The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

Behind the Mask: The Confessions of a Viator Vagans 1

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I am a Catholic. I started my Christian life as an Anglo-Catholic; having come to believe all that the Catholic and Roman Church teaches, for nearly thirty years I have been an unhyphenated one. I came to faith late, from a rather smug and cynical atheism, and that is still my mind’s (or better, my imagination’s) default position. It was my reading in my late teens that pointed me in a different direction—Eliot and Auden, Dostoevsky and Dante, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. At the same time I’d met a graduate student at the university I was attending, a learned, opinionated, witty, and extraordinarily generous young man. An observant Jew, he was “at home” every Friday night in his off-campus apartment to any of us who wanted conversation. From him I learned, inter alia, that it was still possible to be brilliant and a believer.

So I took to reading theology lite—in the Lewisian vein—and church history. There was a huge Episcopal cathedral down the street from my dorm, and I took to paying it Larkinesque visits and riffling through the Book of Common Prayer. I only attended a service there once, however, on Easter, when the ever-so-well-bred bishop knocked with his crozier on the great bronze doors while fanfares peeled from the state trumpet, reputed to be the most powerful organ stop in the world. I appreciated it as spectacle, but couldn’t connect to it as prayer.

Then one weekend my graduate student friend needed help with his exhibit table at a political youth conference at a midtown hotel. On Sunday morning, our friends wanted to go to church, and one of them suggested an Episcopal church a few crosstown blocks away. I had been intrigued by the church’s ads in the Saturday newspaper—”Catholic Worship, Liturgical Music, Gospel Preaching”—and even more by the fact that it was mentioned in a memoir about Eliot. The worship (High Mass, they called it) was unlike anything I had ever seen before: the large sanctuary area flooded with light; sacred ministers in beautifully embroidered silk vestments, attended by a flock of acolytes in cassock and cotta; chant and polyphony rendered by a professional choir; traditional hymns accompanied by a world-class organist (his improvisations were astonishing) on a wonderful instrument; the magnificent language of the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version; billows of incense nearly hiding the altar. And in the middle of all that beauty, there was a space where I found I could pray.

The Catholic churches in those first-fresh-winds-of-Vatican II times had nothing comparable to offer. Latin had vanished almost overnight, and the English, while not as Romper-Roomish as it was to become, was no match for Cranmer. Roman Rite church music had begun its slide into the morass of simpering cantors and pop banality. There, I couldn’t pray. Here, I could. So four months later I got up my courage to attend Sunday mass on my own; a few weeks after that, I summoned even more courage and spoke to the rector. By the time another four months had passed, I had been baptized and invited to serve at the altar. One year to the liturgical day after I first walked into high mass, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the ever-so-well-bred bishop.

This, of course, is a very superficial look at my Anglo-Catholic conversion. Or maybe it was just a very superficial conversion. At any rate, it’s the beginning of the meandering path that’s got me to where I am as I start this blog. For more of the story, stay tuned.

To be continued . . .

Written by hans castorp

December 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

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