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Monday, October 31, 2016

And he that will reach it, about must, and about must go

As anyone who knows me is aware, I've been engaged for more than twenty years now in discerning whether or not I should enter full communion with Rome (i.e., "become Catholic"). This journey began--well, it probably began with my parents and grandparents teaching me the Christian faith in infancy. Discovering G. K. Chesterton as a teenager made me begin to think of Catholicism as a live possibility. Phil Kenneson, one of my professors at Milligan College, told me that "Rome was not a bad place to start" (by which he did not mean to convert to Catholicism, but to learn from "Rome" how to take church and tradition more seriously). But I first explicitly declared a desire to become Catholic in my first semester as a doctoral student at Duke University, in the fall of 1995. I had gone to Duke to study the Protestant Reformation, partly in hope of fending off my nascent "Romeward" leanings awakened by Chesterton and other Catholic authors I had read in my late teens. Also, Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity had taught me that the hyper-individualistic Protestantism I'd grown up with and around wasn't necessarily historic Reformational Protestantism. 

My desire to become Catholic in the fall of 1995 was perhaps premature. After all, I had barely started studying the Reformation, which was supposed to help me figure out what I thought about Protestantism. But all it took, really, was a close encounter with Catholics who really knew and loved their faith for me to fall in love with Catholicism. Or rather, I'd already fallen in love with Catholicism as portrayed in Chesterton, and meeting Tim Gray, John Sauer, and other devout Catholics at Duke made me leap to believe that what I already loved in theory could be true in reality. 

But I was young and naive and confused, deeply self-doubting and indecisive. Matt Levering, whom I met in the spring of 1996, warned me that "it will be a process of years." I'm not sure it needed to be--not so many years, anyway. But I'm temperamentally prone to believe that anything I want to be true can't be true. And there were plenty of people in my life to tell me that this particular thing wasn't true.

By 1998 I was convinced that I could never be a Protestant in any confessional or anti-Catholic sense. The choice was between ecumenical Protestantism (either Anglicanism or Methodism) and historic pre-Reformational Christianity (Catholicism or Orthodoxy). The Episcopal Church, of course, offered the best of both worlds, particularly in its Anglo-Catholic expression, which I encountered at St. Joseph's in Durham. But I never quite believed in the Anglo-Catholic claim that Anglicanism was Catholic rather than Protestant. Anglicanism has always represented for me not the repudiation of Protestantism but the hope for an ecumenical Protestantism leading to corporate reunion with both Rome and the East.

The direction of the Episcopal Church since 2003 has made that hope extremely dim. The Anglican Church in North America, which divided from the Episcopal Church over the question of gay unions, is also unlikely to seek union with either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. In the past decade or so I've looked more seriously at Methodism as an alternative. But the United Methodist Church seems also headed for schism over homosexuality. There appears to be no escape, within institutional Protestantism, from the dynamic of division.

Since​ ​2003,​ ​also,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been​ ​married​ ​first​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Methodist​ ​deacon​ ​and​ ​then​ ​an​ ​Episcopal​ ​priest (who​ ​happens​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​same​ ​thoroughly​ ​glorious​ ​person).​ ​She​ ​does​ ​not​ ​share​ ​my​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​we ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​Rome.​ ​She​ ​feels​ ​called​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​cranky​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​orthodoxy​ ​within mainline​ ​Protestantism.​ ​God​ ​bless​ ​her.​ ​I've​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​persuade​ ​myself​ ​that​ ​that's​ ​my​ ​calling.​ ​But​ ​I can't​ ​do​ ​it​ ​any​ ​more.
 
So I'm thrown back on my own individual conscience. This is paradoxical, because I was drawn to Catholicism as a refuge from individualism. The basic dilemma for any would-be convert to Catholicism is that in order to repudiate Luther we must become Luther. We must say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And I have found this extremely difficult to say.

To make things yet more complicated, from 2006 to 2012 I was assistant professor of Bible and religion at Huntington University, an evangelical college in northern Indiana. I knew that if I became Catholic I would probably lose my job. I wish I had told them, at the start, that I might quite possibly become Catholic, but since at the time I had already been talking about becoming Catholic for​ ​more​ ​than​ ​ten​ ​years​ ​without​ ​doing​ ​it,​ ​giving​ ​up​ ​a​ ​job​ ​for​ ​the​ ​mere​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​I would​ ​finally​ ​take​ ​the​ ​plunge​ ​seemed​ ​overly​ ​quixotic. When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​laid​ ​off​ ​for​ ​financial​ ​reasons​ ​in​ ​2012,​ ​I​ ​rejoiced​ ​that​ ​I​ ​could​ ​finally​ ​follow​ ​my​ ​heart.​ ​But it​ ​turned​ ​out​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​that​ ​easy.​ ​The​ ​habits​ ​of​ ​indecision​ ​I'd​ ​built​ ​up​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years​ ​had​ ​made​ ​it almost​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​take​ ​the​ ​step.​ ​And​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wake​ ​of​ ​losing​ ​my​ ​job​ ​I​ ​was​ ​depressed​ ​and even​ ​more​ ​self-doubting​ ​than​ ​usual. Yet​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over​ ​again​ ​I​ ​had​ ​moments​ ​where​ ​I​ ​felt,​ ​with​ ​utter​ ​clarity,​ ​that​ ​this​ ​was​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was called​ ​to​ ​do.​ ​

In​ ​February​ ​of​ ​2014​ ​I​ ​was​ ​rereading​ ​Tolkien's​ ​​Silmarillion​,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​came​ ​across​ ​the passage​ ​where​ ​Morgoth​ ​impersonates​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leaders​ ​of​ ​Men​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​them:​ ​“the​ ​Sea​ ​has​ ​no shore.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​light​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West.​ ​We​ ​have​ ​followed​ ​a​ ​fool-fire​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Elves​ ​to​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​the world.”​ ​And​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​in​ ​that​ ​moment​ ​that​ ​the​ ​same​ ​voice​ ​of​ ​despair​ ​was​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​had​ ​held​ ​me back​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times​ ​from​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​known​ ​this,​ ​really,​ ​at​ ​least​ ​since​ ​2005,​ ​when​ ​I wrote​ ​a​ ​blog​ ​post​ ​called​ ​“The​ ​Ecclesiology​ ​of​ ​Limbo.”

To​ ​remain​ ​Protestant​ ​is,​ ​for​ ​me,​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​back​ ​from​ ​fully​ ​committing​ ​myself​ ​to​ ​faith​ ​in​ ​Christ.​ ​It’s hedging​ ​my​ ​bets.​ ​This​ ​of​ ​course​ ​is​ ​not​ ​true​ ​for​ ​most​ ​other​ ​Protestants.​ ​Indeed,​ ​no​ ​one​ ​should even​ ​consider​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic​ ​unless​ ​they​ ​have​ ​the​ ​same​ ​experience​ ​I​ ​have.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​reason to​ ​become​ ​Catholic​ ​is​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​convinced​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​way​ ​for​ ​you​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​Jesus.​ ​I am​ ​so​ ​convinced.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been,​ ​morally,​ ​convinced​ ​of​ ​this​ ​for​ ​a​ ​very​ ​long​ ​time.

And​ ​so​ ​I​ ​am,​ ​finally,​ ​resolved.​ ​I​ ​don't​ ​know​ ​if​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​received​ ​at​ ​Easter​ ​or​ ​at​ ​some​ ​earlier​ ​point, but​ ​when​ ​the​ ​local​ ​parish​ ​RCIA​ ​leader​ ​tells​ ​me​ ​that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​ready,​ ​I​ ​am​ ​going​ ​to​ ​enter​ ​full communion​ ​with​ ​the​ ​Catholic​ ​Church.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​want​ ​to​ ​break​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​any​ ​other Christians.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​still​ ​discerning​ ​how​ ​I​ ​can​ ​live​ ​out​ ​both​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​I​ ​ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in communion​ ​with​ ​Rome​ ​and​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​all​ ​baptized​ ​believers​ ​are​ ​members​ ​of​ ​the Church.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​it’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​do​ ​this​ ​as​ ​a​ ​Catholic.​ ​But​ ​it’s​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​do​ ​it​ ​as anything​ ​else.

My​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​journey​ ​can​ ​be​ ​summed​ ​up​ ​in​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​John​ ​Donne​ ​(ironically​ ​a​ ​convert from​ ​Catholicism​ ​to​ ​Anglicanism):​ ​“On​ ​a​ ​narrow​ ​hill, Rugged​ ​and​ ​steep,​ ​Truth​ ​stands,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​that​ ​will Reach​ ​it,​ ​about​ ​must,​ ​and​ ​about​ ​must​ ​go, And​ ​what​ ​the​ ​hill’s​ ​narrowness​ ​resists,​ ​win​ ​so.” I​ ​don’t​ ​think​ ​my​ ​path​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​as​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​as​ ​it​ ​has​ ​been.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​trust​ ​that​ ​God​ ​can​ ​use every​ ​twist​ ​and​ ​turn​ ​in​ ​the​ ​tapestry​ ​he​ ​is​ ​weaving.​ ​I​ ​entrust​ ​my​ ​past​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​my​ ​present​ ​and future​ ​to​ ​His​ ​loving​ ​and​ ​mysterious​ ​care.

3 comments:

Bob T said...

I'm very happy for you, Edwin. And so impressed with the quality of your marriage that you are supportive of how the Lord is leading you individually and as a family. Like you, my most succinct explanation of why I became a Catholic 16 years ago is that to do otherwise would be to ignore the clear prompting of the Holy Spirit in my life. Since then, I continue to be convinced that whatever growth I've had as a Christian would not have been possible without taking this step. As you say, for those who are not convinced that they should become Catholic, it is not imperative . . . and it would not make sense. But for those who are called to this - it IS imperative (and a blessing). God bless you all!

Dave Armstrong said...

I hope this new resolution brings you an inner peace and lack of self-doubt. I think it will, and I'm really happy for you, Edwin.

Paul Hoffer said...

I will pray for you and your family. The conversion experience is a true blessing and grace from God. There are people who never get that kind of gift to really learn about who they are and about their relationship with God.