Sunday, 4 April 2010

Latin is my Spiritual Tongue

I thought, as Easter was approaching, that on this, the 6th anniversary of my conversion to Catholicism, that I would write out a fairly brief account of it. It is purposefully rather colloquial, and I would be surprised to find any grand arguments in defence of Catholicism. The intent is more for personal reflection and self-disclosure. I hope my Catholic readers will be encouraged, and my Protestant and other non-Catholic readers will have a greater understanding of who I am and what the Church means to me. I sincerely hope not to offend, but I am neither so naive as to suppose that an account detailing why I rejected a particular belief system won't evoke some reaction from those who still adhere to that system. I hope you can take this in the spirit in which I mean it. I would, of course, be disingenuous if I didn't admit that I hope that some readers might be induced to at least a growing curiosity about the Catholic Church, and that some might even be persuaded to join it themselves. That would be my prayer for all people.

By all means, feel free to comment.


I came out of a faith tradition that taught that the Holy Spirit gives us each a "spiritual tongue", a private prayer language that we didn't know beforehand, for our personal edification and public prophetic utterance, when accompanied by an "interpretation." I believe in this "spiritual tongue" even though the particular beliefs about it are what eventually led me out of that Pentecostal tradition. Ultimately I would find my home in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. In a different way than was meant by the Pentecostals, Latin is, indeed, my Spiritual Tongue--and while I had never before learned it, the Holy Spirit did reveal it to me. This is the story of that revelation.

Looking back I can clearly see God's hand in my life, even before I was born. 16 years before I was born, my parents got married, and wanted kids. They prayed about having kids. They even felt that God gave them the name of a son, Gregory. But for 15 years they had no children. They tried to adopt, but the line-ups are very long! Finally, after waiting 15 years to adopt, I came along, and I was given to them!

I was the child of an affair, a married man and an unmarried girl. By most standards today, I'd be considered an "unwanted child", and in 1980, abortion had been decriminalised for 11 years! Thank God my biological mother didn't choose the "easy" way out! Instead of aborting me, she gave me up for adoption, and I was named Gregory by my parents, Betty and Wayne Watson. Their example, waiting a decade and a half for a child, the length of the lineups at adoption agencies, tells me, and should tell everyone, that contrary to popular propaganda, there is no such thing as an "unwanted baby"!

My mother and father raised me in a devout Pentecostal family, bringing me with them to church every week and making sure I learned the faith right from the start. I "got saved" when I was five, when I put my hand up during an altar call. I was baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues when I was 14. I felt called to ministry of some sort when I was 15, when God used my name, picked out for me some 15 years before I was born, and related its meaning to the prophetic call of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:17. This would lead me to Bible College after high school. At 16 I was baptised in water, but I would have been a lot sooner if someone had ever told me it was necessary!

All this time, I was a staunch, Bible-believing, bordering-on-fundamentalist, preachin'-to-my-friends Pentecostal. Was big into concepts like "evangelism", "apologetics", and "absolute truth". Still am, really. I just think I have a better grasp on what those things mean, now.

It seems to me, looking back, that it's a pretty small faith that you can have more or less completely figured out by the time you're 16. Or maybe it was an indication of my teenage "I know everything" stage.

Anyway, I started dating a girl when I was 18, that wasn't a Pentecostal. She was 4C's, Congregational Christian Church of Canada. It's a conservative movement that sprung out of the United Church of Canada when the latter went crazy liberal. Anyway, not being of the tongues-speaking variety, she brought with her a lot of challenges to my faith, and made me really recognise that, hey, there's a whole world of Christianity out there beyond the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. I mean, I knew about the Baptists and the Mennonites and the Anglicans and the Lutherans, but never really looked, y'know?

So it was this girl who first gets me wondering about this whole "necessity of speaking in tongues" thing. Obviously, I'm not going to deny speaking in tongues, since I've experienced it. But does it have to happen to everyone? I came to the conclusion that no, the Bible seems to say the opposite. On top of that, I had a few experiences that stuck with me that indicated that the logical conclusions of such a doctrine can be anything but healthy. That is, I knew godly people who were viewed as "less" simply because they weren't "filled with the Holy Spirit." How was that judged? By the fact that they had never uttered anything in another language. I remember one girl, who is now a missionary, and who even then was one of the brightest examples of the Christian faith that I know, who was reduced to tears as friends of hers jumped up and down, literally screaming in tongues at her, so she would receive this experience! It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that this could only be considered "spiritually abusive." As I said, she's now a missionary, and one of the most Spirit-filled people I know. And as far as I know, she's never spoken in tongues!

So here I am, with a new dilemma. I believe that there's an absolute truth, and it's important to know and believe in it. I feel like I'm called to be a minister and proclaim this absolute truth. And I suddenly find that the denomination which, ironically, taught me that there is such a truth, doesn't actually possess it in its entirety. What's a fellow to do?

I guess there were two options: Figure, hey, I've got the truth, I can just start my own denomination! Or, figure, hey, one of these myriads of denominations that already exists has to have figured out what I know already. I'll just find it and join it.

I picked option B, because my mom stressed from the time I was young that accountability in leadership is important--that it's the pastors who go out on their own as if they've got it all figured out that end up cult leaders. So obviously, not wanting to be a cult leader, I went with my girlfriend (same girl as above) to a very multi-denominational Bible College. To put it in perspective, there were about 350 students, all told, and the year I started there were over 40 different denominations represented. I figured that was a good place to start.

So I start digging in and learning a whole bunch. Most of which I already knew at least the basics of, because, remember, I had this Christianity thing all figured out beforehand ;) Well, I want to go deeper, because there's something attractive about the Mystery behind it all. And I wanted to explore that. So I decided to write a paper in theology class on the Trinity and Jesus as both God and Man. So among my sources, I figure, hey, who best to turn to than the people who really figured all this out in the way-back-when? So I head to the library, to the row with the dustiest books on it (because pop-Christianity had infected the majority of the library and the students), and I find "The Early Church Fathers". I pull out St. Augustine's "On the Trinity" and St. Hilary of Poitiers' "The Trinity" (I hadn't even heard of St. Hilary before this!) and I'm reading and devouring whole new worlds of thought on all this--and it's gold! Except for one thing. These theological giants sounded awfully Catholic!

Well, I figure, that's odd, but whatever, Augie's got a lot of good stuff to say. So he's a little bit mistaken on this other stuff. Can't win them all. Which of course prompts a pesky thought in my head: "Who am I to think that I know better than St. Augustine what the Truth is?" Now that's an awkward thought! I realised that I was asking the Big Question precisely backwards. I had come to Bible College to find the Church that agreed with me, so I could join it. But the Church of the Bible didn't work like that. It demanded submission to its teachings. You didn't disagree with Peter's Church and walk down the road to join Paul's!

So I continued in my studies. I took a history course (which was amazing, since Pentecostals? Not too big in the Christian history department. I knew the Book of Acts, a smattering about the Reformation, and was pretty clear on Azuza Street and afterwards--but for all I knew of history, the aforementioned St. Augustine and the "reformer" Martin Luther could've been neighbours!). I had the ironically fortunate experience of learning Christian history from one of the most anti-Catholic professors one could ever hope to meet. And of course, out of 2000 years of history, roughly 1500 of it is pure Catholicism! So I'm learning about this ancient institution from a guy who obviously hates it, and he keeps saying stuff like, "And then in X year, the Church started teaching and practicing Y doctrine! How could anyone believe such a thing as that?" And I'm sitting and thinking, "Y'know, I could probably construct a really good argument for that teaching from the Bible, in the next 10 minutes, without even really trying! Further, you're so biased that I can't really trust that you've even represented that doctrine properly." So there I am, thinking for myself again. Apparently that's a bad habit!

Around this time, I finally come to my senses about the aforementioned girl, and the reality that our relationship for three and a half years had been an abusive one with her unhealthily controlling and manipulating me, so that came to an end. I'll leave it at that, since it's sort of incidental to the story I'm telling. Anyway, as I'm beginning to ponder this crazy Catholic Church (which is seeming more and more credible, yet isn't it that dead ritual that the Pentecostals always said it was?), and reading things in my Bible that, even though I'd read it cover to cover, I'd never noticed before (like, "My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" and "Baptism now saves you"), and thinking, "But that sounds really Catholic! What's going on here?!"... anyway, as I was saying, as this was going on, I meet my wife at a surprise birthday party that she threw for an old high school friend of mine, that my wife happened to go to university with. Well, we talk up the God stuff (as is my wont) at the pool hall where the party is, and I find out she is a Catholic herself! And more, she actually talks to God and has a relationship with Him! Go figure!

So we started dating a month later, and I would attend Mass with her Sunday mornings (since her parents wouldn't let her miss it--good for them!) and she came with me Sunday evenings to the Pentecostal church. We agreed that the other was a Christian, and therefore wouldn't be trying to convert each other (yeah, right), but I figured, once she comes and experiences the "real deal" at the Pentecostal church, she'll never want to go back! Well, she never did want to go back--to the Pentecostal church! That "charismaniac" stuff scared the dickens out of her! (Especially when, after months of encouragement, I finally convinced her to go up to an altar call, and some lady was "slain in the spirit" and landed on her foot!) Ironically, you'll notice, the closer I got to Catholicism, the further I retreated into my Pentecostalism--them Catholics weren't gonna take me alive!

Meanwhile, back at Bible College, I'm taking my actual course load, which involved two rather influential courses in my conversion. The first was "Introduction to Worship and Music", which I wouldn't have taken (not being very musical) except that it was mandatory. It happened to be taught by a former Catholic--who happened to still appreciate the Catholic Church! Wonderful Irish-Canadian fellow: Sean O'Leary (who, incidentally, taught me the word "charismaniac"). Anyway, he taught us about all the different forms and styles of church worship, including that unfathomable mystery called the Liturgy! Well, this was helpful because I was able to see that liturgy wasn't "dead ritual" after all, and, now that I was dating a Catholic, and attending Mass with her, it actually made sense to me!

The second course was one called "Spiritual Formation and Disciple-making". The prof was a rather charismatic individual himself, and taught us about various ancient and modern spiritual practices and traditions all across the Christian spectrum, like the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina, Quiakerism, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, fasting, charismatic worship, and others. In the process, we talked about great saints and mystics--many of whom were Catholic! And what's more, many of those Catholics described an intimacy with Jesus that went beyond anything that I as a Pentecostal had ever experienced! How was that possible in a religion that consisted of dead ritual?!

Well, obviously what I'd learned about Catholicism growing up (and in History class) was somewhat inaccurate, so in the grand tradition of thinking for myself, I neglected the vast majority of my studies in order to pursue "the Catholic question". I'd read everything I could find in the library at school, on the internet, or anywhere else. Some people, expressing curiosity and concern, even lent me books on the subject--some rather anti-Catholic, and some pro-Catholic, just so I could properly inform myself. I'd spend all night reading (I worked as a security guard at the time), and even racked up $300 dollar cell phone bills reading Catholic Answers on my cell phone back in the days before internet cell phone plans!

I'd take the best Protestant arguments against Catholicism and go to Melissa and her priest with them, as well as to these Catholic sites. I'd take their arguments back with me to Bible College, to my fellow students and my professors. I'd pray, read the Scriptures, and just keep going back and forth.

Mary, the Eucharist, and Purgatory were my biggest hang-ups. I got the Pope and Infallibility--after all, I was looking for the Church that claimed to know the Truth. I just had to make sure as best as I could that they actually did have the truth. Purgatory proved to be a rather easy conclusion, and I quickly realised in the back-and-forth presentation of arguments described above, that the Protestant position basically boiled down to a sort of repackaged Gnosticism, where our good spirits are trapped in our evil bodies, and that, even if we're still not entirely perfect in life, at death our perfect souls leave our bodies and go to heaven! That's really the only alternative explanation anyone could come up with to fit the facts and exclude Purgatory--and that explanation is a heresy! As Sherlock Holmes was apt to say, "Once you exclude the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth."

The Bible itself sold me on the Eucharist, as I was unable to escape the exceedingly literal emphasis of John 6, "For My flesh is true food, and My Blood is true drink" (v.55), and St. Paul's definite identification of the Eucharist as a sacrifice in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. I went from questioning whether Jesus was truly Present, to eagerly longing to be able to receive Him. And yet I still held off until I was as sure as I could be--despite enduring what my priest called "Eucharistic Hunger" for nearly four years!

Mary, though, was not so easy. The Catholic arguments all made sense in my head, but, as they say, the longest distance to travel is the 18 inches from your head to your heart. I just couldn't get past the inundation since a child that Marian devotion was idolatrous. Even though my head knew it wasn't, in my heart, it still felt like sin. At that final interview in the RCIA process, I discussed this with my priest, and asked whether I could still become a Catholic, even if it felt sinful to pray to Mary? He said as long as I didn't tell others that it was a sin to venerate her, that I could! But, he said, I had to continue to pray and seek Jesus' opinion about His Mother and devotion to her. That, I could readily agree to, and so, finally, a journey to the Catholic Church that began in the beginning of 2000, ended in the spring of 2004 at the Easter Vigil.

I went a bit Pentecostal at my first Communion! I was almost worried that the hype I'd created in my head over the last four years of receiving Jesus literally present in the Eucharist would come to an anti-climax when all I got was a piece of bread and a sip of wine--but Jesus never lets you down! I walked back to my pew in ecstasy, and couldn't stop speaking in tongues! I tried to be really quiet about it so as not to freak out my newly-confirmed confrères, but that's no easy task for this former-Pentecostal boy!

Anyway, as I said, Mary was still a problem for me--but Jesus took care of that in no time, once I made that step of obedience to join the Church. There were two key ways this happened. First, shopping in a Protestant Christian bookstore, I happened upon Scott Hahn's "Hail Holy Queen". After hesitating for a while (never having heard of Scott Hahn before), I bought it and wow! Did he ever open up Scripture to me in a whole new way! Now, I'm an emotional person, but I get emotional about the dumbest stuff--namely, theological concepts and such. So I'm reading about how Mary fits the typological fulfilment of the Ark of the Covenant blah blah blah, and I've got tears running down my cheeks! The Mary train had departed the head; destination: Heart!

At the same time, I started praying the Rosary. Oddly, despite my reservations about Mary, the Rosary itself always held some major appeal. Maybe it was just its status as one of those quintessential emblems of all things Catholic, but I took up praying it despite the Hail Marys. I understood that they were the "behind the scenes" portion, and that the Mysteries were central, so I managed to get around them. And what better way to ask Jesus His opinion on His mother than by meditating on her Assumption and Coronation?

Just a couple years before my conversion, Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries, including the second one, the Wedding at Cana. The little booklets the RCIA team gave us on the Rosary included all the new mysteries, as well as suggested intentions for each one. I remember praying for those intentions faithfully, in words like, "Dear Jesus, as I meditate on Your Agony in the Garden, I ask for true sorrow for my sins," or "Jesus, as I meditate on Your Resurrection, I ask for greater faith." Well, the suggested intention for the Wedding Feast at Cana was "that we would have greater trust in Mary's maternal intercession for us." So one day, I'm praying, "Jesus, as I meditate upon the Wedding Feast at Cana, help me to trust more in Your Mother's maternal intercession for me." And I stop, and think, now that's just odd. I'm praying to Jesus to ask Him to help me trust more in Mary's prayers for me. That's like saying, "Jesus, Your Mom's gonna come talk to You about me in a second. Could You listen to her, please?" Seems sort of out of order. So I pray, "Jesus, I hope this is okay. Mary, please help me trust more in your maternal intercession for me."

Wham! Everything changed in that second! Mary wasn't just a theological concept anymore--she was a real person! I could talk about having a relationship with her in the same way I could about a relationship with Jesus! The pieces fell into place, and I grew to not only "get" Mary, but to love her as well! And I still do! I even joined the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary this past year!

So, that was all well and good. I graduated from Bible College the same April that I was confirmed, at the opposite end of the month. I still wonder if I'm the first, or the only, Catholic grad from EBC! Of course, I had been there for 5 years, but due to my messy break-up, and my searching out Catholicism, I managed to achieve a 2 year Diploma of Biblical studies :p

And, since I got married (it seemed wrong somehow to say to my sponsor/girlfriend, "Well, thanks for getting me into the Church, now I'm off to seminary!" and since God never told me that's what I should do, I let the relationship take its natural course), I realised the full impact of the sacrifices entailed in my conversion. That is, I sacrificed my whole career goals! What's a guy who's only ever educated himself to be a pastor do when he can't do that?! So far, a lot of general labour, with a brief, wonderful, two-year stint as a youth minister at a Catholic parish. Not a whole lot of those full-time youth min jobs floating around. But I keep looking. I know God's got something good coming.

It's interesting, though, as I continue to ponder my calling, I've wondered a lot at what God meant when He called me to the ministry when I was 15. For a good while, I wrestled with whether or not I screwed things up. When I was 15, one of the two passages that God used to point me in that direction was the story of Jesus sending out the 72 disciples, two by two, to preach--without money or provisions. When I was 15, I wanted to do that. Rather literally. I was ready to hoof it across Canada! My parents and other sensible people in my life dissuaded me, convincing me that there was a more common-sense interpretation of what God was calling me to. (Ironically, looking back, it was my Catholic guidance counsellor in High School, who, when I told him about my "career goal", said, "Good for you! We need more people like that!") Now as much as my parents were right, I wonder, had I been a Catholic, whether someone would have told me then what I've found out now: namely, that there were Catholics who did take that text seriously, and who did just that! Saints like Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman founded Religious Orders whose mission was just that! All other things being equal, had I grown up Catholic, would I be a Dominican now? Turns out, that seems to be the direction God is calling me anyway! Who knew that there was an Order in the Church whose primary charism is a life of preaching? Who knew that this Order has a Lay branch for people like me to participate in that Charism? When I converted, I had no idea. But God did. As I said at the beginning, as I look back, I can clearly see His hand in my life.

True, things haven't always been easy these past six years. Yet despite the hardships and seeming setbacks, I wouldn't trade my Catholic faith, and the opportunity to know and experience Jesus, tangibly, physically, literally in the Eucharist, for the world!

3 comments:

Kane Augustus said...

Gregory,

Thank you for this brief, and personal glimpse into your life, and life decisions.

Take care,
Kane

Joey said...

Praying for your vocation, Gregory.
JG

Gregory said...

You're welcome, Kane.

Thanks, Joey. You're in my prayers as well.