Beyond both Bible and Burning Hearts: Breaking the Bread

Supper at Emmaus. Oil, 65 x 68 cm
by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1648
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

[Note: Perhaps the title of this post should instead read: “Along with Bible and Burning Hearts…” I didn’t intend to use the word “beyond” to mean getting past, leaving behind, or disregarding. But using “beyond” keeps both the alliteration and hint of provocation to catch your attention.]

Consider this wonderful story in Luke 24:13-35 (RSV):

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?”

And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

They are lost and without hope. They do not understand that Christ had to suffer and die, and that he would then rise again. They do not recognize the Christ though he stands before them. The irony of their question is almost humorous. Nobody knows of the things which “happened there in these days” better than the man they do not recognize.

And he said to them, “What things?”

Jesus does not begin by telling them, but by asking them. He draws out their thoughts. He helps them consider the events that happened so that they might be prepared to believe all that the prophets have spoken.

And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Oh to have been present at that explanation! And yet, even though Jesus explains everything, and even though he gives them the right way to interpret the scriptures that foretold those events which troubled them so deeply, they still do not comprehend, and they still do not recognize Jesus, they still cannot see the Christ standing right before them.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

They invite Jesus to stay. Was he actually going further, or just giving them an opportunity to be drawn in to something more personal, an opportunity to ask him to stay, thus preparing them for what was to come? To invite a person to stay is to commit oneself to that person at some important level. They were beginning to move beyond proofs from scripture to a covenant relationship of personal commitment. But they did not know what they were getting themselves into. And they were still lost.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

It is only when Jesus breaks the bread do they finally recognize him. What does this mean? What does this imply? What if they had not asked him to stay?

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

While they had heard Jesus teach them their hearts burned within them. They loved what he was saying. They longed for the truth. It seems that they too loved the scriptures. Perhaps they even understood all that he taught, but they could not see the Christ standing before them until they got off the road, sat at table with him, and the bread was broken. Only in the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened. Their hearts had burned but they could not see until the bread was broken. When they had the scriptures and burning hearts they were still lost. Perhaps it takes more than knowledge of scriptures and burning hearts to see Christ. Perhaps we should be cautious in trusting our interpretations and our emotions when salvation is at stake. If the bread had not been broken they might still be lost. If they had not asked him to stay he could not have broken the bread.

And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

They make the connection: He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

a prayer

Seven years ago today our daughter Coco died. We miss and look forward to seeing her again.

These kinds of anniversaries are interesting. On the one hand there is the reminder of a tragedy, a difficult and sad experience. On the other hand I look back and remember the great blessings of God at that time and since. God was with us, present, along side, holding us. So many people, from family and friends, to doctors and nurses, to musicians whose music touched us, made us know we were not alone, not without hope, not without love. God helped us to see His plans and His love more clearly than before. Also, if Coco had not died—and this might seem difficult to say—we would not have our next two children with us today. Her death sent us on a different course, and we are blessed still.

I believe Coco is alive with Christ and the saints.

To You, O Lord, we humbly entrust Coco, so precious in Your sight.
Take her into Your arms and welcome her into paradise,
where there will be no sorrow, no weeping nor pain,
but the fullness of peace and joy
with Your Son and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.



Toes in the Tiber

I believe my first exposure to Catholicism was from the film The Sound of Music. Remember the scene towards the end of the film when the von Trapp family was hiding from the Nazis in the convent, and the two Nuns then tell their Mother Abbess that they have sinned:

Reverend Mother, I have sinned.

I, too, Reverend Mother.

What is this sin, my children?


And remember how they then revealed the engine parts which they had dismantled from the Nazis’ cars, thus making it impossible for the Nazis to start their cars, which then allowed the von Trapp family to escape. That scene has always given me pleasant chills. Well, I didn’t really know a thing about Catholics then. I probably didn’t even really know those nuns were Catholics as I would now; I was a good Baptist and therefore rather ignorant of Christian and European history, but those nuns have always been heroes to me. Perhaps that scene planted something in my subconscious.

What that film does not say is that those nuns would likely have become martyrs for their actions like so many other devout Christians during the war—but that would have been too dark for such an uplifting story.

An apologia of sorts

What follows is the description of a spiritual and intellectual journey I’ve been on for a while, and am still on, though I won’t go all the way back to my childhood (including the fact that I was born in a Catholic hospital). And like the journey itself, my words may ramble and wander. I also recognize this is mostly self-serving, in that I want to sort out my own thinking in my typical, self-absorbed way. However, I hope that what I have experienced may help anyone else on a similar journey. I am also going to offer some personal critiques of Protestantism and some of the ideas common to the Christian communities in which I’ve been my whole life, and am still, more or less. Keep in mind I want to address how my own thinking has shifted and altered, not criticize people whom I love, and who I know love God and are seeking the Truth. What I believe now may change in the future. I am seeking the Truth, but my sinful heart and intellectual limitations usually overwhelm me. And really, none of us can know the hearts of others as God does, and all of our fates are in God’s hands. He will do what He wills, and He is trustworthy.

And certainly I might be wrong in my critiques and conclusions.

Surprised by the “dark side”

About seven years ago I began looking at Catholicism. “At” is the right word, for I did not and have not entered the Catholic church.  I was and am still on the outside looking in—or I could say: I am on one side of the river Tiber and the Church is on the other, but I am at the bank’s edge, dipping my toes in the flowing current. At that time I was  shocked, elated, curious—in fact, my emotions were hard to describe.

I had been brought up in an anti-Catholic version of Christianity (not emotionally,  rabidly, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Catholic, but staunchly, knee-jerk anti-Catholic, i.e. Baptist), such that even getting near something “Catholic” brought about weird and uncomfortable feelings—it’s not unlike being trained to view alcohol as from the Devil and then going to a party where folks are drinking and having a good time (simultaneous shivers and fascination). I have to say, as far as I know, I never knew anyone who was Catholic or had been Catholic until much later in my life. And I couldn’t tell you where a Catholic church was in our city. I only knew Catholics were the worst possible sinners and idolaters because I had been told they were (and that they worshiped Mary, took orders from the Pope, can’t think for themselves, don’t read the Bible, etc., etc.). Old-school Baptists love their anti-Catholicism and their piety, that’s for sure. “Thank you God we are not like those Catholics.” (wink, wink)

Fortunately I know times have changed and many Baptists are quite a bit more ecumenical today than in the past, but this is not a natural outgrowth of Baptist teaching or culture. Perhaps this change is merely indicative of the waning interest of the larger culture in maintaining denominationalism as we become increasingly consumeristic in our faith and worship choices (or, I should say, in our market-driven church offerings). Churches can sometimes be more like brands than indicators of particular dogmas. And perhaps much of modern ecumenism has more to do with being influenced by popular ideas like, “I love Jesus and hate religion,” which has its own theological and Christological troubles.

Keep in mind that presuppositions run deep in all of us. We carry within us a myriad of unspoken and unexamined beliefs and ideas. To say they are “taken for granted” only hints at how embedded and profoundly ingrained they are within the recesses of our minds and souls. Religion is a great place for presuppositions to reign supreme. Nothing seemed more obvious to me than that Catholicism was wrong. Nothing seemed more obvious to me than that the basic Protestant worldview was true. And not just at the propositional level, but at the soul level. Deep within me I knew what was what. I am beginning to see just how profoundly ignorant I was, and perhaps still am.

But I can see now that I was driven to explore a richer, deeper, historical, visible Church in the wake of my second child dying in my arms. That was seven years ago, and it was a hard time. Words can’t really describe that kind of experience. Presuppositions can both triumph and struggle in the face of reality. Many friends rallied around us. We were deeply blessed. I was also having conversations with a Catholic co-worker and friend about God and faith and suffering. She was dealing with the impending and eventual death of her dearly beloved sister. The answers I heard from my Catholic friend showed me something of the profound depth of ordinary Catholic thinking about suffering and God’s sovereignty. The Catholic Church began to look less wrong and more right than I had presupposed. Or, at least, it began to look like a perfectly plausible choice for a faithful and thoughtful Christian. I was surprised. Perhaps I was also just tired of being a Protestant who had discovered there was no longer anything worth protesting—or if there was, it was more the Protestant culture and doctrines that needed to be protested. The old arguments were failing me.

So I explored. I decided to give Catholicism the kind of honest examination that I, and really every Protestant I ever knew, was never previously willing to give. According to Chesterton this is a truly fateful step for any Protestant to take, there is no half way, but I didn’t know that.

A Mysterious Call

Why Catholicism? Why toy with the “dark side”? I can’t really say. I do remember that when Pope John Paul II died I was strangely transfixed and emotional.  My reaction caught me off guard.  I realized that I had always deeply admired him without making the connection to his being the pope—strange as that is. I just saw him as the primary Christian of sorts. I was glued to the television, watched hours of coverage of those thousands upon thousands of people flooding into Saint Peter’s Square. It was overwhelming both emotionally and intellectually. I was then transfixed by the choosing of the new pope, Benedict XVI. I was so excited when a new pope was finally selected. Again, I was caught off guard. Why the emotional response I wondered.

There is an interesting phenomenon that can happen when one has been trained to view something as taboo (e.g. the Catholic Church), then comes into contact with the truth and realizes that that “training” was more an indoctrination into a web of prejudices and “self-evident” presuppositions.  When one’s eyes open there can be a feeling of excitement and something like joy and fear mingled into wonder. There can also be, for some, a sense of betrayal. Fortunately, I’ve never had hard feelings for my anti-Catholic training. It is just a part of the world I was in, and like all traditions it merely got passed on from one generation to the next.

What I discovered when beginning to scratch the surface of Catholicism was surprisingly profound theology, good and trustworthy people, rich history, true mystery, and a copiousness that made the Christianity of my upbringing, as well as the Christianity of the quasi-reformed, non-denominational “church” I had then been attending, look truncated and anemic. This is true even in light of Protestantism’s deep (though, I must say, frequently myopic) biblical scholarship and wonderfully great people. The people, it must be said, are never truncated and anemic, though their rich lives may not be fully matched by the Christian “church” culture of which they partake. And this really is an issue: Does the Christianity with which we engage, and to which we commit ourselves, fit with our needs, our souls, our nature? Are our churches truly and properly human?

Hearing the Music

Naturally we compare. Perhaps the best way I can describe how Catholicism compares to Protestantism is that Catholicism (and I’m still looking from the outside, so I could be imagining things) seems to sing to my soul in a way that Protestantism does not. This singing is not a little thing; it is not some lightweight thing over against weighty theology. No, in this sense singing is more like how Tolkien in his Silmarillion describes Eru creating Middle Earth. In this sense theology trails after the singing, is subservient to it. We are called to the completeness of Truth, yes, but we are called even more so to holiness and worship. We are called to knowledge and to know what it truly means to call Jesus the Messiah, but we are also called, regardless of our imperfect understanding, to love and the Eucharist. And I say this after having sat under the wise teaching of some of the best Protestant bible students and teachers I’ve ever known, or will ever know.

Do any of us want to be part of a religious tradition that does not sing to our souls? My prejudices had me believe Catholicism could never sing to my soul or, if it did, I was probably damned. But I have come to realize that I never knew the real Church, and neither did those who taught me those prejudices. My confidence had been built up by theological arguments, many of which I now know are either questionable or more nuanced than I realized. But my eyes were beginning to open, and so were the “ears” of my soul.

But what about theology? We should not view doing theology (or even Bible study) as the primary activity of the Christian. Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but think of doing theology more like the art critic trying to explain the experience of art works—what they mean, what they do to us, why we like or need them, what the artist’s intent was, etc. God is the artist. What He creates can be known, but more importantly, is wonderful. What is most important for the Christian may not be understanding but bowing the knee and doing God’s will. Seek understanding, yes, but worship always. There are many Bible teachers who would do well to set down their Bibles and fall on their knees before God. Theologians (and especially apologists) might have heart palpitations at the thought, but we are not saved because we have the right beliefs or the right theology (though we ought to seek those things as well); rather because we love God and the things of God. Theology cannot stand aloof, it must begin with love.

Therefore, I had to come to terms with the Church that God established and nourished through scripture and tradition if I was to love the things of God. I needed to love the Church, the body and bride of Christ. I needed to own up to the obvious evidence of scripture and historical fact rather than always looking for a hidden meaning somewhere. I realized that to turn away from the historical, liturgical, hierarchical, sacramental, mysterious Church was to turn away from Christ Himself (no matter the emotions I attached to my “love” for Christ). And if I was to turn away merely because my personality gravitated more toward the non-historical, non-liturgical, non-hierarchical, non-sacramental, non-mysterious, then was that not more an indictment of my heart and its tendency to use cheap excuses to avoid bowing my knee to God?

But was the Church I was looking for the one I had assumed could never be the Church? Was I going to have to sort out my presuppositions about Catholicism? Is the Catholic church, in a manner of speaking, one of the things of God? Was Saint Cyprian right when he said a person cannot have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother?

Anti-Authority Consumers

Perhaps another way to describe a big difference between the popular Protestantism with which I am familiar and Catholicism, is that it seems much of Protestantism is a kind of consumerism Christianity that succeeds in large part because of good marketing and solid business plans, and Catholicism feels like the exact opposite, even painfully so. When I say consumer Christianity, I don’t just mean that some churches have a Starbucks in the lobby, or a designer jeans wearing-goatee sporting-no pulpit using pastor; I mean a kind of Christianity that views church goers and potential church goers through the lens of a business marketing paradigm, catering to shifting trends in market “needs” and fashions; and where those church goers, happy to play along, select which church they want now based on what they want now, in much the same way that people pick their next favorite restaurant. A lot of good people can get together and participate in a heartfelt manner in the business of Christianity, even believing they’re doing it for the sake of their families, but that doesn’t make it right. And it certainly doesn’t make that church the Church. And even a non-popular kind of church can be a consumer choice, a kind of alt-church, that is based on eschewing what is popular—because for a niche market that is the popular choice—and even priding itself on doing so.

Or a group of non-conformist Christians, who seek to avoid any hint of the consumerism of popular Christianity, can get together to hear a well-preached sermon from the original languages, strip away all “pretense” of liturgy, strip away the sacraments, strip away everything except the barest minimum of organization, and yet that’s still not the same as partaking of Christ’s body in unity—no matter how wonderful the sermon. In fact, to do so (and this is a strong statement) is to worship disunity. A bible-centered, non-conformist Protestant community still has not solved the question of authority (hermeneutical theories only go so far). Authority is required for unity. God made us and the Church according to that need. That is our need. The fact that we can sorely abuse authority does not make it less a creation of God. We must eventually come to see that neither hipster evangelicals nor non-conformist children of the Jesus Movement can overcome human nature merely by declaring an anti-authoritarian stance in the name of Truth. In the end it rings hollow.

Inevitably Protestantism becomes such that each church (or each Bible teacher) makes its case, its argument, for what it believes, and much of the time each church is headed by its own “father”, its own localized version of the “pope”, having been granted a similar kind of authority by a local congregation that continually fluctuates as members come and go. So much for being anti-papist. Protestantism has not solved the issue of authority merely because it put a pope in every pulpit or a Bible in every hand. As John Saward wrote: “The man who would wrench the Scriptures from the hands of the Bride, in the belief that he will thereby become more ‘objective’ in his reading, traps them and himself beneath the black bushel of subjective opinion.” (The Beauty of Holiness, p. 39) The Bride here, or course, is the historical Church.

I know there are many who would argue against my position. They are convinced my perspective is lacking and easily dismantled. They have thought deep and developed their hermeneutic approach, their interpretive strategies. But I have heard the arguments, and though they may convince others, they no longer convince me. This does not make me right—I might be wrong—but to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Thus, for now, here I stand.

And still… if anyone would seek to study the Bible with integrity, preferably in the original languages, looking for Truth and seeking wisdom, and then desiring to share their conclusions, God be praised. I will champion that person.

So I dove into examining Catholicism, though as I said, entirely from the outside. I was too fearful to actually visit a Catholic church or talk to a priest. I read many books, listened to numerous podcasts, and read a lot of stuff on the Internet. One thing I did do that surprised me was I began praying the Rosary. (*gasp*) I found in my heart a longing to become Catholic, and I frequently prayed that God would make it possible for me to become Catholic. But I couldn’t on my own. I still had too many reservations (perhaps ghosts of anti-Catholicism), and I certainly did not want to make that kind of choice without my family alongside—I just can’t take that step without my wife beside me—and this was, at that point, a very personal, internal, and individual journey for me. So I put it all on the back burner.

Other Stages: Emergent, Anabaptist, Orthodox

My interests shifted. I began to explore the emergent church. I liked a lot of what they were saying, and I still like the exploratory emphasis of their project, especially their emphasis on the need for open dialogue. But I found the emergent church to exist as a kind of declaration of need rather than of a solution. It seems to me that the emergent church exists for people, at least for some, who are longing for the historical/mystical church but have yet to find it because they think it is hidden rather than in plain sight. Or perhaps the emergent church essentially exists as nothing more than an expression of existential story-telling meets religious mystery meets anything-you-want-to-eat spiritual buffet. So I moved on.

Keep in mind that my wife and I were frequently discussing what we needed to do with our family regarding church. We knew we needed something for our family to “plug into”, though I hate that term. We were not entirely sure what we were looking for, but we knew we didn’t want a programmatic kind of church that splits family members up by marketing differentiators. We wanted to be a family all together, worshiping together. We also knew that programmatic churches easily fall prey to worldly definitions of success, even while raising their hands in praise. Too much of Protestantism is popular American culture justified with Bible verses.

For whatever reason I was then led to a more Anabaptist/pacifist/anarchist kind of Christianity (a la John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, et al). Perhaps this came about because of my growing dislike of U.S foreign policy and it’s “war on terror.” I found the emphasis on the non-violence of Christ good for my soul—especially as an antidote to the violence-loving American culture in which I live. And I still lean towards pacifism, my politics becoming influenced by the way of the cross. Gradually I became even less interested in Catholicism, in part because I thought I saw a clear connection between the Catholic church and all that is bad about empire. I knew nothing of the great serving and pacifist traditions within Catholicism. I also had feelings that becoming Catholic might never be a possibility for me, given my personal and social situation. I started wondering if there were any good Anabaptist/Mennonite churches in my area. Clearly I was searching for something. But still, I couldn’t step beyond my reading about these things and actually taking the step of walking through the doors into one of these communities. I am very much a book learner and a wannabe lurker. It takes me a long time to make up my mind, especially about big things.

As an aside, I am perplexed by people who seem to not have issues with doctrinal wrangling or denominational allegiances—and I don’t mean obsessively so, just ordinary concern. I am not a theology wonk, I don’t study theology like I should, but it’s still a big deal for me to make a shift from a particular set of ideas to another. My world is easily rocked by basic theological “discoveries” and possibilities of fundamental change. I don’t take it lightly. I can’t change churches without it being a big deal personally. And I am constantly asking questions about who I am and why I believe what I do—constantly. Perhaps it’s a blessing, perhaps it’s a curse. At any rate, I move very slowly.

And then, for some reason, I discovered Eastern Orthodoxy. I cannot remember how, but once I learned of the Orthodox church I was fascinated and increasingly amazed. Where had this church been all my life? What richness and beauty. Again I began studying in earnest. My studying led me to write a number of blog posts, and eventually I visited a local Orthodox church. I have to say this re-grounded me in my interest in the historical church. Whereas before I might have been a bit more loosey-goosey about theology, doctrine, and worship, etc., I began to become more interested in the early church, its theology, doctrine, practices, and worship. I began to embrace a more Orthodox understanding of Christianity. I came to believe the Sola Scriptura I had trusted was, ironically, un-biblical. (I say “believe” because I cannot say definitively one way or the other.) And Sola fide rang untrue in light of the apostle’s teaching. Plus, through my study of classical education (another area of interest for me) I began to realize that God made human beings for liturgy, and that God gave us liturgy as a gift that fits with our humanness. The fact that we mess up our liturgies does not negate their inherent virtues.

Fitting the Nature

There is a profound fittingness between human nature and sacred liturgy that would be sinful to separate; we can argue about the structure of liturgy, its design and style, but liturgy itself is required. And, since there is a fittingness, our arguments are likely to be circumscribed anyhow—consider if two thousand years of practice, discussion, and tweaking count for something. Consequently, I came to the conviction that the non-liturgical anti-sacramental church I had been attending was practicing an essentially non-biblical anthropology in its “church” practice. This was key. I realized that a non-liturgical emphasis is an impulse away from God because it is an impulse away from man as God created him—even though a non-liturgical experience may feel like a more “pure” and unencumbered version of Christianity. This is the potential trap of seeking authenticity. What we “know” as authentic is too often just the preferences we inherit from our culture. I felt I could no longer live out a stripped-down, bare minimum version of Christianity; not only because I didn’t need to prove it could be done, but also because it is false.

Of course I can only look at myself and examine my own heart. Each of us are on a unique path, uniquely called by the Holy Spirit, uniquely held in the hands of God. We can only follow our conscience the best we know how. Who am I to judge? Who am I to presume? Who really?

There were more concerns. I realized that the Orthodox church appealed to me because it would give me much of what I had been seeking and still allow me to be “Protestant”. Orthodoxy allows me to avoid questions of popery and Mary and transubstantiation, the primacy of Peter, and more. And, perhaps most of all, I could avoid the stigma of being Catholic. It just seemed like it would be less embarrassing to say “I’m Orthodox.” Plus it would mostly leave people perplexed, which I though would be fun. “Orthodox? Huh?” But I realized I still needed to address these issues and sort them through. In short, there is only one Church on earth that one must take a definitive stance on regardless of whether one is Orthodox, Protestant, or other, and that is the Catholic Church. I had to come to terms finally with the Catholic Church.

Authority (and the Soul’s Destiny?)

A big issue for a Protestant is the question of authority. Without going into much depth, I realized two things:

  1. Deep in my soul I was longing for authority, not because I was weak (though I am), but because I was tired of the false security of Sola Scriptura. I needed more than a hermeneutic, more than an epistemology, more than an interpretive strategy; I need the Holy Spirit poured out through history in the form and structure of His authoritative and living Church.
  2. That my refusal to believe in an Apostolic and visible church instituted by Christ, maintained by the Holy Spirit, and carried forward through apostolic succession was a refusal to bow the knee to God. Prides gets us all, and it got me.

It seems clearer to me now that an apparently reasoned argument against apostolic succession and the primacy of Peter may, in fact, be an attempt to avoid softening one’s heart to the true reality of Christ’s Church, even if one’s arguments are fervently preached. Bible study can be as much about weaving arguments to avoid the truth as it is a pursuit of the truth. We all tend to live in our own little corners of the world, often never realizing that our pride has got us cornered. I had convinced myself that Sola Scriptura got me off the hook, as it were; I did not need to be bothered by Catholicism (or any Christian tradition). But I came to see that this was merely an excuse to build my own personal castle against the world—but this is foolishness, vanity, and pride.

I can only speak for myself. I do not know the hearts of others. We are in God’s hands.

The question of authority may be a litmus test for the hardness of one’s heart. I see that it was for me. For this reason I cannot embrace Protestantism, and I have come to believe the Orthodox church, though maintaining apostolic succession, is still on the wrong side of the issue of authority.

Pushed and Pulled

All this led me back to studying Catholicism with renewed vigor. And this is where I am today. But I must say that my movement towards the Catholic Church is more from being pushed in that direction by Protestantism and it failings than being pulled by Catholicism. Though the Catholic Church seems to be, as they say, the fullness of the Church, I am not swooning over it. I am not church shopping, looking for the next new (or old) thing, the coolest, hippest, most authentic thing, or just something really different. I just want Christ. I want to follow Him, to be a part of His body, to be holy. I think I see that in the Catholic Church unlike anywhere else. Tell me if I am wrong, but it seems clearer now that to be the best “Protestant Christian” I can be is to finally become a Catholic Christian. True?

But I am being pulled as well. I find Catholic doctrine more compelling than both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant. I still have many questions, and am still sorting through much, but I am finding it is not the richness of history or the liturgy so much that draws me to Catholicism, rather it is its doctrine, including its teaching on apostolic succession, on the primacy of Peter, on the role of Mary (I am coming to really love Mary), on Purgatory, on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the effectiveness of the sacraments, and much more. In fact, I can say that what attracts me now to the Catholic Church are precisely those things which are the traditional “sticking points” for the Protestant.

I am particularly drawn to the Catholic Church’s anthropology and Christology.  I am no theologian, and I am admittedly lazy when it comes to doing my homework, but there is a kind of depth in the Catholic church that is missing from every Protestant church I have attended, and I have attended a few. And I believe this must be true even when a Catholic mass seems rather humdrum and uninspired, because it’s not about emotions conjured in a church service, it’s not about the singing or the sermon, it’s about the true meaning of the Mass. Simply, Protestants do not have the Mass.

I must say that if the Church is like a person, then one might expect such a person who exudes a mysterious depth of character, even if one cannot fully describe it, to be more compelling than a person who lacks that depth. It seems to me that Protestantism, for all the good it offers, lacks the kind of mysterious depth of character that one finds in the Catholic Church. In all this, however, I could be wrong; I don’t want to look merely at appearances.  And one thing is clear, the Orthodox church fully embraces mystery in a big way, perhaps more than the Catholic church, and I find that very appealing. There is great beauty in mystery and the Orthodox church.

Keep in mind, I am not pointing to individuals. Though Protestantism on the whole lacks the depth I seek, the people I know and love have infinite depth. What I might hazard, is to say that there may be a discontinuity between many individual Christians and the Protestantism in which they participate. I think, for some, deep in their souls they want more. Perhaps this explains the tendency for a constant willingness of so many Protestants to change churches, and why many Protestants are beginning to examine Orthodoxy. Protestantism has become the seeker version of Christianity. Maybe it always was; just look at how many divisions there have been since Luther staked out his claim to the truth and broke from Rome. Of course, we long for the kingdom to come in fullness. Until that day all of us will live with the discontinuity, on some level, between our longings and reality.

Why Not Eastern Orthodox?

So Eastern Orthodoxy captivated me for a while, but then I am of the West, not the East. To cross over to the Orthodox church is attractive precisely because it offers a kind of escape from the insanity of western post-industrial consumerist society. There is something radically “other” about Orthodoxy in its non-western essence. To visit an Eastern Orthodox church is like stepping into the 8th century. I recommend it for everyone. However, for me to become Orthodox would be a kind of “get me off this merry-go-round” statement. But God has placed me squarely in the western stream of life; this is the world in which I live, the language I speak, the ideas that inform and make me. Though I wish to escape at times, I realize that escape is not the answer. It is better to embrace who I am, who God has made me, and go from there. I am western not eastern. To embrace the Orthodox church, which I would like to do at some level, would be, for me at least, merely a kind of continuation of my Protestantism, akin to jumping over the Catholic Church to the other side. To embrace Catholicism would be, for me at least, a step toward unity. To be loosely evangelical would be too mushy, to stay Protestant or become Orthodox would still be too divisive, to be Catholic, though not without its own history of drawing lines, seems to offer a more open arms position. Ironically, I find the Catholic Church to be the most ecumenical of all.

Remember that I am rather ignorant of all this. I’m sure my understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy is so limited as to be more a caricature than truth. Perhaps it is just best to say, that though God brought Eastern Orthodoxy into my life in a small way, perhaps to enrich it, He has called me to the Catholic Church, and that’s where my heart is.

Finally… for now

I must say, however, that I don’t believe I have a lot of illusions about the Catholic Church as an experience. My visits to Mass a few times convinced me that Catholics can be as uninspired as anyone. And I don’t believe Catholics are any more righteous in their behavior than other Christians, in fact they are likely less pious than many in Protestantism with its strong pietistic heritage.  Really, we are all the same, our issues and our desires are the same, and we bring ourselves wherever we go. If I were to become Catholic I will not suddenly change into someone else, become more spiritual, become holy, see the heavens open up, etc. I’ll still be ordinary, mediocre me. But I do believe the Catholic Church may truly be the “fullness” of the church Christ established. I do believe that Christ is present in the Catholic Mass in a way not found in Protestant churches. I do believe that apostolic succession points to Rome, and I don’t want to be disobedient. And certainly, though the Catholic Church is filled, as are Protestant churches, to the brim with sinners, there is a seemingly unending richness of Christian experience in Catholicism not found anywhere else. As a good friend of ours put it: History, Mystery Authority. It has it all. Plus, and my interest in this has surprised me, the Catholic Church has the confessional. That sounds to me like a difficult but glorious blessing. As Chesterton once answered when asked why he became Catholic: “To get my sins forgiven.”

Of course there is much more to be said. I am still on my journey, still exploring, still learning, and not Catholic. I have visited a couple of Catholic churches, I will again. I am taking up the Catholic Church’s Year of Faith by reading through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of Vatican II, and numerous other books. I am curious where this will all lead. And I am praying a lot. I give this all to God, best I can.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.