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There's no place like home.

There's no place like home

"The Church is the natural home of the Human Spirit."
- G. K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion

After being a member of the Catholic Church for over twelve years, I am very much at home and I feel like such a privileged child. It's hard to imagine that there was a time when I was an exile and a wanderer, and difficult to remember a time when I did not recognize home. But indeed there was a time -- and I took the long way home.

I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene; my father was (and still is) a Minister and Pastor there. I would like to point out what I consider to be deficiencies in Protestantism, but first I want to make it clear that I consider that, according to its lights, I had a good religious upbringing. I have many fond memories of the particular churches I attended as both a child and a young woman; I was surrounded by people whose sincerity and love of Christ I've never had reason to doubt.

It was an upbringing of Sunday school, Sunday worship, youth group, Sunday evening worship, Wednesday evening prayer, Saturday junior choir, two weeks of revival services in the spring and fall, two weeks of Vacation Bible School in the summer: our lives revolved around the Church. We were, as we saw it, the saving remnant -- we were "true," committed Christians, not "cultural" Christians or people who just mechanically went through rituals. We had to keep ourselves separate from others, removed from sinful activity and associations. Supposedly we were "in but not of the world", but especially in those days, Nazarenes concentrated so heavily on the "not of" part that we weren't "in" much either.

I always loved the singing and bible lessons, and had many good friends. Throughout all of my youth I was a compliant, sincere, devoted and involved Christian on the fervent, enthusiastic side.

For a period of time in my childhood my dad and I enjoyed weekly Saturday evening walks. I would ask him questions, often about religion, and he would answer. I always felt free to question all aspects of the Faith. (Poor dad -- he may now feel like he created a Frankenstein!) I remember one time I was 8 or 9 years old and had noticed the picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane in the front of my Bible. How does he do that, I asked my dad. Jesus is God, but Jesus is praying to God -- how does he do that? Dad answered as well as he could, but the mystery of the Trinity is not, finally, something that one could properly explain and it was many years before I realized that something being a mystery does not mean that it is irrational. Ultimately, life is a mystery.

So indeed, I was a questioner. I recall one time, while still a young girl, reading an article in Life magazine on historical scholarship - it was one of those "search for the historical Jesus" things and, of course, it concluded that there was no historical Jesus. I was 8 or 9 at the time and while it disturbed me, I brushed it aside. I mainly stayed in our cocoon of piety.

Various things began to come apart in adolescence -- not an uncommon experience, I've come to realize. There was unrest in our household which I believe contributed to my upheaval and to a conviction that I was going to have to do something different from what was done in our home. I was exposed and persuaded by a kind of super-humanism: I now realize it was a version of Nietzsche which said that Christianity demeaned mankind and creation. I believe that the particular brand of Christianity on which I'd been raised -- hyperspiritualized, non-sacramental, suspicious alike of nature and intellect -- made me a sitting duck for this argument.

The skeptical side would stay buried no longer. What if it's not true -- it being Christianity? I should emphasize the sincerity of this question, how I laid in bed at night and cried from fear and confusion. I just want to do the right thing, I thought.

Oddly enough, the revivalism on which I'd been raised played a key role. I'd been taught that you're either in or out -- we prided ourselves on not being moderate or "lukewarm", which according to Revelations, Christ would spew us out of his mouth. So, when I concluded that I wasn't really "in" any more, I took no time for discernment -- I left. (I must also own: my temperament runs to the impetuous all on its own without any help from revivalism -- but revivalism did tend to encourage this sort of instantaneous all-or-nothing aspect.)

I became an atheist. Despite the calamity atheism may seem to some (and I do NOT recommend it), I have never, to this day, gotten over the profound relief of not being a fundamentalist or evangelical (Nazarenes aren't, strictly speaking, fundamentalists.) While I'd been a well-enough adjusted child, nevertheless, I felt as if I'd been released from a straitjacket.

In my case, atheism became my new religion. Whereas I'd been a kind of religious fundamentalist I now became a secular humanist fundamentalist -- I had much of the same absolutist mindset. Ironically, I was still very much psychologically and temperamentally the person I'd been raised to be -- inclined to be sure there was a one right way and determined to embrace this, just that now I was sure that right was 100% the opposite of what I'd been told.

I only remained a committed atheist for a couple of years during which time I really had to work at it. Eventually, my absolutism began to cool down and I began to see that there were, in fact, all kinds of different views and combinations. I wandered through the campus bazaar: pop Bhuddism, pop Existentialism, a kind of combination of humanistic psychology and occult (which eventually coalesced into New Age, but it wasn't called that yet.) I'd been a committed Christian who had to beware of "compromising with the world" on every hand and a committed atheist out to rid the world of irrational "mysticism" or "religion." Now it was time to relax; not be so everlastingly ideological and enthusiastic about every new cause I took up. (I once "converted" to a cosmetics company!)

As I left behind the militant atheism, a kind of vague spirituality resurfaced in me: I enjoyed Alan Watts, for example. However, I thought there could be no such thing as Truth, capital T. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by The Seven Storey Mountain -- Merton was one of the only Christian authors in this Eastern and Eastern-derivative environment that one could run into and I read and re-read it all through my twenties. Merton's summary of one of the Thomistic arguments for God -- very briefly: there must be a Being whose nature it is to be -- made me decide I believed in God.

However, this did not quite get me to Christianity. This was only a God of the philosophers and even then, problems with "how can a good God allow such evil as we see in the world?" continued to interrupt and disturb my nascent theism.

Nevertheless, Merton and a couple of other writers I ran into quite by happenstance had somehow implanted in me a deep respect for Catholicism and an impression of a deep, serious tradition that was simultaneously contemplative and mystical (Merton, John of the Cross) and comfortable with distinguished intellectual pursuit (Aquinas). I didn't actually read St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila at this time, but I could dimly discern a religion that went beyond enthusiasm, beyond slogans, even way beyond tracts that had room for contemplation which is the only thing one can do when faced with the mystery that is reality which words will not compass or, only one Word can compass.

As you can see, I had a problem. My original argument with Christianity, so I said, was that it demeaned reason (among other things). However, the various Eastern religions and "spirituality" that were so popular were, if anything, more hostile to reason. Much as I enjoyed Merton, I was not nearly so comfortable as he was with the East.

Despite all this, I still didn't think of the Catholic Church as a plausible option for me -- there were so many things I didn't know and about which I had only vague prejudices (e.g., contraception), and besides, what about dying corn gods? Christianity is really just another myth, a successful, ongoing one -- all educated and sophisticated people know this, right?!? I might believe in God (well, sort of), but I couldn't possibly find my romantic notions of Contemplation (and they were just notions at that point) at some funky local parish with a bad organist and a boring priest!

So, you can see how little I knew and how lacking in seriousness I was. Along I went through most of my twenties as this unstable, mismatched combination of skepticism and spirituality. I was a person who craved some kind of devotion, some kind of worship. I know this is to some extent true of all mankind, but certain types I think are more likely to require explicit expression. I have friends, especially engineering and computer types, who seem pretty content that what they can see, measure and control is what really is and all that really is.

Some friends and I used to go up to their cabin near Estes Park, CO. As it happens, their cabin is less than a mile from a very beautiful little stone church named after St. Malo. (I never have known who this saint is!) Atheist/agnostic/free liver as I was, I'd make it a point to get up in the morning and walk down to this little chapel and just sit. I loved that little chapel; I take a little pleasure in the coincidence that St. Malo and the surrounding park is where John Paul II hiked in the mountains when he came to Denver for World Youth Day some 12 - 15 years later.

Oddly enough, a graduate program in psychology with a behaviorist bent was an important bridge for me to Catholicism. I was in the stacks one day, looking for one journal when another one fell open to a page which said "truth is what has been reinforced" and I thought, I don't believe that (I swear, this happened just like this). My dissatisfaction with relativism and the way the late sixties/seventies were turning out began to crystallize. I didn't quite know what I believed, but I did believe that there was some kind of truth that was/is -- if I could just find it. Furthermore, I was beginning to get highly suspicious of some of the supposedly sophisticated ideas and the people who held them and what was happening in the lives of people who practiced them.

About this time, Chesterton and C. S. Lewis entered my life -- amazingly enough I'd never read either of them in my youth, to my detriment. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, while in some respects dated, showed me that the "dying Corn gods" arguments are not necessarily conclusive and how one might construct an answer.

Here's the odd boomerang bounce behaviorism took in my case -- it taught me a critique of the spiritual/heart only view of religion. Behaviorism taught me the importance of physical cues in motivating and informing people that the environment plays an important role in shaping what we believe to be solely inner. Now, I know there are other problems with behaviorism and I know that B. F. Skinner is an awfully odd choice to play the role of John the Baptist -- but that's exactly the role he played for me! When it came time (eventually) to look at statues and all the physical, incarnational aspects of Catholic practice, I had an appreciation of external influence and the wisdom of the Church in incorporating, not excluding, this aspect of our humanity that I might not have had from my Wesleyan, pietistic upbringing.

In addition, the mishmash of therapy and spirituality Jung, Watts, et. al. was really wearing thin. Around this time I read a little book on Kierkegaard's philosophy by J. D. Mullen, in which he said: "You need not be a 'neurotic' person to have needs which have depth and complexity, you need only be a real person" (Kierkegaard's Philosophy, J. D. Mullen, New American Library, 1981). Mullen's book culminates in an argument for Christianity and doctrine -- not just spirituality. I was fascinated and I wanted to respond to the invitation to be a "real" person, to live seriously.

Not long after, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor entered my life. I was fascinated with these committed Catholics who believed the plain creeds of Christianity, and who engaged the world on its own terms rather than just hiding out in pietistic circles.

The original impression I'd had from Merton began to become clearer and firmer. Percy confirmed my dissatisfaction with the combination of enlightenment shards, neo-paganism and therapy that passes for wisdom in the popular culture these days; his own belief was clearly not simplistic, nor pietistic.

O'Connor wrote an elegant and eloquent argument for the Communion of Saints in her article "A Memoir of Mary Ann" (published in Mystery and Manners, ed., Sally & Robert Fitzgerald). After I read that article, all images of prayer cards and idolatry (the typical Protestant criticisms) were exposed for the shallow caricatures they are. This is about the mystery of connection of mystical unity in Christ -- that God works across time and individuals.

This is only one example of doctrine after doctrine that is usually treated quite reductively, even cartoonishly, by Protestant critics when the reality is one of incomparable spiritual depth. The Church is truly a storehouse of incomparable riches. The emotionalism and revivalism of American Bible Christianity, while sincere, is only a shadow of the deep worship centering on the Eucharistic presence in the Mass and its flowering in contemplative prayer.

I badly wanted to be a part of this thing I was starting to perceive, however the Christianity on which I'd been raised had left an impression and as a result I had numerous prejudices to overcome regarding the Church. Scripture, of course, was one major issue. Once I realized that scripture is most definitely not self-interpreting, else there wouldn't be Calvinists, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc., the doctrine of Sola Scriptura lost its credibility and I realized the importance of a teaching authority.

I began to read a little of the Fathers of the Church and of Church history -- enough to grasp that the early Church was incipient Catholic, not Protestant and certainly not fundamentalist. As I read history I got to realize what an accomplishment the doctrine of the Trinity had been and how much discernment and reflection was required to write it. For, despite the undoubted Scriptural witness, the doctrine itself does not sit on the surface of the page.

I also began to realize how doctrines regarding Our Lady have an early provenance and a Christocentric function. Once again, they are the fruit of the reflection on Scripture and Tradition -- the Church does not pick out "proof texts" that state doctrine in propositional form. It reflects, contemplates the meaning of the Annunciation, the meaning of "full of grace" -- the meaning of a Virgin who bore the Incarnate Word, the second Person of the Trinity.

Protestants, especially fundamentalists, evangelicals and other "bible Christians" cut God, Scripture and supernatural reality down to their size with their insistence that one must be able to point to a literal textual formulation to justify a doctrine.

Like Mary, the Church accepts and guards the supernatural mystery God has revealed; the Church keeps these things in her heart and ponders them, drawing greater insight and wisdom as the ages progress.

From there on out it was mainly a matter of getting "acclimated." You may well imagine that someone who was consoled just by sitting in a chapel is delighted to belong there and to find that God is there to communicate with her. Every day of the world I can contemplate and communicate with the great Source of our being. That is everything that matters. And, that's my home.

Judith is one of our volunteer correspondents, who helps us answer visitor's e-mail questions. Kindly thank Judith Sears for sharing this story with us on our pages!

Our thanks to Dean Kelly for his time and professional editing of this true story. :-)


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