November 22, 2013

Seven Epiphanies That Made Me Catholic

Being the Seventh in an Infinite Series of Quick Takes
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, "The Annunciation," 1655-1660

Bar­tolome Este­ban Murillo, “The Annun­ci­a­tion,” 1655–1660



EFINITIONS MATTER, AND WORDS MEAN THINGS. But sloppy usages abound, and they encour­age con­fused think­ing and make-believe. If I say, “I am Catholic,” I ought to mean some­thing more than that I show up at a par­tic­u­lar build­ing on Sun­days. I ought even to mean more than that I am in agree­ment with a par­tic­u­lar set of propo­si­tions. Recently, Catholic con­verts like Bryan Cross and Jason Stell­man have used the term “par­a­digm shift” to describe what con­ver­sion means. More than the church you hap­pen to “belong to,” more than a series of beliefs on a check­list, being Catholic implies a par­tic­u­lar way of under­stand­ing real­ity. More than what you believe, it is how you think. If some­one said, “I am a cap­i­tal­ist,” but thought and acted as though Marx­ism were true, would you think he was any­thing other than a deluded fool? Would you sus­pect he was apply­ing the label “cap­i­tal­ist” to him­self for ulte­rior motives? Would you not say, “You know, you can’t just call your­self a cap­i­tal­ist but believe these other things. You can’t call your­self a cap­i­tal­ist if you under­stand real­ity through a Marx­ist par­a­digm.” If words are no longer used to describe real­ity, if they have noth­ing fixed to which they point, then real­ity can no longer be known. For real­ity is known through the words we use to describe it.

So I have started with a tan­gent and a soap­box. But my con­ver­sion to the Catholic Church entailed a series of epipha­nies, whereby a man who once under­stood the world look­ing west turned around and faced east. If you’ve stood on your head your whole life, things look very dif­fer­ent when you finally stand upright. That can be a dis­con­cert­ing expe­ri­ence; it can also carry a great deal of won­der and joy. I am Catholic today not because I jumped through a series of hoops and then went through a par­tic­u­lar cer­e­mony on a par­tic­u­lar night; I am Catholic today because I once under­stood real­ity that way, and now I under­stand it this way. I come at life from a very dif­fer­ent set of assump­tions about the way things are.



I USED TO CHURCH HOP A LOT. I grew up United Methodist, but start­ing in my twen­ties (after I had recov­ered from athe­ism), my church atten­dance was like darts scat­tered across a sec­tar­ian map. At one time or another, I was Methodist, I was Pres­by­ter­ian, I was Bap­tist. I was Epis­co­palian, I was Lutheran. I was United Church of Christ, Dis­ci­ples of Christ, and Assem­blies of God. There were dif­fer­ent and com­pli­cated rea­sons for all that scat­ter­shot wor­ship, but the most impor­tant was this: In the back of my mind, I had writ­ten a list of the things I already believed, and I was look­ing, oft in vain, for the church that taught all those things. I would com­pare the vary­ing beliefs of the dif­fer­ent sects, and I would go down the list and say, “Yes, that’s right”; “No, that’s wrong.”

Then one day I real­ized I had it back­wards. By that time, I had already taken a dif­fer­ent approach to the pos­si­bil­ity of becom­ing Catholic. In other words, I made a list of every­thing the Church taught and, rather than say­ing “Yes that’s right” or “No that’s wrong,” I asked, “Could that be right after all?” Even­tu­ally I got to a point of sur­ren­der. I said, Well, if Christ has ensured that the Church will never teach error, then any dif­fi­cul­ties I have with x, y, or z must be my own error, not the Church’s, and I’ll just have to work it out. I must con­form to the Church Christ gave us, not the other way around.



ONE OF THE GREAT ERRORS of Protes­tantism is that they have no sense of his­tory. The few of them who do look to their his­tory for mod­els gen­er­ally look to the great preach­ers and the great reform­ers. Preach­ing and reform are not bad of them­selves. But the prob­lem arises when Calvin and Luther and Wes­ley become valu­able only for what they taught, not for how they lived, or whether they lived well at all. In other words, Protes­tants may have intel­lec­tual mod­els, but not spir­i­tual ones.

I remem­ber when I first read about the life of Gianna Beretta Molla and knew that I had been robbed. What I mean by that is that the Catholic prac­tice of declar­ing cer­tain men and women saints is about more than the doc­trine of the Church Tri­umphant and that we have inter­ces­sors in Heaven to call upon. It is about giv­ing us mod­els and exam­ples of how to live. The Chris­t­ian life needs mod­els. We need to know that oth­ers have faced the same dark night that we our­selves know, and have been saints any­way. We need exam­ples to show us why the uni­ver­sal call to holi­ness mat­ters. By remov­ing saints from their lex­i­con, Protes­tants have removed exam­ples and wit­nesses, and each new gen­er­a­tion must fig­ure out how to live the Chris­t­ian life ab ovo.



WHATEVER THEY MIGHT WANT TO CLAIM, Protes­tantism is not about Jesus—at least, not about Jesus Him­self. Rather, it is about what has been said about Jesus. The cen­ter of their wor­ship is a book, and it is the exe­ge­sis of that book. In other words, Protes­tantism not so much about a Per­son to be known, as it is about things that have been said. A Protes­tant who attended Mass with me once said, “The ser­mon was too short.”

But lengthy ser­mons were the expec­ta­tion I grew up with. When I went to Church I sought a pow­er­ful ser­mon and the preach­ing of “the Word” (by which I meant the Bible).  Only later would I real­ize a sim­ple truth: God did not become man so that He could preach The Ser­mon on the Mount. Christ’s para­bles did not redeem us. God became man for the Cross. The Cross redeemed us. And although what Christ taught is, prop­erly, part of wor­ship, it is not the cen­ter of wor­ship. The cen­ter of wor­ship is Cal­vary. The cen­ter of wor­ship is the Sac­ri­fice of the Mass.


THIS ONE SOUNDS OBVIOUS, because it is said in Sacred Scrip­ture more than once: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). But as I said, when­ever I once spoke about “the word of God,” I meant the Bible. The ten­dency was reduce the word of God to a sin­gle bound object, in which I would encounter, not Christ, but words.

What pre­pared me to under­stand that the word of God is a Per­son was my con­stant sen­sa­tion that some­thing was miss­ing. The irony of that was that I would read the Bible over and over, in hopes that I would find the miss­ing thing there. But the more I read the Bible, the more I lacked it. For all that I had loved and mem­o­rized the Scrip­tures, I was miss­ing an encounter with Christ Him­self. I do not mean to dimin­ish the impor­tance of the Bible, but only to say that the Bible is meant to direct us to Christ, not to sub­sti­tute for the encounter. And we encounter Christ in the Eucharist.



I USED TO HAVE A GNOSTIC and Manichean bias: I sus­pected that ideal wor­ship involved bare walls, wooden pews, one lectern, a small cross (empty), a hym­nal, a Bible (prefer­ably the King James), and a preacher dressed for the office. I thought that mate­r­ial things were mean, or at least that they were only for sec­u­lar use. When Christ said to pray in your closet, I sus­pected that it was an empty closet and smelled of moth­balls. Why moth­balls would have been needed in an empty closet, I did not ask myself.

What brought me to sacra­men­tal faith was the real­iza­tion that Christ’s death redeemed mat­ter too. Mat­ter did not stay cor­rupt after the Res­ur­rec­tion. It had been cor­rupted in the first place only by the sin of Adam and Eve; but Christ did not redeem the world by half. Thus mat­ter plays a part in our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, and that is what the Sacra­ments are. It is why God gives us grace through water, through oil, through a priest’s hands, through bread, through wine, through sacramentals.



I USED TO THINK ONLY SELDOM about Mary. I remem­bered her at Christ­mas. Other than get­ting Jesus here, she had no sig­nif­i­cance or pur­pose and I could for­get her. She was a used woman.

In truth, I would get ner­vous at any dis­cus­sion about Mary. In my view, Mary was a Jew­ish woman who was Catholic and had no busi­ness being Protes­tant. Then a Catholic I once knew fif­teen years ago spoke to me just one sen­tence: “God chose her to come to us.” I knew that, but I didn’t know that.

And here was the pow­er­ful truth hid­den like a time-bomb in those words of B’s: God could have achieved the Incar­na­tion any way he wanted. But he chose to come through a woman’s con­cep­tion, and he chose to come through that woman, and no other who would ever live. That makes Mary impor­tant in sal­va­tion. There is sal­va­tion because there was Incar­na­tion, and there was Incar­na­tion because of Mary. When God became man, he became man inside her. The Incar­na­tion took place in her womb. Inside her, she car­ried God.

God could not pos­si­bly have said, “I guess Mary will have to do.” What He said was, “I have cre­ated Mary specif­i­cally for this grace. I have cre­ated Mary so that, through her, I will come and redeem the world.” And yet some­how, of all the peo­ple in the Bible, she is the one Protes­tants talk about the least. When was the last time a Protes­tant pas­tor gave a ser­mon about Mary?

So I real­ized that the Catholics were right to honor Mary as highly as they do. For they could not pos­si­bly honor her more than God already has.



AS A PROTESTANT, my faith involved a con­stant search for under­stand­ing and knowl­edge. Those aren’t bad things, but the intel­lect has lim­its. The smartest per­son to ever live was St. Thomas Aquinas, and he rightly said that every­thing he wrote was “straw.”

What saved me from intel­lec­tual pride (though I still strug­gle with it) was the real­iza­tion that not my intel­lect, nor all the books I’ve read, nor every­thing I know, will ever sat­isfy my hunger. Spir­i­tual hunger can only be sat­is­fied by an encounter with mys­tery. It is in the inef­fa­ble that we find truth. The true desire of man is not to say, “Okay, now I under­stand,” but to always be able to say, “Wow.” In truth, I was too bored as a Protes­tant. I always got to the end of what there was to know and under­stand. But I will never get to the bot­tom of all there is to dis­cover in the Catholic faith, even if I had seven hun­dred life­times. And I sus­pect that, even in Heaven, per­fected, we will never get to the bot­tom of God, and that Heaven will be an eter­nal expe­ri­ence of “Wow! Really? Is it really as won­der­ful as all that?” Only to find a deeper and more won­der­ful “Wow” the next moment.


Seven Quick Takes is hosted by Jen­nifer Ful­wiler of Con­ver­sion Diary here.