Click here for the beginning of my story.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Prayer after receiving Holy Communion

This little prayer has served me well over the years since I became Catholic:

Beloved Lord, thank you for coming to me.
Produce yourself within me
by your Body and Blood,
by your Spirit,
by your Life,
by your Grace within me.

Strengthen in me the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.

Do what it takes,
no matter how painful,
to purge from me
all that displeases you,
all that hinders you
from accomplishing all that you desire
in and through me and my life.

Bend my will to your Will
and grant me the strength
to obey you in all things.

Here I am, O Lord.
Do with me as you desire
for the glory of your Holy Name alone. Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

New Blog

For those of you who are interested, I have started a new blog of original poetry and short prose fiction at: Poems and Vignettes.

I intend to keep up with the ongoing account of my conversion story here at The Catholic Sojourner, while also posting at least one original poem or vignette every few days at my new blog.

I have been writing poetry for about 25 years now, and more recently have begun writing short fiction and autobiographical pieces. My autobiographical writings have largely been posted here. My new blog will be comprised of my various other creative writing efforts.

Inspiration for my poems and vignettes includes the beauty of nature, the human condition, life and love, all things wholesome and innocent, moral philosophy and, of course, my own Catholic spirituality.

I look forward to you joining me there.

God bless!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Note on Readership

It has been a little over a year since I began writing this blog, and although I have not been able to write as often as I would like to, it has been a very good experience and I am pleased with what I have written of my journey so far.

I would like to send out greetings to all those who have visited here from Romania, Albania, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Ireland, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Italy, Malta, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Phillipines, China, Japan, Thailand, Cook Islands, Fiji, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Brazil, Canada, and, of course, all those from right here in the United States. I hope that you have found something here to encourage you in your own journey of faith, and please know that you are in my prayers.

I am interested in each of you who have come this way, and what stage of the journey you are in. Are you a non-Catholic Christian who is considering converting yourself? Or a Catholic struggling in your native faith? Perhaps you are a strong Catholic who simply enjoys reading conversion stories, or maybe even someone who has not been particularly religious but has been sensing a hunger for more meaning in your life.

Whatever your particular situation, I encourage you to comment on one of the posts that you have found interesting, or simply email me directly. Maybe share with me your own story, or what website or search on the Internet brought you my way. If you are struggling with some issue about the Catholic faith, and do not mind sharing, perhaps I could be of some assistance since I have also struggled along the way and have found solid reasons to believe. In the very least, I offer you spiritual friendship and will pray for your specific needs across the miles.

So consider posting a comment or sending an email. I look forward to hearing from you, whether you live in a far away country, or right here in the USA.

God bless you in your journey!

Coming Next Time: Part 7 of My Conversion Story: "The Road to Rome"

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God, Fate and Shannon Stone

This post is a departure from my ongoing episodic account of how I became Catholic. I have felt the need to write about a recent news item that has had a profound effect on me.

It has been nearly two weeks since the tragic death of baseball fan Shannon Stone at a Texas Rangers game. In reaching for a ball casually tossed to him from the field by one of the players, he tumbled headlong over the railing and fell 20 feet to the concrete below. He died one hour later. His six-year-old son Cooper was by his side when he took the fatal fall.

The magnitude of this tragic event cannot be overstated. That a man in the prime of his life died so suddenly, leaving behind a wife and young son, is tragic in itself, but to know that it all unfolded right in front of his son, while he was trying to catch a souvenir baseball for the boy, is unbearably upsetting.

I wish that I had not viewed the video footage of the event; it was profoundly distressing. (I believe the footage has since been pulled by many news organizations and websites at the request of Stone’s family.) While watching the clip, I found myself reacting physically. I began sweating, my hands started shaking: I was truly traumatized. I saw this little boy, standing there wearing a baseball cap and glove, watching helplessly as his beloved father fell over the railing to his death. The look on the child’s face will forever haunt me. Witnesses relate hearing the child repeatedly screaming out: “daddy!”

I immediately thought of my own son, who is also six years old, and the anguish that he would have most certainly experienced if that would have been me who had fallen. I am heartbroken for this little boy, as I am sure everyone is who has heard this story.

There are so many small details of this story that even add to the heartache: Stone and his son had sat in that area of the stands specifically to be behind the son’s favorite player, right fielder Josh Hamilton. The two had stopped on the way to the game to buy Cooper a baseball glove in the hopes of catching a ball at the game. Stone had called out to Hamilton to throw him the next foul ball he retrieved, and Hamilton had nodded to him that he would.

Moments later, when Hamilton tossed the ball and Stone saw it coming his way, the exuberance of the moment and the shared excitement that he and his son would afterwards share was, I am sure, foremost in his mind. He over-reached in this exuberance, not realizing the risk, and the joyous moment turned horribly tragic. A man died and the life of his son and entire family was forever altered.

The details and circumstances of this story seem to have a certain strange synchronicity, in the way it all came together and unfolded in the most heart-rending and poignant way. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the old Greek tragedies: a converging of many coincidental and innocent elements that culminate in an immense heartbreaking climax. But this story was not written by some ancient playwright seeking to bring about catharsis in his audience. This was real life, and real death.

In the days after hearing about this tragedy, I have been processing through some of the issues it has raised in my mind, and I have taken to heart a few simple but profound lessons.

First of all, it has made vividly real to me that a tragedy of this nature could happen to anyone - to me or to anyone I love - at any time. It would probably not be by falling over a stadium railing, but there are a myriad other dangers and risks we routinely face every day (traveling by car, for instance). Tragedy could change life in an instant, without warning. I naturally cry out to God for protection for me and my family, but at the same time I know that things like this do happen even to those who pray for protection, and I must yield to the reality of it.

The fruit of this acceptance is the increased motivation to treasure every moment. I need to make the most of the present time I have, knowing that I may have very little time left. I have been particularly attentive to my children lately, and have been hugging them a little longer and a little tighter. I relish the fact that I am alive and with them in that moment. There may not be opportunities for other hugs, but I do have that one. The times I spend now with my family, even in the most ordinary activities, have acquired a new value to me as I seek to make the most of the present moments we have been given together.

I also have been struck with something that seems very basic: be careful. This is a dangerous world, and human life is fragile. Lethal dangers are ever present in this life. Avoidable accidents of various kinds claim thousands of lives each year. Motor vehicle accidents and falls top the list by a wide margin. I read a statistic that a person dies an accidental death in this world every five minutes. That is quite alarming.

I have therefore become more circumspect in my everyday life, to avoid unnecessary risks. I shun distractions when I drive. I look for potential dangers when out with my family. I am more cautious around railings and drop-offs. One cannot prevent everything but many injuries and deaths can be avoided if one is simply more attentive to one’s surroundings and to what one is doing, and by taking reasonable safety precautions. Certainly, one can take this too far and fear death so much that one misses out on life, so reasonable prudence is the key. And also, foremost, one must trust in God.

We as Christians believe in a God who has a Plan for this world, and for each one of us. We are each given a certain span of time to live in this world and, whether long or short, we are to make the most of that time. We do not believe in Fate in the ancient sense, of some unavoidable destiny. We are free creatures living in a fallen and sometimes volatile world of merciless natural forces and random happenstance. What we do believe in is a God who takes our choices, and the various events in our lives and in the world, and weaves them all together to fulfill his perfect loving Plan.

God could stop all tragedies from occurring. He is all-powerful. But He has chosen to reveal His omnipotence in a different and more exalted way: by taking all of the tragedies of life and bringing about something beautiful through them. God does not cause tragedy, but tragedy does not mar His joyous design. On the contrary, the tragedy and suffering become the means by which He brings about His Will. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the preeminent icon of this glorious truth: a great tragedy and a seeming failure and loss, which resulted in the greatest victory of God’s Love: the Salvation of the World.

Christ’s Death and Resurrection touches and redeems all of the suffering in the world, in all times and places, and gives it a new meaning and purpose. The Catholic Church has a wonderful doctrine on this redemptive value of suffering which has greatly enriched my spiritual life and my understanding of the world. I highly recommend delving into the Church’s rich teaching on this issue.

At the same time, we are usually not given to know immediately how God uses certain tragedies to bring about good. Often it remains a total mystery in this life. After all, we are to live our lives by faith - God’s ways are not our ways.

For myself, though, I feel that through hearing of this tragic death, I have truly grown in some positive ways. Perhaps this very public tragedy has influenced others as well to take stock and to treasure the present moments they have with their loved ones - and also to be more careful. Who knows, Shannon Stone’s death may ironically save other lives that otherwise would have ended in tragedy, by simply making a multitude of people like me more careful in their daily lives.

Although my heart still aches for this little boy and his family, I do find comfort in knowing that Cooper will have wonderful childhood memories of his devoted father to look back on. Some children grow up with memories of no father, or an uninvolved father, or an abusive father. At least Cooper had a good loving man to call daddy for six years; many children do not even have that. It appears that Cooper lives in a very loving family and community and so, hopefully, being surrounded with such strong support, he will grow up to be the good man his father was, propelled through life by the memories of the great love his father had for him.

Events like this remind us profoundly of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the need to trust God, to “Seek the LORD while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:4 NAB). Our sojourn in this world may not be as long as we think. It may end today. Even now the minutes are diminishing until the time when each of us will leave our loved ones behind and face the One who made us and loves us more than we can imagine. Let us love Him, and those He has placed close to us, while we can.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Interlude: The Dangerous Journey

"It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22 NAB)

In my last post, I discussed praying that God would do "whatever it takes, no matter how painful" to accomplish His Will in my life. However, I can say from my own experiences that God answers this prayer in hearty measure, and therefore this prayer should not be embraced lightly. In fact, when the long valley that loomed across my path after I graduated from Liberty University was at its darkest and most painful, I felt at times that I may not have consented to it had I known beforehand how dark and painful it would turn out to be. It is truly a dangerous road, with very real threats and fearsome foes. But Our Lord in His supreme wisdom does not allow us such foresight, and instead brings us one small step at a time in the journey towards Union of Love with Him, and total conformity to His Will. It is only afterwards, when the metal is brought out of the fire of testing, that the beauty of the work that was being accomplished is truly seen.

To all those who are on this same journey and feel that the trials, temptations and testings are sometimes too much to endure, I can confidently say from firsthand experience that God is using those very hardships you think stand in your way to bring you to where you most want to be: closer to our Beloved Lord.

O World! O Life!
O Struggle! O Strife!
O precipice and fearful way!
O tangledness and thorny fray!
Behold the feet on shifting sands
and the eyes made blind by darkened lands!

O Caution! Caution! O Humble steps!
O Patience in the darkest hour!
O little hand awaiting the touch
of familiar grasp and cheerful warmth
taking you to places never known
which otherwise would have never been found!

O Trust! O Peace!
O Hope beyond hope!
O Quietude! O Rest!
O Courage and Faithfulness! O!

My prayers are with all those fellow sojourners following Our Lord wherever He leads!

Next time: Part 7 of My Conversion Story: "The Road to Rome"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

VI: Laying the Groundwork (Without my Knowledge)

The winding road that eventually brought me to the Catholic Church first took me through Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. I grew and developed as a Christian in so many wonderful ways while I was a student there, and while it was a thoroughly Evangelical Protestant environment, God used many of my experiences there to lay the groundwork for my conversion to the Catholic Church. This, of course, only became apparent to me years later.

Through the required theology classes at Liberty, I become for the first time intimately acquainted with the many diverse and divergent views within Protestantism. It was disconcerting to me to realize how deeply Protestants did not agree on many important doctrines.

For example, I learned about the various views Protestants held on baptism: those within the more mainline denominations such as Anglicans and Methodists hold to a form of baptismal regeneration, that baptism imparts actual grace to the believer, while Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals hold a strict symbolic view, that baptism imparts no grace whatsoever and is “just” an outward expression of the inward change that Christ has already completed when the believer prayed to be “saved.” There are, of course, many shades between these two extremes. Additionally, churches differ on who could be baptized: some churches believe in infant baptism, while others only baptize someone when they are old enough to make their own personal decision for Christ, assumed to be around age 8 or older. Finally, Protestant churches differ on how to baptize, some holding that mere sprinkling with water will suffice, while others maintain that baptism is not valid unless the person is completely immersed.

What was most disconcerting to me was that the proponents of each differing view had their own scriptures to support them, so it was a very confusing endeavor to try to discern which was the actual “Biblical teaching.” It seemed to me that all one could do was to examine the various opinions and supporting scriptures and pick a view that seemed the most reasonable to oneself.

It was something I wrestled with for a while, but I ended up having to set the contentious question aside since the absolute certainty of which was the correct view seemed impossible to attain. In the end, since I felt so close to Jesus in the Southern Baptist context, I figured that I would just go ahead and continue with their view on baptism, and on most issues, while realizing that not all Christians held the same view.

One little odd difference of opinion from mainstream Southern Baptism doctrine I held was regarding the Blessed Trinity. Through Bible study, I had developed a personal view of this mysterious doctrine that made the most sense to me: Namely, that there is only One God, and that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Trinity were simply different modes of operation of this One God throughout history. It was like an actor who plays many roles in a stage production - only that God, being God, can play these different roles at the same time. For example, when Jesus was on Earth, praying to His Father: They were one and the same Person: the One God, under different guises. When the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, and the Father spoke, this was an instance of all three roles being played by the One God at the very same time. This was, in my view, why, after the apostle Philip asked Jesus to “show us the Father”, that Jesus replied: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 NIV). To me, Jesus was clearly saying here that He and the Father were one and the same Person, no difference at all. This made complete sense to me.

However, I was told by the professor in one of my theology classes that this view was a heresy condemned in the early centuries of Christianity called “Modalism” or “Sabellianism.” I found this interesting but in the end it did not bother me, as I thought (in my arrogance): Who were those people back then who called something a heresy? They could have been wrong. The professor replied that the vast majority of Christians in all times believed something different from me, namely that God was three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from all eternity. There was something called the Eternal Sonship of Jesus, that He was God’s Son from all eternity. Fatherhood and Sonship to me seemed finite labels to place on an infinite God - how could He be divided up like that from eternity past? My view made more sense to me. Additionally, his argument that the “majority of Christians” believed something else held no weight for me, as I immediately thought of Martin Luther, who alone stood up against the vast majority of Christians of his time and began preaching something different, and brought about the Reformation.

The fact that Protestants extol so greatly the rebellion of Martin Luther against the accepted Christian teaching of his day, but then discourage those who would challenge the current teaching of their particular Christian group was to me, even then, a strange irony.

Additionally, I encountered a certain extreme manifestation of Sola Scriptura that bothered me greatly. I experienced this not at Liberty University but at one of the Southern Baptist churches off campus I attended. Sola Scriptura, as I understood it, was that everything God wishes to teach us about the Christian faith He teaches through the Bible alone. The church pastor in this Bible study group took it a step further: That God speaks only to us through the words of Scripture, the Word of God. He speaks in no other way to us. Not in our heart, not by circumstances, not through other believers, only through the Bible. To me that seemed to be going too far. I had been experiencing God personally in an ongoing way and hearing Him speak in my heart and it was not always through the actual vocabulary of scripture verses, which is what this pastor taught. I even asked him to clarify his teaching, and he reiterated it: Anything God wants to say to us He will only say through the words of Scripture.

This to me seemed wrong. I had been expecting God to be guiding me after I graduated college, into a vocation and to the places He wanted me to go. Scripture alone was not going to tell me where to live and what job to have. I believed that God through His Holy Spirit lived in me and I was trusting in His living guidance in my life. I did not long for a relationship with a book, however inspired: I longed for and had found a relationship with a living person: Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.

Afterwards, I started noticing references in other settings about the Bible alone being the “God’s guidebook for our lives,” and that any doctrine not taught in the Bible is not true. Something about this general doctrine just did not seem quite right to me, but I could not fully understand why at the time. It was not until several years later that it became vividly clear to me that this doctrine of Sola Scriptura suffered from a fatal logical fallacy: the doctrine that all Christian doctrines and practices must be taught in the Bible is itself not taught in the Bible. I was not ready for the full weight of the reality of this truth yet, but the initial stirrings were there.

As an aside, another recollection from that same Bible study group mentioned above, is that one of the associate pastors who was teaching one evening voiced his doubts that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (still living then) was a Christian. He quoted some anecdotal evidence he had heard, that an Evangelical pastor had visited her and asked her some questions about salvation and he came away with the impression that she was not a genuine Christian, that she was “earning her way to heaven.” I recoiled from this, and had the thought that if my Christianity is too narrow to include someone like Mother Teresa, then something truly must be amiss.

I will mention a few more recollections about my time at Liberty that I feel had a great influence on my later conversion to the Catholic faith:

First, although I had a vibrant college social life, I also had a strong desire to spend time alone with God. I found the most solace in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. This became my sanctuary, among the rushing streams, the mountain vistas, the peaceful forests. There was a tangible sense of God’s presence there that I reveled in. I would bring along my Bible and journal and immerse myself in prolonged prayer with Our Lord.

There were two fervent prayers that took shape in me during these personal prayer times.

The first was: “Lord, do whatever it takes, no matter how painful, to make me all you want me to be.”This is what I consider “a dangerous prayer”, and I knew it was dangerous at the time. The dangerous part, of course, is the “no matter how painful” part. I was consciously giving God permission to allow me to suffer if needed to accomplish His will in my life. I knew from studying the scriptures that God works through suffering, and I wanted to fully die with Christ in order to have Him live in me. I was no believer in that brand of Protestantism commonly called “health and wealth,” that God never wants us as Christians to suffer, and if we do suffer it is because we have not had enough faith. No. I knew that God accomplishes His most powerful works through suffering and I was willing to open the door to let Him do that in my life.

Another prayer I prayed was: “Lord, make me the fullness of what you had in mind for a Christian to be when you sent your Son to earth to die on the Cross.” I emphasized “fullness”: I wanted it all. I actually at times pictured that I was praying these words directly into the heart of the living Jesus present with me. Whatever it was there in the heart of God, the fullest idea He had of what a Christian should be, then that was what I wanted - what I wanted Him to make me - and to do “whatever it takes, no matter how painful” to bring it about.

At the time, I thought that this would simply mean that He would make me a more devoted Christian, with a closer relationship with Jesus, more virtuous, more loving, more kind, and so forth. However, I recalled this prayer in new light years later, at the end of a dark and painful road, when God led me to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, “the fullness of the Faith.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Liberty University, and felt myself prepared to emerge into the wide world, energized to make an impact for Christ. I felt confident that God had a firm hold on my life, and I was ready for the next chapter to begin.

I graduated from Liberty with an abounding optimism, believing God had great things in store for me, and was willing to follow Him wherever He led me.

Though I felt that I had spent a great deal of time submitting myself wholly to Our Lord’s Will and felt fully prepared for anything He would bring my way, I was still caught completely unaware when at last it became apparent where He was leading me.

Continued in Part 7 of My Conversion Story: “The Road to Rome.”

Interlude: The Dangerous Journey

Thursday, March 17, 2011

V: Protestant Passion

I pressed the gas pedal down firmly as I crossed over the Georgia state line and passed into the Great Beyond. I had never driven alone more north than Atlanta, but now I was catapulting myself 600 miles away from home. Destination: Lynchburg, Virginia.

I had graduated from my local community college and was filled with a passionate Evangelical zeal to give all to Jesus Christ. I desired to continue my undergraduate studies, not at a large state university like many of my friends, but at a small conservative Baptist college. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University seemed the perfect choice. I eagerly sent off for enrollment information and after being accepted, I decided, without ever having seen the campus, to begin classes there winter semester of 1993.

The drive north was quite exciting as I embarked on this new adventure. There was a natural exhilaration in setting off for the unknown and, combined with my ever-growing faith, I felt certain that I was right where God wanted me to be and that He would shape my future as I set off to begin this fresh chapter of my life.

I found Liberty University to be an Evangelical college student’s Paradiso: a vibrant wholesome campus full of like-minded believers; upbeat worship services resounding with contemporary praise music and engaging speakers; a liberal arts curriculum taught from a solid conservative Biblical perspective; a steady stream of concerts featuring prominent contemporary Christian artists.

Liberty was a haven from “worldly” culture - where devotion to Jesus was commended and encouraged, where being a Christian was “cool”, and where the hedonistic atmosphere usually associated with college life was virtually non-existent. I met a great group of solid Christian friends who encouraged me in being a faithful disciple of Jesus, and I truly felt that with their help I grew ever stronger in faith and virtue.

In looking back, my two and a half years at Liberty University represented the summit of my life as an Evangelical Protestant. It would never again be that good. While at Liberty, it was relatively easy to be a devoted Christian since that was the recognized norm. It was what I needed at the time and I value those years as contributive to the Christian I am today.

Ironically, however, as solidly Protestant as the school was (and still is), there were several lessons and experiences from my time at Liberty University that I see, in retrospect, helped to lead me towards the Catholic Church. I will discuss some of these in the next installment: Part 6 of my Conversion Story: “Laying the Groundwork (Without my Knowledge).”