The Far Country

An abridged spiritual autobiography

The last time I received the Eucharist was May 5, 1980.  I don’t think I knew at the time that it was called the Eucharist. I don’t think I ever heard the word transubstantiation, or if I did, had any idea what it meant.  I only remember it as Holy Communion. Admittedly, it was a rather mechanical thing in my life at the time and I really knew nothing about Catholicism.

A Catholic Baby Record Book indicates that I was baptized by a Very Reverend Monsignor James O’ Neill shortly after my birth in 1965.  In the Catholic Church I was not catechized nor confirmed but I do recall first communion and a solitary confession. My spiritual upbringing at the time was extremely amalgamated. Mom had a life changing experience via the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and that colored the spiritual life of the home tremendously. It was quite natural for me to go to Mass Sunday morning and then watch televangelist Kenneth Copeland Sunday night.  In summer I went to Vacation Bible School at the Layhill Community Free Methodist church down the road. I recall going to Halpine Baptist Church Sunday nights a few times too. Spiritually speaking, we were all over the shop.

Pharmacopeia

Things changed radically in 1980 as I closed in on my 15th birthday. Early in May of that year I lay in Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. with a blood cancer (NHL) and, like transubstantiation, I had no idea what cancer was either but I was about to get a really big clue. Throughout that day doctors, nurses and students would rotate into my hospital room to read charts, ask questions and palpate.  During a lull in this activity, a young Catholic priest showed up. My head was elsewhere as he tried to talk to me about the significance of the gold metal container in his possession called a pyx which, incidentally, Scrabble players are well to know and probably why I remember it. The pyx held the consecrated bread which the priest brought out for my benefit. In the same perfunctory way I was used to receiving the Blessed Sacrament, I ate.

I never went to Mass again.

Understand that I did not turn sour nor had a beef with the Catholic Church specifically. After all, with the eclectic Christian offerings equally valid in my mind, which expression of the church should I have a beef with? I was angry alright and all fingers of blame pointed directly to God Himself.

No doubt, this ensuing crisis took a spiritual toll on my parents if not the entire family. Dad, a convert to Catholicism based on his marriage to my Mom, a cradle Catholic later renewed, was never big on going to Mass but always did so rather dutifully. I think during this time he stopped going to Mass for a while but then turned to his Protestant roots as he started attending the Layhill Community Free Methodist church down the road.

Antipodes

I do not remember exactly when I started going to Layhill with my Dad later that summer. I remember it being dramatically different than the solemn worship experience in architecturally elaborated setting typical of the Catholic Mass. Here people talked to each other rather loudly, fanned themselves with the bulletin and sauntered right into the pew without reverence. The walls were washed white with windows wide open and fans blowing to disburse the hot summer air. A simple brown cross stood on the wall behind the centrally located pulpit in what was a small country church established the first decade of the twentieth century.

Through church and a number of related experiences, a newer and less superficial relationship with God started coming back online. And like that of my namesake Jacob from the Old Testament, the relationship would be somewhat tumultuous, combative and full of suspicion. At least for the moment and in the usual full-bore, Prussian-martial, throw-everything-at-it, familial approach my diet was to consist of nothing but God—no secular music, media, nothing to sully this newly hammered faith that my life quite literally depended on. I was plugged into teachings, books, Bible reading, church going and prayer. I was particularly careful about what I would think or say—a part of the Word-Faith teaching that seem to permeate many of the messages I was imbibing.

Despite some reluctance, I ended up becoming a member of Layhill after some light pressure from the pastor which included adult baptism in someone’s backyard pool. Through high school and college I continued going to Layhill until everyone in the young adults group seem to marry off and I was the last one standing about the empty musical chair. Shortly after the pastor had been transferred out due to some sudden, suspicious and unspecified reason, I decided to leave Layhill too.

There were years of bouncing around thereafter but I eventually met the woman who would be my wife, Kimberly. Surrounding the circumstance of my fathers’ death in 1990, we started going together to Church of the Redeemer, a nascent non-denominational Bible church meeting at a high school in Gaithersburg. About a year later, Kimberly and I were married by the pastor. In the course of time we begat two daughters both dedicated to a Christian upbringing made solemn with a ceremony at Redeemer. Through the mid 1990’s, Church of the Redeemer began to grow numerically and eventually acquired its own massive facility; indeed, Church of the Redeemer was becoming a mega-church.

Approximately at this point in time, a good friend of mine from work, Mike, a devout Catholic, gave me a book written by Scott Hahn, an ex-Protestant theologian whose learning led him to the Catholic Church where he now resides as a scholar and apologist.  With marginal interest I skimmed the book entitled Rome, Sweet Home, not entirely interested in the overly complicated mechanisms of the Catholic traditions of Christianity, figuring that I’d “been there, done that”.  Understand that I was not invalidating Catholicism, nor was I ever anti-Catholic, I just thought that it was not the “denomination” for me. To be honest I had harbored some doubts about doctrinal items but then, in my mind, all denominations had their strange markings: no dancing, no drinking, no musical instruments, snake handling, women cover their heads, speaking in tongues, prophecy and a other whistle-evoking distinctions. And that always struck me odd: it seemed every denomination had some preoccupation with an aspect of Christian teaching blown to the extreme and made into a denomination in its ultimate manifestation. This provided a certain liberty to do what I wanted because, after all, and on the grand scheme of things, no one could agree on the color of an orange. I also chalked it up to God being one that likes variety—seemed reasonable but then maybe not entirely true.

In 1998 we moved to Northern Virginia where I had been working all my professional life.  As a result of the move it became impractical to be involved at Redeemer since it was far away and downright impossible to attend classes or volunteer during the week. McLean Bible Church, (the mega-ist mega church in DC metro area) on the other hand, was just minutes from the house. After attending there, I become involved with several ministries at MBC, first with Kimberly becoming mentors to newly engaged couples in Preparing For Marriage, a church directed ministry that Kimberly and I really liked and in which we leveraged an innate talent.

Over time and for a slew of reasons I started getting disenchanted with the non-denominational mega-church and MBC in particular.  Since I’m not the type to complain and force changes on something that has its own mission and will, my response is simply to get out of the way.  At some point we decided to move on, perhaps a small church where even if my questions could not be answered, our daughters could be challenged and we might find something more than drive-by fellowship.

I did not object to going to the significantly smaller Capital Church up the road since it was close by, had a conventional kid’s ministry and seemed to fit the checklist of orthodoxy—at least as I understood it. En route to my job I would sometimes listen to an audio edition of C. S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters that I received as a Christmas gift. In one chapter the issues of church hopping was examined which was rather convicting. Consequently I resolved that I would not church hop going forward and that Capital would be the last church I would ever attend or I would not attend one at all. This decision was hard to abide by since Capital is, in my opinion, rather reckless.

Interruptus

Interactions at work introduced me to Thomas about this point in the chronology. Thomas is a Ph.D. in computer science with a masters in Catholic Theology. As a devout and knowledgeable Roman Catholic, Thomas is to Protestant and Bible Christian theology what a wrecking ball is to a clapboard house. On many days he would rush into my office at work and start going on immediately about some aspect of Augustine, Aquinas, Humanae Vitae, these things called encyclicals and topics of Christianity that I was not thinking about at the moment because, well, I had my mouth full with a hummus sandwich. Occasionally we’d eat lunch outside at the picnic tables where he’d be waiting with a power point presentation and copious notes on the Eucharist or another Catholic apologetic. Thomas thought I was sincerely misguided and he was going to straighten me out, going so far as to suggest that I was still a Catholic down deep and that I simply needed to get back to Holy Mother Church. At least in my mind I was not a “fallen-away” anything.

Curiously at this time I was contacted out of thin air by Mike who invited me to a silent Ignatius retreat in the countryside of Virginia. With Thomas beating me over the head with a Bible seven books thicker than I was accustomed and many thoughts circling my mind I took Mike up on it. A retreat sounded good, relaxing. I even bought a Catholic Bible and decided I would read these extra books to see what they were really all about. As a result of my conversations with Thomas I was a bit more curious about Catholicism. Plus attending the retreat would demonstrate to Thomas that I was not an anti-Catholic non-denominational Christian fundamentalist he thought he was dealing with. Indeed, I was the “thinking man’s” non-denominational Christian fundamentalist if there be such a thing.

During the retreat I naturally excused myself from Communion and Confession as a confused, not-fallen-away quasi-non Catholic and of course I was missing a large component but that was understood from the get-go.  Although I appreciated the spiritual exercises, some of the teachings were quite baffling to me: Marian theology, the existence of one’s guardian angel and things I considered extra-biblical.

In the months that followed the retreat I continued the conversation with Thomas who occasionally invited me to his house for dinner, study group and informal chats. One incident I won’t ever forget: he had, somehow, received permission to record the church worship services of all makes and models of Christianity including Baptist, Evangelical, Non-denominational and Coptic. As the Coptic liturgy played out Thomas would interpret every symbol and act, the manner in which the priest held his fingers and the finest of details arrayed among the rich gilded paintings and portraits of the saints.  It was remarkable and I wondered if even the congregants knew the meaning of all these elements.

Suddenly, in stark contrast, the video CUT TO: an evangelical worship service in which a woman and man were singing a contemporary Christian praise song on a stage littered with electronic instruments and gear. The duo would occasionally gaze into each other’s faces, smile knowingly, and gaze back at the audience in a manner reminiscent of a Potomac River cruise performance on The Dandy.  I’m not sure Thomas intended anything other than a comparative academic study in Christian worship but from that point on I could never regard this show-boat style seriously. As theatrical as it appeared I was hard pressed to call it worship and I was actually very embarrassed by it.

It seemed like many churches I had attended were geared toward dreaming up another activity each week to keep the people busy and entertained: social ministry, prayer circles or some book on prosperity. I began to wonder why we don’t have any consistency—or liturgy remembering the video of the Coptic Church service. Why do churches meet once a week? What’s the point? To hear a sermon? I can hear thousands through the internet and several times on my way to work. And what is worship exactly? Singing? Raising up hands? And where is the community of faith when we are all so busy in missions halfway across the world or driving through traffic to our next activity?

Capital’s forte is the sunrise service at the Lincoln Memorial held every year on Easter morning. As a precursor leading up to Easter I decided to institute a practice that I recall from the Catholic days of my youth—Lent.  Throughout the season of Lent I knew that I would be leaving Capital church in particular and as a consequence of my church-hopping resolve, church in general. Secretly I prayed for an out and went so far as to tell God that if someone invited me to their Catholic church during Lent I would “convert”, “join” or whatever it is one does to be a Catholic. At the time this was uttered, the idea of being invited to a Catholic church was effectively zero. I was safe. Generally speaking, Catholics don’t invite non-Catholics to church; in fact, I’m not even sure they invite Catholics.  And after 13 years living at my current residence with Catholics left and right, it had not happened and was not about to.

Easter ended the season of Lent and with it the time frame for my fleece test.  Kimberly transitioned back to MBC with the girls who had no youth group to speak of for quite some time.  As for me, I was just going to devolve into my own authority since that was what everyone seem to do anyway. This was the final frontier of the spiritual Far Country—to be my own pope, discerning good and evil for myself, but unlike the prodigal son, I had no idea what was home.

Mysterium Fidei

And yet it was only two weeks after Easter that the unexpected happened: I was invited to someone’s church, a Catholic Church. Now technically it was not during the season of Lent (though definitely the season of Easter according to the Liturgical Calendar) but still a remarkable coincidence that just makes things more baffling.

I have deliberately left out Sigrid until this moment although she factors into the narrative for many years.  Our neighbor for as long as we have lived in NoVa, Sigrid is a Catholic octogenarian woman who has lived a very interesting life. Now Sigrid already knew I was open to Catholic thought made evident one day when Thomas dragged me to a lecture at the Institute for Catholic Culture (ICC). This particular lecture exposing the Protestant Reformers was a small class at a Catholic Church in McLean with about thirty people; to my surprise and hers, I and Sigrid were two of them. This put into glacial motion a quasi-dialog on Catholic topics in which some books were put into my hands about the early church fathers, the Didache, etc. which I read. The story of Tertullian, a pagan scholar trained in the philosophies of his time, was particularly interesting to me. He is attributed with the phrase credo quia absurdum which was one I knew from youth but was unaware it pertained to Christian apologetics and Tertullian specifically. Other than a gentle deposit of information in the form of a few books, Sigrid never pushed it. The excuse for inviting me to her church two weeks after Easter had less to do with theology and more to do with music.

In the course of this season it emerged while helping Sigrid with a computer woe that I liked early, pre-baroque, sacred vocal music (franco-flemish high polyphony to be exact). Along this discussion she mentioned that such music—Palastrina, Lassus, Tallis, Dufay–is a regular part of the worship service at her church and that the performers there are, quite literally, professionals. She asked if I wanted to visit there to hear it for myself. Of course I jumped at the chance only later realizing that I had actually been invited to someone’s church in a delayed response to my very own prayer.  As usual, the vision behind the prayer and its fulfillment were two separate things entirely, never predicting that music would be the underlying premise. It was a divine ruse, bait and switch, caveat emptor; it was Frodo sneaking through the land of Mordor while major battles were conducted elsewhere. I simply never gave it any time to think it through, simply said yes to hear music that I wanted to hear live.

Only later did it sink in that I wasn’t going to a concert but to a Catholic Mass. But all the more, I wanted to go out of some motivation that I couldn’t put my finger on exactly—not just for the music. The appointed Sunday afternoon arrived and Sigrid picked me up at the house driving her Jeep. Along the way Sigrid talked theology as I fidgeted nervously like Joe Gargery visiting London. Part of me thought this was nuts while another thought this was the sort of nuttiness perfectly in character. It emerged in our conversation along the way that this Mass was a traditional one: the priest faces the altar, people receive the Eucharist on the tongue and most of it would be in Latin.  Whoa.

There was nothing ornate about the outside of St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church which has a modern architecture circa 1960-1970’s. As soon as we entered the sanctuary something transformative began to happen inside me although I might have been too nervous to perceive it. The service started with a call to rise as the “celebrant” came forward to the cantor’s music.  From that point on it was a blur: red robed singers, the words of the Mass both sung and spoken in Latin, Greek and English, the incense that filled the sanctuary, the twinkle of candlelight, the motions, the sounds, the bells, the gestures–rising when the priest rose, sitting when the priest sat, kneeling when the bread was consecrated— all vectoring forward to worship I’ve never quite experienced before or could possibly understand: devotion, sanctity and tribute, not to “big buddy” Jesus, but to the One True Lord who was our sacrifice for all time, a concept that would require me and you on our face should we truly believe it. It was both beautiful and terrifying. The seeds planted and tilled for years by Catholic friends seem to sprout and stretch forth in nascent form yielding up through a fertile earth.  The verse from Hosea 10:12 comes to mind:

Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you.

After the Concluding Rite, the mass ended and Sigrid and I drove back home. I can’t remember our talk but I know that in the weeks to follow I was thinking a lot about the Mass and Catholicism in general.

I invited myself to another visit to St. Catherine with Sigrid, especially since she was on the verge of moving overseas to Qatar and I would possibly not have the opportunity again. After a while I started to think about what one does to actually become Catholic if interested. The term Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) came up in search engine results. Just as casual as I could be, I emailed Sigrid to see if she had ever heard of RCIA and of course she had and went so far as put my name in the hat at St. Catherine before she moved overseas. In the parlance of the Rite, I would be an “inquirer” although I think I’ve been inquiring—perhaps even kicking against the goads–for many, many years.

Oremus

This year on March 30 2013, I was confirmed and introduced into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 47 under the patronage of St. Thomas More. Although supportive, both my immediate family (I am married 22 years with 3 teenage daughters) and my extended family found it a curious decision. Of course, conversion meant accepting all Catholic teaching which was not simply academic for me—not at all. But at one point I came to the realization that the institution of the Church was the only stable moral teaching authority on Earth qualified to do so. Seriously, if anyone had told me only a few years ago that I’d become an orthodox Roman Catholic (or even a fallen away one) I would have laughed point-blank in their face. Here lies the other problem of our age: everyone wants to be their own truth; no one wants to conform to it as it stands. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, the Great Tradition wasn’t tried and found wanting; it was tried, found too difficult and duly abandoned.

Now in hindsight it seems obvious: the largest and oldest institution on Earth whose very existence is nothing short of miraculous is there right in front of our face and on every street corner as if God is making it as easy and as obvious as possible for anyone—anyone—to come.  It may take half a century, but I eventually get the message. I hope you will too.

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