Saturday, December 17, 2005

My Journey

Chapter One: My Journey

The account of my journey is not chronological like Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, the spiritual biography of a Trappist monk’s early life and conversion. I am not a monk, nor do I have Merton’s ability to distill the essence of Faith in both word and silence. However, Merton accompanied me at the start of my journey to the Father’s House at age 14. While attending a summer enrichment course at the then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, I devoured Merton's words greedily, aware even then that I was gazing into a pre-Vatican II world of devotion which in 1972 was already passing away. I remember feeling slightly sad to discover that the book had been published in 1948 instead of 1968.

My conversion to Rome was not solely or even primarily literary. That summer of ‘72 I fell under the spell of the tall, dark and handsome Aquinas Chapel. Back then the College’s main chapel was still populated with plaster statues of holy men and women. The exotic smell of incense mingled with fervent intentions prayed aloud by nuns at daily Mass. I was immediately enchanted by something seemingly so familiar to my Missouri Synod Lutheran roots, yet also strangely exotic. Today almost all of the statues and many of the nuns are gone; the faded nimbus of that incense lingers. I am still drawn there to pause and pray in front of our Lord whenever my work takes me to the University of St. Thomas St. Paul campus.

That same summer Dean of Students Monsignor James Lavin was also kind enough to meet with me about my situation. He gave me a recently superceded Latin-English Missal. His gift only added to the mystique of All Things Roman Catholic. Here in my own hands was a Holy Grail in double columns inked inexplicably in black and red. Here, I thought, I will find solace, permanence, peace. Why I thought this I am not so sure, even today. Perhaps I sensed the Mass’s inchoate link with history. Always and in every place… Perhaps the missal itself was redolent of the Eucharistic Presence its pages celebrated. Even Lavin’s title, Monsignor, struck an exotic note with me. In his black clerical collar he seemed to me at the time like someone from another dimension- and of course, wise and all knowing.

Ironically, unwittingly, I was falling in love at first sight with many facets of the Roman Church that had just recent disappeared in the wake of Vatican II. Msgr. Lavin's well-intentioned gift worked at cross purposes with his words of advice. Wisely, he had recognized this theological infatuation of mine as puppy-love, advising me solemnly to "bloom where you are planted." I was to rest secure in my native Lutheranism, secure in the knowledge that we would all be re-made into One Church in God's good time. I obeyed Fr. Lavin's advice for over twenty years. Sure, I dabbled here and there through the years with different elements of Catholic piety and practice. Like so many of my generation, I chose this and adapted that to my own religious practice as I wished. I played guitar for Catholic prayer groups, and attended retreats and meetings at numerous monasteries. I prayed the Jesus Prayer and, even occasionally (guiltily) the Rosary. I even brought nuns into my Lutheran parish to lead the Annual Parish Retreat. I was cheerily ecumenical, but was afraid of the Roman Catholicism that also fascinated me. Then, in old fashioned terminology I made my own "peace with Rome." I saw, heard and felt much along the way that convinced me to come home to this Holy Roman Catholic Church which, for me, is indeed our Father's House. Like so many, I found myself drawn and even compelled to enter, once I knew Who was inside waiting to welcome me.

The controlling metaphor of this journey is that of home. The various spaces of that home are not solely of my own construction. The reader will note that I have borrowed liberally, quoting generously from the Forebears who lived here long before I walked through the door. However, this floor plan did arise from my own meditation on my circuitous path from infatuation with Merton and Aquinas Chapel through a seven year stint in the Lutheran pastorate. The road encompassed family life with a wife and two sons. It continued through post-graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana and ended in divorce. I stumbled home to the Catholic Church almost 25 years after first falling in love with it. I left in my wake a career and family I loved too dearly and yet not dearly enough to keep me away from my true Home. The rationale for this homecoming is varied, and is written in the walls of this dream home which I am asking you to visualize with me.

This floor plan of mine will serve as a light hearted apologia for Roman Catholicism, but not as in "I'm so sorry that my joining this Church offends you- here's why I did it." After all, I did make a considered decision to join this particular religious group because I believe that in the Catholic Church of today the Church that Jesus Christ founded almost 2000 years ago still subsists. However, if you are in the market for another volume filled with cheerfully militant Catholic Triumphalism then this book will disappoint you. My own dream house is built differently. Too many modern apologists, in my opinion, see this House of God as a divine ideological scatter bomb dropped upon the errors of the age, like Dorothy’s house on the Wicked Witch of the West. Alternatively, others have visualized the Church as a human blueprint to be constructed by means of human effort to “bring in the Kingdom.” Neither of these extremes does full justice to what John Paul II rightly called in his 1998 encyclical of the same name the ”splendor of truth.” That Truth is at its base a Person. Please look upon this volume as a prayerful invitation to join me as fellow guest at a House party hosted by the One who built and owns and still inhabits this House. He is no absentee Landlord. We are not alone. This One will guide us personally through each room.