Sunday, February 28, 2016

Another Beautiful Conversion Story

"I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly."

                                                                                    Gospel of John 10:10

As I've grown deeper in the faith, I've marveled at how the Catholic faith completes the whole person: it quenches all of our deepest longings and provides a purpose for every moment and season of our lives.  That is the genius of the faith, and the surest proof that it has a divine origin.  This is sometimes obscure to those born into the faith, but it is easily noticed by converts from other faith traditions (with the exception of the Orthodox, who enjoy the same grace) .  The late Fr. Hugh Thwaites SJ noticed this when he was a prisoner of war in East Asia, and Philip Trower delightfully explores these divine "hints" in his conversion from a lapsed Anglican.

I warmly recommend Philip Trower's corpus of writings, but especially his charming conversion story.  It starts off a bit slow with a fussy introduction, but then he begins to drop juicy bits of insight as we step into his life in 1930s England.  He was blessed with a Catholic nanny and "Auntie" who both possessed "a holy light-heartedness".  He had a child's wisdom and recognized what most adults miss: that there is something different about devout Catholics, they "have something which gives them brighter more shining eyes than other people."  I noticed this myself when I first began to join the 40 Days for Life vigils outside of Planned Parenthood.  It's an often thankless ministry, a time of the cross, yet many of the regulars had a supernatural light in their eyes.  This should not be surprising, for as young Philip learned, "self-giving love is the very heart of Christianity." Just as the heart brims with love, so does it spill out into the eyes.

Philip was also impressed that Catholics embrace the cross as well as great feasts.  There is no contradiction there, but only completeness.  Thus, "after mass the people were allowed to enjoy themselves...they could eat, drink, dance or play games together before going home."  There is something natural and effortless about this, it suits our very being.

The same can be said of expressing the faith through communal processions, material symbols and images or even dropping by a church any day of the week.  As a young man, Philip was impressed at seeing a lonely chapel on a hike on the Matterhorn.

One of the chapels at the base of the Matterhorn

It seemed such a natural thing to worship God on such a rugged site, and so fitting to enter and rest from his journey. Inside he saw two peasant women peacefully praying the rosary, just as their ancestors had done centuries before.

The Catholic faith seemed to have a fitting response for every situation--even amidst the madness of the Second World War.  Philip witnessed the Catholic soldiers kneeling for confession right before entering battle.  Why didn't the Protestant chaplains exercise such a ministry?  Protestants seemed to have a knack for the care of the body, but the Catholics knew how to care for the soul.  This was confirmed in a hospital ward after an officer died in the night.  The Italian cleaning ladies noticed his death and put off their duties.  With a "childlike naturalness and spontaneity", they knelt and prayed for his soul.  By contrast, the British staff draped a flag over the deceased and efficiently disposed of his body.

Philip was also taken by the different churches he found in Italy.  Many of them were simultaneously "pretty and homely". They captured a feeling that Jesus must have known in the "home of Martha and Mary at Bethany".  Then there was also the grand spectacle of cathedrals, a fitting worship for Christ as the King of Kings.  But Philip realized the cathedrals also served another purpose: the "great works of art, architecture, painting and sculpture are available to all, the poorest of the poor included.  There was a populist dimension to Catholicism..."

The most profound truth in the story comes from the lips of an Oxford don with deep Catholic sympathies.  It was a prophetic statement, and true for each of us in our own way:

"You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle."

All of us are still trying to embrace that love, so enormous and so pure.

I've already revealed too much of the story, and so I encourage you to read the rest over there.  The author is an endearing man, and has a sparkling mind even into his 90s.  I especially liked the remark that he wanted to be a famous novelist but God spared him from that since he was "too naturally weak and vain to have survived such a test."  Amen! Me too!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Something Worth Watching

It's not often that I'm really "wowed" by something on the Catholic internet, and when it happens I'm compelled to share. Here is Jay Sardino's absorbing conversion story from a recent episode of The Journey Home.

In some ways it's a familiar tale, and it's even my own story: a young man is raised in a lukewarm Catholic milieu, and is never offered the clear truth and beauty of Christ and his Church.  He embraces the club scene with its exhilarating music, easy women, booze/drugs, while he fashions his career and fitness into an idol.  Then the Lord takes it all away and he faces the ugly emptiness of his own life.

Yet Jay's witness is more compelling than usual.  Why is that?  For one thing, Jay speaks with conviction.  Like St. Paul, this is a serious man, yet he's also a man of depth and warmth.  For another, he exposes the "naked emperor" of contemporary christianity: suffering is not our real enemy, but is often an opportunity of grace.  In fact, it is sin that is our real foe.  Mother Theresa and all of the saints testify that "pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus--a sign that you have come so close to him that he can kiss you."  It is in welcoming this kiss that we become "another Christ, a little Christ".

Jay is also a witness to the truth that we are called to offer ourselves for sinners, just as Christ did.  Jay recognizes that sacrifice is the very heart, the real purpose of the Christian life.  He is captivated by the Divine Mercy and the story of St. Faustina Kowalska.  He hears the call of the Crucified One to Sr. Faustina: "immerse yourself with all the sinners you can, and bring them to me".  This is the perennial call of Jesus, and it is also the call of this street apostolate.  While we walk the streets to be of service to everyone, we especially wait for the sinner who straddles the edge between the abyss and conversion.  We especially need men like Jay, men who have straddled that edge, to go out and be a beacon for lost sinners.  May the Lord do great things through Jay!