Why I am becoming Catholic

This August, I will be entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is the culmination of many years of God working on my heart and at least two years of intense prayer and discernment.

I confess that this is how it feels for me right now: Beautiful but scary, a giant leap into the unknown, and in many ways very sad. I have spent my entire adult life in The Episcopal Church. It is in The Episcopal Church that I first came to believe in Jesus. The Episcopal Church is where I married my bride and baptized my children. I learned much of what I know about the Catholic faith from wonderful Anglo-Catholic friends and mentors, not to mention from the lives of great Anglican saints. Heck, I spent five years blogging about how totally awesome Anglicanism is. It is not easy for me to leave all that behind, especially when I know that there will be many people who will be disappointed by what I am doing.

About a year ago, I spoke with a friend and fellow Episcopal priest about the fact that I was considering becoming Catholic. In response, he asked me, “What’s the fatal flaw in Anglicanism then?” I was surprised by the question because that is not what this is about for me. I am not becoming Catholic because I want to reject Anglicanism. This is not about escaping the turbulence of life in the modern Episcopal Church or about some piece of doctrine or practice that got stuck in my craw. For me, this is about only one thing: Following the Lord Jesus Christ to where it is He is leading me.

When I first heard God calling me to the Catholic Church, it was during a period of fervent prayer. I was aware that there was something spiritually lacking in my life, but I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, God revealed to my heart that I needed to be Catholic. And I objected rather strenuously, “But I’m already Catholic!” The Lord did not argue with me. He did not lay out a five or ten point plan to try to convince me of the error of my ways. He just quietly, insistently, repeated Himself. The more I struggled against this calling, the more calmly and consistently the Lord repeated it.

In the months that followed, I began to explore the Catholic Church in new ways. I already knew the work of many Catholic theologians, of course, but now I broadened my search to try to understand what it means not just to think Catholic thoughts but to live a Catholic life. Many of you are aware that I was baptized Catholic and spent a good portion of my childhood in the Catholic Church, but it was under a somewhat strange set of circumstances, in a place that did not stress Catholic identity, and so I never really understood what being Catholic really meant. It was only after I became an Episcopalian that I discovered things like sacramental theology, liturgy, Catholic spirituality, and the lives of the saints. I figured that these things were the common heritage of all Christians (as indeed they are, at least in a sense). But now, as I looked at the Church again as if for the first time, I realized what I had missed before. My wife and I watched Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which shows in a lovely way not only the depth and history of Catholicism, but also the rich cultural landscape of how the faith is practiced all over the world. The breadth of the Catholic Church–from Africa to Calcutta, from medieval European cathedrals to the beautiful stone chapels of the new world, from the priest at the altar to the beggar at the mission door–is simply breathtaking. One night, after watching one of those videos, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life in a pond and only just now realized that there is an ocean.”

It is hard to explain, but there is a difference between reading St. Thomas Aquinas and being in communion with St. Thomas Aquinas. There is a difference between knowing that a common Baptism unites us as brothers and sisters in Christ and actually seeing the footprint of that in history. There is a difference between loving the tradition of the Church, even trying very hard to apply that tradition to new circumstances, and recognizing my place as just one sailor on a sea of tradition that I cannot control but that will always carry me home.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Naturally, there were doctrinal and practical issues that I needed to work out before I could enter into the Church, though not as many of the former as I might have suspected. Perhaps some time in the future I will talk more about these. Or perhaps not. For the moment, all I can do is approach the cross with wonder and wait upon the word of the Lord.

One thing that struck me pretty heavily in the last two years of discernment is how much more ecumenical my thinking has become. As I have come to accept God’s calling for me to come into the full communion of the Catholic Church, I have become far less defensive of my own theological turf. As an Anglican, I have always felt that I needed to justify Anglicanism’s continued existence, which sometimes led me to feel the need to bash others. But as I prepare to become a Catholic, I don’t feel that same need. The Catholic Church does just fine without me. She doesn’t need me to make the case for why she should exist. I can relax and embrace the fact that Baptists and Methodists and others are my brothers and sisters through Baptism and the cross. It is not my job to figure out the mechanics of unity amongst all Christians. It is, rather, my job to be faithful to the teaching of the Church and to love my neighbor as myself.

There are many challenges that face my family in the months to come. It will be difficult and heartbreaking to lay down my priesthood and to leave behind my beloved parish where I have spent almost a decade as Rector. But it is not really my priesthood. It never really was. All priesthood belongs ultimately to the one true priest, Jesus Christ Himself, who this day is inviting me and my family into the richness of His sacrifice and the depths of His heart. May each and every one of us come to know His saving embrace.

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Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.

The Non-Competitive Mary

holy queen

I have been making my way slowly through Bishop Robert Barron’s Exploring Catholic Theology this summer. As is often the case with collections of essays, it can be a bit repetitive, but Barron nonetheless shows why he is one of the leading public theologians of our time. One of his fundamental insights is what he calls “the noncompetitive transcendence of God.” Grounding his argument in both Scripture and Tradition, particularly by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Barron says that God is not the supreme being in the way we sometimes think of Him, as if He were the largest and grandest of things that exist, but rather He is existence itself. In Barron’s words, God “coinheres” with His creation, meaning that He exists both outside of it and alongside it but without ever being in competition with it. God plus the world is not more than God Himself. If God and humanity had to fight for the same space, than God would not be God at all.

It is a remarkably simple point that Barron makes and yet it carries with it many profound implications. One of them, which Barron does not address, has to do with how we see the saints and particularly how we see the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Barron contends that the non-competitiveness of God means that God can direct and guide our lives without depriving us of our free will. The fact that we choose what we do with our lives does not negate God’s involvement, nor does God’s choice to point us in one direction or another make us somehow His puppets. In a world in which God coinheres with creation, the world can do the work of God without somehow taking over His unique place in order to do it. God makes the world holy by way of acting within and through the actions of free persons. If I act for the good of my neighbor, it is neither me working from my own goodness apart from God nor God working through me apart from the taint of my depravity. Rather, it is God at work within me and me at work by my own volition because of my sanctification. Neither cancels or negates the other.

Many Protestants fear that venerating the saints and asking for their prayers is tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion warn against the perceived danger of the “invocation of saints,” though without defining exactly what is meant by these words. The Scottish priest William Forbes (1558-1634) argued that Anglicans could call upon the saints without running afoul of the Articles by simply making it clear, in their minds if nowhere else, that they are asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them. Forbes styled this advocation as opposed to invocation.

However, if Barron and Aquinas are correct, than the real issue is not one of keeping a proper distinction between the Creator and the created but rather of understanding the kind of relationship that God has with His creation. The holiness that is found in the saints deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is the same holiness that is in God. The saints have been made one with God through Christ, filled with His grace and life, fully immersed in His radiant glory. To venerate a saint is to worship God even as it is also to admire one of God’s creatures. The saint does not stop being a free person when he or she becomes holy. You cannot venerate a saint without worshipping the God whose energies shine through that saint’s life, but neither can you do so without acknowledging the active, free human being in whom God’s holiness has taken root. Where holiness abounds, neither God nor His creatures are threatened by the presence of each other. That is the mystery of salvation.

Perhaps the greatest source of Protestant unease about the veneration of saints is the way that Catholic Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic—give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even amongst the saints, she holds a special place. Her intercession is sought more than any other. She is called the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. “O higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” we sing about her in that immortal hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. We try to play this down in apologetics sometimes out of fear of spooking those whose antennae are sensitive to mariology, but let’s face it, Mary is revered by Catholics. We love and adore her. Let me just put my cards on the table. I love and adore her. I have no trouble offering her the following prayer:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.

How is that not idolatry? How is it not blasphemy? How is it not elevating a creature to the throne that is rightfully reserved only for the Creator?

Truly, it is none of those things, because Mary is not in competition with God. They are not two items in the world duking it out for a finite amount of space in my heart. The difference between God and Mary is that Mary is finite while God is infinite. Mary reflects the eternal being while God is being itself. God and Mary can take up the same space without having to knock each other out of the way. In fact, one of the beautiful and glorious things about the Christian God is that He chooses to make His glory known in and through the lives of people.

While this may seem to be a bit of sideways thinking to Protestants, it is assuredly in line with how the God of the Bible operates. His mouthpieces are many, sometimes willing and sometimes not. Cyrus the Persian acts unwittingly for God. Some of the prophets, most notably Jonah, do everything in their power to run in the opposite direction when God comes calling. Nonetheless, God’s glory still shines through them. But it shines all the more when it is met with cooperation. Moses glowed after coming into contact with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35). King David was so deeply changed by his encounter with the living God that he wrote the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known in the psalter. John the Baptist pointed the way even from the womb when he leapt at being in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41). None of this was forced or coerced. God did not force David’s personality out of the way in the writing of the psalms or use him simply as a tool, even though it is surely God’ voice that we hear in them as much as David’s. We can appreciate and even venerate David when we encounter the beauty and majesty of the Psalms without for a second denying that they are thoroughly a gift from God.

So it is also with Mary whom all generations are to call blessed (Luke 1:48). She is more glorious than any other saint because through her womb the world was sanctified. Her very flesh was deemed holy enough for God to dwell therein. She was not simply a husk used by God to complete His purposes. She offered herself in service to God, becoming in the process the mother of all creation. She is not in competition with God or with any other saints. To love her more is not to love God less, any more than to have a new child is to love the old one less. And so we honor her, not simply as an instrument to be used and then discarded, but as a free person who offered her very life for the sake of millions of people like you and me whom she did not know. In honoring her, we ultimately honor Him, even when that is not explicit, because the faithfulness of Mary was such that her actions and His were intrinsically intertwined.

The life of a true saint is such that we may finally only speak of the saint’s actions and desires in contradistinction to Christ’s actions and desires in a theoretical way, similar to the way we speak of the continuing distinction between humanity and divinity within Christ Himself. To be a saint is no longer to be in competition with God because you have given yourself to Him freely. To be able to love Mary and Christ and your neighbor as yourself, all at the same time, is the mark of mature discipleship.

On the holiness of old ladies

779px-Giuseppe_Nogari_(attr)_Bildnis_einer_alten_FrauWhen I was a kid, my father would occasionally hint at what the Catholic Church of his youth was like. It was very different from the Catholic Church that I experienced. I grew up in a parish that met in an interfaith center. There were no pews, no stained glass, no incense, no statues. I understood very little about what it meant to be Catholic when I left the Church at age fourteen. I had never really grappled with Catholic identity. I did not know what it meant to have God as my Father or the Church as my Mother. The people around me showed up to Mass in soccer cleats and grass stains. I had no clue, really, that there was any difference between what we did during Mass and what the Methodists were doing up the hall or the Unitarians in the room right next door.

My father told me that when he was a kid, the Mass was in Latin. He said that there were always old ladies in the back of the church who could not hear the priest talking and would not have understood him anyway. They did not try to understand. Instead, they just took in the mystery and beauty of the Mass. They had rosaries in their hands and they spent the whole Mass “working their beads,” saying the prayers they knew by heart and trusting that God would do the rest. Growing up with the Mass in English, in an environment in which beauty and mystery were in short supply, I had trouble imagining this.

In my twenties, I became an Episcopalian, almost by accident. I practically fell over the parish church where I began attending regularly. It was an Anglo-Catholic parish with a liturgy that was much different than the one I had known as a child. I felt drawn to it though I did not know why. Eventually, I went to seminary. There, I discovered more Anglo-Catholic worship and drank deeply from that tradition. I began to see the beautiful mystery that lay at the heart of the Catholic faith. I fell in love with crucifixes and icons. I made my confession and learned to pray the rosary. Though I had been baptized a Catholic, it was as an Episcopalian that I actually learned what a Catholic is. It was as an Anglican that I became a Catholic.

I have been a priest in the Episcopal Church since 2006. As my church continues to push itself farther and farther away from the Catholic faith, I have repeatedly found myself searching for the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Since 2011, I have operated a blog called “The Conciliar Anglican,” the purpose of which has been to give me a place to explore what Anglicanism is and what my place is within it. Many people have benefited from that site. I treasure the interactions I have had there and the way in which it pushed me to learn about some of the great riches of the Anglican tradition. But these days, what I find that I am most passionate to know is the heart of Jesus. The French writer Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” As a priest, a husband, a father, and as a man, I must take responsibility not only for my own holiness but also for the growth in holiness of the people God has given into my care. The Catholic faith is where that holiness is to be found. The denominational labels and the historical structures are all secondary to that.

These days, I want to be like those old ladies my father talked about. I have a great devotion to the rosary and to Our Lady, but really what makes me want to identify with those old women is their humility in the face of the great and beautiful mystery of God. It is easy to get caught up in formulas and mental gymnastics when trying to understand what it means to be a Christian. Those old ladies were not worried about all of that. They quietly went about their intercessions. They did not know what the priest was saying, nor did they likely understand all the nuances of what he was doing, but what they got at a deeply visceral level was that on the altar their savior was present. In the midst of the beauty of the Mass, God comes and gives Himself to us. That is all they needed to know.

In this new space, I want to explore the beauty and mystery of the Catholic faith. I will likely meditate on the priesthood and the great privilege I have to celebrate the Sacraments. I will also likely speak about what it means to be the parent of two young boys on the autism spectrum and how that particular cross is making me holy, often against my will. Whereas the Conciliar Anglican was academic and focused on apologetics, this will be personal and focused on the journey of faith. If that is not your cup of tea, I understand. But if this is something that you think may be a blessing to you, as I know it will be to me, then pull up a seat beside me and grab your rosary. We can “work the beads” together as we witness the Sacrifice of the Cross becoming present again and again before our very eyes.