In the last post, I gave a book review of Donald Connolly’s In a Holy Year, Renewing Your Faith: An Anthology of Spiritual Readings. I promised I’d give some life reflections on this, and this is the fulfilment of that promise. This book is more than just a book: the anthology compiler was my first parish priest as a Roman Catholic, and had an immense influence on my life going forward from my last year in prep school when I swam the Tiber.
Let’s start with the question I left hanging the last time: why did it take nearly forty years for me to read the book? By the time I first sat down with Fr. Connolly and discussed the possibility of me becoming Roman Catholic, I had already read Augustine’s City of God, which is ahead of where most prospective converts are. I had heard of The Imitation of Christ, so I read his other anthology A Voice for the Heart: The Imitation of Christ and An introduction to the Devout Life for all Christians. But a great deal of devotional literature in general and Catholic literature in particular struck me as what I mother would call “pap.” I guess I was afraid that I would encounter this here, and I was delving into the source material already. (I started with Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Truth my freshman year in college, went on to the Summa the following.) Had I overcome my prejudices, Connolly’s book would have been nice prep for what I was delving into.
That, in turn, leads to the next question: why did I become Roman Catholic in the first place? Put in a Thomistic context, the answer is simple. What I really wanted was a comprehensive worldview which made the objective existence of God credible, and only Thomistic Catholicism provided that. My years as an Episcopalian demonstrated that “man does not live by Anglican Fudge alone.” Evangelicals were and are focused on the individual and his or her salvation, but if there’s one thing that was drilled into me from the start, it’s that it’s not all about you. Moreover both of the latter emphasise the subjective at the expense of the objective, which wasn’t what I was looking for.
I became Catholic in what were, for me, ideal circumstances: a parish backed (literally) by a major seminary, with a seminary academic as a pastor. Once I got through college–where the more subjective issues were dealt with–parish life was a dead end, Aquinas (or just about any other substantive Catholic thinker) were hard to find, and some kind of exit was inevitable.
Today I’m in the “mother church” of my Pentecostal denomination, and right across the street once again is the major seminary. But it’s different now. To start with, Pentecostals look at the reality of God differently. Their idea is simple: the God who did the great things in the Bible is the same God and does the same great things now. This is an improvement over the liberal (God never did any of this stuff) or the cessationist (God did it in the past, but he’s not doing it today.) But it still is more of an individually focused approach as opposed to a universally focused one.
Even with that, for all of the great things there are two factors that have blocked any kind of replication of my first experience as a Roman Catholic.
The first is that Pentecostal academics spend too much time trying to recreate on an academic level the experience they had on a decidedly non-academic one. Like the liberals, three sheets to the wind, who regaled Elaine Pagels with old Gospel songs, they try to recreate the experience in an alien environment. They also frequently conflate the spiritual experience with the cultural one. In the context of the Church of God this means Scots-Irish cultural hegemony, and right at the moment that’s the last thing we need.
The second is that (with exceptions) our ministers and academics alike have a “trade union” mentality, that thinking and speaking/preaching of the deeper things of God is “bargaining unit” work and that the laity (“scabs” in union terminology) don’t have any business delving into this kind of thing on any level. Sometimes it’s framed as a replication of Roman Catholicism’s view of the priesthood, but that’s too high of a view of what’s going on.
The lesson from all this is simple: when you start out in life, pack well for the journey, you never know when you’re going to end up in the wilderness. God provisioned me better than I knew, and for that I am thankful.
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