The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

Behind the Mask: Confessions of a Viator Vagans 3

with 2 comments

Part 1    Part 2

Long before my conversion, I knew I had to be Catholic—Roman Catholic. The few doctrines that divided Anglos and Romans, papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas, were no problem for me. And I was haunted by the feeling, slowly growing into a conviction, that on the moral matters that A-Cs often took a pass on, mostly the sexual ones, Rome was right and we were wrong.

But, as I tell my therapists, for me at least there’s a gulf between knowing something and doing anything about it. I’m change-averse by nature, and the bigger the change, the more averse I am. And this was a big change. For a while my hesitations centered on externals—polyphony, hymnody, incense, ceremonial, Anglophilia. But these were all secondary. The real rock of stumbling was in my own heart. There’s a whiff of playacting about Anglo-Catholicism; certainly there was about mine. For me the call to Rome was the call to get serious.

So I dithered for a while, disinclined to turn assent into obedience. Then, one after another, changes seemed to force themselves on me. The rector of our parish was fired by the self-perpetuating board of trustees; I seemed to be stuck in a dead end at work; my personal relationships were confused and confusing; and my mother was struggling with cancer and postoperative radiation treatments. One winter evening in a Catholic church I was in the habit of visiting on my way home from work I saw an announcement for a course introducing the faith to non-Catholics. I decided to give it a try.

It was hard to walk into the classroom the first night, and even harder, when the course was over that spring, to ask the old friar who taught it to receive me into the church. But a few weeks later, on Pentecost, I found myself signing the profession of faith and making my confession in the friary, then joining a small group of mostly Anglican friends in the church to be confirmed and receive Holy Communion.

And that’s that, right? Many conversion stories end at the font or the altar, with a few lines tacked on to assure the reader that the convert has reaped the fruits of his or her decision. Not mine. I’ve been a Catholic for thirty years, but I can’t say that I’ve made much progress in holiness. I confess the same old sins over and over, although I have managed to trade in one or two for some others. I go through periods of rebelliousness, indifference, anxiety, and despair, and I even spent a few years back among the Piskies (where, by God’s mysterious grace, I found Mrs. C). But wander where I will, somehow I always come back.

So what, dear reader, if reader there be, is the takeaway from this story? That HC can’t bear to face reality? That he misses his daddy? That he’s a fuming cauldron of resentments and unprocessed guilt and repression and . . . You get the picture; all plausible, after all. But for me, it’s this:

I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

—W. H. Auden, “Precious Five”


Written by hans castorp

October 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

2 Responses

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  1. “The few doctrines that divided Anglos and Romans, papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas, were no problem for me.” Interesting; they are the whole problem for me, even though the Episcopal Church has gone entirely to the dogs and I would like to be able to “cross the Tiber.” Did you read anything that helped you have no problem, or is that juust the way you happen to be?


    November 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    • Hi, Karl,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure that any one thing that I read did the trick. Let me take them in order, easiest first:

      1. The Assumption. I believed this as an Episcopalian (my parish kept the day with special solemnity). It always seemed strange to me that, given the plethora of relics in circulation, no one claimed to have a relic of Our Lady’s body. What happened to it?

      2. Papal infallibility. The doctrine made logical sense to me; the papacy did function to preserve the faith, and, of course, the doctrine applied only to *ex cathedra* statements. I found Don John Chapman’s *Studies in the Early Papacy” helpful on the more difficult historical questions.

      3. The Immaculate Conception. This was always a bit more difficult for me; I had a hard time understanding it, and the devotional language that surrounded it was off-putting. But the sinlessness of Our Lady is an old and ecumenical doctrine (read the Byzantine prayers addressed to the Theotokos), and the Fathers spoke of her as “the second Eve” as Christ is the “second Adam.” Why was her conception liturgically celebrated if there was nothing special about it (it was, without the “Immaculate,” the patronal feast of my old parish)? As time has passed and I’ve become inculturated into the church, I’ve come to appreciate it more. At the time of my conversion I assented to it because the church definitively taught it.


      hans castorp

      December 3, 2012 at 11:04 am

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