing up into the sky, thinking that at any moment the trumpets would sound, the clouds would part, and Jesus and His angels would gloriously appear. Would I and other born again believers just instantly disappear and be transported to Heaven, or would we all float up together into the sky to meet with Jesus? I did not know. I just waited with a breathless anticipation for whatever was going to happen.

The Sun rose on September 11th 1988 in its golden brilliance and sailed across the sky amidst high hopes of heavenly glory. I passed that three day period in a perpetual daze. But of course nothing happened. The heavens did not open up, no one disappeared, and the world of ordinary life went on around me just as it had before. But I was different. There was disappointment to be sure, and a certain sheepishness at being swept up into mild hysteria. But my disappointment did not lead to disillusionment. During all of the feverish excitement, the quiet hand of God had reached down and touched the bare soil of my life. And without any noise or fanfare, a tender green sprout emerged with tiny quivering leaves. A new life had taken root in my life and I felt like I had entered a new world. I could not go back now to simply having mindless fun in life, and blissfully ignoring Jesus and His will for me. Life was deeper and fuller now, and had a real meaning and purpose. Despite being motivated by a false prophecy, I had had what I would later describe as a conversion experience. At the time, however, I simply said that I had “gotten saved”, and my life would never be the same again.

Continued in Part 3 of My Conversion Story: "The Loss of Initial Fervor and Faith"

Monday, July 5, 2010

I: A Letter to St. Benedict Abbey

In May 2004, I was mowing the yard, and for some reason a certain clarity and focus of thought occasionally befalls me during those times. This particular time my thoughts went back to that May several years prior when I spent one night in a small Benedictine abbey in Still River, Massachusetts. The experience, though brief, had impacted me greatly and the inspiration came strongly upon me to write them a letter. While mowing the grass that evening, the entire letter from start to finish basically fell into place in my mind. I typed it out shortly thereafter and mailed it off. I provide it here in full:
Dear Brothers, 
I name you brothers indeed. It was around this time 7 years ago, early May 1997, after a disappointing sojourn in Maine, after finding the world large and lonely, and fiercely frightening, I found myself ringing the bell at the door of your guesthouse. I was expected, and a young tall monk opened the door smiling. I forget his name, but he was quite welcoming and friendly. He showed me to my room in the guesthouse and invited me to evening prayers, followed by community meal. The simple chanting in the chapel was full of a refreshing devotion and spirit, and it touched me. I was so very far from home in Georgia, and that wasn’t home for me anymore. I knew not where I was going, nor what Christ would have me do, a wanderer, a searcher, but for what I did not know. At least here, when all the world was cold and grey, here was a touch of warmth. And with my head still spinning from the noise of travel, here at last was a place of peace.
I had come to your Abbey almost at random, from thumbing through a United States retreat house guide in anticipation of my moving to New England, I had jotted down a few of the monastaries. Yours was not really on my way, but it was the closest and I had no particular place otherwise to be. I had a hungering need to spend some quiet time in prayer, to maybe finally catch God’s voice after a strange and silent year of dryness and near-disillusionment with Christianity. A spiritual life that was once vibrant and exciting was now a fading memory, the honest assessment of the surrounding darkness was too real to ignore.  
In the cafeteria, I wanted to eat alone, but the monks and other retreatants were very welcoming, with a smile and genuine interest in my company. I found myself at a table with a few monks, I particularly remember a young monk, and his sweet mother who was visiting him. His mother was seated right beside me and was quite friendly, and everyone expressed interest in where I was from and what brought me to the Abbey. Somehow I let it slip that I wasn’t Catholic, but Baptist, and there was a stir and not a few inquisitive looks…What would bring an evangelical Protestant to a Catholic monastery? I had no clear answer. I simply found monasteries spiritually inspiring and nourishing. And my reading of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, as well as listening to John Michael Talbot’s music had drawn me closer to Christ over the past couple of years, which also drew me to interest in peaceful monastic settings.  
I couldn’t exactly explain my interest in Catholic spirituality from a Protestant standpoint, but I could explain why I wasn’t Catholic, and so I did to these strangers at my table, and forgot my aching longing for awhile, amidst firing off tired questions about calling priests Father, and praying to Mary like she were a goddess. Looking back I was probably quite disrespectful, the spiritually dry Protestant attempting to put on a good show for the deluded Catholics. But everyone was very respectful to me, ever cordial, ever friendly, and had calm well thought out answers to my barrage of criticisms. I may have been too free in talking, forgetting almost the setting, and I may have frustrated the young monk with my persistence. But afterwards, his kind mother came up to me and handed me a book she had just purchased for me at the Abbey bookshop: “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic" [by David Currie]. She said that she would be praying for me, that I would come home to the Catholic Church. I received the book with gratitude, but thought to myself “you can pray all you want, but I will never become Catholic.” Though my Christianity was dismantling, at least that was one thing I was sure of.
That night, in the silence, wandering out of my room into dark halls, I happened upon a small chapel-room, with a simple altar. Kneeling there in the dimness, looking up at the crucifix on the wall – curious thing for a Protestant – but there He was, and there I was. My mouth uttered no prayers; crouching there in silence was all I could do, and that was enough. The resounding silence, the encroaching darkness, the life without direction, it was like God was looking at me writhing, and doing and saying nothing to help.

I went back to my room and slept without dreaming, awoke early for a quick breakfast, and then I was off. I often wish now that I had stayed longer, but I was restless then, and hurried on to visit Niagara Falls, and beyond that I knew not where I would go. It’s a strange feeling to be 1000 miles from anywhere familiar, with all one’s possessions in tow. But I did eventually become settled somewhere, in Louisville, Kentucky, and that book I was given remained on my shelf unread, nestled between John of the Cross and Tolkien, for over a year.
But through many a longing and searching, through many paths and wanderings, through an absolute fevered desperation to draw closer to God, I stumbled into a Catholic Church one Sunday for Mass, and sensed the beginning of a quenching of a long-suffered thirst. And recalling that book on my shelf, given by a kind woman back in Still River, I began reading. Some of it made a lot of sense, some made me scoff, but all of it made me think, and pray, and cry, and think some more. And on the second reading, together with other studying and praying, a tremendous miracle took place, for nothing else could explain the instant melting of many, many barriers and long held misconceptions about the Catholic Faith.  
And so, you know now where this leads: On February, 18th, 1999, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and words cannot express the fire Christ has ignited in me, through His One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, a Treasure of Treasures, and I could go on for pages and pages about the Blessed Eucharist alone, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, the Rosary, the Divine Office, the feasts and liturgical cycle of seasons, the rich devotion and love for Our Lord, the depth of spirituality, the vast riches of 2000 years of Christ’s Church on earth! – new vistas and vast oceans of boundless and unspeakable treasures open up before my eyes, and the clear and brilliant light of Truth, O Glorious Truth, unmuddled, unchanging, shining brightly in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, in the Bride and Body of Christ dispersed yet One throughout the whole earth! Such are my thoughts now when I contemplate the Church. I knew Christ before, yes, but the crumbs and morsels of Him I tasted and cherished before, are now laid out in fullness before me upon the richest and most glorious Banquet Table!

I’ll stop now, but I simply wanted to write you to thank you at long last for your hospitality and patience with that poor wanderer seven years ago, and also to pass on my thanks to that monk’s mother, whose kind and thoughtful gift was used by God more than she knows. The dawning of God’s light before us often throws new light on the paths behind, and we see at times how God’s hidden hand was with us when we least knew it. He uses many threads in weaving the rich tapestries of our lives, and he certainly used you all and your peaceful little abbey. May God continue to bless and make fruitful your important ministry and witness in the Church and in the entire world.
I had not read this letter in several years, but reading through it again I felt motivated to compose a fuller account of my journey to the Catholic Church. So many seasons have passed through this land of my life that the tracks have faded, and it is difficult to point them out when asked what had led me this way. There is certainly a tale worth telling, as in all conversion stories, and there is much drama involved, as well as many twists and surprises, and there is also not a lack of a good deal of sorrow. But all leads to Joy, and Truth, and so the end is worth all trials encountered and crosses borne along the way.

Several weeks after mailing this letter to St. Benedict Abbey, I received a return correspondence. The monks had appreciated my letter, and had actually given it the privilege of being read aloud at their community evening meal. Some of the monks indeed remembered my visit, and looked forward to me returning one day. The young monk I mentioned had moved on, but I heard from him later as well. He corrected my memory that the woman who gave me the book was not his mother, although she was there as well, but was instead was a frequent visitor to the abbey who made it a habit of giving strangers such as myself the same sort of kindnesses as she showed me. He did mention that he had written my name in the front of his Bible to remind him to pray for me, as he sensed my searching spirit. He said that he had prayed daily for me by name since our meeting 7 years prior. Of course he was pleased to hear of my coming home to the Catholic Church, and how perhaps his prayers played a role. I myself am eternally grateful.

St. Benedict Abbey can be contacted at:

St. Benedict Abbey
252 Still River Rd.
P.O. Box 67
Still River, MA 01467

Continue to Part 2 of My Conversion Story: "The Rapture that Never Happened"

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another Catholic Convert Blog?

Even a cursory search will uncover a multitude of blogs by recent converts to the Catholic Church. In this age of widespread communication media, and knowing as I do the surging worldwide movement back to the unity of the Church which Our Lord Jesus Himself founded, I find this not in the least surprising. Indeed I am greatly heartened.

At the same time, what does one more convert have to say? What tale does a former Southern Baptist, an alumni of a prominent Evangelical university, who entered the Church 11 years ago after a long, winding (and at times frightening) journey have to tell? This blog will unfold that tale, and will include discussions along the way of all those well-known misinterpreted doctrines Evangelicals particularly love to bring up as solid objections to the Catholic Church.

I am no theologian, and only an amateur apologist, and so I will put forth the explanations of those doctrines in the manner in which I myself worked through them through prayer, study, and many hours before the Blessed Sacrament. The explanations will be most pointed towards Evangelical sensibilities, as by God's strange providence I understand the speech of both '"nations". I am filled I suppose with a passion to be in my own little way an ambassador of sorts, to interpret between my Catholic brothers and sisters, and my Protestant brothers and sisters, so that we can understand what each other is saying, and so work towards a common peace and unity in our One Lord Jesus Christ.

So please join me on this journey of nostalgia of my own conversion, and along the way take excursions into such regions as Church history, the Early Fathers, Carmelite spirituality, mystical theology and maybe even take flights into song, poetry and visions of life in all its richness as seen in the Light of Christ shining through His Enchanting Bride, the Church!

Part 1 of my Conversion Story: "A Letter to St. Benedict Abbey"