Thursday, April 21, 2016

How a Baptist Church Was the Catalyst to Becoming Catholic




Growing up in an Evangelical Christian home, liturgy was not something I was familiar with, as such, when I first experienced it, I was immediately drawn by its beauty, reverence, and transcendence.  My experience in church for my first 30 years in life centered around myself.  What was I getting out of church? What programs do they offer? How are the people there, is the community active?  Is the pastor an entertaining and powerful speaker?  Is the music something I enjoy and does it give me an emotional experience?  All of these questions were focused on myself, and in my tradition at the time it was ok to feel that way.  These things in my list of questions distinguished churches from each other in the evangelical tradition more than anything, and so shopping for the right one for me was expected.  Things would suddenly change for me and it was in experiencing liturgy, and interestingly enough, the catalyst for this conversion of spirit was not initially the Catholic Church.
            Throughout my life I attended mega churches.  They had all the bells and whistles and answered very satisfactorily the questions about what did I want in a church.  Finally, though I began to see some theological challenges in the church I attended and began to shop for a new church.  My family and I decided to try a small church in a downtown area; it was a Baptist church and we began to attend there regularly.  The church had good music, and nice people, and excellent teaching so it satisfied those checks on my checklist.  At the same time though, it had something new, something I never considered for my checklist; liturgical actions.  Every Sunday they had communion including a time of kneeling and reflecting before a large cross in the corner.  This was simply not a part of my mega church, which did communion quarterly.  This new church also recited the Apostles Creed every Sunday and stood when the Word was read.   These actions left an impression on me and left me open for consideration of a completely different paradigm in church.  I found myself unable to attend that church any longer and instead was sitting at a new mega church coasting along in the back sipping my latte from the coffee bar in the stadium seating theater watching a worship concert and hearing a powerful sermon.  After a few months of that, it began to feel empty to me.  Was this really church?  Is this what it is all about?  I can do this from home watching a live stream of the event, and indeed many do,  so why am I here.  I remember confiding in my father that I felt like the church was really missing something by abandoning the hymns and liturgical practices of the past, but I did not really know what the answer was to a longing that had been placed in my heart, having been touched by the power of a simple liturgical celebration.
            Several months later, I was in a philosophy of religion class at the local community college, and had to visit an Eastern religion and a Western religion outside my tradition. Being a Protestant I could go to a Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, or Islamic service and report back to satisfy my assignment and so I went to Sunday mass one day at the local parish.  The parish church is a traditional cathedral style church with lots of beautiful stain glass.  This alone set it apart from the converted warehouses that my evangelical churches were meeting in.   Upon entering, the importance of the place was palpable.  I really had no experience at all with the Catholic Church other than to think people should leave it, and it was from this skewed worldview that I entered, and yet was immediately touched by the atmosphere created.  I immediately noticed the prayerful quiet as the church slowly filled.  Everyone bowed or genuflected as they entered the pews, I did not know why at the time, but the humility of it all impacted me. 
            The mass begin with the entrance hymn and the procession down the center. I found the hymns refreshing coming off a burnout from a worship band that would rival any pop culture band in both theatrics and sound quality.  I remember following along in the worship aid as I knew nothing about the mass.  Reading the penitential act with the congregation immediately brought tears to my eyes.  I could not believe that this entire congregation was asking God for forgiveness together and admitting their inadequacies, such a concept was a purely private matter in my evangelical tradition and I long had carried burdens that I asked God for forgiveness but was uncertain of his reply.  I remember the readings and homily being nothing significant, perhaps in another setting I would have found them boring, but in this setting, it was clear that more was going on, that the teaching from the readings and homily were supplementing something far grander.  I did my best to follow along and was moved to kneel before God during a church service and reflect on his transforming grace in my life.  I knew absolutely nothing of the Eucharist and the real presence, the sacrifice of the mass, or the grace of the sacraments, and yet the beauty and humility of this liturgy conveyed a powerful message to me. While I received much by my participation, the great gift I received was not geared toward me.  It was geared toward God and my participation in it left me moved by His grace.
            I didn’t fully understand at the time, but I left that church a Catholic in my heart and a “former” evangelical protestant.  I was unable to articulate any of it or understand it, but every hint I had of something wrong with the churches I had been a part of was made readily apparent in the liturgy and my life would not be the same. I would later be reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and I believe he captured my feeling beautifully in his description of his first experience in church saying, “One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done… It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity" (Merton, 13)  The desire was very fundamental for me and I found myself reading everything I could on the Catholic Church and trying to understand what I had experienced in the liturgy.  I found myself slipping into the back row of weekday masses to see it all again, and would attend mass on Sundays whenever I could.   Within a year I was in RCIA, and a year and a half later at Easter Vigil 2014 I was brought into the Church and Confirmed and had my first Eucharist.
            My time as a Catholic has been one of immense joy.  I see Christ in the liturgy, in the Eucharist, and in the body of Christ, the church.  This is made manifest in the hugs and smiles from the parishioners I attend mass with, in the Church throughout the world and its authority it exercises.  This authority I find like the comforting hug of a parent who cares for his child and not like a rod of tyranny as it is often described by those who do not understand.  After floating adrift seeking what could not be found outside the bounds of the Church, it is with great relief, and immense joy that I proudly proclaim to be a Catholic.  This joy may not have ever been realized if my heart hadn’t been opened by the beauty found in the simple liturgy of a small Baptist church.

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