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Archive for June 10th, 2005

Part 2 of 3 [click here to read Part 1]

But things eventually soured. For one thing, three or four of us went out every day to work, renovating houses, repairing tobacco barns, painting and building. The rest–another three or four–were supposed to remain behind, repairing our rundown house in lieu of rent, keeping our large garden weeded, and preparing dinner.

In fact we who worked often returned to an overgrown garden, an unrenovated house, and an uncooked supper. We were unimpressed by our friends’ testimonies of fruitful Bible studies and prayer times. And we were mightily unimpressed by their long drawn out blessings–more like little prayer meetings, actually–when the food finally found its way to the table. The hardworking tend to favor short
graces.

And the community, so united just a few months before, was starting to slowly unravel in other ways.

Mark, the leader of our little work crew, the one who wrote the checks, had recently been confirmed in the local Episcopal church. The pastor was an Evangelical and the parish–like most in that neck of the woods–was theologically Low Church, albeit with a dignified liturgical worship. It was sort of on the high end of the Low Church spectrum.

And I had started reading The Little Flowers of St Francis.

Among other things, the Shepherd’s House had sponsored Christian music concerts. Besides the incredible guitarist Phil Keaggy and the hard rock Resurrection Band, we had featured John Michael Talbot. He had been a minor rock star with the country rock band Mason Profitt, then the ultimate Jesus hippie folk rocker, and then had entered the Catholic Church and joined the Franciscan
Third Order.

At the time I had met him he was wearing a homemade Franciscan habit, professing celibacy, and preaching a simple Gospel message.

I had been pretty impressed with him, and he had awakened certain Catholic memories and impulses in me. So I had picked up a used copy of The Little Flowers at a book sale and was reading it with a growing sense of wonder, and a growing attraction for the kind of mystical prayer the book described.

However, most of the young Christians in our house were heading in very different directions than Mark or me. They had started attending informal prayer meetings at the home of Betty Bassett, a Pentecostal woman whom I was assured was "really anointed." From what I could glean, she was into the same "name it and claim it" prosperity theology as the televangelists  I had gotten in so much trouble for criticizing back in Michigan.

Still, wanting to keep an open mind, I went to one of her prayer meetings. There was a lot of "binding Satan" and claiming this or that blessing in the name of Jesus and the participants seemed to be under the impression that the efficacy of their prayer was directly related to the volume of their voices. After about fifteen minutes I could handle it no longer, and quietly got up and
went outside. There, in the silent darkness, I prayed.

On the way home, my friends talked excitedly about their experience at Mrs. Bassett’s. One of them said "Man, the Holy Spirit really moved once the unbelief left the room."

It wasn’t quite an attempted exorcism, but it was insult enough.

And it got me thinking. If my friends and I, reading the same Bible, were reaching such radically different conclusions about the ramifications of the Gospel perhaps there was something wrong in our fundamental assumptions.

I had gone to Catholic schools, in the years before and during Vatican II. The disorienting post-conciliar times happened during my public high school days. I remember my CCD teachers seemed to be looking to us, to Youth, for answers. It seemed that the Church and I were going through adolescence together, and the effect was a loss of confidence on my part.

However, back at St Agnes Elementary School, the Sisters of St. Joseph had taught us from the Baltimore Catechism. The Catechism has its often glaring faults: bad religious imagery, a certain dryness, and the tendency to identify a particular, very Roman devotional and theological style with the True Faith. However, it did communicate certain doctrinal truths in a way that stuck with you.

Thus I had the advantage, in this emerging religiuos dilemma, of at least knowing that the Catholic Church taught that She was the one who determined true doctrine and that ultimately this doctrinal authority rested in the Pope, who was the successor to St. Peter, who was the Rock on whom Christ had built His Church.

Reading of St. Francis, and witnessing my friends veering off into lunacy and heresy, this was starting to look like a feasible theory. On the other hand, I had been immersed in Protestant biblical interpretation for a few years, back before there was much in the way of Catholic response.

Not that I was ever anything but a very eclectic Protestant (indeed I would not have used the word to describe myself). I believed, for example, in purgatory because it seemed evident to me that if I died my immediate response would be burning shame at my sins. And I believed in the Real Presence in the
Eucharist simply because it was so clearly stated in Scripture.

On the other hand, I had been exposed to Protestant denunciations, based on Scripture texts, of everything from calling priests "Father" to praying the rosary to the use of images in worship. And I had been exposed to interpretations of the Book of Revelation in which the Pope was either the
Antichrist or his False Prophet and the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon. I didn’t necessarily buy this, but it created an abiding suspicion in me.

I realized that I was approaching the sort of crisis I had faced a few years before, when my attempts to fit Christ into a syncretistic universal religion ran up against the Christ I encountered reading the Gospels: He just didn’t fit. Eventually it became clear, reading C. S. Lewis, that based on what
Christ had said that either He was insane [or worse] or an imposter or that He was what He said He was, the Only Way to the Father.

Similarily, it was rapidly becoming evident that the Catholic Church was not just another denomination, that in making the claims that it made, it was either the True Church or a demonic Imposter. And the Pope, with his claims, had either to be the Vicar of Christ or the Antichrist.

I had put off facing the decision about Christ as long as I could, until He was breathing down my neck, and I probably would have done the same with the decision about the Church, anxiously but leisurely tackling one doctrine at a time, until I had figured it out, with God’s help.

But then my path was detoured by Debbie’s stubborn insistence that we go downtown and see the Pope.

[click here to read Part 3]

Daniel Nichols

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