Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 10

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Struggling With My Nature

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of
heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and
deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with
the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do
penance, and to amend my life.

--The Catholic Act of Contrition

Sometimes I wish I were still agnostic. Being agnostic is very comfortable. It was easier to justify my shortcomings when I didn't feel called to a higher standard. When I've fallen short of the mark... when I've missed it by a mile... it is easier to pretend that the mark doesn't exist at all.

I got divorced in the summer of 2000, and it was painful. The next several months that followed, culminating in 9/11 and some painful personal realizations on Thanksgiving of 2001, were the most tumultuous of my life. I began praying that Thanksgiving that if God were real, that if he existed and he could hear me, that he'd grant me faith in him. Of course, having been agnostic for so long, I didn't really know what faith was. What I was praying for, I now realize, was certainty. If faith is belief in something you can't verify, then certainty must be believing that you can verify that something is true. I wanted to know that God was real and to be sure I could verify it. I didn't want to have faith that God was there, I wanted to be certain of it.

Be careful what you ask for.

I read C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity that winter. I can't narrow it down to an exact date or even a specific month, but sometime between reading that book and the sudden death of my son's maternal grandmother the following spring, I was granted the certainty that I'd prayed for. It wasn't what I'd call faith, since faith implies something hopeful, joyous, and comforting. This was a simple, blunt certainty that God was real. I felt that God had somehow announced his presence to me and that the knowledge of his existence cut to my very core. "I am real," God seemed to say, "I have been all along. Now, what are you going to do?"

There are all kinds of humanistic ways to explain the certainty I'd come to feel. None of them are remotely relevant. It could be that my certainty was an emotional response to my problems. It could be that my certainty was a response to the things that began going right in my life, and there were many: the first three things that come to mind are Wendy and her kids. During that time we also found a house, and beginning then and over the course of the next couple of years, our relationship with my son's mother and her husband has become a valued friendship and a productive co-parenting partnership. The certainty I developed in the existence of God might have simply been a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said, there are a number of possible psychological explanations, but none of them matter. What matters is that I am certain of the existence of God, and as much as I sometimes want to, I can't become uncertain again.

What matters even more than that is the way this certainty has effected me. Comfortable agnosticism is gone, and so are the gray areas and moral relativism it provides. Now, when I mess up, I can't let myself off the hook easily. "I should do better" has been replaced by "I am required to do better." I no longer think that I ought not behave in certain ways, now I think that I must not behave in certain ways. More than my immediate comfort hinges on the decision I make and the actions I take on a daily basis. I know that now. I can't un-know it.

Don't get the idea that any of this indicates that I'm the victim of religious guilt. That's the kind of moral relativism I was talking about before, and it's just silly to me now. Yes, I am a victim, but what I'm a victim of is my own sins. What's more, what's worse, the people I love the most suffer the most from my sins. There's no avoiding that, and no rationalizing it away. Besides, what I'm writing is not intended as a psychological examination of the way that Christianity has changed my self image and my sense of right and wrong. What I am writing is simpler than that. It's a confession.

I look for guidance and solace in scripture, and I find both in the book of Hebrews:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

- Heb 4:14,15,16

It's simple, but so hard. I must go before God and confess my sins, ask for forgiveness, and ask for guidance so that I might stop sinning. I won't post a list of my sins here, partly out of shame and partly because to list them all would fill pages and pages. Poor Father Ken, though... he'll have to listen to them all, help me sort through them, and help me figure out how to attack them and reconcile myself to God. Suffice it in this context to say that I am a sinner, that I am weak, and that my sins hurt the people I love and separate me from God. This isn't something I suspect, something I merely feel. This is something I know.

Thank you, whoever you are, for having read this confession of my nature. Please know that I am sincere when I ask you to remember me in your prayers, even if only peripherally. I need all the help I can get. I can't justify my misgivings and weaknesses anymore. I no longer have that option.

"Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend--it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father and not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey's end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean, contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire. That is the road you must take. To that I call you, and in that you must be my disciple."
- Martin Luther

Interesting that you open this by quoting the Catholic Act of Contrition and close it with Martin Luthor writing in God's voice.

Neither one of those spells out anything other than direct confession to God.

No priests, no Mary, no Saints - just an unabashed desire to connect one on one with our Heavenly Father.

"You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my word and Spirit in the way you should go." says Luther, paraphrasing the essence of salvation through faith alone.

"Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise..." he continues.

You confess and His grace aids you, even according to the CAoC.

To paraphrase the Jordache commercial once again - nothing should come between you and Heaven.
Jerry, thanks for your comments. I agree with you. My approach to Catholicism will probably always be ecumenical at the core. That’s the advantage, I suppose, of having been raised under one faith and drawn to another. My study of Catholicism isn’t entry into a cult, it’s simply my choice with regard to how I’ll practice Christianity. I’ll not abandon the fellowship, guidance, or study of other Christians just because they haven’t made the same choice I’ve made. Luther’s work will always be important to me, and the passage I quoted was originally introduced to me in The Cost Of Discipleship by the amazing protestant author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I agree, nothing should come between me and God… and I won’t ever consciously let anything come between… but if I believe that the counsel and guidance of a priest could be beneficial to me, through Catholic confession, then I’d be fooling myself and God if I didn’t seek that out.
Not a comment but a question. Do you or any of your readers know which of Luther's writings Bonhoeffer is quoting in the (very moving) passage that begins" Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend..."?
- Andrew
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