To enter a sacramental universe is to know all of creation and all of life lived in relationship as the Body of God.
As an outpost dweller when it comes to religion (in my case Christian/Catholic) I know how susceptible I am to converting. Outpost dwellers are naturally curious about “the other” and for that reason often see the lure of another tradition or cause, religious or otherwise.
At least that’s the way it is for me. I watch one movie and I’m ready to march, I hear a public lecture and want to know where I sign up. Even being pulled off focus by a pesky Facebook video can leave me teary-eyed and wondering if I’ve missed my life’s purpose. I want to become that, I want to be that.
I think that’s typical of outpost dwellers. I think that’s why we waffle in our own religious tradition or belief system. There are those at the centre of our respective traditions who see our endless longing as a weakness of conviction. Maybe, but what can be done.
I prefer to think of our outward-looking stance as a unique capacity to recognize the innate beauty of human/divine breakthrough in “the other”, even when it contains elements that contradict our own adherence.
I share the story of my “conversion” to the Catholic faith not for the purpose of enticing others down the same path (I’m too much of an outpost dweller to have that sort of agenda). Rather I share it to illustrate my conversion to a tradition that is completely outside my own homegrown, bred-in-the-bone, the-air-I-breathe Protestant/evangelical moorings.
And to reflect on what it means for outpost dwellers like myself to straddle two, or more, religious traditions.(My kids joke with me: “What’s next Mom? Hinduism? Islam? Buddhism? Indigenous spirituality? Ha, I laugh out loud. Then under my breath….”Maybe.”)
You might think the starting point in any conversion experience is euphoric conviction, rose-coloured glasses and all that. That wasn’t the case for me.
Crippling doubt was my starting point.
For every reason I could find to become Catholic (acutally I could only find one but I’ll get to that later) there were one hundred valid and important reasons why not to convert. Most of them you could probably come up with yourself:
#1 Why voluntarily place myself under the weight of a religious institution from whose gender-exclusive hierarchies the enlightened conscience of the 21st century has finally emerged?
#2 What possible logic could there be in me, a theologically trained and gainfully employed Baptist minister, rendering myself vocationally obsolete by turning my life over to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church?
#3 How could I so blatantly betray the historical sacrifices and cultural distinctiveness of my Protestant heritage? What will my parents say? And what about my Protestantly-dedicated children?
#4 Why go through all the hassle of changing religious traditions when, at the end of the day, prayer is prayer (Do you really think God favours the prayers coming from a Catholic Church over those coming from a Protestant Church)?
Of course there was no shortage of people in my wider sphere of influence who were appalled at the thought of anyone voluntarily choosing to join the Catholic church.
#5 A Mexican acquaintance likened the methods of the Catholic Church in his country to multinational corporations which gut the continent for institutional and financial gain.
#6 A literary friend raised her eyebrow and suggested I read Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that paints a scathing portrait of the Church’s privilege, arrogance, and abuse in turn-of-the-century Ireland.
#7 My Italian brother-in-law who was raised Catholic in the heartland of Catholic culture is at war with the Church over its stand on gay marriage and viewed me as a traitor for even considering joining the ranks.
#8 My Catholic-raised Canadian sister-in-law warned me about the legacy of guilt imposed by the Church’s relentless systems of checks and balances. (“And believe me, Tama, you’ll find that you are always one down.”)
Nor was I immune to the headlines in the daily news: the devastating revelation of #9 sexual abuse by clergy, #10 cover-ups by bishops, #11 the devastating history of the Church’s involvement in running Canada’s residential schools.
And note that I haven’t even touched on theological objections all of which were well rehearsed at my Protestant boarding school (#s 12-99): Mother Mary, purgatory, indulgences, penance, beatification, the Magesterium , the Pope, the Apocrapha, transubstantiation, priests as mediators. Have I forgotten any?
But it was one of the teachers at my kid’s (Catholic) school who summed it up best. When she heard what I was thinking she looked truly perplexed:
#100 “I understand for those of us born Catholic. It’s the burden we bear. But who in their right mind would cross the line and voluntarily relinquish their freedom?”
So as you can see, I didn’t have too much encouragement in my decision.
I was swimming upstream against a forceful counterflow.
But so were the salmon in the rivers where I live on the west coast of British Columbia. Driven by an inner compass that keeps them going (apparently it has something to do with their sense of smell….?!). A migrational pull so strong that the run can be suicidal.
Nevertheless, they swim.
So what was my inner compass, my homing signal?
The invitation to step (“through the wardrobe”) into a sacramental universe.
That was “the hidden treasure” for which I sold all that I owned and bought the whole field.
There was once a child who lived in a bungalow. The rooms in her house were all on one level which made the house, above all else, accessible. Her bungalow was not the only bungalow in the neighbourhood. Indeed, the whole subdivision was made up of bungalows, all of which varied in style or layout to some extent but familiar and accessible in every other way. The bungalow was a happy and safe place for the child to grow up – busy and crowded and full of people she knew and loved.
One day while the child was outside at play in her neighbourhood she wandered off. Like the children in other allegorical stories who wandered off from the appointed areas of play, her wandering wasn’t a pre-meditated affair. It was not an act of defiance or restless exploration. It was simply that one curiosity on her path led to the next and before she knew it she was quite some distance from her point of origin.
When it came to her attention that she was in an unfamiliar part of the neighbourhood she did not feel panicked or anxious. To the contrary she felt intrigued and adventurous repeatedly negotiating with herself that she would go just one more block before turning back.
And so it was that – without a map or any directions, but on account only of her own curiosity and instincts -she came upon a house unlike any she had ever encountered before. And she was astonished by it for it was a house with multiple stories extending upwards and outwards in every direction. And what astounded her more was that this house, if one could call it that, was in the very neighbourhood in which she had grown up and yet no one had ever spoken of it to her before.
That night back in the familiarity of her own bungalow she asked about the house she had come upon. At first the adults in the house responded with surprise that she had ventured into such close proximity to the house and seemed more concerned with how she got there and why she had gone.
However the girl persisted with her quest for an explanation. Finally she was told what her heart had already guessed at. “That house”, she was told, “was the home of your ancestors”. The little girl listened. “Indeed once, long ago, there were no bungalows in this neighbourhood, only the Great House in which everyone lived.’ Her adults explained that they themselves had never been inside but her grandparents manygenerations back lived there. “It was the only home they knew”.
“Why did they leave?” inquired the little girl.
There was some hesitation and a weighing of words. “Well….all was not well. There was rumour that the Great House was in danger of collapsing. Some said it was that the beams in the building were rotting, others that the foundations had shifted. Either way, all began to live with a fear that the roof would come down on their heads.”
“So”, one adult continued, “there had been a great exodus from the Great House. Some families tried to rebuild their houses to resemble this original home. Others wanted to avoid the inherent structural dangers of the Great House and opted for the accessibility and simplicity of a bungalow. Bungalows were easy to build and almost overnight dozens sprouted up all across the neighbourhood, and over the years they had spread and grown into the great sprawling neighbourhood of bungalows seen on the landscape today.
The child was satisfied with these explanations. She trusted the wisdom of her adults. She wouldn’t want to live in a house in danger of collapse from rot.
Yet as the days went on she could not forget about the Great House. She found books in the library that spoke of it, describing the elaborate interior of rooms and the vantage points of its upper stories. She learned about concepts like upper floors and attics, of balconies and spiralling staircases. Some days she would walk to where she could see the Great House. Its gables and turrets towered high over the sprawling neighbourhood of huddled bungalows.
At the same time she had no desire to leave the bungalow. She cherished the way people crowded into it. It was small but practical and she knew each of the rooms intimately. She did not want to show disregard for those who had raised her here or to dishonour the judgement of her forbearers when they chose to leave the Great House so many generations ago.
However, the day came some years later, when to be true to her heart, she walked straight up to the door of the Great House. She reached to knock but there was no need. The wide doors swung open. So it was that she found herself standing alone on the threshold, slowly taking in her multidimensional surroundings. No one seemed to notice her or at least no one paid her any particular attention.
From the inside it seemed not a house at all but a space of endless dimensions, one blurring into the next.
There were expansive rooms interconnected in every direction each charged with the energy of music and art crossing the full spectrum of human cultural expression. Gardens with animals, and beaches with tides, and cliffs with cascading waterfalls seemed not out of place. And everywhere an intermingling of people from every walk of life: kings and peasants and fools and artisans and farmers and writers and poets and architects and palaeontologists and astronomers and theologians and saints and revolutionaries, and even a whisky priest. Instinctively the girl knew these to be from every generation – both past and present and, could it be, from generations yet to come.
The Great House was full of activity but not in the boisterous crowded way that she was accustomed to in the bungalow where everybody knew everybody’s name. The coming and going here all seemed to be from a centre which in turn gave a sense of Real Presence to the whole. It was at this centre that all names were spoken and from here that all names were known. The child stepped tentatively forward. She wondered if the Real Presence would have a memory of her name. After all, it had been five hundred years.
I am that child. I cherish my upbringing and roots in the Protestant tradition. And I suspect there are others like me who long for the Great House yet feel a deep affinity for the bungalow.
In Catholic terminology someone coming into the Catholic Church from a Protestant background isn’t “converted” to the Catholic faith. Rather they are “reconciled”. I like that. It implies that the journey is not so much about loss as it is about recovery. Not so much a separation as a reunion. And like all works of reconciliation it implies a process.
In coming posts I will share my own process in the year long period of orientation and discernment that led me into the Catholic faith. If you are interested, stay tuned.