My friend (and fellow TCT contributor) Michael Pakaluk recently published a column here titled “Yes, I’d Become Catholic Again.” It got me thinking about my own decision at age 25 to enter (and remain in) the Catholic faith.
I was what you might charitably call an Augustinian youth. The reference is to the great Church Father and author of The Confessions, who, though born to a Christian mother, remained unbaptized until his conversion at the age of 33. Augustine’s account of his life (and sins) is vivid, although possibly defined to some extent by what’s left out. Anyway, he was a pagan with a vengeance – until he wasn’t.
The same may be said of me only more so, even though I was baptized as an infant.
For me, the summum bonum of life, from my teens until I entered the Church, is best captured in the phrase made famous by Alexandre Dumas: Cherchez la femme.
My father was a marketing professor at Ohio State, appreciated by his male students for “teaching Playboy.” From an academic point of view, my dad was fascinated by the success of Hugh Hefner’s magazine and business model. He read Hefner’s “The Playboy Philosophy” series (1962-65), treating Hef’s libertarian nattering as a modern version of Epicurus. My father bought copies of the magazine on the newsstand, and when he’d finished his study of each issue, he’d squirrel them away, out of sight of his teenage son, in a hamper my mother had covered with an attractive floral fabric.
But there was no lock on the hamper, so I was “reading” the magazine from age 15.
To be fair to Dr. Miner, his interest in Playboy wasn’t so much in Hefner’s views on “sexual liberation” and his rejection of the “Puritan Ethic” – about which Hef fairly obsessed – as with the role the “philosophy” played in helping create moral and legal space for his magazine empire.
Thus, Dad was fascinated by the then-recent SCOTUS case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which a theater owner who’d exhibited a French film was exonerated of obscenity charges. Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence included the famous (or infamous) quotation: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within. . .[a] shorthand description [of obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” All the justices primly agreed “hard-core pornography” could never be condoned. Right . . .
I’d actually come to believe in God before I became Catholic. I’d been through Methodist Sunday school and confirmation, but – though I had affection for Jesus – I found church boring, although I read the Bible and found it fascinating. Despite what I believed were its ridiculous stories of nearly thousand-year-old people and a man risen from the grave, the Good Book still seemed possessed of a compelling authority.
For one college course, I acquired a copy of Werner Keller’s The Bible as History, and that seemed just about right: the Good Book was just a good book.
I briefly descended into skepticism.
But one day I was walking down the street, one foot before the other, and in one stride I was agnostic and in the very next I felt His presence.
This did not, however, immediately arrest the momentum of my own neo-Epicureanism.
Then my father died suddenly. He was 54.
I was already in a kind of tailspin, morally and intellectually, and Dad’s death made the fecklessness of my life seem not just disappointing, as it had been to both of us, but actually dangerous. The bell had tolled for him, but I knew it was tolling for me too.
I was thrown from my horse, but this was not what brought me to Christ and His Catholic Church.
I moved to California, was living in a small beachfront apartment, and regularly visiting a bookshop that specialized in “spiritual” books. Nothingness seemed an appealing idea, and I’d begun reading about Zen, which I found tasty but not nutritious. I bought a book called Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton, and the store clerk said I ought to get a copy of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, another tale of a very Augustinian young man.
Merton also awakened memories of a month-long trip to Europe in the summer before my senior year in college. I’d felt awe in the Catholic churches of Paris, Rome, Florence, and Vienna, and at concerts and in museums I’d seen glory in the beauty of Catholic art.
I began reading everything I could buy, beg, or borrow about Catholicism, and the thing that caused me to swim the Tiber was the doctrine of the Incarnation.
I’m sure the pastor of the United Methodist Church of Worthington, Ohio (long gone to his reward) would protest that the Incarnation was taught there too. We used to recite the Apostles’ Creed, so it must be my fault that I came away believing Jesus to be the son of God in the same way Apollo is the son of Zeus: touched by divinity but not divine.
I simply cannot recall any Protestant ever plainly saying, “Jesus is God.”
But now I knew why Catholic churches have kneelers and why worshipers – of every color and every nation – genuflect before the tabernacle. In the churches of my youth it was: “We’ll see God in heaven;” in a Catholic church it’s: “God is here.”
I struggled some with the priest who accepted me for catechetical studies, especially over what I believed was the injustice of Hell.
To that difficulty, the priest said:
“Take it to Jesus.”
“Through prayer, you mean?”
“Certainly that. But I mean you must seek answers to all such questions through Jesus. It is He who spoke of Hell more than anyone else in the Scriptures, and He who is, above all, the embodiment of love and justice. Sometimes the only answer is to trust in Him.”
I remain a sinner, but at least I knew the Truth when I saw it.
*Image: Conversion on the Way to Damascus by [Michelangelo Merisi da] Caravaggio, 1601 [Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Polpolo, Rome]