Crossing the Tiber – Pt 1
October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
Approaching the Water
I was born and raised in a more or less Southern Baptist home. As a young boy my first recollections of church were at First Southern Baptist of Guthrie, OK, where I ultimately accepted Christ and was baptized at the age of nine. From there we moved to Clinton, OK, where we were very active at FSB-Clinton and I was among the ‘Youth Leadership Council’. It was there that I had my first taste of legalism as I thought my debt to God for his mercy was to lead a holy life…and to impose holiness on those around me.
My family later moved back to Edmond, OK, in my eighth-grade year, but we did not immediately re-engage in a church. It was not until my college years that my parents rejoined the Community Baptist Church after it had split off from the FSB Guthrie due to internal conflicts. But that was well after I had met Jessica (my bride-to-be), and I was already in deep introspection about faith along with my involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ. Shortly thereafter in the winter of 1998, I learned my paternal grandmother had converted to Catholicism. I was livid.
I remember very vividly attending the Christmas Mass at St. Mary’s in Guthrie at her request, but I did so very begrudgingly because my father had implored us to attend out of respect for my grandmother. I left the mass spewing criticisms and vituperation all the way from the front door to the car. I was so negative and vocal that my father had to call me down for it. Now, mind you, I had never taken the time to actually study Catholic doctrine or to learn specifically what it was my grandmother believed. But we will get to that later.
At some point in the following year I learned that Ambassador Alan Keyes, whom I adored and still do, was devoutly Roman Catholic. It did not shake my honor and respect for him as a moral crusader and guiding light in America, but it left me really questioning things. In the summer of 1999, we moved to Virginia Beach to begin my graduate studies at Regent University. As God would have it, I immediately jumped into the political fray in volunteering for the reelection campaign for then-Del. Bob McDonnell (now Governor of VA), also a graduate of Regent University Law School. I soon learned while on his campaign that he was Catholic as well. It was then that the question sparked: “How is it that these awesome men of God and very well-educated conservative stalwarts could belong to the Catholic Church? How could they be so right on everything else, but so wrong on the faith?” This boggled my mind.
But as fate would have it, it did not stop there. The commencement speaker at my graduation from Regent was none other than Father John Richard Neuhaus. I was familiar with him and his brilliant scholarship. And it struck me as odd that Pat Robertson, a strident Evangelical Protestant, would ask an eminent Catholic–and a man of the cloth no less–to speak at my graduation. What a conundrum. My admiration for Neuhaus grew because his leadership in the midst of the moral vacuum of America was well known among us at the School of Government.
What’s more, I had scanned the entire east coast looking for quality Ph.D. programs in Political Theory. Of the dozens of excellent universities along the eastern seaboard, the best program by far was at…The Catholic University of America. So I applied, and to my surprise they accepted me. So here I was, a Southern Baptist Evangelical who was a former staffer for the newly-elected Majority Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates (a Catholic), Bob McDonnell, now running the presidential campaign for a former U.S. Ambassador (a Catholic), Alan Keyes, while studying political theory at a Catholic University in which I was soon to be mentored by a high-church Anglican (quasi-Catholic), Dr. Claes Ryn, who himself was the apprentice of one of the greatest conservative minds of the 20th century (a Catholic), Russell Kirk.
I marveled at how odd this was. Could all of this have been a mere coincidence? I know I had not consciously sought these things because in most cases I did not know about the Catholicism until after the fact.
Enter my time at Catholic University. It might sound a bit strange that my progress in this journey was as important outside the classroom as it was inside. My study under Dr. Ryn was some of the most challenging I have ever experienced. He challenged me to think on a higher plane than I ever had before. So much so that I am still reflecting on many of those things and coming to new insights as I continue to mature.
But I recall as well very vividly on a regular basis the solemnity and reverence that surrounded that place. It was as if the entire campus was a sanctuary…a sanctuary to Christ. And it was that solemnity and reverence that drove me to wander almost daily over to the Basilica. No matter how often I went there, the sheer majesty of the place struck me each and every time as a holy place consecrated to Christ and to His worship. I found myself often walking toward the altar with a profound sense of conviction that I should be on my knees before that altar of Christ, that I had no business standing on my feet before Him in His house. But I was torn because, after all, Baptists, nay, Protestants (with some very few exceptions) do not traditionally genuflect in the presence of God. This troubled me greatly. Should I submit to what I felt was the Holy Spirit bidding me to submit in worship of Him or should I rely on the traditions of men that I had come to understand through my upbringing?
I recall, too, watching the movie Amistad with great fanfare when it was released in the theaters. It is still one of my most favorite movies. There is a scene in which the young judge (a Catholic) goes to the church on the day before the big court battle, over which he would preside, in order to pray for wisdom and prudence. As he approached the altar alone in the dark, dimly-sunlit sanctuary, he knelt and prayed. I was envious of his humility and piety and genuinely troubled that I had never had an opportunity nor even an expectation by the church to perform such a profoundly simple act of worship and devotion.
But with the tumult of our lives in DC and with the birth of our first daughter, Rebekah, along with our move back home, it was easy to put all of this in the back of my mind. I had no time or patience to delve any further into such matters when getting back on our feet and paying the bills were so pressing.