Last time, I tried taking a humorous approach to describing my journey into the Catholic Church. To make a long story short, it didn’t go over too well. A few readers found my tone to be flippant and offensive, which would have been fine had they also found it hilarious. But they didn’t find it funny, not at all. In fact, I think I had only one fan (Lindsay, I’m looking at you). My friend James even asked me if I was drunk when I wrote it, and I told him I would certainly hope not. I tend to hold my drunk-writing in high esteem, and it would crush me to think that it would ever come out so badly.
Thus, this is my second attempt at writing my conversion story. It’s horribly truncated and although I tried to include everything, everything somehow got left out. What can I say? I gave it my best shot, and I’ll be guaranteed to shoot at it many more times before all is said and done. Also, dear reader, please forgive me if I’m blunt to the point of offense in some places. Reading my column here, you should be used to that by now. People tell me I’m a fairly honest guy, but regrettably, my honesty is not nearly as graceful as it is sincere.
Let’s recap a bit. Growing up, I attended Bethel Baptist Church, where a dinosaur-themed Vacation Bible School first lured me into the sanctuary at the age of four. I remember a small, brown Apatosaurus on display—one of the prizes for memory verses—and I resolved to win it. So I did.
Throughout the years that followed, I became familiar with the central tenets of Christianity and adopted them, opting to get baptized at the age of eight. Always too precocious for my own good, I studied the Scriptures and often got in trouble for arguing with Sunday school teachers over the proper interpretation of certain passages. However, toward the end of middle school I became bored with the Baptist church because its teachings seemed only to skim the surface. I began examining my faith and asking the “big questions.” Like, is the faith tradition I have received trustworthy? Why does God allow suffering in the world? Is there only one way to heaven? And is there even a heaven at all?
But my religious instructors never engaged my inquiries, so I was left to explore my questions using other resources.
During high school, at the inspiration of my best friends Lon and Nathan, I took up a serious study of church history and theology as a hobby (as described in my previous post). That was when I discovered the writings of the early Christians, both orthodox and heterodox. Despite their differences, the religion (or religions) they described appealed to me both intellectually and spiritually. Ultimately, I sided with the orthodox authors, mainly because I found their arguments more balanced and persuasive. By the time of my junior year in high school, I had worked my way up to the medieval mystics.
In the middle of my senior year, it became evident to me that I couldn’t honestly continue to attend my Baptist Church, since I didn’t agree with their manner of worship or their teachings. I also admit to holding a personal grudge against them, because the congregation would never make much effort to accommodate me in church activities. For example, they would always ask my family to donate to the annual youth beach trip fund, but they would never reserve wheelchair accessible places (I’m disabled).
I was torn between whether to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy—the artistic, mystical, and liturgical tradition of which held a special appeal for me—or Roman Catholicism, which offered a more thorough and logical explanation of doctrine. Eventually, with a little prodding from a Catholic girlfriend at the time, my inner Vulcan won out and I went with reason over mystery. But I remained restless.
College caught me right at the beginning of this spiritual exodus. My classes afforded me the opportunity to conveniently investigate different ways of thinking. Above all, my course with Dr. Hawkins allowed me free reign to dive into the holy texts and traditions of non-Abrahamic religions, something I had not yet gotten around to doing. Such experiences broadened my cultural horizons, encouraging me to adopt a more free and philosophical interpretation of the Bible as well as a more advanced and articulate theory of its inspiration that does not discount the work of God in other religions. For example, I realized many of the ideas related by the Upunishads are somewhat comparable to those of Christian mystics. I also decided to adopt some concepts from the Tao Te Ching—the basic text of Taoism—into my own worldview, which is otherwise predominantly Thomistic.
Exploring the social scene of campus life also fueled my ongoing spiritual journey. After joining a Roman Catholic fraternity on campus, it became clear to me that man does not live by logic and doctrine alone—mystery is also required. They showed me how to have fun and live close to the heart of Jesus, but I just did not click with the culture of contemporary Christianity, be it Catholic or Protestant. When I first acknowledged this truth, it was very difficult to face because at the end of the day, the modern American churchgoing scene with all its glorious Cartesian ordering, rationalizing, and simplifying was the only world I knew.
Deep down, I wanted all the “smells and bells,” something which I think the ordinary form of the Roman rite has moved away from in recent years. I did explore the traditional Latin Mass, but it just couldn’t compete with the eastern liturgies I had witnessed while visiting Orthodox Churches prior to my conversion. Then I found Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church. Not only was it close to my house, it was an eastern Christian community in communion with Rome. The way I saw it, I could have the best of both worlds. But I had little idea what I was getting into.
From the instant I walked through the door into a narthex jammed with people shouting and laughing in a foreign language over the pungent smell of unknown foods, I felt immersed in some weird knock-off of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Within moments I was kissed and greeted by everyone within a ten-foot radius and ushered into the main sanctuary. Fortunately, the service was almost entirely in English and had exactly the air of mystery I was looking for.
Soon, I was discussing becoming a parishioner with Msgr. Donald Sawyer, the priest there, who is best described as a Lebanese-Texan redneck (in a very good way). During one of my first confessions at the Church, he pulled out a foot-long hunting knife and began casually cleaning his nails! The utter informality and familiarity present in the community was shocking at first. Everybody knew everything about everyone. No one was in a hurry to go anywhere, and it was common for folks to just hang around for hours after services. I was practically assaulted by invitations to meals and special events!
Though it took some getting used to, I began to feel comfortable inside this laid-back Mediterranean culture. It helped me slow down and taught me to value real people over the endless items on my hectic schedule. I came for mysticism, but I stayed because of the bright smiles and warm hearts. After awhile, I even got used to my fellow parishioners, men included, kissing me on the lips to greet me. Which was really strange at first!
Oh yes, as an addendum, I ended up getting conditionally baptized and confirmed in the Maronite Church. While studying the Church Fathers in preparation for being a Catechist, I discovered proper intention is necessary for a baptism to be valid. My old Baptist Church was independent and not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, so baptisms performed by them were not automatically recognized. Moreover, at the time of my baptism, it was made clear that it was not a sacrament but just a public profession of faith. Thus, after speaking briefly with a canon lawyer, he recommended the move for conditional baptism. So, I had the odd privilege of entering the Catholic Church two years after I entered the Catholic Church, and this time in a rite which suited me best.
In the end, I suppose all things work out for the greater glory of God and those who love him. By the way, Mom still loves me, even though I dragged the poor woman through all these experiences. God bless her for putting up with such an eccentric and “special” son!
In my next post, I’m going to talk about you, Mom, and motherhood.