Waiting to Convert

Originally posted on God-Haunted Lunatic:

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St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (CCC 1429).

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Of Sanctity, Old Yeller, and the Plague

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Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.
~ C.S. Lewis

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Mass Cards for Protestants

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Put this body anywhere! Don’t trouble yourselves about it!
I simply ask you to remember me at the Lord’s altar wherever you are.
~ St. Monica

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Of Practice, Perseverance, and Carnegie Hall

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“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”
~ Jane Austen

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Why I Remain a Catholic

“Something had given him leave to live in the present.”
~ Walker Percy

A friend of mine sent me an email with this subject line: “A challenge for your blogging….” She included Elizabeth Scalia’s invitation to Catholics everywhere in the internet cosmos to write about “Why Do YOU Remain a Catholic” – an invitation itself prompted by the recent Pew Research report on the statistical collapse of the American Church.

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Elizabeth Scalia, “The Anchoress” (Patheos)

That report, with its grim portrayal of the Church’s retention record, already prompted me to write a bit about Catholic parenting and keeping our kids connected to the Faith. However, I’ll take Scalia’s proposition (and my friend’s email) as an excuse to add some additional, more personal thoughts.

So, why do I remain a Catholic? For me, the question might as well be, “Why do you keep breathing?” I can’t imagine not being a Catholic – there’s no alternative. Catholicism informs everything I think and say and do, and so the very concept of giving it up is unfathomable.

Curiously, this is not the case with regards to Christianity in general. I grew up in an Evangelical tradition, my beloved siblings and their families remain so, and I have great respect for my Protestant friends and colleagues. In fact, I not only admire their strong faith and piety, but I also strive to emulate their example. However, for me, Christianity is Catholicism – there’s no going back. Samuel Johnson (himself an Anglican) put it this way:

A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery, may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism, gives up so much of what he had held as sacred as anything that he retains: there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.

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G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

That’s one of the quirky little secrets of Catholicism: It’s not just another denomination. It really does claim to be the true Church, and hence, the truth. Period. “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic,’” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” The funny thing is that conviction regarding the Church’s truth claims is not always the main motivating factor for conversion. For some converts, it might’ve been an attraction to liturgy; for others, it might’ve been marriage to a Catholic – there are myriad reasons to “pope,” all of them good enough. God will use whatever means he can to get us attached to his family, and then he’ll bring us along, sanctifying us one way or another, sometimes despite our objections and resistance. He’s sneaky that way.

However, at some point along the sainthood trail, the outlandish truth of Catholicism becomes virtually undeniable. It sounds crazy, I know, but at some point, we start to take it for granted that Catholicism simply comports with the way things are (truth) and, consequently, it’s the only reliable means of bringing about the way things ought to be (beatitude). Orthodoxy, orthopraxy; what is affirmed and what is aspired to – however it’s parsed, it’s a bulwark that stands between the faithful and the temptations of suicidal oblivion. It keeps us tethered to earth and directs our eyes to heaven. Above all, it gives us reason to hope: that our past may be redeemed, that our future might be glorious, and that our present…

Ah, the present. It’s so thick, so fraught with edges and endings, uncertainties and contingencies, yet Catholicism takes it all into account. Let’s see, how can I…

Well, here, let me paint a picture. Here’s how I envision Catholic Faith impinging on the present.
_________________________

“YOU DOING ALRIGHT?”
A Comedy in Three Acts

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

  • RICK – Apprentice husband, father, Catholic
  • BRENDAN – Hardware-store clerk
  • DR. OFFERLE – Optometrist
  • CHORUS
    • THOMAS MERTON, OCSO – Monk
    • HUBERT VAN ZELLER, OSB – Monk

ACT 1

At RISE:

(It’s Sunday afternoon at Menard’s. There is bustle and activity in the plumbing section, customers browsing for parts and tools. CHORUS is visible stage left. RICK holds a discount toilet seat, but appears stalled, adrift – no longer shopping nor moving in the direction of the check-out lanes. He seems poised to ask a question, and BRENDAN, alert and solicitous, approaches.)

BRENDAN

You doing alright?

RICK

Uh…

(RICK stares blankly at BRENDAN for a moment. Brendan freezes; Rick lapses into a reverie and addresses the audience, gesticulating animatedly; MERTON interjects throughout.)

Am I doing alright? No, I’m not doing alright.

MERTON

“I have no idea where I am going.”

RICK

In fact, I’m doing lousy, wondering how I landed here, shopping for plumbing fixtures while my children are growing up at breakneck speed – another one off to college next fall! – and there’s no way I can undo all the ways I’ve failed them, and failed my wife, plus my students, my friends, not to mention my God.

Thomas-Merton

Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968)

MERTON

“I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

My God (hands extended, arms upraised), I’ve been a Catholic for decades – over half my life now! Yet I’m barely past the starting gate – I’m just getting going! Mass and sacraments, prayers and spiritual reading, solid spiritual counsel and the best theological formation out there – for what? Scraping by, still scraping by, and there’s no second wind unless you’ve exhausted your first wind. I’m jogging here, just ambling along – not even! The race has started, and I’m just getting the shoes on.

MERTON

“Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

So, am I doing alright? (pause, then addressing the frozen BRENDAN) Are you serious?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 1.)

ACT 2

(Lights fade in. Flashback several days. Eye doctor’s examination room – Snellen chart on the wall, typical equipment on counter and attached to wall. RICK reclines in the patient’s chair; OFFERLE sits on a stool directly in front of Rick, peering through an ophthalmoscope.)

OFFERLE

It’s bright outside. OK if I dilate your eyes?

RICK

Sure (leans back as OFFERLE instills eye drops). I already have sunglasses with me. (pause) You’ll be happy to know I’ve been using them pretty regularly since last time – whenever I’m out in the sun. They are a bit nerdy. (pause) My son calls them “cataract glasses.”

OFFERLE

That’s good (laughs) – he’s right! – and it’ll help. (Further examination via the ophthalmoscope.) Of course, some vision change is unavoidable. (pause) Do you squint to read?

RICK

No – not usually…. (raises eyebrows) presbyopia?

OFFERLE

Right – you can expect it. You’ll have to squint to read or hold books and newspapers away from you further and further. It’s a natural part of aging, but it’s manageable. (pause) For now, though, (pulling away ophthalmoscope) I don’t see any problems.

(OFFERLE freezes; VAN ZELLER, stage left, interjects; RICK turns to listen to him.)

VAN ZELLER

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Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984)

“As long as we are only tamed by years and not tired by them we have no cause to worry. Nor should we suffer ourselves to be unduly tamed. Looking wide-eyed at life we shall find much that will create in us that blessed sense of wonder – so much indeed that there will be no room in us for preoccupation with the crooked and the wrong.”

OFFERLE

(unfreezes) I’m leaving your prescription the same. (big smile) In fact, I don’t think you need to come back for another two years. That’s good, isn’t it?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 2.)

ACT 3

(Lights fade in, revealing the previous frozen scene in the Menard’s plumbing aisle. BRENDAN is in a solicitous posture; CHORUS is visible stage left; RICK addresses the audience; MERTON interjects throughout.)

RICK

God forgive me for my failures, my weaknesses, my petty selfishness and deceit. I love you, God – at least I think I do – but I keep messing up, over and over!

MERTON

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

RICK

Give me your strength, your grace, your life, God. Help me keep going.

MERTON

“I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

RICK

Help my kids, my wife. Help me be a better husband and father, a better teacher, a better worker, a better friend. Help me, God, help me! I don’t even know how to ask you to help me!

MERTON

“Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

(Customers and BRENDAN unfreeze; RICK addresses Brendan.)

RICK

Yeah, (pause)… I’m alright.

(Lights dim. CURTAIN.)

____________________________________

You see, the present is “an adventure,” Van Zeller reminds us, and “there are discoveries to be made round every corner” – tumult and opportunity, crisis and resolution, sin and salvation around every corner! We tend to lose that perspective as we get older, but Catholicism trumpets it perpetually and makes it happen. With faith, everything can be an adventure, every undertaking a quest – even shopping in the hardware store, even getting a check-up. Creation is a sacrament, people are Jesus, and everything points to God – no escape, but why would we want to escape?

jrrt

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

That question is at the heart of Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo is relaxing and showing off with his pipe smoke. “Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” He’s perplexed: Why is it so difficult? Sure, there’s danger and death and no guarantees, but, c’mon, it’s an adventure! How can we say no?

Every time we Catholics go to Mass, every time we receive the sacraments or pray, we’re invited to an adventure and we take the risk of becoming saints – incredible. Will we agree? Will we go? What will happen?!

I think that’s a show worth sticking around for.
________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Parental Guidance & Offensive Movie Favorites

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For all its grittiness, this tale of physical and moral metamorphosis offers an incisive study of the need for universal solidarity and a portrait of marital love that at least some adult viewers may find valuable.
~ CNS review of District 9

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On Keeping Our Kids Catholic: The Indispensable Minimum

It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.
~ Aaron Neville

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Of May Crowning, Corniness, and the 4-H Fair

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All I think I ever asked of Mary was that she should take care of me.
~ Dorothy Day

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Of Ecumenism, Boundaries, and Amicable Disagreement

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Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.
~ Decree on Ecumenism

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But It’s God

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It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Pope St. Pius X

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