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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


Sue Coulstock said...

Thank you for sharing your story, it's interesting. I am a churchless Christian who has gone through a lot of the thought processes you have blogged about in the 28 years since my own conversion to Christianity at age 14 (no missionaries involved, just God, but how hard is it to find a Christian community where you don't have to agree with all their particular doctrine to be accepted, yet still find a vibrancy in the church services...).

I spent a lot of time teaching in Catholic schools, where I was very comfortable, including in church services, and I've not been able to go to a Protestant service since without feeling something is missing. However, I have issues with the "higher-up" career Catholics and some points of doctrine, and had I been born Catholic, I would actually just be like many in the congregation who have similar issues - but of course you can't convert with them. I have met so many monks, nuns, priests and Catholic laity who to me exemplify the Christian life, and I have a huge soft spot for Catholicism, and some other forms of Christianity.

Catholicism doesn't get into the unnecessary disputes with science and intellectual pursuits which mark fundamentalist Protestant churches, and doesn't subscribe to the clearly illogical "sola scriptura" position - and that's great. Also, it does social justice very well, and isn't as egocentric about personal salvation and the "ticket to heaven" as Protestantism.

I've just finished reading the entire Catholic canon version of the Bible - and boy, are Protestants missing out, some of that deuterocanonical stuff (Apocrypha) is really super. Contrary to popular Protestant attitudes, the Bible did not just drop out of heaven (OK, I'm satirising here), and the human editorial process behind it in my view was not God-given and infallible. I'm also reading the Gnostic gospels and other Dead Sea scrolls material, because I find Christian history fascinating, and these documents at the very least thought-provoking on a literary level. But you know, when I recently applied to be a "new believer befriender" with an evangelical organisation, I got knocked back for refusing to see the Gnostic gospels as works of Satan! Honestly.

Thanks again for sharing and best wishes for your spiritual journey.

God bless


TM said...

God bless you Sue - Thanks for sharing!