Felix, as he will be called here, has spent a bit over a year with a small, devout Catholic religious community. His life has changed in that time.
Some years back, he fathered a child with his girlfriend. After a major accident, he was on three different prescription painkillers, a routine case of opioid use and, subsequently, abuse. His girlfriend began abusing drugs as well.
The other details of Felix’s prior life did not come up. He was early middle-aged, though probably younger than he looked. He gave the impression of being rural stock, red-state working class, though one finds such folk in every state. He also gave the immediate sense, which would be confirmed as he continued talking from time to time, of being unusually thoughtful.
After the period of drug abuse had progressed, he suddenly became aware that great harm was being done. Comprehending little more than that, he tried to straighten out his own course and his girlfriend’s. She was not interested, and he concluded that his staying with her was making things worse for her and their child.
He left, abruptly, with nothing and nowhere to go. Yet he sensed, strongly and unexpectedly, God’s presence as he stepped out into the world with no plan, just a prayer for God to show him where to go, what to do. He wandered for two years.
His own inclination and experience had made him wary of large organizations, including churches, including especially the Catholic Church. He had dabbled in New Age communities, found them unsatisfying.
He heard, eventually, that an old friend was dying. He travelled a long distance to visit her and stayed on to care for her. As her disease worsened, more of her family returned to help, and he realized that there was no longer a need nor a place for him there, so it was time to move on.
Wondering aloud where he would go next, one of the family told him of the Catholic community not too far away. He had never had any interest in such a community. He went, and stayed awhile.
He earned his keep with small jobs. He asked questions about the faith of the community, and the answers made sense. He watched the prayer, and he saw that it was genuine, that it brought results. True and efficacious faith. His skepticism of large organizations remained, but his confidence in this small community deepened. He had been occasionally interested in religion, had never put much stock in the “spiritual but not religious” mantra, but likewise he had never seen religion like this.
He asked questions about the faith, and received reliable answers. To converse with him about Catholic questions was to speak with someone who had received superb, orthodox formation and had worked hard to understand it, with success.
Felix’s experience may not have been in elite universities, but he was very bright, questioning with healthy skepticism but not nihilistic cynicism, willing to accept the reasonable when reasonably demonstrated, but no easy mark for enthusiastic chatter or smooth pseudo-intellectual pabulum. He was straight out of Robert Hugh Benson’s Religion of the Plain Man. He wanted the truth, and, strangely, he had found it. And he knew it.
He awaits his entrance into the Church, still a ways off.
What about his girlfriend and child? “I think about them, spoke with them yesterday. Financially, they are doing o.k. But there’s not much good change. I know that there were decisions made that I can’t control now. That’s hard. What I can do for now is to keep focusing on God so that when my child is ready, when things are ready, I’ll be ready.” This was said not with evasion or irresponsibility, but with resignation and hope.
Would Felix join the community once he is Catholic? “I’m very grateful to them, but I don’t think my place is here forever. Where it is, God will show me.”
Felix talked politics, occasionally. He’s aware of current events, looks for ways to separate the real news from the fake, takes an interest in the world beyond his immediate situation, and shows considerable prudence in surveying the contemporary scene.
He knows as well that the Church he will enter is divided, that what now comes out of Rome is at odds in important ways with what he has learned in the last year. He knows how to sort that out, as well, and knows what will pass and what will endure.
Felix’s story may turn out happy, or it may not. It is certainly not the standard bourgeois, American-assimilated Catholic tale. Neither the intellectual path to the faith, nor anti-intellectual. More of a serious Catholic country music ballad, still incomplete. Maybe the Hillbilly Thomists will record a new bluegrass song about it, uncertainty and all.
But it is a remarkable thing to see, when God’s finger touches a man with grace, and the suffering does not cease but starts to make sense. Amazing, as the old song goes.
*Image: Christ as Savior by Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco), c. 1612 [Museo de El Greco,Toledo, Spain]