I am writing out of the dark. But perhaps that is better given the topic at hand. Perhaps it is better because, when it comes to entering full communion in the Catholic church, narratives are often rife with emotion, whether it be the emotion of those who glow, or those who so bitterly hate their pasts that their evident lack of love makes their need for the Church evident, or those who are so hurt that they don’t know what to say. I have at times experienced all these emotions – particularly the last and the heart-protecting defensiveness that must accompany it for the purposes of survival. But though I have experienced these things, I write at the moment – I wouldn’t go so far as to say objectively – but certainly in the dark. My own experience is a stranger to me, dissociated and alien. But I write in the hope that in entertaining strangers, some have entertained angels unawares.
Recently, a year past my reception into the church, I read G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive. And interestingly enough, though it was written well before Chesterton’s own reception into the Church, he captures the experience perfectly. The quote that caught me is this, a description of the main character, Innocent Smith, conversing with a stranger on a desolate mountain in California:
I heard my wife and children talking and saw them moving about the room,” he continued, “and all the time I knew they were walking and talking in another house thousands of miles away, under the light of different skies, and beyond the series of the seas. I loved them with a devouring love, because they seemed not only distant but unattainable. Never did human creatures seem so dear and so desirable: but I seemed like a cold ghost. I loved them intolerably; therefore, I cast off their dust from my feet for a testimony. Nay, I did more. I spurned the world under my feet so that it swung full circle like a treadmill.”
“Do you really mean,” I cried, “that you have come right round the world?…”
“My pilgrimage is not yet accomplished,” he replied sadly; “I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.
Contextually, the quote is literal; Smith really has left his family and home in England so he can go back and rediscover them. But what struck me was the parable of it. Because this – for many of us who have become Catholic from other Christian backgrounds – is such an excellent description of the movement of our spirits, or at least what we know on a good day the movement of our spirits must ontologically be.
You see, many of us know what it is to see the traditions we have left become cold ghosts. We know what it is to see the things we have learned to value slip through the uncareful fingers of the very institutions (or call them “non-institutions” for variety) that taught us to love them – and slip through our fingers because there was not a sufficient theological anthropology to sustain us. We know what it is to be heartbroken. And we know what it is to need a home. We know what it is to feel the only possible way of avoiding exile is to become a pilgrim.
I speak in riddles, but I shall be more plain; I refer to my own journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, which I see as the primary dichotomy in my journey – with Anglicanism serving as an intermediary until I realized that the only way I could be seriously Anglican was to become Catholic – else I would drift into the waffle of the broad church, the ambiguous theatrics of the high church, or the incomprehensible Anglo-Evangelicalism that would seem to end in the dissolution of ecclesiology and thereby the very theological anthropology I was seeking.
But it was mainly Evangelicalism I was running from, and this for the simple reason that it has no room for the complications of human psychology. It depends on an understanding of the self – a heresy – fashioned out of the ruins of Christendom during the Romantic period. It is good as far as it goes, and powerful where Romanticism is mistaken for truth. But Romanticism is not truth, and the problematic emphasis on experience and crises of will defined with a particular and dogged narrowness has no room for me or those of my tribe – those who are mentally ill – those whose emotions and reason don’t work the way they are supposed to. Evangelical conversion is a function of particular kinds of privilege – and I am not among those privileged.
Thus, for a long time, I have clung as to a life raft to the beauty of a faith that could deal in externals, a faith that had stuff. For Evangelicals, externals are a problem, a sign of pretense, a hollow shell built over a faith that (allegedly) cannot possibly exist within its shroud. But for us it is the other way round. It is the emotions, the heart, the inward man, or perhaps just what we mistake for him, that are changeable as the weather. Some find comfort in the contrast whereby man looks at external appearance, but God looks at the heart. But it strikes me as a deep terror. For however awful our external appearances may be, we know our hearts to be worse. And we tremble.
That is why grace must come from the outside, why it is not a burden to have sacraments and sacramentals, but a deep and abiding gift. There are things to cling to. The Evangelical imagination would no doubt see this as a weakness of faith, a superstitious preference for things over Christ. I will heartily admit I am weak. But to the latter I can only say that there is no idol greater than the one pretending not be an idol; there is no idol greater than the ethereal Christ you conceive of in your head. At least when dealing with things, we can sort out whether we are being idolatrous or not, and we are not in actual fact likely to be so, at least not in the modern West – Catholic kitsch can be so bad it would nearly take a miracle to mistake it for God, and so Christ comes through it rather than being displaced by it. But the ideas in our heads are more subtle. And it is possible that there may be nothing more dangerous to our souls than the idolatry we sometimes refer to as our personal relationship with Christ – forgetting all the time that it is impossible for us to relate to anyone or anything as persons without bodies.
So fleeing from the ideals I valued in Evangelicalism – the very things I could not have – I clung to forms and things. First in Anglicanism, then in the Catholic Church. This must I suppose seem crazy to sane people – that is, people with unquestioned Romanticism in the blood – but for us with mental illness – for us with troubles – it was the inverse of the Pauline dictum: the spirit killed, and the letter gave life. Or so I thought. But I thought wrong. For the Church will doggedly save in us what is Christian, even if it happens to be Evangelical. She will save in us what is holy, though it should happen to be a vexation of spirit. And so we are not permitted to remain on the outside, the surface of things. Though it cost all we have – and it does – God will call us and pull us deeper. The things in which we sought refuge from spirituality will only pull us closer and make our hearts more tender. It is no good seeking refuge from heartbreak in holy things. They will only pull us closer and soften our hearts – yes, to the degree that we will choose the heartbreak for love rather than be anesthetized by hardness. So if we appear we are hurting, know that it is because we are.
What I mean by this is that the journey of my first year being Catholic has been one of rediscovering interiority – it has been one of rediscovering Scripture. Prior, I had come to a point where both terrified me. My inner life had been at the mercy of insanity. And my Scriptural engagement was at the mercy of a clever mind. Some manage not to cut themselves on the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God by keeping it safely sheathed – enshrined safely in that most impenetrable tradition known as the “plain sense” of Scripture (nothing either plain or sensible about it!). But unsheathing the sword, I knew it was sharp and dangerous enough I could slay myself on it, and I needed training in swordsmanship. I needed tradition.
Intriguingly enough, the recovery of both Scripture and spiritual interiority came together for me in five weeks of training in Ignatian prayer at the end of a year of deep pain and longing. With a spiritual director as the immediate representative of the magisterium – that is to say, tradition – I knew there was something to keep me from going off the rails. And somehow Ignatian contemplation managed to imaginatively short circuit that impulse I have so often felt when reading Scripture, the impulse to fall on my sword. As in the Chesterton quote, leaving Evangelicalism felt like a leaving behind of everything I love: Scripture, relationships, and further, an affective relationship with Christ. Yet it was precisely because of these loves I left – and these loves I have begun to find in a small measure in the Catholic Church. I came to the church as a refuge from Evangelicalism – and she has taken me on the condition that I must become more truly evangelical than I have ever been. Not because of coercion, but because of love. If I am defensive, it is because the Church – Christ’s body – has made me more sensitive than I have ever been before. I go into arguments with guns blazing because I know how deeply it will hurt if a single bullet grazes me.
Lest you should assume the story ends well in an immediate sense, I am truly, as noted at the beginning, in darkness. The course on Ignatian spirituality ended, I have no spiritual director, and I am left prey to the demons in my head and a hermeneutic of cynicism. If one spirit has been driven out and the house swept clean, seven more have entered. Despair is close at hand. But there is One closer, and it is to Him and His church I cling. Though I have no inkling of it experientially – though I narrate this story as though it were the story of a stranger – I have to trust. I have to trust it is to cure myself of being an exile that I have become a pilgrim. I have to trust that this alien story of a stranger who rediscovered a home he thought he abandoned heartbroken can in fact be my story. It is dark, but I have to trust. I have to trust; pray for me.