Thursday, October 22, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part IV (Or How JRR Tolkien, My Seminary Professor, and an Italian Concert Pianist Broke My Resolve)

[Éomer]: "...The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
---JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 348.

My life-long fascination with the works of JRR Tolkien continues unabated. It is a sickness. An obsession. I even teach an introduction to the liberal arts course that uses The Lord of the Rings as the primary text. Ever since I can remember first reading Tolkien, I have had an inner sensation that I am reading something that captures the transcendent first things of life in a literary and poetic way. Perhaps that is why I have returned to it again and again. There is something wholesome and even cleansing about this fascinating work of fantasy. Something that washes away the grime of so much modern entertainment. Even during my fundamentalist period, and despite the frequent bromides against Tolkien and CS Lewis for their dabbling in "magic!" I have held Tolkien's writing in high regard. When I read Joseph Pearce's biography of Tolkien--Tolkien: Man and Myth--I first made the connection between The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's Catholic faith and devotion. Since this occurred during that period of time when several of us from St. John's Episcopal Church were reading and studying the ancient Christian traditions, I was primed for such an interpretation. The novel suddenly opened up in a deeper way. When read in conjunction with his detailed and fascinating collection of letters, which provided a wealth of running commentary on his own work as it related to his life as an Oxford don and Catholic Christian, I was hooked. For me, Tolkien had become the 20th century's author of the century. The seedlings dropped into the soil of my mind, heart, and will certainly played a role in my eventual embrace of Mother Church built upon the Jesus the cornerstone and the foundation of St. Peter and the apostles. Imagine that. An entire secondary world, with its own cosmology, mythological traditions, races, languages (some of which can be learned and spoken), complex plot, and layered characters, all from the mind of a rather shy and crusty old Oxford literary don. And that becomes a doorway into a deeper love for God, His Son, His Church, and a love for the grace by which one can live in friendship with God. The seedbed was planted and waiting germination, flowering, all looking towards a fruitful harvest.

If The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of literature to come out of the 20th century, can it compare with the best selling "book" of all time: The Bible? Ever grateful for the love of the Scriptures formed in me during my time among my fundamentalist sisters and brothers, I have always regarded the Scriptures as the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and used by God to reveal the Incarnate Son, Jesus. This was brought home to me in a palpable way when I began my seminary studies at Nashotah House. I was not expecting what the House had in mind for me in their New Testament survey course. The professor was both a godly and first-rate Roman Catholic theologian and biblical scholar. His classroom teaching was as detailed and critical as his devout spirituality and charity was clear and real. He asked great questions, introduced me to the best of the tools for New Testament study and criticism, and used Raymond E. Brown's monumental introduction to the New Testament. His respect and reverence for the Scriptures was clear in all that he did in class. I found myself simply overwhelmed by this humble, yet prodigious individual. It left a lasting impression upon me. If this is an example of Roman Catholic scholarship at the seminary level, and he was willing to share that scholarship with Nashotah House, a non-Catholic seminary, then this man must be an extraordinary Christian. Even after the seminary term finished, I stayed in touch with him via phone and by email. He was helpful in many different ways, and his genuine concern for me as a human being was moving and compelling. I don't think I could have asked for a better biblical mentor. A lot of my former fundamentalist objections to the Catholic faith were beginning to shrivel and fall like leaves on an autumn tree. God bless this man for his ministry to me!

As much as both Tolkien and my seminary professor paved the way for me to finally give up my resistance to the Roman Catholic faith, it was my dear friend and professional colleague Tom, an Italian concert pianist and professor of piano at Catholic University of America. He finally managed to shake me loose from my stubborn pride. Tom and I had known each other since 1995 when I first met him at a music festival in upper-state New York. Tom was a fabulous concert pianist and an artist/teacher of high level undergraduate and graduate piano students, many of whom were prize winners. We usually attended the same music festival each year and shared hotel rooms to reduce our travel expenses. Tom was a devout practicing Catholic Christian, whose life just emanated Jesus in all that he said and did, not by preaching nor brow-beating, but by a quiet and pious life of prayer, service, and intellectual rigor. We stayed up night after night discussing theology, philosophy, history, politics, family, friends, struggles, triumphs, dreams, and our journey of faith. In many ways, he was a sort of father confessor for me, and I always relished our conversations together. He became one of my closest professional and personal friends. On many occasions at the yearly festival, I would attend Catholic Mass with him, and always felt moved by the liturgical worship. He used to say to me, "Jay, you're already a better Catholic than many life-long Catholics I have known." And I wasn't even a Catholic! My resolve was fast disappearing.

In June of 2014 the final straw went into place like this: during the last time Tom and I were together before his death, I stayed at his home with he and his delightful wife Mary Ann. I had the privilege of attending several daily Masses with Tom at a Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD. The Priest was a wonderful servant, and I enjoyed his homilies and his manner of saying the Mass. Tom and I spent lots of time talking about faith, music, pianists, piano teaching and performing, and all the other things we shared in common. Since my flight home wasn't until the evening, I got on the Metro from Silver Spring and headed to Union Station in DC to meet a friend for lunch. After he went back to work I had several hours before I needed to be back in Silver Spring. I could have stayed at the Mall, but something inside told me to take the Metro to Catholic Univ. and visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Basilica is an imposing structure, Romanesque in its interior architecture, and glorious inside. I walked into the nave and sat down. I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty, mystery, and transcendent sense of the sacred. I got up and wandered down into the bookstore. It was there that I made the fatal mistake: I bought a copy of GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, went back up in the nave, sat down and began to read. Reading Chesterton in a glorious Catholic Cathedral is hazardous to Protestant sensibilities. What little I held onto melted away. My resistance broke. I texted my brother-in-law (remember him? My royal pain in the neck? See part III). It went something like this:

Me: You'll never guess where I am?
Him: Where?
Me: I am sitting in the nave of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC.
Him: That is just awesome!
Me: Are you jealous?
Him: Is the Pope Catholic?
Me: Well, speaking of which, I could get into this Catholic thing...

My cellphone rang almost immediately.

Him: So...what did you mean by that?!?
Me: Mean by what?
Him: That you could get into this Catholic thing?
Me: Well...I'm beginning to see your perspective.
Him: Praise the Lord and Hallelujah!
Me: Now, don't do a victory dance just yet. I have no idea how my wife will react to this. I won't do this without her.
Him: No problem. We've been praying for her too. This is all in God's hands.
Me: It is indeed...

And so...I walked out of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC an aspiring Roman Catholic. I flew back to Fargo-Moorhead wondering just how my wife would react and respond to all of this. I could not do this without her...

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