Well it ain’t exactly a Confessions or Seven Storey Mountain but it is an autobiographical reflection that, rather surprisingly, ends [spoiler alert] in a Catholic Church. Every time I try to figure out how I came here, I find I’ve been on the road even longer than I’d thought. In an effort to finish that trend, I’m going to try starting at the beginning.
The problem is, I don’t really remember my own beginning. A participant, I was not equipped as an observer. From what I have heard of it though, my beginning is far from auspicious. While none of the witnesses would use these words, and what I offer neglects the intricacies of their perspectives and roles, I hope they’ll forgive these concise (if coarse) terms:
My story begins as the unbaptized, bastard offspring of adultery.
This is not, as I suggest, the whole truth but it has long been the truth of my self-identification. We are narrative beings, and this is how I’ve come to understand the start of my own.
Though my parents did marry, they also divorced and neither kept to the religious traditions in which they were raised. My spiritual development, then, was particularly un-traditional. As shaped in my memory, those early years are a collection of only loosely connected snippets of sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.
I. Cronus and the Titans
None of which is to say that I was disconnected or disinterested. My youth was colored by a spirit of inquiry and observation, however far from participation. Of specific and notable relevance to this story, I find four memories marking my earliest formation:
- The Russian Orthodox funeral service for my paternal grandfather.
- The Rosary devotions of my maternal grandfather.
- The Roman Catholic Masses of my mother’s family.
- Sunday school at a Unitarian Universalist church.
The first of these is not so much an image or specific sense but more of an impression. I don’t mean that in the sense of something vague. What I mean is, the experience was somehow…embossed on the pages of my development. It has always, in some inarticulable way, been the filter through which I have identified or categorized the religious or the sacred. There is no one element I can point to and say, “That’s it, that’s the thing that must be present.” But I know that there was presence in that Church on that day. As I reflect from my position now, in the language I’m learning to speak, I think I should say that it was there that I first felt God. It is only now, though, that I can make that statement and sense its meaning.
That the second moment is of my other, maternal, grandfather creates a nice symmetry. I’m sure there’s a psychoanalytic interpretation to be dug out of it and some sort of obscure symbolism but that’s not the story I’m telling. If you need to explain it away, go ahead; I’m just writing what comes up.
Anyway, the piece I wanted to note here was wandering into my grandparents’ bedroom and finding my grandfather on his knees, at his bedside, deeply engrossed in some quiet task, some sort of necklace dangling from his hand. It’s difficult to isolate the first time I came upon this scene because I have many, many copies of it scattered across the decades. …And there’s something to the repetition of the scene that is tied to the repetition of the prayer. “Pop-pop in prayer with his Rosary” exists for me in the space of ‘ritual time’—it is several different instantiations of a ritual but, in another sense, they all occur simultaneously. To put it another way, there is only one memory for me to call on but it holds within itself all the different times I witnessed.
I feel like I’m supposed to sum this up but I don’t know what to tell you. Something in this—rosary, ritual, repetition, regularity—is important in the formation of my spiritual life but, as with the inarticulable aspect of my paternal grandfather’s funeral, I can’t make it pithy.
The third moment, Mass with my mother’s family, suffers from its own internal contradictions. What comes first is the irrepressible memory of being seated in a pew, between the youngest pair of my aunts and uncles, being subtly and quietly prodded into fits of giggling… just close enough to my grandmother to earn a stern look from her at my behavior, but just far enough that she missed the instigating activities of her immediate offspring. Yes, it’s irreverent and wrong and ‘mean,’ if you look at it that way, but it was (and is) also hilarious. The trouble I got into was never much (my grandmother wasn’t an idiot, she just wasn’t quite fast enough to catch her youngest at their peaks) and it did create a relation within me that bound Church to both rejoicing and guilt… which, though certainly not intended, is kind of brilliant when you think about it.
The counterpoint to that irreverence is the seriousness with which those same trouble-makers, and the whole family, approached the Eucharist. Again, my memory fails on the details of the specific who, how, and why, but the fact remains that I have never taken Communion. At all. Ever. In any church, let alone a Catholic one. Somehow, this was implanted in me so deeply that I never really questioned the validity or applicability of the proscription; I just always knew it. And not as a mark of shame or anything, there was no kerfuffle about it, it was just: “Most do, some don’t, you’re a don’t. Sit respectfully or kneel and pray [or read the Hymnal, which wasn’t an offered option but one I sometimes took] and we who do will be back shortly,” and that was it.
Overflowing joy, some guilt, and a deep and abiding respect, without shame; these are what the Catholics of my mother’s family managed to instill in me. If I could figure out how they did it, it would be a boon to youth evangelization.
We come at last to the final of these formative experiences and the source of the title of this section: My time in a UU Sunday school. Once again, my memory is hazy but I think, upon reflection, that this should be counted as my first class in Religious Studies. No one who sees and hears the story of Cronus forgets it (or else they weren’t paying attention) and this one stuck with me. I don’t know the why or the how—my mother was experimenting, I was just along for the ride—but I remember the result, and for that, despite all their quirks and faults, I will always have a space in my heart for the UUs. There it was that I first felt the wonder of mythos, was moved by the poetic structures, and learned to love ancient history and thought. As much as all the others, my brief time in UU Sunday school defined my identity in relation to and my basic approach to “religion” and scripture.
II. Cigarettes, Sex, and Socrates
Now we jump a few years, into my teens. If you’re of the age at all, cast yourself back and imagine a young man enamored with the Cure, Bauhaus, the Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc… Wait, wait, keep the eyeliner, but switch the hair from black to streaked and tipped—a little more Flock of Seagulls and Information Society than Sisters of Mercy or the Cult. Got it? Ok, yeah, that’s me circa 1987. I picked up smoking (cloves, naturally) and started “experimenting” with drugs, but let’s not lose sight of the depths contained in my soundtrack: Among the lyrical sources for the music I listened to were Camus, Gurdjieff, Artaud, Latin prayers, Saints, Scripture, and Kundalini yoga. And note, these were not ‘hidden’ or interpreted references; The Cure explicitly built a song around The Stranger (and complained of cultural illiteracy when some people at the time took it to be an anti-Arab song), Bauhaus had songs titled “Antonin Artaud” and “St. Vitus Dance,” The Police name-dropped Nabakov and explained Jungian terminology, U2 were giving history lessons “…in the name of love…” and singing:
Gloria in te domine
Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.
Really? Yeah, really. Google it. And they weren’t considered a “Christian rock” band when they played it either, they were just Alternative or College Rock. Now I don’t mean to devolve into a nostalgia-fueled rant about music these days but, come on! Also, you kids need to get off my lawn!
Right, back to the narrative.
It was during this same period of my life that I picked up [may have shoplifted, actually—my morality was, um, situational at best] The Last Days of Socrates, which included the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. I spent about two years with that book as a near constant companion. It sits on one of my bookshelves today, the spine desparately clinging to its pages. Quotes from the text and notes on Socrates, Euthyphro, and Asclepius litter an ancient notebook that also includes (for reasons I can’t recall) a dictionary definition of “mystic.” The point is, this was not some passing interest or a mask I tried on for a time, this was a text that informed the way I was coming to approach the world.
Using the terminology I’ve learned since then, I would say it was then that I started coming around to a roughly Pelagian, neo-Platonic mysticism. My scripture was Greek philosophy, my God was waiting at the end of pure intellection, and my religion was decidedly without religious tradition [as far as I knew]. Thanks, at least in part, to my early exposure to “mythology,” I was already predisposed to read the Bible as only another—if exemplary—collection of myths (however culturally valuable they might be), and I never tired of questioning the true value and applicability of the Golden Rule or posing versions of the Problem of Evil.
If there was any time when you might have been able to call me an “atheist” and not have me argue with you, this was probably it.
Not that anyone did; I don’t think it really occurred to us a the time that that should be a label worth taking. It was, oddly when one considers all the black we were wearing, too much of a negation. We weren’t “not like you,” we were just “ourselves” and anything else was your problem… …or something like that. Whatever, thinking about it, I probably would have argued with you anyway, just for the sake of arguing. “Contrarian” and “budding misanthrope” are terms that seem appropriate.
This was also the period of my first series of sexual relationships which, I’m realizing, puts me even more in line with St. Augustine’s Confessions than I’d like to admit: Neo-Platonism, the ‘wrong’ crowd, petty thievery, sexual licentiousness, incessant questioning…
Yeah, it’s probably problems with myself that gave me problems with Augustine, but that’s a different story.
III. Bell, Book, and Candle
Then I married a witch.
I’m not pulling your leg here or making a slight against my [spoiler alert] ex-wife; the woman was a practicing Wiccan and, therefore, called herself a Witch. Not that it much mattered to me at the time. The aesthetic was generally acceptable and there was a sexual openness that I appreciated. They liked to be out the woods and dirt too much for my tastes but, otherwise, it was (for me) just another set of myths and rituals that were only as useful and arbitrary as any other. Meaning was something people unconsciously added to their traditions, not something they got out of them; Fate was a way to shrug off responsibility; Faith was a statement that one’s self-analysis as incomplete; Prayer was a way of expressing a feeling of helplessness.
Wiccan, Christian, whatever.
God with a beard in a robe and called “He” or God with a shave in a dress and called “She,” surely this was a matter of aesthetics? Wine, blood, chalice, trust, power, life, death, soul…blah, blah, blah; one had more expensive taste and better artists than the other but beyond that? Nothing more than people dissatisfied with their lives trying to make them bigger and more important.
I hadn’t read Schopenhauer yet, but I would have loved him.
Anyway, she wanted to get married for some reason and I—whose parents were on their way to three marriages a piece—thought, what the heck? I mean, it’s not like it means anything other than that we’ll get to share benefits and cut the tax bill, right? Throw a party, take a vacation, pretend you’re a grown-up. Two dogs, a mortgage, a pick-up truck, an expanding waistline, an ulcer, high-blood pressure, a near heart-attack—all by the age of 25.
For a smart guy, I can be pretty stupid.
It held together almost four years before I started falling apart. I would stay late at work just because I didn’t want to be at home. I had developed a nervous twitch in my right eye. I was riddled with a continuous, non-specific anxiety that was doing nothing to help my deteriorating physical health. I didn’t want to face what was wrong but my own body had started betraying me. I started seeing a psychotherapist, moved out of the house, and shortly thereafter we began divorce proceedings.
There is, of course, a lot more to that but it’s not the story I’m telling.
Religiously, not too much had changed for me during that period. I picked up a few new myths, dabbled in various forms of divination, and “called the corners” a couple times. None of it stuck or resonated for me. Perhaps the most notable part of this time was that it was the longest and furthest I’d been away from any version of “church” I’d previously known… and I didn’t think I was missing anything.
IV. Tolle Lege
Then, in 1999, not long after I’d found and moved into my own apartment, something entirely unexpected happened: A seemingly innocuous question, arising from a forgettable (and forgotten) conversation, rapidly turned from casual interest to a consuming and expanding passion. The question was, “If one were going to purchase an English translation of the Bible, which should one buy?”. Now, for anyone living a particular tradition, that question can be easily answered. Various denominations have versions they authorize or prefer or insist upon [my research at the time included those who claim the King James Version is itself divinely inspired and, consequently, more “true” to the Word of God than even the earliest, untranslated texts]. Considering the question as an outsider, however, opens an entire world of history, philology, sociology, politics, literature and language, and a whole host of issues related to the problems and possibilities of translation. This did not deter me. In fact, on the contrary, I found myself drawn ever more deeply into the questions and issues.
After deciding to purchase an Oxford Annotated NRSV with Apocrypha [later complemented with a Precise Parallel New Testament that runs the Greek alongside seven different English translations], I started reading. I didn’t have a particular reading plan or anything—as far as I knew, I wasn’t actually all that interested—I just kept picking it up and reading. It felt almost compulsive. I had to read (the Gospels mostly but, again, I wasn’t working in a methodical fashion) and it was clear that something was happening with or to me. What was it? Well, I recently reopened that copy of the Bible to find the following written on a yellow post-it and stuck to one of the end pages:
“I hear it spoken in my soul
that it will only be in the truest service of God,
who is all and everything,
that I may find my salvation;
that only in those moments
where I desist in my service of my self
do I come close to living in the Divine light forever.
But I also know that
the desire for that light is a self service
and is not a service to God.”
Make of that what you will, it’s apparently where I was some 15 years ago. I was so taken with this path that I found an introductory text and began to teach myself the Koine Greek [Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος…] of the New Testament. I also increased my research efforts and began my affair with the early Church, Patristics, and the first Councils. It even occurred to me at the time that, just maybe, this was a calling I was receiving and I even made some cursory investigations.
How did this not lead, if not to Orders, to some Conversion? From my perspective now, I see a kind of doubled counter-motion that altered my course. On the one hand, I was too proud to submit my judgment and will to any doctrinal formulations other than my own but, on the other hand, not proud enough to think that God (if He were there) would actually call on me to do anything. My outlook at the time, therefore, was one which could not take seriously the movement of the Holy Spirit in any of this. I knew there were other explanations. There had to be, because the immediate explanation was simply unacceptable…
V. Philosophy and Religion
Let’s fast forward a few years, shall we? I relocated to New York City, lost some weight, and continued a basically upward career trend. My philosophical investigations had turned toward ethics, the fevered passion for Scripture had cooled, and all of that had been moved to a back-burner as I pursued the more comprehensible, worldly goals of wealth, status, and fame. I shopped, I traveled, I wrote important memos, managed projects, and I took meetings over calamari salad and glasses of Chopin vodka in tony Noho lounges.
And I drank. I drank a lot.
Then the bottom fell out of the market. I aged out of my artistic dreams and woke up to find myself bankrupt, with no projects to manage or memos to write, bartending in a tony Gramercy eatery. It sounds worse than it was. Truth be told, I had gotten rather sick of the industry and of the empty feeling that I’d tried to fill up with vodka and, later, scotch. I was ready to go. Nevertheless, as I looked down the bar at my coworker, I saw a future I did not want. I wasn’t at all sure, however, what future I did want. I enjoyed my job and was generally happy, but I knew that it was time to strike out in a new direction.
One of the causes of my happiness was an almost absurdly faithful and supportive girlfriend [with whom, to make sure this tale stays as bizarre as its reality, I was not living then and with whom I would not live for many years to come] who happened to be working through a degree program at one of the city’s colleges. As I was helping her organize her schedule for the upcoming semester, I realized that I could attend college and work at the same time. And well, why not? After only barely graduating from high school, I’d managed to stumble into a burgeoning field and had built my career on B.S., talent, and decent timing. I hadn’t really needed college, so I just sort of skipped it. Now, however, it appeared to be the answer I was looking for… but it came with another question: what should I study?
It would be pointless to get a degree that was at all related to the career I’d left behind. I knew where that road went, I’d been on it for a decade, and I didn’t like the scenery. No, if I was going to school, I would study those things that had held my interest through all my twists and turns. Looking to my bookshelf for insight, I found volume after volume of Philosophy and Religion. Somehow, without my having noticed it, my collection of texts in those fields had just kept on expanding. My first day at college, I went and declared a double major.
Over the next four years the kid who’d escaped high-school in the bottom 10% of his class managed to graduate from college Summa Cum Laude, with departmental honors in each of his majors, and as a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Sigma Tau. In philosophy I’d moved from the Greeks to Nietzsche, the death of God, and Existentialism. My movement through religion was roughly parallel, though I’d hung on to an interest in early Christianity and, in particular, the lost heresies of the first couple centuries.
Though my academic pursuit of religion was relatively grounded, my personal religious sense was—with my study of philosophy—stuck at being Nauseated with Sartre, or seasick with Nietzsche. Whatever clever line I put to it, the sensation was the same: I was adrift… and trying (rather desperately) to be OK with that.
Since I’d decided that all this work only ended in a teaching job, I was off to grad school to study religion.
VI. Augustine’s Oedipal Adventure,
Nestorius’ Raw Deal, and
How to Philosophize with un Marteau
OK, so that title may be little more than a quick burst of nerdy in-jokes but they do pretty much sum up the work of my graduate years. I’ll spare you the details. The salient point is this:
No matter how long you spend in study, you won’t have learned is what it means to believe. You won’t know what it is to live according to faith. You won’t know how it feels to be forgiven. However much you love books, there is no book that can love you.
And that’s the bottom line. During this time I read and multiplied knowledge and exercised reason and read and argued and read and wrote and read and stacked facts on theories on critiques and so on and so on… But all of this was at a distance. I was removed from any sense of reality underneath it all. Not that I didn’t have respect for the writers and thinkers I was studying, nor did I doubt that they thought what they were describing was real and true. It’s just that it was all utterly and totally human (all too human) for me.
VII. From God is Dead to Christ is Risen
Back in New York, I continued staring into the abyss, trying to build some semblance of a workable foundation that might give it a bottom. Few ideas seemed to offer the needed support. One major theme, articulated through Nietzsche, kept me occupied and gave me a goal towards which to strive:
How can I, as Nietzsche puts it in The Gay Science, someday be only a “Yes-sayer” (Ja-sagender) to life?
My project of working on this question was rather abruptly interrupted just this January (2015) when, for what seemed to be no particular reason, I felt suddenly and importantly aware of the deficit in my knowledge regarding the doctrinal positions of the contemporary Catholic Church [and by “contemporary” I mean, as only an academic can, just about everything since the Council of Ephesus]. I mean, come on now. I teach Religious Studies and Christianity is my turf; I should know what they’re on about, right? Totally reasonable. Odd timing and not really on point for what I’d been working on lately, but totally reasonable. So I walked out to the bookstore and picked up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and started reading. And I was surprised. And I found something that felt like hope. And I was driven to go further.
Right, so remember that girlfriend who was the catalyst for my going to college? Yeah, well, it turns out she was crazy enough to stick with me through all this (and please note, you’re only getting less than 1⁄10th of the story here). After a dozen years together, we’d finally gotten married. Naturally, then, I wanted to share this new discovery with my wife, so I started reading to her.
“Hey, check this out.”
“Just listen, ‘God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God –“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”– with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.’”
“Sounds about right to me. What are you reading?”
“Wait, there’s this other bit…”
And so it went. I kept reading, we both kept agreeing, and I thought maybe it was worth going by the church down the street to find out more. Next thing you know, we’re sitting in on RCIA sessions. [I’ve a feeling this blog will end up overflowing with commentary on RCIA, so I’ll not go too far into it right now.] As a researcher by both trade and inclination, I continued my own investigations and happened upon one St. Ignatius of Loyola, who’d been waiting in that wide gap in my studies between 5th century Ephesus and 19th century Germany. There, in Ignatius and the Society he’d founded, I was awestruck to discover a response to my Nietzschean quest that was simple yet, at least for me, not merely satisfying but illuminating:
How can I become only a Yes-sayer to life? By seeking and finding God in all things.
The idea was there for me before but, somehow, it never found that articulation and never previously resonated for me. The only explanation I have for my reaction and warmth is [and this still feels odd in my mouth or at my fingertips] the movement of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and my bumbling attempts at co-operation with that movement. In less doctrinal and more casually poetic language, lights were going on with every step I took.
From there it snowballed—gaining speed and size until it became both dizzying and a little frightening. I began annulment proceedings [yet another story to be shelved for other entries]. I started pulling out old books from my graduate studies and rereading them with these new eyes. I started praying the Rosary and enrolled with the Apostleship of Prayer. Our bookshelves were reorganized to accommodate new texts on Ignatian spirituality, various hagiographies, commentaries, and guides. We began attending Mass weekly, kept a Lenten fast for the whole of Lent [except Sundays, of course], and went to a host of Triduum services. I kept reading the Catechism and challenging myself with old issues, waiting for it all to fall apart but, instead, it’s just kept growing.
The greatest difficulty now is the quiet, consistent strain that attends a trial of patience. It is difficult, after a precatechumenate of somewhere between 15 and 30 years, to finally begin knocking at the door and, instead of having it opened, hearing, “Umm, you need to get your paperwork in order, and then, well, you missed it this year so, we’ll see if we can’t let you in next Spring…”
I mean, OK, yes, it’s worth it and I can wait but I have good days and bad days. Especially with regard to the Eucharist. Remember, way back at the start of this saga, I talked about taking it seriously and, therefore, never taking it? Yeah, well that didn’t change, only now I understand it—I believe in it—as “the source and summit of Christian life.” Being cut off from Communion, then, because of… well, go back and look again at section III. That. That’s what’s keeping me out. Which, yes, OK, I submit to the Magisterium and I’m not going to violate the Sacrament out of impatience but…let’s just say it chafes. And honestly, it’s not the Church or the Canon that stings so much as those who have the opportunity but turn away from it.
…I just deleted a rant that followed on that last note. I’ll save it for a different post at a time when it’s less of a sore spot.
Anyway, as anti-climactic as it may seem, that’s pretty much the story. No blinding light, no booming voice. Just a question and a book and, ummm, the Holy Spirit? I’ve really got no better answer than that. There are details, sure. Various intellectual questions and all. And don’t let me leave you with the impression that it’s all a done deal. I didn’t become an Evangelical, I’m becoming Catholic. This takes work, every single day.
What’s continually surprising—and sustaining—is that it keeps being worth far more than the work I put in.
Epilogue: Proverbs 24:14
The rest of the story will, if all goes well, continue to unfold in these pages. I look forward with hope to many possibilities. I’m already taking courses to be certified as a Catechist, have started getting involved in the workings of the parish, and will pursue installation as a Lector once I’m initiated. My wife, for her part, already has me applying to the Diaconate but that’s getting way too far ahead of ourselves. Right now, I’m happy to be on this road and open to wherever it is God’s will takes me.