Postcards from a Catholic-in-exile
How to Swim the Tiber in the "Wrong" Direction
Easter Sunday. Sacred Heart Church. Hollister.
I started Easter Sunday as any good Christian would: I went for a jog. I don't think much when I am jogging. That's probably why I do it so often. We can go over things over and over in our heads and get nowhere. A lot of times, the only real way to deal with a problem is not to think about it.
I slept very well last night. Today, I would receive Communion for the first time since I left my Byzantine Catholic monastery. The only catch is, it would not be in a Catholic Church.
For such a profound step, at least for me, I was relatively calm and certain of what I was doing. Yes, I had been a Catholic (a Catholic Christian in communion with the Pope of Rome) all of my life. Even as a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), I had pretensions of being a Roman Catholic, and I still do not think to this day that I was doing anything wrong. But things had changed.
The more I know, the less I understand. I used to think that I am merely rebelling against my grandparents, who used to drag me to Mexican charismatic prayer meetings when I was a small boy. (Want to get your children hooked on Catholicism? Drag them to a woman who prays the rosary while speaking in tongues. It works wonders!) That was the whole "Lefebvrist" bent to my spiritual journey as it began seven years ago. Things were supposedly done right "back then", now they are getting done wrong, end of story. There is one way to do things, there is one way to understand things; if you are not with us, you are against us, etc., etc.
That lasted in its pure form around six months. After that, curiosity killed the integrist cat. I got very interested in the Orthodox Church and Byzantine liturgy. I went to the SSPX seminary anyway, but I think I had already sabotaged my vocation as a Lefebvrist cleric. I already knew there was more to life than just Econe's party line.
Nevertheless, my decision to depart from the Lefebvrist movement had almost little to do with theology. Just at the beginning of my second year of seminary, my spiritual director told me that he thought I had a vocation to the religious (i.e. monastic) life. This was an exciting prospect for me, but it was also an opportunity to sneak off after seminary into the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, which I did do.
The next part of the story is too recent and raw for me to tell objectively, so I won't. Let me just say that in my experience with the Eastern Churches, I saw very definitively that there is more than just one way to "do things". Even in theology, I found that Truth is often never a neat, well set-out system of propositions, but rather a harmony between two very different aspects of revelation. This has been the case at least since the Arian controversy in the fourth century: God is one and many at the same time. And just when we think that we have it right, there is always a wrench thrown into the machinery of our syllogisms that will wreck our conceptions and make us start over again.
So when I first came back to Hollister, I decided to take a chance and go to a continuing Anglican congregation that meets in the old Catholic Church in town, no longer used on Sunday mornings. I really did not know what to expect. When the opening hymn to the Communion service was "All Things Bright and Beautiful", I just thought to myself, "Oh no! What the f#*k am I getting myself into now!?" Then, as the service progressed, I recognized many aspects of the Catholic tradition in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer: genuflections, signs of the Cross, kneeling for Communion etc. Not only that, but the service flowed, it told a story. It was an act of worship.
For all of the following Lent, I went to various Churches: from the Catholic Churches talked about earlier in this series, to Orthodox Churches, to an Old Catholic bishop who said Mass in his garage according to his own "wacky" rite. I just kept asking myself: "Do I really want to become an Anglican?" In the end, this little Anglican mission was the only place I really felt at home. It helped that it was done in the old Catholic Church where I grew up. I had never seen a traditional liturgy done in it before and it was comforting to see, particularly because of all that I had to suffer in it growing up.
I have received no theological closure in all of this. The one thing that I do know is the whole concept of "denomination" or "church" (small "c") is dying. Soon, traditional Roman Catholics will have more in common with traditional Orthodox or traditional Anglicans than they will with members of their own communion. Can we really afford to associate ourselves with those who believe and behave differently in church just because we want to keep our identity as the "true Church"? If I have any problems with the Roman Catholic system of belief, it is that it has since the Middle Ages made the institution of the visible Church a matter of infallible belief. I no longer believe that sinful man in a fallen world has any guarantees that such-and-such an institution will not fall into error. The Institution is not God. We cannot surrender our conscience at the church door.
If one thing can be said about the history of the Anglican Church, it is that it is not pretentious about these things. The closest I think they come is a joke I once heard. It goes that an Anglican clergyman was asked if there was salvation for those outside the Anglican Church. "There is," he replied, "but no gentleman would avail himself of it in those circumstances." I suppose, at this time of my life, that type of conservative tolerance is what I most need.
I arrived at the old Catholic church early in order to go to confession to the Anglican priest. (At least I think it was confession.) Afterwards, I offered to serve at the service. Having had experience serving as a traditional RC seminarian and the Byzantine rite, it wasn't very hard to do.
While I was kneeling there in my alb, I had memories of all of the hundreds of ceremonies and Masses I had served previously. This was just another one; there was nothing new I felt on that day. All I can really say is that Father went through the ceremony less rigidly than a traditonalist priest saying Mass and was much less confused than a Byzantine priest serving Divine Liturgy. There was as well a "via media" between the formality and informality of worship.
And no, there were no epiphanies after I took Communion. No tears and no levitation. This is not a conversion story after all. It was not "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" (from the shadows and simulacra towards the truth: Cardinal Newman's epitaph). Tertullian once said that if someone says he is seeking the truth, don't listen to him because he doesn't have it. If that's the case, I'm screwed. My motto, for my consolation, I take from Origen, another early Church Father: "Go where the Word leads you." I didn't "come home" on that Easter Sunday during my "first communion" in the Anglican Church. Rather, another path was open to me. The only thing I did receive was strength for the journey.
In the sacristy, I joked with the priest asking, "Does this mean I'm a Protestant now?" We both laughed, since such distinctions are becoming more and more absurd.
Yes, it was a big step for me. I finally concluded that it was alright to throw myself in the water and swim away from St. Peter's Basilica. Whether or not God will still be with me, that is entirely up to me with the help of His grace.