Click here for the beginning of my story.

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"