Click here for the beginning of my story.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

VIII: Further Down the Road to Rome

My new foray out into the world took me initially to the far reaches of coastal New England. The new sense of freedom growing in me made America seem wide open to my relocating whims. I figured that I would first give the Northeast a try. In planning for the journey, I had gone to the library and jotted down some monastic guest houses that were close to where I would be travelling. There was always something in me that was very strongly drawn to those settings of prayer and quietude.

One night, I stayed at the Abbey of St. Benedict in Still River, Massachusetts. It was actually quite a short visit, but in looking back it was a pivotal experience. Some years later I would write a letter to the monks which detailed my visit there and the impact it later had on me. The letter appeared in an earlier post. When I arrived there, I still considered myself firmly Protestant. Nevermind that my reading material was written mostly by medieval Catholic saints, and that I liked visiting Catholic monasteries - I was still a Southern Baptist.

At the Abbey, after a friendly dinnertime debate with some of the monks about their Catholic beliefs, a fellow guest gave me a copy of “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic” by David Currie. She said that she would be praying that I would one day become Catholic. I thought to myself that she could pray all she wants, but I would never become Catholic. I tucked the book into my things and moved on the next morning.

I eventually settled in Louisville, Kentucky where some of my friends from college were living. Over the months that followed, I continued to try to find a Southern Baptist church to suit me, but I was unable to do so. I knew that I needed more than what I was getting in the typical Baptist service. Occasionally, in my private time of prayer, I would enter into moments of that certain deep contemplative peace, but I found that when I was in a Baptist church service I would be pulled into something much more superficial, with all the songs and preaching and giddy exuberance. I recall on one occasion, I managed to make it through the songs at the beginning of the service, trying with little success to get into the spirit of the singing, but when we sat down and the pastor got up to preach, I felt strongly compelled to get up and bolt out of the door - which is exactly what I did. I decided that I could not sit there like that any longer and endure another lengthy talk. Christian worship had to be more than that. But where would I go? I had experienced, in years past, the extremes of Pentecostalism and I knew that I did not want that. On the other hand, the more “reverent” liturgical Protestant churches seemed, in recent decades, to have softened into a sort of limp liberalism, so I avoided them as well.

I decided to look objectively at all the different types of Christian denominations, and I began to become quite discouraged with the fractured nature of Protestantism: So many competing groups, all claiming to be following the same Jesus and reading the same Bible. If the Bible was the sole authority, why did all these Christians disagree on so much regarding doctrine and practice? I read more on the histories of various denominations and the competing theologies and in the process my eyes were opened to the fundamental fallacy of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the Protestant belief that the Bible alone is the sole authority for Christian belief. As I later discovered, this issue was the turning point for so many who end up becoming Catholic: The teaching that all Christian teachings must be taught in the Bible is itself not taught in the Bible. When the paradoxical truth of that statement settled into my heart and mind, I realized that I could not remain Protestant any longer. Protestantism was illogical at its very foundation. The whole structure fell apart with an invalid authority system. However, although I could not remain Protestant, I also felt that I could not become Catholic either. I still thought that with doctrines like Transubstantiation, “worshipping” Mary, praying to the saints, the infallibility of the Pope, Purgatory, indulgences etc. Catholicism was a gravely misled religion.

I spent many months in this odd limbo of being between worlds and with the frustrated feeling that I was at an impasse. After wrestling with it from all angles, I decided to “just live” and not to drive myself crazy over it. At least I still believed in Jesus, even though He seemed so distant to me most of the time. He was real to me by faith and I would try to trust Him to sort all these things out for me in time.

Since I did not know which group to associate with, I actually stopped going to church services for a while. But I did not stop reading the Bible and trying to pray. Praying, at least with words, was like trying to swim upstream, but I tried not to worry too much about it. I eventually gave up trying to pray actual words at all and would just allot a certain portion of time each day to quietly kneel before Our Lord.

I began making weekly day-trips to the nearby Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky (where Thomas Merton had lived) for more intense quiet time with God. These peaceful retreats were the most nourishing times to me during this period, and it was the closest that I felt to a spiritual home. I would often attend Compline, or Night Prayer, in their chapel. Being there with the monks chanting the Psalms was a very peaceful and prayerful experience and it caused my spirit to truly soar. There was a strong sense that my seeking after God had specifically brought me there and it matched so well the longing of my spirit.

But they were Catholics and I was not Catholic. However, I ceased to try to make everything fit together and make sense in my mind. I could gain nourishment from these Catholic resources and places without actually being Catholic. Besides, I was not Protestant anymore. I was not sure exactly what I was - except a follower of Jesus Christ - but I was neither a Protestant nor a Catholic. It was a strange time.

Continued in Part 9 of my Conversion Story: At the Doorstep

Monday, April 30, 2012

Interview with The Catholic Sojourner on SiriusXM Radio

This morning at 7:20am EST, I was featured as a guest on The Catholic Channel's "Seize the Day" live show with Gus Lloyd. I would have posted about this beforehand, but the plans were not finalized until last night. I will try to obtain an audio link to post here.

It was difficult to summarize my entire conversion journey in 10-15 minutes, but Gus did a great job with the questions in keeping the story moving along.

Thank you to SiriusXM for the invitation.

I would again like to invite anyone who is visiting here who has questions about my journey, or about the Catholic Faith in general, to contact me. I will respond to every email and offer whatever answers, resources and prayers that I can.

God bless you.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Why I'm Catholic"

I was recently asked to write a condensed version of my conversion story for the excellent website over at WhyI' This website offers an extensive collection of stories by people from a variety of backgrounds who have all found their way home to the Catholic Church.

The permanent link for my story is here. While you are visiting, please take a look at some of the other uplifting conversion stories there (and maybe submit your own).

I will be posting the next detailed installment of my journey here soon: Further Down the Road to Rome. 

Thanks for reading and may God bless you!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

VII: The Road to Rome

As I discussed in the last installment, my years at Liberty University were a period of great spiritual development forme. By the time I graduated in 1995, I felt energized and excited about where Our Lord would lead me and what He would do through me.

However, with the external support and security of a self-contained Christian environment taken away from me, and being thrust out into “the real world,” I found myself depressed, lonely and struggling to find my place. I had moved back to my hometown in Georgia, but I could not find a church there where I truly felt at home. The usual format of singing a few "praise and worship" songs and listening to a preacher talk for 30 to 45 minutes no longer fulfilled my spiritual hunger as it had before. Even my own private daily devotions of Bible reading and prayer left me feeling empty. Talking with God became more and more of a struggle and trying to maintain that prior tangible sense of fervent devotion became an oppressive burden. It swelled into another crisis moment in my spiritual life.

I was not aware of it at the time, because it was not a teaching that I ever came across in my Protestant circles, but what I was going through is a commonly encountered stage in Christian spiritual development and growth: After an initial period of zeal and sensible delight in the spiritual life, a period of dryness and seeming darkness is passed through as Our Lord draws souls closer to Himself and away from self-seeking in pleasurable spiritual consolations. He brings them through this stage in order to teach them to rely more on simple faith, and not on good feelings.

But I knew none of this at the time. I only felt like my Christianity was dismantling around me and that there was nothing I could do about it. My strength was as sand and I felt lost in barren darkness. No matter what I did, I could not find those familiar sensible indicators that I was close to God. He seemed very far from me, even entirely absent, and my cries out to Him seemed to be ignored.

After many months of anguish, new light finally came to me through the writings, oddly enough, of a medieval Catholic named St. John of the Cross and his fellow Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila. I initially encountered the writings of St. John in lyrics on singer/songwriter/monk John Michael Talbot's album "Meditations from Solitude." I happened to pick up a $2 copy of this excellent album out of the bargain used cassette bin at a local (Protestant) Christian bookstore. The serene and pared-down music was a refreshing change from the zippy and emotional praise and worship fare that I had been enamored with for so long. There was a depth of spiritual longing throughout it that matched my mood, coupled with a resonance hinting at a much larger Christian experience than I had yet encountered: a connection to a long and rich spiritual heritage, along with the monastic life and a radical renunciation of the world for the sake of the higher pursuit of God.

In the liner notes, I found that a couple of the songs were based on the poetry of St. John of the Cross, of whom I had never heard. One particular song was about the painful longing a soul endures in the absence of its Beloved Lord:

Where have you hidden, Beloved?
Why have you wounded my soul?
I went out to the wilderness calling for you
but you were gone.

O Shepherds keeping your watch in the hills,
if by chance you meet with my Love
tell Him I suffer in my lonely grief,
and soon I will die...

[from "Where Have You Hidden"]

Luckily, this song, which echoed so well my feelings at the time, is followed on the album by "I Found My Beloved." This song is also based on a poem by St. John of the Cross, and relates the joyous return of the Lord to the soul after a long period of (apparent) absence.

My interest being piqued, I did some research on the intriguing medieval Spanish monk St. John of the Cross and bought a copy of perhaps his best known book “Dark Night of the Soul." Shortly thereafter, I also purchased “The Interior Castle” by his compatriot St. Teresa of Avila. I read these two books cover to cover several times and, while I did not understand everything, they provided me with new spiritual insights and made some sense of what I was going through. They gave me hope that my apparent spiritual darkness was not indeed the sad end it seemed to be, but was instead the path to a more glorious encounter with Jesus.

A strange new sweetness of intimacy with Our Lord began to grow within me which was quite unlike anything I had experienced before: profound and rich, but simple, quiet, peaceful. I discovered that a relationship with God was not always a matter of thinking about what to say in prayer, or even in always studying Biblical texts for some applicable truths. Those laudable activities are only the tools to reach the ultimate goal, which is a very real and loving union with the living God. I learned about something called “contemplation,” which is the name given to this simple serene loving intimacy with God that my soul had been craving, but had been fighting against by struggling to regain some past sensible devotion I felt I had lost.

I began to embrace this new quietude and sweetness and, for about five months, I basked in a golden spiritual Springtime. I delved into other books by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila ("The Ascent of Mount Carmel" and "The Way of Perfection," respectively) as well as writings by other medieval Catholics such as Thomas à Kempis ("The Imitation of Christ") and St. Frances de Sales ("Introduction to the Devout Life"). It was a marvelous time of renewed hope and illumination. I had discovered a wide ocean of spiritual wealth I never knew existed, and I endeavored to plumb its depths.

However, after this all too brief respite, I was again plunged into a deep darkness of spirit, which frightened me greatly. An oppressive weight seemed to descend upon me and I felt like I was spiritually suffocating. I tried to remember the lessons I had learned, to stay calm and to trust Our Lord even when it seemed like He was absent, but the oppression continued to grow. I became desperate to get out from under the weight of it. I began to think that perhaps moving away from my hometown and embarking back out into the world would be the sort of stimulating change of setting I needed to expand my horizons and renew my outlook on life.

I will discuss this in Part 8 of My Conversion Story: Further Down the Road to Rome.

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.

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).”

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"