Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 11: Open Wounds and Explanations

Since I published part 10 in this series, there has been a myriad of responses. I am grateful for your prayers, concern and advice. This last while has been hard, a period of great and deep joy mixed with much hurt, and your support and readership means so much to me.

Thank you.

Given this variety of responses, I have decided to write this last entry in this particular series on where I am at now, why I am moving towards Orthodox Christianity, and all the rest.  I have chosen to not speak very much on why I would not remain Roman or become Eastern Catholic, because my desire is not to write polemics, apologetics, or frankly, anything negative.  This journey is not about rejecting or leaving Rome for me, even if that is what some wish to boil it down to in a simplistic fashion. I have taken great pains to ensure this in my life and any criticisms I have made against the state of the Catholic Church right now are simply to give a context, to illustrate my own journey, or when I have made them, out of human weakness and frustration (I doubt that they are anything worse than one might find on Rorate Caeli or ChurchMilitantTV, for instance).In all honesty, I reckon that if I had not mentioned on this blog any of this few would ever notice a difference in my writing. Whether I am Catholic or Orthodox, my writing will always be what it seems people have come to expect - at least, that is my hope. I will always write out of an honest place, with all my heart.

Now, when I began this blog, I wrote it purely for myself, as a journal of my own conversion and experiences, and a way to write out my journey.  I had no idea it would become as big as it did - as of today, I am nearing around 800,000 views, and though I have not "cracked the mainstream" as it were, it seems that what began as a journal of just another Catholic convert was noticed, if only to a relatively small degree.  Therefore, I feel that I owe an explanation to those who read my thoughts, however poor they are.

This is not to say that I have not been through a lot of interior pain over the whole thing, with misrepresentations, allegations, misunderstandings, condemnations, and even cold shouldering thrown my way - a most hurtful thing when going through a process such as this.  The criticisms I have recieved in some corners have almost brought me to tears, no doubt due to my very sensitive nature - but "He who wishes to serve God let him prepare his heart for tribulations,"1 (St. Basil the Great), and again, "When men revile us, we should consider ourselves unworthy of praise.  If we were worthy, everyone would bow down to us."2 (St. Seraphim of Sarov) 

It is true that I have been already deemed an "apostate," a "schismatic," someone who is trying to lead others away from Rome (which is not even remotely the case) - despite my hurt and anger over being called such things, I must strive to bear all of it for the sake of Christ.  "And if everyone abandons you and drives you out by force, then, when you are left alone, fall down on the earth and kiss it and water it with your tears, and the earth will bring forth fruit from your tears, even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude."3 (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

A friend of mine, who entered the Catholic Church with me from a Protestant background, asked me a question - saying he was a "Catholic-Protestant," he asked why I would not want to be "Catholic-Orthodox" and "reform" the Church from within as he wanted to do.  My answer remains the same: I do not want to "reform" the Church, I want to reform myselfWho am I to reform anything when I cannot even reform my own heart?  If I cannot walk with Christ and allow Him to change me, to radically affect and effect my life, how I can ever possibly hope to bring Christ to others?  St. Seraphim of Sarov says, "Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation."4  During my life as a specifically Roman Catholic, I have not known that kind of peace, nor have I been able to acquire it to any large degree.

In fact, much of my struggles were self-inflicted (just to give some context).  I am a very scrupulous person, often self-defeating and very sensitive, and this kind of temperament transferred wholesale into my spiritual life, despite periods of great elation.  My life as a Catholic has been fraught with despair - despair of the mercy of God, desperately driving around town trying to find a church that offered confession still, and not finding one, having my heart tear at me with images of the Hell that waited for me if I could not slide into the confessional in time, or if my act of contrition was not sincere enough. One thought from one of the famed Optina Elders struck my heart at the end of it all - "The action of grace never leads anyone to despair, but grants the gift of tenderness, joy, long-suffering and peace."5 (St. Leonid of Optina)

Again, I do not so much blame the Catholic Church for this, but myself.  But "The sick one who is familiar with his illness is easily cured and the one who acknowledges his pain is close to healing."6 (St. Isaac the Syrian)

As some have pointed out, I tended to be a recluse, never involving myself in the community of my parish - this fact has been held up to me several times.  I suppose I never felt that I had much in common with anyone there; that, and my own extended family life has always been a painful arena for me, so the notion of "family" has been tainted by this.  Even within my own family, I am an only child whose parents divorced when I was 16, and this has darkened and distorted my view of family anything ever since.  I am only just coming out of much of this horrible mindset now.

I mention all of the above in order to highlight my own fault, my grievous fault, in all of this.  As a convert, I made many grave mistakes (all of which I have outlined in this series).  Fr. Seraphim Rose highlights these rather well in some writings of his, and I have noticed two in particular that I fell into: what he refers to as academic over-intellectualism (which causes one to become detached from the actual life of the Church, the everyday realities of being a Christian), and "quenched syndrome" (discouragement, despair, etc.).7

Little did I know that the cures for these conditions were things I had already begun to do - focusing in on the interior life, reading the writings of the Fathers, ignoring the outward chaos within the Church and choosing instead to focus on the kingdom within.  

In Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's excellent little work, Beginning to Pray, I came across this passage concerning his father: "I remember [my father] said to me after a holiday, 'I worried about you,' and I said 'Did you think I'd had an accident?'  He said, "That would have meant nothing, even if you had been killed.  I thought you had lost your integrity."8

I will not be a pew-warmer - if there is something that I do not believe is true or disagree with, I won't stay in order to "reform" the Church from within, or to simply fill the seats.  I am not interested in being a reformer of the Church, nor a dissident against it, nor a polemicist who makes a career off spouting venom at the state of it.  I am interested in being a Christian, in being a follower of Christ, and in having my life changed by Christ.  I truly believe, as Fr. Seraphim Rose said, that the search for religious truth is "a question literally of life and death."9

Now, I am well-aware of the papal encyclicals being hurled at me by some (Unam Sanctum, Lumen Gentium, etc.), what the popes have said in the past about the Orthodox, what specifically Catholic saints and theologians have said (St. Bonaventure's remarks were particularly brutal), that from a certain point of view I am putting my soul in grave danger and eternal peril for walking on this path (the irony is that the same folks who hold this view often adore the spirituality and saints of Orthodox Christianity almost as much as I do, but when pressed, deem them "outside the Church," as schismatics and apostates, before fawning over their writings again).  I console my heart with the words of St. John the Evangelist, who wrote that "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18)

All I have ever learned from Orthodoxy is how to live a life in Christ, how to reform myself and my own heart.  I have no interest in church politics of any kind, no interest in petty squabbles, all of which occur in both the Catholic and Orthodox worlds - my only goal is to have Christ change my life and my heart.  Orthodox Christianity has shown me how to do this. "Within you is the battle you are to fight; the evil structure which must be torn down is within; your enemy comes from your own heart."10 (Origen)

I do not look at all of this to be a rejecting and a leaving, but a fulfilling and a deepening.  I am tired of the search for Truth, because this search did not end when I became Catholic.  Something has always felt missing - a deep interior relationship with and love of Christ crucified and victorious.  I experienced extreme highs and lows in Catholicism, but never a deep peace within my heart.  I grew tired of the tribalism and recurring liturgical nightmares within the Catholic Church (like many Catholics), but to this very moment, I would not leave Rome for any of these reasons.  The grass is not greener on the other side - I have no illusions about that anymore in regards to any church or tradition.  I have done much research, studying the Fathers, the papal encyclicals, the theologians, and can no longer deny what I have found.

But I am not interested in "combox" arguments, prooftexts, condemnations of anyone or anything.  This post is not written to burn bridges but to build them, not to sever relationships with others but to deepen them, not to reject so much as to grow.  In this spirit, though friendly advice, prayers, and thoughts are invited and most welcomed, I will not allow argumentative or negative comments to be posted - I am not interested in trolling, online debates about who is the true church, or anything else. I seek simply to follow Christ and to allow my life to be permeated and changed by Him, so that I may help bring others to Christ.  Having been drawn to Orthodox Christianity for so long and in such a deep and heart-rending way, I cannot help but heed the call of love, Love Who is Eternal. 

May God bless everyone and continue to show you His love and mercy.  I love you all.

+ Jason 

"The end of each discovery becomes the starting point for the discovery of something higher, and the ascent continues.  Thus our ascent is unending.  We go from beginning to beginning by way of beginnings without end."

-St. Gregory of Nyssa 

1 - qtd. in Death to the World, Issue 3, 1994
2 - Spiritual Instructions, 16
3 - The Brothers Karamazov, VI:3
4 - qtd. in Ware, The Orthodox Way, 118
5 - qtd. in Living Without Hypocrisy pg. 3
6 - On Ascetical Life, II:2
7 - See Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, ch. 88
8 - pg. 5
9 - God's Revelation to the Human Heart, 20
10 - qtd. in Spirit and Fire, 550

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mercy of Christ

"And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once.… I have forgiven thee once.… Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much.…’ And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek.… And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him.… and we shall weep … and we shall understand all things!"

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, I:2

Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 10: "I Just Want To See"

"'I seek for truth.'  Happy is he who places the accent on the last word: 'Truth.'  It is far worse with those who proudly emphasize the word 'seek,' and are full of vanity because of their position among those continually tending towards truth - 'Ever learning and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.'" (2 Tim. 3:7)

-Fr. Alexander Yelchaninov, Fragments of a Diary

I continued to go dutifully to Mass, though no longer with much heart.  The drama, the in-fighting, the politics, the constant analysis of Pope Francis' every word, move and breath had me exhausted and despairing.  Externally, I was very much a Catholic of the Latin Rite, a Roman.  But interiorly, it was a different story.  I prayed the Jesus Prayer often; most of the spiritual reading I did was all Eastern, either from the undivided first 1000 years or from the post-schism world of the Orthodox Church.  My viewpoints, I had found out and been told often, were not those of Western Latin Christianity, but Eastern.

A long time ago, a commenter named "Jack" wrote to me the following, on a blog concerning St. John Cassian and St. Augustine: "You're really Orthodox, you just don't know it yet."  Never before had words rattled me so much - I could not get them out of my head, and kept wondering to myself, "Am I?"

I told a couple good Catholic friends of mine, and they could not understand the issue - I was Catholic, why would I let something like that bother me?  And if anything true that the Orthodox said and did was actually, so to speak, property of the Catholic Church, and if we Catholics had the Eastern tradition intact with the Eastern Catholic Churches, who cared whether someone said a comment like that.  I left that day at the pub in a deep state of inner turmoil.   

From the beginning, I sought for truth.  I forged ahead, and found the Catholic Church.  The Orthodox Church was not an option because it simply was not on the map.  The entire history of the Christian religion was essentially the Catholic Church until about 1500, then Protestants and Catholics fighting for the next 500 years.  Orthodoxy was a footnote.

In my view, I could not understand Protestantism or Evangelicalism - if one had even the slightest knowledge of history, one would see that the Catholic Church was the original, bona fide real deal.  But when I began to encounter Orthodox Christianity, my romanticized and rather simplistic view of it all became incredibly complicated.  Suddenly, things weren't so simple.  There was a third option on the table, one which I had never given an opportunity in my search to actually speak.

Over the past three years, I have read a lot of specifically Orthodox material, quoting it often on this blog.  I immersed myself in the Triads of St. Gregory Palamas (though it took me two years to even remotely begin to understand it all), the Russian ascetics and mystics, the American Orthodox icons such as St. Herman of Alaska and Fr. Seraphim Rose, right up to the modern writings of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.  My heart was captured by Orthodox spirituality.  I still loved all of my writings of specifically Catholic saints and figures, especially the theologians and mystics of the Middle Ages all the way to Ven. Fulton Sheen and St. Faustina Kowalska, but Orthodox Christianity had completely caught my heart.

Through my encounters with the Orthodox saints and writings, I found that my heart was always profoundly affected.  I broke down crying one time over it all.  I could not gather enough wisdom in.  All of this transposed on to my blog, so much so that I cannot even remember how many times people asked me if I was a Byzantine Catholic or not.  But here I was, a Roman Catholic whose only real-life experience of anything like Orthodoxy was with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish in town.

People began to ask me if why I wasn't Orthodox, whether I had considered Eastern Catholicism seriously, and all the rest.  When I found out that one of my best friends had attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, a friend who was the most Catholic man I knew in every way, living the Catholic life and teaching to a "T," it blew the dam open.  I couldn't take the tension of being a Roman Catholic in love with Orthodox Christianity much longer.  I prayed for the first time to an Orthodox saint, my favorite, St. Seraphim of Sarov (who is also seemingly much beloved by Catholics who know of him), and simply said, "If you're listening, if you're actually a saint and in heaven, show me some kind of sign."

With a spirit of great fear and trembling, after much prayer and research, I decided to simply "go and see."  After all, if I didn't allow myself to satiate my curiosity, then it would claw at my heart forever.  I had to, for the sake of my Catholic faith - I simply had to allow myself to see, and to hopefully see that it wasn't what I thought it was.  I reasoned to myself that it was OK - after all, if no Mass is around, Catholics can go to an Orthodox church.  They are viewed as "sister churches", with all the valid everything that we Catholics have, albeit in some kind of an "imperfect way."

Driving to Mass that morning, my car began to have troubles.  I pulled in to the Orthodox Church which was on the way to downtown where my home parish was.  At worst, I would let my car "rest" and head to the parish 12 minutes away from my house in order to fulfill my Sunday obligation afterwards.  I sat in my car, wavering between leaving and going in, feeling guilty about not being at my normal parish, dreading going to the gutted parish near my house frightened of going to Hell for what I was doing.  But morning prayers were beginning, so I nervously walked inside.

What greeted me was another world.  Beeswax candles burning in sand, beautiful icons adorning even the entrance.  An old man lighting candles motion with his eyes towards someone, and around the corner came a tall man who identified himself as the priest.  He obviously could tell by my wide-eyed expression that I was "new" - asking whether I was Orthodox, I replied that I was Catholic.  "Oh ok - well, welcome.  Come in.  We are about to have morning prayer."

His tone and demeanor were not snobbish or suspicious but warm and inviting.  As though he had said nothing to me, I asked "Is it ok if I come inside?"  "Yes, of course," he replied.

Now, for those of us Catholics starved in parishes that seemed anything but Catholic, it is enough to make one fall to his or her knees when entering an Orthodox Church.  Icons adorned the walls, icons of the saints and fathers that seemed to glow with life.  The inside of the church, though relatively new, felt so ancient that, had I walked right back out the front door, I would have expected to bump into St. John Chrysostom on the street.  But all of this ancient "feel" did not seem caught in a certain period of time, nor did it seem stuck or stodgy.  It was alive, living, as though the icons of the saints on the walls themselves were alive

I nervously took a seat at the back, battling the voices in my head that told me I would be going to Hell for this.  I reasoned that it was ok, for I was simply seeking to be informed, to see what an Orthodox liturgy was actually like so I could finally satiate my curiousity and put it to rest.  "God forgive me if I am doing something wrong or evil," I prayed.  "I am just trying to find You Lord.  Help me, and be merciful to me if I am mistaken."

Only one lady was in the church with me, but the prayers, in Greek and in English, carried on as though the church was packed to the rafters.  I suddenly felt, despite all of the fear at being a Catholic in an Orthodox Church, a certain deep joy in my heart.  This was rapidly squashed by my fear of going to Hell for even being where I was, and my feet carried me back out the doors and on to the street.  I kept telling myself as my car sputtered on its way to the parish nearest me - with all its ad-libs, crayola vestments, and unnoticed Tabernacle - "It's not fair to compare the two - just fulfill your Sunday obligation, and remember that not all parishes are like this one.  Don't romanticize it."

Still, I left the Orthodox church that morning with a glow in my heart and a smile on my face, more curious and spiritually hungry than before - exactly the effect I was hoping might NOT happen.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic, Pt. 9: Over-Zealous Convert Syndrome

Over-Zealous Convert Syndrome - it began to set in like a plague in my spiritual life.  Whereas beforehand, I had been more or less just frustrated and intellectually prideful on my journey into the Catholic Church, I now began to be angry, uncharitable, and ultimately headed down a slippery slope.

I had started writing this blog back in 2011, and one can see the progression.  Even then, I lamented the fact that the online Catholic catechesis courses I was in were advocating "centering prayer", which sparked a massive rant about the influence of the New Age on Catholic spirituality.  My rants became more frequent as I encountered more and more strange things - spiritualities, events, and experiences.

I became less-and-less concerned about my relationship with Christ, and more concerned about venting over all the spiritual and liturgical problems in the Church.  My spiritual life began to die.  If you want to see what this period was like, read my earlier posts on this blog - though, I did take some down out of sheer embarassment at who I had become, there are a few left.

I generally kept more to my interior prayer and tried with all my might to not notice all the little things that I had not noticed before - things that indicated that there had been a force in the Church that was eating away at its insides like a horde of termites.  I just hoped for a renewal, a kind of resurrection, a chance to help "rebuild the Church."  Some said to me that it was a product of a dying generation that would soon be gone, which to me always sounded far too harsh: "just wait for the people who changed it all to die, and then we can be really Catholic again."  I couldn't hold to something that cold, no matter how frustrated I was. 

And yet my eyes widened at all the tribal in-fighting in the Catholic Church between "Trads," "RadTrads," "Semi-Trads and Half-Trads," "Progressivists and Liberals," "Modernists," and the vanguards of mainstream Catholicism which I found out were derisively referred to by some as "Neo-Catholics."  It was a sad picture, and one that only served to cause a great despair in me.  None of it should have really mattered I suppose - it's not like the Church never had periods of crisis before - but it was definitely difficult to sit back and observe it all.

Now Church politics, of course, is an inevitable cross that every Christian must bear because we are human.  It is a tiring phenomenon that has existed since the very first days of the Church's existence - witness St. Paul's exasperated cries of whether we are of Cephas, Apollo, and the like.  Protestantism has seen all manner of church-shopping, poaching of churchgoers, and personality cults surrounding pastors who all try to outdo each other in being more "relevant", more "cool".  As I pointed out in the Catholic Church, the tribalism and bickering especially since Vatican II has been exhausting, and has seeped into daily parish life; Eastern Catholics, as some themselves have said in my experience, often seem to feel marginalized, treated as "second-class Catholics".  In Orthodoxy, the same issues seem to rear their heads - issues over calendars and jurisdictions, etc.  Frankly, at this point, I no longer care about anything to do with daily church politics.  It's an inevitable pain, a moot point.

But it pained me to death to see a faith and a Church so beautiful come to such a point where it seemed like everything I had learned about and studied no longer existed outside of isolated traditional parishes.  But I want to emphatically state that if one is only looking to externals as the pillars of their faith, then they will have truly built a house on sand.  This is precisely my complaint, ironically: the obsessive focus on externals that clouds and cripples the average Christian in the pews by making them lose sight of Christ.  This is what happened to me.

So I eventually turned my back on all the drama going on in the Catholic Church largely due to its devastating effect on my spiritual life, digging deeper and deeper into the writings of the saints and fathers of the Church, especially of the East, and kept writing and working as though nothing was really happening.

After joining up with Catholic news aggragator Big Pulpit in order to manage Byz Pulpit (a news aggregator covering all things Eastern Christian, both Orthodox and Catholic), I found myself immersed in the world of Eastern Christianity.

I noted that most of the mainstream blogs and news I read in the East were of an entirely different calibre than the West's (and here I speak of the mainstream, not of the many quality Catholic blogs out there that seem to remain criminally ignored) - Eastern writers, either Catholic or Orthodox, by and large were not engaged in endless debates over every little thing the Pope did or didn't say, but writing about the things that had initially brought me to the faith in the first place: the interior life, the saints, CHRIST.  Yes, there were still the politics and everyday issues present in the mainstream Eastern Christian world, but at least I didn't feel like I was reading celebrity rants or battles between egos, but writings on the actual Christian life.

I began to turn East with greater force of spirit than before.  Beforehand, I had suppressed it often, regarding the Orthodox writings as just a nourishing supplement to my spiritual diet; often, I would shelve all of my Orthodox books entirely.  The Eastern Catholic world was incredibly difficult to find writings in, but I did everything I could to make the Latin West realize that there was a whole other world out there - perhaps, I was only answering myself (after all, I never knew of Eastern Catholicism in my many conversion years, other than a brief mention during RCIA). 

I attended the Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish usually once a month for awhile, mostly because of issues surrounding my status as a parishioner at my normal parish; apparently, I was expected to settle in to a particular parish.  But my heart became more and more Eastern in every way as the time flew by.  I never forgot The Way of a Pilgrim, that wonderful little book that opened the door on a whole new world for me.

Thanks be to God, I ditched the rants, the venting, the frustrations and anger at the usual issues in the Catholic Church, and began to dig deeper into my own spiritual life.  One friend said I wrote as though nothing had happened to the Church since Vatican II, as though I was living in some other forgotten era.  I think this is partially true, part of the "bubble" effect.

Now I knew about real life in the Church, outside of hagiographies and theological texts.  Truly, being a Catholic is not about being in a perpetual spiritual honeymoon.  But my spiritual life had taken a beating, and despair was setting in harder than before. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 8: Church-Hopping

After my baptism (April 7, 2012), I definitively entered what converts refer to sometimes as the "honeymoon phase."  For the first two months or so, I was living in a dream: in my excitement, I began to attend Mass as much as I feasibly could, going several times a week when time and work permitted.

Though I was annoyed that the parish nearest to my house (a mere 10-15 minutes or so away) was one of those parishes where one would be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally walked in to a non-denominational fellowship centre, I was still happy that my home parish in the city was a fairly traditional, beautiful church that boasted an amazing priest, and where the Ordinary Form of the Mass was celebrated with reverence.

But with the typical excitement and zeal of a convert, I wanted to "see" everything else that was around, to really immerse myself in my new spiritual home, as it were.  So I proceeded to check out other parishes.  Obviously, I avoided the ones that had been ruined in the wake of the chaos that occurred after Vatican II, but this was a rather hard thing to do - most had been so stripped down that aside from a statue of the Virgin Mary and a Tabernacle shoved off to the side somewhere, many seemed almost semi-protestant in look.  Nothing was like how I imagined Catholic parishes to look, but this was part-and-parcel with the "learning in a bubble" conversion years.  I knew that modernism and liberalism, for lack of better terms perhaps, had taken over in many places - but this much?  Why did very few Catholic parishes actually look Catholic?

Soon enough, I found myself craving the Latin Mass, otherwise called the "Extraordinary Form"; incidentally, I have never liked either term for the Mass - Ordinary or Extraordinary, that is - as it says to me that one is just "ho-hum Sunday", and the other is pushed to the side and just there to appease people who don't like the Ordinary Form.  So I went to the Latin Mass, and expected the greatest thing this side of heaven.  

What I got was a mixed bag.  A Franciscan friar was there, whom I overheard saying that it was also his "first Latin Mass" that he had ever been to, which I found so odd.  Certainly the Franciscans did not have to put up with all the strangeness that was often present at the normal Mass, right?  Regardless, the experience was interesting, but a bit of a letdown.  Unlike the high Latin Masses one sees in pictures and videos on Youtube, this one felt awkward.  The priest at the time preached about the state of decay and modernism in the Church, which I nodded to a lot during the homily, as if I were some kind of seasoned Catholic who had suffered through years of crises in the Church.  There were many young Catholics there, no altar-girls or "extraordinary ministers", the communion rail was still there, the music was straight out of what one might expect in the early 20th-century.  Holy Communion was received reverently, kneeling and on the tongue, as I understand it is still supposed to be.  Most startling was the line to the confessional before Mass, which was relatively lengthy!

The problem for me was that, despite all the rejection of the goofiness that I saw in so many parishes, it felt like being stuck in a time-capsule, as though I was suddenly living and praying in 1952.  I say this not as a criticism of the Latin Mass, which is assuredly beautiful (especially in its "high" form), but more a criticism of the "atmosphere" and "feel" - it simply felt not timeless, but stuck.  Again, this is NOT a criticism of the Latin Mass itself.

But, aside from my normal parish where the Ordinary Form was celebrated in a reverent manner (aside from the odd "Gather Us In" hymn and "Sisters and brothers, let us stand and begin", which annoyed me only because it seemed so overwhelmingly petty), I didn't know where else to go.  The parish nearest me was beyond ruined - the Tabernacle was hidden off in a side-room, the Mass was constantly delayed or interrupted by introductions, clapping, barely valid Consecrations and ad-libs, armies of extraordinary ministers despite it being a small parish, and all the rest.  From what I have gathered over the years, it's not uncommon. 

However, I remember my priest at my home parish mentioning something about taking catechumens to a Ukrainian Gree Catholic parish in town, and so I decided to go there.  I knew next-to-nothing about Eastern Catholicism, barely even knowing of their existence or history or anything else.  In fact, for most of my conversion years, the West was Roman Catholic, and the East was Eastern Orthodox, with the Protestants sort of all over the place.

I arrived early at the Liturgy, so early that not even the priest was there yet.  I didn't even know how to greet him, and was a bumbling mess.  The inside of the church itself was much better than it looked on the outside - instead of any statues, there were icons adorning the walls and front, where a beautiful iconostasis stood.  The priest wore vestments that didn't appear to be handmade with crayons and scissors, but actual vestments.  The Liturgy was sung, and I felt very excited to be there - could it really be possible to dive into the Eastern spirituality, prayer, practice, and everything else that I had begun to love so much back in 2011?

I could embrace the Orthodox spirituality I loved while still being Catholic - this was what enthralled me the most.  I was glad to see a parish that had not succumbed to liturgical gutting, that had confession before every Liturgy, and was for me, a brand new experience.

The world of Eastern Catholicism began to open up to me.  The problem was, however, that things were darkening - I was beginning to develop a worse twin to my intellectual arrogance during RCIA: what I call Over-Zealous Convert Syndrome. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 7: Baptism and First Holy Communion

After returning from Europe, I followed the advice of my sponsor in order to hopefully be received into the Catholic Church in Easter 2012: sit through an RCIA class without looking like I was being gutted.  So I did just that.  I put on a happy face, didn't question anything in class or in discussions (at least I tried), and went home usually frustrated about the easy breezy approach to everything, how being Catholic was simply a matter of being a yes-man and not one of deep spiritual struggle and growth.  I hated it.  But I stuck with it. 

In the meantime, I took a course in Catholic Catechesis from Newman Theological College, hoping that it would provide me with some more "solid food" in line with what I had been studying.  I was gravely mistaken - in fact, while I didn't like the approach or class discussions so much in RCIA, the teaching itself was far better than what other Catholics have told me they had to suffer through.  In my Newman courses, demythologization of the Scriptures was en vogue, and if anything was brought up about the ancient faith and practices of the Church, it was met with "this is too complicated", "we've changed and grown", or (what was arguably the highlight of it all), the idea that we had complicated things too much from the days when we apparently used to relax in the fields and break bread together.  It was the antithesis of anything I had studied beforehand, and though I am glad I obtained my certificate, it was even more painful than RCIA; so much so, that like RCIA, I learned to simply keep my mouth shut and not question things - just go through the process, grin and bear, and finish it up.

Eventually, the time came around, and I learned that I was up for baptism.  Finally!  Four long years of hell, conversion, stumbling blocks, watching everyone go up for Holy Communion while I sat in the pew - it was all coming to an end!  Ironically, in order to prepare for my baptism into the Catholic Church, I read an Orthodox work entitled Turning the Heart to God by St. Theophan the Recluse.  Orthodox Christianity had, by this point, become a major interest for me, but a source of pain as well.  At this time, all I could do was admire the beauty of it all and lament the schism.  In my earnestness to keep exploring it without feeling badly, I came to the conclusion that it was the same Church, all things said and done.  I kept going - I had come so far, and finally, FINALLY, I was at the doorstep. 

The day of my baptism was one of endless anticipation - I simply could not wait to enter, to be washed of my sins, to become what I had fought so hard and so long, through so much hell, to become.  The rejections, mockery, misunderstandings, inner anguish - all of it was coming to an end, even though my becoming Catholic meant that a cross would be placed upon my shoulders.

The ceremony was beautiful: the entire cathedral was lit only by candles, the music was traditional and without instrumentation, we wore white robes and carried our lit candles down the aisle in near darkness.  It felt ancient, and I felt as though outside of the church was a 3rd century world, rife with the threat of martyrdom.

As when anyone is steeped in anticipation and excitement, it seemed as though the ceremony itself went on forever.  The bishop's words seemed endless, and all I cared about was those two penultimate sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  I never claimed to be a patient man, and here was no exception. 

As the waters of baptism were poured over my head, at long last, I felt 28 years of sin, hell, depression, despair, failings, and interior death all wash off of my soul.  I felt reborn.  I even counted the minutes in my mind that I was free from any stain of even the slightest venial sin, watching my every thought.  I think I lasted about ten minutes, but it was an amazing feeling.  My wife and mother hugged me, and I felt at long last that I belonged. 

Going up for Holy Communion was even more intense - it was as though Christ Himself were at the end of the line, and I was going to meet Him.  I recieved His Precious Body and drank of His Precious Blood, and trembled.  It was such an intimate experience, and I kneeled in a state of deep prayer until the Bishop told everyone to stand once again. 

I received the usual hugs, congratulations, and pats on the back that I think are par for the course in such cases, and drove home, thoughtfully pondering what had happened, and the new beginning I found myself experiencing.  The words rang out in my mind of what one young man said to me who was one of the better RCIA teachers said - "I don't think you realize what really happened here tonight."  He was greatly affected by seeing me baptized, especially after seeing the angst I had gone through during the last few years.

A new journey had begun.

Monday, December 9, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 6: Encountering the Christian East For the First Time

My patron saint.
From the very beginning, my life as an unofficial and official Catholic has been somewhat of a paradox, or at least, has fallen into a paradoxical nature.  When I was baptized, I took as my patron saint St. Anthony the Great, the most illustrious and beloved of all the Desert Fathers, and the founder of monasticism as we know it.  I remember listening to the podcast on him done by Dr. Paul Camarata of SQPN's The Saintcast over and over, ad nauseum.  Early on in my conversion process, I had ordered the Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius and ate it up.

My mother even experienced what I consider to be a miraculous healing due to his prayers, an event I have not been able to forget since.  In retrospect, all that had happened, the appearance of this saint in a dream to my mother (who is not even religious), the overnight healing of her ailment, even the description of him given me by my mother - all of this sounded right out of the pages of any other mystical account I have read or heard of.

As I floundered about in scholastic intellectualism and bleak existentialism, suddenly a beam of light shot through into my troubled life as a catechumen - it was from the East.  By Providence, I had come across a work entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, a book anonymously written in Russia in the 19th century.  I had no idea what the book was about - it was even just one book of many in a typical New Agey series that the book was from, on "spiritual traditions" that included the Buddhist, Hindu, and other classics of non-Christian religions.  Still, the beautiful Russian icon of Christ, and the curious burning question of how to pray unceasingly moved me to purchase it.

Orthodox Christianity had never been on the map for me in my conversion years, much less the Eastern Catholic Churches.  Growing up as a child, all I knew of Orthodox Christians was that they were usually Ukrainians and Russians, ate perogies after church, and had churches that my Mom called "onion churches" due to their characteristically-rounded domes.  That was all I knew.  As I progressed in studying history, Orthodox Christianity still remained a curious footnote - something about some man named Photius and the year 1054 A.D.  I had heard a Saintcast on Orthodox saints, but beyond that, I knew absolutely nothing.  To me, they were just ethnic churches in some far-off world, even if an Orthodox parish was just down the road. 

Now, I had read beautiful works before within the Catholic spiritual world - St. Faustina's Diary of Divine Mercy, St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, and the Fioretti (Little Flowers of St. Francis) were all beloved classics that profoundly affected me.  But this one little work, so short that I read it in only a few days, cut through everything - all the intellectualism and proof-texting I had mired myself in was instantly split in two by this incredible writing.  Suddenly, the heart of Christianity was made known to me.  The peace that passes all understanding was suddenly shown to me in the pages of this book - and though much of it was new to me, I could not forget or ignore what I learned within its pages.

Shortly after finishing it, I went to Europe, where my wife and I were married in Ireland, our second home.  Travelling about Europe for two months affords one much time on the multitudinous trains and airplanes to pray.  So it was that I began for the first time, as I had done with the Rosary, to pray the Jesus Prayer.  I accepted that I knew nothing about the advanced spirituality of works like the Philokalia and St. Symeon the New Theologian - instead, I simply began, as I had done with the Rosary.  But this time was different than in those days.  I simply said the words, under my breath, in my mind, using my wooden rosary as a prayer rope.

In doing this, I found a peace come over me (just a taste of it) that I had never known before.  I took a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim with me on the journey, which sparked my interest to look up and learn about the names and concepts mentioned in it.  Soon enough, in my research, I came across St. Seraphim of Sarov, the famed Russian mystic and hermit.  I was surprised to see how he was so universally revered - Bl. Pope John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, refers to him as a saint, and I believe he is recognized by the Catholic Church as such due to the Russian Catholic Church.

In reading the life of this amazing saint, I came across something entirely different from any saint I had hitherto encountered in my many readings of the lives of the saints.  Though I was astounded by the little I read about, and found myself incredibly curious to learn more, I largely relegated it all to simply being "over there."  I returned from Europe a little wiser, and dead set on finishing RCIA and becoming Catholic.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 5: Wandering Off the Path

As I continued with my RCIA courses, much of my honeymoon-romanticism about the Catholic Church began to wane due to many frustrations presenting themselves.  As I aforementioned, the elementary approach and content of RCIA was boring me out of my mind, and during many of the discussions, I found myself asking questions that were having to be answered outside of class - hardly anyone seemed to know what I was talking about, and apparently much of my questioning was running the risk of confusing others who were new to the faith entirely.  I understood, but still was always left seeking answers.

I distinctly remember my priest chastising me after Mass one day when, in a fit of arrogant pride, I said that I was tired of learning about "Hey, did you know that the Catholic Church is run by the Pope?" content.  I was slapped down pretty hard for this, and rightly so I think.  I had forgotten humility, forgotten understanding, forgotten that everyone is at different levels of experience and knowledge, and had pridefully usurped it all in my intense searches through history and theology.

For a time, too, I fell off the beaten path and found myself studying existentialist philosophers - Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard - and began to transpose the ideas of existentialism on to my spiritual life.  The Christian journey had not become a walk of faith, but rather a leap, a search for authenticity, and an agonizing experience.  I lost my joy that I had had in the early days, with it being swallowed up in Kierkegaardian angst and bleak existentialist mindsets. In Kierkegaard, I saw a kindred spirit - a Christian who was tired of the mindless, habitual church attendance and reheated potluck dinners, who was tired of Christianity being presented as something easy, breezy, and fuzzy.  This was something that he characterized as "spiritless" Christianity (cf. The Sickness Unto Death)

It surely did not help for me to expose myself in college to reading Jean-Paul Sartre's writings, especially his thoughts on our being responsible for everything that happens in the world, while studying the evils of the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags at the same time - but I wanted to confront these realities of the past, to try and understand the problem of evil that atheists often hurl at Christians.

It was only through the work of the Lutheran existentialist Paul Tillich that I found a way out of the darkness of atheistic existentialism, who spoke of this kind of existentialist rejection of God as "freedom without content."

I left it behind, but not without scars.  The existentialist outlook, both Christian and atheist, had influenced me deeply.  I spent the rest of my classes in RCIA writhing through lectures, fuming at comments that I thought seemed so callous and ignorant to people going through spiritual angst, as if becoming Catholic were just all so very easy, as effortless as breathing.

Near the end of RCIA, I finally broke down.  Telling my classmates that it was all "[expletive] nuts" and that the Church assumed everyone led Dick-and-Jane storybook lives, I walked out of the parish hall shaking with rage.  One lone person took off after me, and while I cried in the middle of a cold downtown street, convinced me to keep coming.  Our particular teacher at that time, a former Communist, arranged to have a Mass said for me.

My sponsor told me that it wasn't so much a matter of belief or assent that was central at this point, but one of being able to tolerate others, to make it through a class without looking like I was having my guts torn out. 
I told him I would, but couldn't understand how that had anything to do with the Catholic faith in terms of belief - but it had everything to do with it.  If I could not act Christian, if I could not walk the walk, then I would just be another clanging cymbal, as St. Paul puts it.  If I had no love, then how could I be Christian at all?

With this in mind and heart, I proceeded to finish up RCIA.  But what is ironic here is what provided me the heart of Christianity, and pushed me in spirit to keep going, and to live the Christian life. 

1 - The Courage To Be, V

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 4: RCIA and Arrogance

My first classes in the Veritas introductory courses to Catholicism were quite amazing - here I was, finally doing it, finally embarking on the journey (a journey I had begun long before, technically); I could finally dip my toe in the water, so to speak.

In my class were all manner of potential catechumens from all walks of life - lapsed Catholics Anglicans, Protestants, non-Christians, ad nauseum.  The priest who conducted the proceedings was the same one I had first spoken with; a charismatic convert from Anglicanism, one of those rare specimens of married Roman priests, he began his first talk in the sanctuary by referencing one of my favorite beers' slogans.  On the bottle of Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale, he spoke of how it had "veritas" on the sticker, and explained the meaning of the word as "truth".  This may all sound trite now, but for me, it was a neat little transition into the huge topics we would be confronting.

The standard convert questions arose - "Why do Catholics pray to saints/Mary?", "Purgatory?", and the like.  But despite the fact that I had gone ahead and begun reading past the basics, it was a good experience, full of dinners and snacks throughout.  We were all invited to become catechumens at the end of the course, and move on from the simple stage of inquiry.  Many of those classmates that I knew dropped out - one Anglican girl thought it all a bit much and was not able to get past the issue of praying to saints, some simply drifted away again, some stayed and entered RCIA.  I was one of them.  After meeting with the chief parish priest at the cathedral who later became my guide and confessor, filling out some paperwork, and getting through my "interview" with a nervous reply of "I want to come home now," I began the RCIA experience.

Now, I have no idea what RCIA is like for anybody else out there, but for me, it was an intense struggle.  For a period, I began to succumb to a fearsome intellectual pride that was subtle enough in its beginnings to slip past all the romantic exuberance I had about learning about the faith.  Instead of wide-eyed wonder at the faith and all its history, I fell into intellectualizing and information-gathering. 

Suddenly, in my arrogance, I fell into a kind of boredom and wandering state of mind.  I was surprised that no one seemed to want to go "deeper" when it came to learning about the Catholic faith.  I assumed that all the others in the class were reading St. John of the Cross and St. Thomas Aquinas too.  I say this not to boast, but to expose the horrible arrogance that had begun to dig itself into my soul.  Here, I wish to expose it once and for all.

Annoyed at the elementary nature of learning the Catholic ABC's (which, after all, is what RCIA is all about), I would skip out of the coffee break where everyone would mingle with each other, and instead slip away to the parish library to scan over the Summa Theologica, or read the mystical accounts of St. Catherine of Genoa. 

In doing all of this, in slipping away into a world where philosophy and knowledge saved, I went further and further off the path.  True, I learned a lot - but I had forgotten about the heart of Christianity.  I also forgot about the importance of the communal nature of the Church - as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware puts it, "The Christian is the one who has brothers and sisters.  He belongs to a family - the family of the Church."1

1 - The Orthodox Way, ch. 6

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tales of Glory: A Gift to the Catholic Faithful

The other day, I received a beautiful gift from a reader of this blog, Matthew Gaul, who attends a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, St. Nicholas Catholic Church, in Watervliet, NY.  The gift was a book entitled Tales of Glory: The Stories Icons Tell, and is an exuberant display of the beauty of the Byzantine Catholic side of the Catholic Church. 

Zeroing in specifically on St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the book presents to the reader all of the icons found within this beautiful parish.  In my mind, the work seems designed for a two-fold reason: as a gift to Eastern Catholics in general, and as an introduction to the Eastern Catholic Churches for the average Roman Catholic who might be entirely unfamiliar with them.  For myself, I know that in my conversion years, I had never even heard of Eastern Catholicism at all; I simply did not know anything about it.
 
Presented in full-colour hardcover, Tales of Glory sees the author meticulously going through all of the iconography of this particular parish in major detail.  His love of iconography and Eastern Christianity is readily apparent on every page. 

Everything is laid out in intentional order as the icons are found within the parish - and there are many of them.  With each icon, Gaul goes into great depth with explaining what the meanings and symbols in each icon are - from the more common iconography of the events in Christ's life to the life of St. Josaphat of Polotsk, there is plenty to feast on here.  Troparions, antiphons, and all the rest are all included with each icon.

For anyone who is even remotely interested in iconography, Eastern Christianity, and/or Eastern Catholicism, this makes a fine choice for a read.  Pick up a copy here.  The church that is explored in the work can be found here.

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 3: Icebreakers and a Brief Foray Into Anglicanism

As I progressed deeper and deeper into Catholicism, sponging up everything I could find, it began to be clear that it would only be a matter of time before I told my future wife about it all.  After all, how could I hide all of the books in my closet, or the fact that Sunday mornings I was never home when she would call?  Therefore, one night as her and I walked to the beach after a good pint at the pub where we had our first date, I finally told her.  She laughed, finding it amusing that I was so nervous to tell her about it.  I showed her the rosary I carried with me everywhere.  All was well, and she indicated that she was not surprised about this supposed revelation at all.

That stepping-stone overcome, I felt more free to begin the journey.  As I have said, I was attending Mass already, and had been for a little while.  I would, perhaps like many converts, sit at the back in the corner, trying to be unnoticed, carefully watching everyone else so that I knew when to stand and when to sit, when to cross myself and when to kneel.  This was not a place to go to hear a sermon but something far more profound.

During this time, before I went to see the priest of the cathedral, I experience a slight setback.  Things were moving too fast, and I thought to myself that perhaps all of this Catholic stuff was a little too much.  There was something so heavy about it all - the prayers of reparation, the jangling rosaries, the burning incense, the ornate statuary.  So I thought to myself, "Well, why not look into the Anglicans.  Maybe this Catholic thing is all a bit too much for me."

The Anglican tradition seemed to appeal to me right away - not as strict or as imposing, they seemed to have everything that Catholics had in terms of externals; of course, I had no idea at this point about such things as "Anglo-Catholics" or "low-Church Anglicans".  Visiting the Anglican Communion website, I saw pictures of nuns, the more familiar stained-glass depictions of Christ, and everything looked very similar to Catholicism at first.  So, I gave it a try.

The Anglican cathedral known as Christ Church cathedral was a church I was already familiar with - a few times before, I had gone in to this seemingly always open church to pray to a God I barely knew for some guidance and direction in my life.  Though grand, it felt somehow cold and hollow inside.  Still, it was nice to see stained-glass images of the saints and of Jesus, candles burning over in the Lady Chapel, and the like.  Of course, these are all just external elements - often these kinds of external and visual elements speak very much to the faith of a particular church itself, to take a cue from St. John of Damascus.

One thing I noted was the sound of the bells of the Anglican church when compared to the Catholic church's.  When the call to church began, the Anglican cathedral rang out its bells in a loud cacophony of barely recognizable melodies; conversely, the Catholic church's bell rang out with one single, clear note.

The Anglican services I attended seemed very much geared towards specific audiences.  For example, one might find as options that they could attend a more traditional (and really, to me, this is just another word for "reverent") service, or bite the bullet (in my case) and go to a "contemporary" service - this was all listed in the bulletin and on the website.  

By and large, the Anglican church on Sundays seemed quite empty, considering its massive size and numerous pews.  I was welcomed with applause as a visitor at one service, which was heart-warming, as it always nice to be treated with such hospitality.  But everything about it seemed halfway, kind-of Catholic but in a lighter and more "open" sense. 

Needless to say, the foray into Anglicanism did not last long.  I did not want to do things by halves, and Anglicanism seemed to me to be too much of a paradoxical mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that, in my mind, simply did not work. 

From there, I joined up in a course entitled "Veritas" on the advice of the priest I spoke to.  This was an introductory course for non-Catholics, as well as a refresher for those who were lapsed but wanted to give the Church another chance, a kind of pre-RCIA.

Nervous, I entered the course and got ready to learn.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 2: Learning in a Bubble

The picture of Christ that hung above my bed as a child.
As a child, I remember visiting many antique shops with my mother, who, in those days at least, loved to rummage through all the heirlooms and potentially-priceless collectables.  This was where I first encountered those well-known traditional images of Catholic piety that seem to simply collect dust in forgotten corners of many an antique collector's store.

Obviously, being raised Seventh-Day Adventist, I had had no previous contact with any image of Jesus other than the nicely-cleaned up Jesus that one might see in a copy of Desire of Ages or an Adventist devotional.  The only one I ever liked was the one that hung above my bed as a child, a traditional and pious Protestant depiction by my reckoning.  Images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of the suffering Christ, of anything even remotely Roman Catholic, were not to be found anywhere - well, except for the antique stores.  That, and the ruins of a Catholic church in Batoche, the famed site of the Riel Rebellion in Saskatchewan, where I grew up. 

Though the often bloody and vivid artwork of traditional Catholic piety - the flaming hearts, flowers, blood, the imploring looks of the suffering Jesus - frightened me for many years, when the time came that my conversion to the Catholic Church had begun, I was suddenly drawn to these images like someone left in a cold winter night might run towards a warming fire.  I cannot say exactly what it was that drew me all of a sudden to the images that used to terrify me, and in my anti-Christian days, cause so much rage in me, but there I was.  And in like fashion, I soon purchased a picture of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts from a used bookstore, hiding it away with all my other Catholic things that were steadily growing.

I also began to collect holy cards, ordering them online from stores like Aquinas and More, along with all sorts of books (most of them published by TAN Publishers).  I flipped through my growing collection of holy cards like an excited young boy might go through his  binder of hockey cards.  I began to soak in everything I could find on the saints, and poured over traditional Catholic websites that helped me to learn about devotional practices.  I was singularly struck by the beauty and piety of everything I found, and remained blissfully unaware of all of the bizarre practices and liturgical abuses that occurred after Vatican II; frankly, I didn't really even look much into the Second Vatican Council itself, nor anything else that had occurred in the 20th century other than Our Lady of Fatima and the Divine Mercy message given to St. Faustina Kowalska.   All I knew was that the richness I found within the Catholic Church was a billion miles away from anything I had ever known or seen in "mainstream" Christianity.

Thus, my conversion process was one of isolation and relative ignorance of anything even remotely contemporary when it came to the Catholic faith.  Yes, I jumped all over the pages of my copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, making notes as I went.  But overall, I recoiled heavily from contemporary, recent events and writings.  Instead, I retreated to the old writings of the medieval saints and mystics, the Church Fathers, the Counter-Reformation era especially.  I was caught up in the direct and common-sensical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and had not even remotely heard of such names as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, or other major recent theologians.

The only Catholic parish I knew of was a giant cathedral downtown called St. Andrew's.  Though smaller than the majestic Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, its impressive gothic exterior and pious, traditional Catholic interior simply blew me away.  The first time I visited the cathedral was after work one day around 5 PM.  I had no clue that the church had closed - in my mind, Catholic churches were always open, candles always lit, a priest always waiting for some lone prodigal son to appear at the doorstep of the church.  Reality set in rather quickly (and here, I acknowledge my disconnect with reality readily) when I found that the church was locked.  Blushing, I began the long walk back to my apartment.

The second attempt was a little better.   I managed to get in the door to the narthex, but could not bring myself to go in any further.  Years beforehand, around 2001, my mother had brought me into the church as she showed me the cathedrals about town, and the second I stepped into the church, I began to freak out.  I was very nervous, fidgeting, and simply kept repeating that it was evil.  My damaging Adventist upbringing showed here, combined with my growing anti-Christian sentiment.  Several years later, here I was in the narthex, too nervous to go in.  I looked longingly at the statue of the Blessed Virgin in the corner of the church, and took comfort in that for the time being.  It all looked so inviting this time around.

As one can see, my Catholic experience initially developed in a bubble and continued to do so for quite some time.  I had still not even mentioned any of it to my girlfriend and future wife.  My heart began to long to come home to Christ and the Church, and I knew what I had to do.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Journey as a Catholic So Far, Pt. 1: First Encounters

My favorite image of Our Lady.
My first encounters with the Catholic Church and faith were ones that a nervous animal, long cornered and lashing out, might have - here, a hand was holding food out to me, and I was starving.  For so long, I had rejected God, fought Him with every breath, did everything I could to run from Him, hate Him, and root Him out of my life.  But after a scare with what I thought was something terminal, I began to make my peace with God.

It may sound trite, but it was the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia that caused a change of heart in me.  When I saw Aslan, the character representing Christ in the story, going to his death, something in me changed.  I felt that signature "click" in my soul when one knows that something is true.

But I have told much of this tale many times, and here I want to begin my account of my life as a Catholic for the past nearly-six years now - I say as a Catholic in the sense of both unofficial (believing) and official (baptized).  In 2008, something drew me (and I cannot remember what, other than a pragmatic desire to "see" if it was all true - after all, how could 2 billion people be wrong?) to purchase a rosary and to pray it.  So, nervously, I did just that: I got the little pamphlet with the beautiful images of the Blessed Virgin on it and all the depictions of the Mysteries, and clutching my rosary as if my life depended on it, I embarked on what would be a long pilgrimage in my life.

My first days were ones of nervous embarassment, hiding my rosary in my closet behind all of my clothes, and apologetically explaining why I purchased a book on saints to my future wife as simply being something that was nothing more than "interesting".  On Sundays, I would pray the rosary in front of a computer screen, using an online rosary as a help (the sacred music that played along with it was wonderful).  I would even dress in nice clothes, because I felt that when I prayed it, I was truly in the presence of the Blessed Virgin and Our Lord, and I wanted to look somewhat presentable.  I know - such is the way when one is caught by Love: they do silly things perhaps.

I began to read all sorts of things online about the Catholic Church, and even met with a Catholic priest to speak about it all.  I asked him all the typical questions that people who are raised to believe the Catholic Church is the epitome of all things evil and un-Christian usually ask: issues of "faith and works", papacy, etc.  I received the answers quite quickly, reading verses in the Bible I had somehow "missed" as a young Seventh-Day Adventist.

To be sure, the former fears of my Adventist upbringing stuck with me to an extent, though I had so far repudiated all of that that my anger at it was enough to conquer the fears it had instilled in me.  Still, the incredible damage that Adventism had wrought in me stuck in my heart - the cloud in the East heralding the apocalypse, visions of the Pope as antichrist, Sunday laws and persecutions, Ellen White's frightening visions, and all the rest of it.  It took years to conquer and eradicate all of the damage that this religious sect had done to me. 

Still, I strode forth into a new light.  I wanted truth, and would stop at nothing to get it. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ten Christians Who Changed My Spiritual Life, Pt. 3: Fr. Seraphim Rose

Few Christians in the last year or so have proven to be as much of an influence on me, nor have been as impacting as Fr. Seraphim Rose, a hieromonk of the Orthodox Church.  Encountering Fr. Seraphim has been like encountering a blast from the past, what some almost hyperbolically refer to as a Church Father of our times.  A dear friend of mine often jokes that if Fr. Seraphim looked like Pat Robertson, he might not be as popular as he is.  But for me, reading Fr. Seraphim was a wake-up call that cut through all the comfortable decay that modern Christianity often finds itself in.

To be sure, Rose's appearance is striking - especially for those of us used to the age of a religious identifying themselves with a lapel pin. Without a doubt, he is controversial even amongst Orthodox Christians for his work The Soul After Death, and honestly, I haven't read it.  What interests me about his writing is not his more speculative side or interpretations of the Fathers, but his tremendous insight into the modern age in which we find ourselves.

His writing on this age of relativistic spirituality and hopeless skepticism is so incredibly relevant and insightful that it is a crying shame that he is not more read in the West than he is.  My first encounter with his writings occurred around a year ago, when I nervously ordered a copy of a short book entitled God's Revelation to the Human Heart; at the time, I felt like a traitor for doing so.

But what I met with was a brief yet in-depth analysis and answer to the questions of why we study religion, why we search for truth, and how we know when we have found it.  So much has stuck with me through my own journey, just from this book alone.  Especially noteworthy is when he writes that "...for all the 'mysticism' of our Orthodox Church that is found in the Lives of the Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet firmly on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him.  It is in accepting given situations, which requires a loving heart, that one encounters God.  This loving heart is why anyone comes to a knowledge of the truth, even though God has to break down and humble a heart to make it receptive..."1

These words, and others like it that permeate his writings, ring loud and true in my soul.  The emphasis on the earnest search for Truth in a world full of "truths", the hard-hitting thoughts that eliminate all romanticizing about Christianity (something I fell into often in my early conversion days) and present it in all its stark reality and ultimately glory - this is what I love so much about Fr. Seraphim's writing.  And if one reads his superb analysis of the post-Nietzschean age we live in, Nihilism, one will encounter one of the greatest writings on the mindsets within modern secular culture ever written.

Yes, he is controversial - so were Thomas Merton and Fr. Matta El-Meskeen in their own day too.  I care little for that element, as most great Christians had some element of controversy in their lives or stirred the pot a little, and one is always free to take or leave what they disagree with.  What I do care about is Truth, and Fr. Seraphim has proven to be a lamp on the Way.

1 - God's Revelation to the Human Heart, 28

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ten Christians Who Changed My Spiritual Life, Pt. 2: St. Thomas Aquinas

The story is well-known - in his latter years, the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas, had a vision, something so profound that it caused him to say that all he had written was straw compared with what he had seen.  When Jesus asked him what he would have as a reward for his work, St. Thomas of course replied, "Only Thee, Oh Lord."  I will return to this in a moment.

St. Thomas' life's work was that of one of the most profound Christian thinkers of all time - he was not only a prayerful friar, but a brilliant philosopher, an adept synthesizer of all the knowledge that had come before him, and an unmatched theologian.  His written works comprise a massive library of theological and spiritual commentaries, writings and treatises.  To this day, despite the widespread fawning over Hans Urs von Balthasar, he remains the preeminent Catholic theologian. 

Now, in my beginning years of conversion to the Catholic Church, encountering Aquinas was akin to encountering a man with all the answers.  Never before had I seen someone so plainly and so brilliantly write on all things related to God and man, and the Summa Theologica became my go-to book when it came to any questions I had on theology at all.  I was  and still am astounded at the sheer breadth of this saint's vast knowledge - from the greatest of the pagan philosophers such as Aristotle and Plotinus, to the heavyweight theologians of Islam (Avicenna, Averroes) and Judaism (Maimonides, Avicebron).  Masterfully, Aquinas managed to synthesize all of these founts of knowledge into what is often called a soaring gothic cathedral of thought. 

For a newcomer to philosophy and theology, I was blown away by the incredible intellect of this saint, how effortlessly he seemed to solve every theological and philosophical quandary as though it were as simple as someone asking what 2 + 2 equalled.  My admiration of this saint and his writings became so intense that I forgot about the heart, so to speak.  When my priest told me to read St. Therese of Lisieux, it was a painful exercise - I wanted knowledge, not syrupy devotional writing (as I saw it then).  I became quite bloated with a certain kind of intellectual pridefulness, often venting my frustration at the almost elementary nature of my RCIA classes.  In effect, my encountering Aquinas at such a young spiritual age in my conversion process may not have been the best thing.

Now, I reflect often not on his theological writings, but his actual life and mystical experiences, his profound humility and love of God.  Interestingly, it is his mystical vision of Christ near the end of his life that has caught my attention more than any other event.  After writing many treatises and summas on theology, after seemingly solving every philosophical issue of his time and defending the Church against the attacks of Averroism and Nominalism, he suddenly spoke to the effect that it was all straw after seeing what he had seen. 

My interpretation of the event is this: it encapsulates the difference between what "theologian" means in the West, and what it means in the East.  Consider St. Symeon the New Theologian (in the East, one of only three saints called as such), whose mystical visions of Christ shaped his entire life and writing, who truly viewed all as transient and desired God alone.  To me, this means that the kind of theology that Aquinas is known for can only take one so far - while it is useful for explaining and defending the faith, it is devoid of the "heart" that characterizes such mystical theologians as St. Symeon the New Theologian in the East or St. Therese of Lisieux in the West.  Aquinas himself, I think, realized this when he received the vision of Christ, and immediately ceased writing.

Regardless, St. Thomas has been a beloved companion to have on my own earthly pilgrimage.  Every year, I celebrate his feast day by eating chicken drumsticks, having a big pint of stout, and reading the Summa Theologica.  He has taught me how to explain the faith to those who do not believe, that faith can be reasonable, and that all theology should be written in a state of deep love of God and of profound prayer.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ten Christians Who Changed My Spiritual Life, Pt. 1: John Bunyan

Over the next little bit, I will be posting a series of ten posts on the Christians who have changed my spiritual life, greatly impacted it, and continue to shape it.  This is not done for reasons of self-indulgence, but to showcase several figures who may have a great and formative impact on your spiritual life as well. 

Now, it is perhaps odd for someone who is a Roman Catholic to begin a list like this one with a fiery Puritan preacher.  However, growing up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, I did not come into contact with anything Catholic (Orthodoxy was not even on the map, of course).  Aside from the Bible, my favorite book was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

I can distinctly remember reading my copy, an antique one illustrated with grand Victorian-style art, by my fireplace as a kid, around the time I was in grade 7 or so.  Though I did not understand everything I read, though sometimes I tired of the long and almost scholastically-laid conversations (something I find a lot in Puritan writings), I was drawn in by the sense of adventure in it all.  Here was this man, Christian, fleeing a life of darkness and death, who left everything he had to journey to the heavenly city, and all manner of monstrous evil amasses to stand in his way.  The tale was riveting, and to this day, it remains a favorite of mine.

The essence of the Christian life as a journey is something that John Bunyan's tale left etched on my soul.  As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, "To be a Christian is to be a traveller."1  In my life as a Christian, I keep on being reminded of certain events in The Pilgrim's Progress in my own life - the encounter with the giant Despair, the conversations with atheists and worldly wisemen, the first encounte with Christ at the Gate.  In some ways, the work functions as a roadmap.

When I return to my copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, it is not so much the same as it used to be for me - now, I can't help but pick out the obvious anti-Catholic references, the Calvinist errors woven throughout, and all the rest.  But this does not take away from the timeless nature of the work, and the great inspiration that this renegade Puritan preacher had on my life.  If anything, it was he who introduced me to the great journey that is the Christian life.

1 - The Orthodox Way, prologue.

Friday, November 22, 2013

An Arrow of the Beautiful

"An arrow of the beautiful can guide the mind to the truth.  The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes..."1

- Pope Benedict XVI


1 - qtd. in Moynihan, Let God's Light Shine Forth, pg. 135

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Recovering One's Joy in Christ

From Mystagogy.
To know joy in Christ is something that should be part and parcel of every Christian's life.  Here, I do not mean a kind of evangelical "I'm saved, all is good now" kind of joy, but a joy in simply knowing Christ in one's life, a joy found in the entire process of "being saved."

Bl. Columba Marmion tells us that "In finding God, we shall likewise possess joy."1  In Christ, though we be suffering, there is and should always be perfect joy.  "I set the Lord always in my sight: for he is at my right hand, that I not be moved.  Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope." (Ps. 15:8-9)

This is something that in my life as a Catholic so far, I have only felt intermittently.  This has been very much my own fault, my own temperament - I have slipped into judgmentalism and knee-jerk rants against all the abuses and bizarrities I have seen in my life in the Church (simply view some of my early blogs).  I have allowed the peace and joy of heart that I knew in the beginnings of my conversion and in my first few months as a baptized Catholic Christian to dissolve in a sludgy pit of frustration, annoyance, and perplexity.  I must, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, "recover the meaning of this great joy...," for "From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth."2

St. John of the Cross tells us that joy is "nothing else than a satisfaction of the will with an object that is considered fitting and an esteem for it."3  And as we famously know from the words of St. Augustine, one can only find joy and peace when we rest in God.  But all of this rest is destroyed when we focus on something else and place it as our sole highest object in which to find joy.  This can be anything from our favorite beer to a beautiful liturgy, from our favorite hobby to our best friend.  All joy, ultimately must be and can only be found in God, from Whom all joy flows into the human heart. 

I have experienced a taste of this kind of joy only a few times in my life, but they have always been memorable.  Whilst at Divine Liturgy on Saturday, when the deacon so beautifully sang the words "Who loved me and gave himself for me", I felt lifted out of myself with a sweetness and happiness that I have not known in some time.  This joy was found in the simple fact that, despite everything, Jesus had given Himself up to the Cross for me, so that I might know salvation, God's love for us, and be restored in Christ4 (cf. St. Seraphim of Sarov).  Here is profound joy. 

This joy simply must take hold of our lives and permeate our whole being as Christians.  When I spoke to a priest the other day, he asked me "Why do you keep looking down?  Lift your head up!  Be joyous in Christ!"  Here I was reminded of how much I had killed my own joy in Christ, through rigorous Kierkegaardian angst, through judging others, through reactionary feelings and all the rest.  My sole focus should always be on heavenly things, on God Himself, and God in others.  This is how I, and others like me who suffer from a certain despondency in their Christian lives, can recover their joy in Christ. 

"Let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!"5 (St. Herman of Alaska)

1 - Christ: The Ideal of the Monk, I:IV
2 - qtd. in Ware, The Orthodox Way, ch. 4
3 - Ascent of Mt. Carmel, XVII:1
4 - Spiritual Instructions, 3
5 - From here.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Can You Imagine Hearing This in Church?


I can't even imagine hearing this kind of music in church.  Divna Ljubojevic, one of the most reknowned and famous singers within Orthodox Christianity, simply has a voice that is as near to divine as one can get, right on par with my favorite renditions of St. Hildegard von Bingen's chant sung by Jocelyn Montgomery.  The opening song alone is otherworldly.  Break the headphones out, and indulge in the sound of another time and place.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Great and Intense Mercy

"Great and intense mercy grasps the heart and wrings it out, for he who is merciful is not able to bear or hear or see any harm or the slightest sorrow which takes place in the created world."

-St. Isaac the Syrian, qtd. in Maloney, Pilgrimage of the Heart, pg. 164

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Fear of the Lord

From Orthodox Martyria.
To be a Christian means to be acutely aware of one's need of God in their life, to be aware of their own frailty and sinful nature, and to be willing to surrender their lives entirely to Christ.  In doing so, we are to approach God in a state of fear - but what kind of fear?

Today, I was told that this fear is not the fear of a vengeful and punishing God, but a deep and intense fear of being without God in one's life.  This is something that I experienced emotionally after having watched a video of Fr. Lazarus El-Anthony (The Last Anchorite), wherein I was hit so very hard with what sin does - it separates us from God.  I broke down weeping because something in me was touched by the great realization of Who I had cut myself off from.  It was a brief time, but I was singularly impacted by this realization.

So I think it is healthy to approach God with this kind of holy fear - the fear of being without Him in our lives, without His love permeating our daily existence in everything we do, sustaining us and becoming our very life.  In doing so, we remind ourselves constantly that our central focus on everything we do in our lives should always be on Christ, so that we will be among those who "endure conflict to the end...and with their whole heart loved God alone and who have freed themselves from all other loves for the world."1 (St. Macarius the Great)

This is the kind of Christian I want to be - one who is so singularly drawn by and into the love of Christ, the Truth, that the very thought of Christ being absent in my life is absolutely unthinkable, that my very existence ceases without Him. 

Draw me, Lord, and I will run after Thee.

1 - "Homily V"

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pray and Fortify Your Heart

"Pray and fortify yourself, fortify your heart.  Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue, where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really any faithfulness and love for the Lord.  Our faith, trust and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow and privations."

-St. John of Kronstadt, qtd. in Maloney, Pilgrimage of the Heart, pg. 125

St. Gregory Palamas and the Place of Paradox in Christianity

Yesterday, for Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians, was the feast day of St. Gregory Palamas.  Though he is little-known in the West, in the East he is a pre-eminent theologian on par with such greats as St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus.  In his lifetime, he defended what is known as the essence/energies distinction in God, something very controversial to Western ears; essentially, this means that "God's powers, energies and attributes are uncreated...though it might be possible for a philosopher to conceive of a transcendent One or First Essence without attributes, the data of revelation make it impossible for the Christian God not to be creator and redeemer.  Hence, the divine attributes must always have subsisted in the essence, since by nature God is changeless."1 (John Meyendorff)    For the scholastic West of the time, this appeared to be a dangerous teaching that struck at the very oneness of God.

I ruminated on this teaching of the Christian East for some yesterday.  For myself, I have always had great difficulty in understanding St. Gregory and the whole essence/energies issue, though I have poured over the theologians famous work entitled The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts several times.  However, as I thought about it all, I was reminded of the paradoxical nature of both his teaching and of Christianity as a whole.  Christianity, unlike pretty much every other religion I have ever encountered, seems to have always been highly paradoxical.

C.S. Lewis writes about the Christian teaching on God that "It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits so well with all things we know already."2  Though the teaching of the East on God's essence and His qualities/energies/attributes etc. is hard to understand, once it has been encountered, it gradually makes sense.  I began to think how paradoxical the other great doctrines on the Holy Trinity throughout the history of the Church have been - not only that there is one God in three Persons, but that Jesus was both man and God, that Jesus had two wills not one, and all the rest.  When one really sits down to think upon these things, one immediately encounters their paradoxical nature.

But just because they appear as paradox does not mean that they are non-sense, as though they were merely oxymorons.  Faith is not always defined by what seems most reasonable to us, or fits in a rational box.  It is precisely because of this paradoxical nature that I think they speak to such Truth.  "If Christianity was something that we were making up, of course we could make it easier.  But it is not.  We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions.  How could we?  We are dealing with Fact."3 (C.S. Lewis)

1 - qtd. in Palamas, The Triads, pg. 147
2 - Mere Christianity, IV:2
3 - ibid.