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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Muslim critic Magdi Allam converts, baptised by Benedict XVI

The Associated Press reports that Italy's most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service:
An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book "Long Live Israel."

As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Allam's head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

"We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another," Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. "Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close."

Vatican Television zoomed in on Allam, who sat in the front row of the basilica along with six other candidates for baptism. He later received his first Communion.

Allam, 55, told the newspaper Il Giornale in a December interview that his criticism of Palestinian suicide bombing provoked threats on his life in 2003, prompting the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail.

Local Muslim organizations responded thus to the news:
The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy — which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas — said the baptism was his own decision.

"He is an adult, free to make his personal choice," the Apcom news agency quoted the group's spokesman, Issedin El Zir, as saying.

Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of Coreis, the Islamic religious community in Italy, said he respected Allam's choice but said he was "perplexed" by the symbolic and high-profile way in which he chose to convert.

"If Allam truly was compelled by a strong spiritual inspiration, perhaps it would have been better to do it delicately, maybe with a priest from Viterbo where he lives," the ANSA news agency quoted Pallavicini as saying.

There seems to be some disjuncture between the emphasis on Allam as "Italy's leading Muslim writer" and the following description of the convert as: "An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic."

According to another article, Allam himself "says he has never been a practicing Muslim." And in his own conversion story, he refers to himself as having "occasionally practiced [Islam] at a cultural level." Hardly what I would call "Italy's most prominent MUSLIM".

Were the inverse true: -- were a non-practicing Catholic married to a Muslim to embrace Islam -- would it be proper to describe him as "a prominent Catholic"?

This leads me to wonder if the press is deliberately playing up this aspect of the story, so as to foster Islamic-Christian tensions -- along the same lines as their shoddy reporting of Benedict's Regensburg address (ignoring practically everything else in his address, save that which they saw as newsworthy and potentially inflammatory).

It is possible to perceive Benedict's agreement to baptize Allam as signifying his emphasis on religious freedom (particularly for Christians residing in nations with an Islamic majority). Nonetheless I think it would be improper for Christians to treat this conversion in triumphalistic fashion, as seems to be the case on some blogs.


  • Muslim Baptized by Pope Sought Dialogue, by Frances D'Emilio. Associated Press March 24, 2008:
    The Egyptian-born commentator who renounced Islam and converted to Roman Catholicism with a baptism by Pope Benedict XVI has built his career crusading against what he calls the "inherent" violence in Islam and championing Israel's existence. . . .

    Allam has credited the pope, who himself has been criticized by some Muslims, as being instrumental in his decision to become a Catholic at age 55 and after spending his adult life in predominantly Catholic Italy.

    A frequent commentator on Islamic issues and terrorism on Italian TV, Allam says he is "passionate" about coexistence in the West of "national identity and democracy, immigration and integration, Islam and terrorism" . . .

    The conversion freed him "from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an 'enemy,'" he said.

    In an interview on Italian private TV Canale 5 Monday evening, Allam said he felt "stronger" and "great joy" because of his conversion.

    He dismissed the suggestion that Benedict, in baptizing him, might put at risk the lives of Christian minorities in Islamic nations.

    Benedict "wanted to give a signal to the church throughout the world that whoever" wants to join will be accepted, Allam said.

  • A Muslim critic turns Catholic, by Jeff Israeliy. Time March 24, 2008:
    After studying sociology at Rome's La Sapienza University, Allam began writing for the Italian daily La Repubblica, covering the first Gulf War and chronicling everyday life of the country's growing Muslim population. Initially, he wrote favorably about multiculturalism, and warned about the risks of racism against Muslims in this heavily Catholic nation. But after 9/11, now writing for another major newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he became an increasingly harsh critic of Islam, both inside and outside of Italy. He warned against the "Islamization" of Europe, and urged opposition to the building of new mosques in Italy. In his provocatively titled 2007 book Viva Israel: From the ideology of death to the civilization of life, my story, he described his transformation from hating Zionists as a youth to realizing "that hatred easily comes to include all Jews, then all Christians, then all liberal and secular Muslims, and at the end all Muslims who do not want to submit to Islamic radicals' will."
  • Magdi Allam Recounts His Path to Conversion Zenit News Service. March 23, 2008:
    On my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason. My conversion to Catholicism is the touching down of a gradual and profound interior meditation from which I could not pull myself away, given that for five years I have been confined to a life under guard, with permanent surveillance at home and a police escort for my every movement, because of death threats and death sentences from Islamic extremists and terrorists, both those in and outside of Italy.

    I had to ask myself about the attitude of those who publicly declared fatwas, Islamic juridical verdicts, against me -- I who was a Muslim -- as an “enemy of Islam,” “hypocrite because he is a Coptic Christian who pretends to be a Muslim to do damage to Islam,” “liar and vilifier of Islam,” legitimating my death sentence in this way. I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a “moderate Islam,” assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Quran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.

    At the same time providence brought me to meet practicing Catholics of good will who, in virtue of their witness and friendship, gradually became a point of reference in regard to the certainty of truth and the solidity of values. . . .

    But undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert was that with Pope Benedict XVI, whom I admired and defended as a Muslim for his mastery in setting down the indissoluble link between faith and reason as a basis for authentic religion and human civilization, and to whom I fully adhere as a Christian to inspire me with new light in the fulfillment of the mission God has reserved for me.

    Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another, and much more grave, death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.

  • Not suprisingly, is playing up Allam's "Muslim" background as well, in addition to his denunciations of Islam as "intrinsically violent".

  • Muslims question Vatican baptism of Islamic critic, by Tom Heneghan. Reuters. March 24, 2008:
    [Aref Ali Nayed, a participant in the Muslim-Catholic dialogue] said the Vatican should distance itself from a searing attack on Islam that Allam published on Sunday in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, where he is deputy director.

    Commentators in Algeria and Morocco echoed Nayed's view, saying Allam's conversion was a personal affair but his attacks on Islam and his headline-grabbing baptism by the pope strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church.

    "The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.

    "Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing 'A Common Word' for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity."

Update 3/24/08

Some reactions from the Catholic blogging world ...

  • An Individual Act of Conscience or a Global Phenomenon?, by Sherry Weddell, who expresses her reservations about the publicity being heaped upon Allam (Intentional Disciples March 24, 2008):
    [Allam's baptism] could have been done lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster boydom and may actually be counter-productive.

    Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion. . . .

    Since we aren't actively persecuted, it is easy for us to call for a full frontal assault ( Charge!) and "religious freedom now!" and to talk blithely about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church. Cause the chances of it being our blood or that of our children is very, very small. But as I have said before, "charge!" and spineless cowardice are not the only two options available to us.

    Meanwhile, someone really sharp, spiritually and theological mature, and prayerful needs to stay close to Allam and guide him through this tumultuous transition. It's hard enough to become a Catholic at age 56 from a non-Christian background. Doing it in the middle of a media and geo-political circus (Imagine if Princess Diana had become Catholic as was rumored before her death!) is full of potential pitfalls.

    (Abu Daoud @ Islam & Christianity, responds on The Baptism of Magdi Allam: Wisdom or Folly?:
    Was it the wisest and most prudent path for Benedict to baptize this particular Muslim on Easter at St. Petersburg?

    I think there that Sherry would answer NO. But my answer is Yes. So let me address this specific topic instead of trading in hypotheticals, which is what we have been doing until now. . . .

  • And DarwinCatholic, on True Religious Tolerance and Dialog:
    I find myself wondering if Benedict's aim in all this is to make a statement about the nature of true religious toleration and dialog. . . .

    Benedict is no political and cultural fire-breether, but he is a thoughtful and holy man who is in no sense afraid of difficult and unpopular truths. I wonder if the pope, who according to Allam immediately agreed to personally receive him into the Church when Allam made the request, means with this action to make a statement that he will bring to the table when he meets with scholard from the A Common Word initiative in November: Toleration means not merely ignoring and minimizing points of difference, but respecting the conscience of others even in the face of grave and important points of difference.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome

On May 5, Dr. Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) announced that he had been received back into the Catholic Church (his home until age 14); his wife and family following him. The announcement was greeted with celebration among Catholics and consternation among Evangelicals, in fact prompting his resignation from the society.

Following are some links to articles and discussion around the 'net (compiled chiefly with the help of Carl Olson @ Ignatius Insight, a fellow convert who has been following this story closely).

  • My Return to the Catholic Church Right Reason:
    During the last week of March 2007, after much prayer, counsel and consideration, my wife and I decided to seek full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. My wife, a baptized Presbyterian, is going through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). This will culminate with her receiving the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. For me, because I had received the sacraments of Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation all before the age of 14, I need only go to confession, request forgiveness for my sins, ask to be received back into the Church, and receive absolution. . . .

  • Q&A with Dr. Francis Beckwith Christianity Today, Interview with David Neth. May 9, 2007.

  • He Could No Longer Explain Why He Wasn’t Catholic Interview with Tim Drake. National Catholic Register June 3-9, 2007.

  • Answering The Call To Full Communion, Interview with Carl Olson. Ignatius Insight June 5, 2007.


Related Reading


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Elizabeth Fox Genovese 1941-2007

Elizabeth Fox Genovese died on January 2nd, at the age of 65. The blog Cosmos Liturgy Sex provides a welcome roundup of memories and tributes - In Memory of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: Secular, Liberal to Pro-life Feminist:
Elizabeth began her career as an atheist, feminist scholar but her sharp mind and open heart soon led her to the truth about abortion and eventually to her conversion to the Catholic Faith. She was an active member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a recognized expert in the history of the American South, and a critic of radical feminism.
Elizabeth offered some reflections on her conversion in a Crisis 2002 magazine article, The Way of Conversion:
What I believe I can say with some confidence, but without pride, is that conversion never stops. Each day, each of us faces fresh challenges to live and act and speak in fidelity to the gospel, and none of them is easy.

But of this we may be sure: If we back away from all of them and retreat into the comfort of the prevailing consensus, we will lose the substance of our conversion. It is common to see the convert as the prodigal son of Jesus' parable and, I suspect, no less common for faithful Catholics, including converts, to identify with the older son, for whom no fatted calf is killed. In slipping into that view of ourselves as having been converted-having attained a status-we lose sight of the parable's deeper meaning: namely, that we always remain the prodigal son and always remain in need of the Father's unqualified welcome.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Breaking Communion - Reactions to Rod Dreher's Eastward Turn

Earlier this month Rod ("CrunchyCon") Dreher announced the news -- disappointing but not entirely unexpected -- that he and his family were now communicants at an Orthodox church ("Orthodoxy and Me" October 12, 2006).

I encountered "CrunchyCon" Rod Dreher only briefly in his sojourn on St. Blog's parish -- in the combox of Amy Welborn's Open Book. I have yet to get around to reading the book for which is blog is named. As a journalist who covered the scandals in the Church and the resistance and obfuscation of the clergy, I think it is understandable how completely sickened, disillusioned and jaded one might become, having been exposed to that degree of corruption in the ranks of the clergy and heirarchy. As Dale Price reminds us, Rod's former bishop is Charles Grahmann,

currently cooling his heels as he awaits the acceptance of his tended resignation offer. That would be the same bishop who is remarkably solicitous of gropers in the confessional and proved to be a noted enabler of pedophilic monster Rudy Kos.
and, later:
the sex abuse Scandal has been the most horrific of these. Starting with the hideousness of children being violated. But not stopping there. The Scandal revealed a deep rotting disease within American Catholicism that has only begun to be recognized, let alone treated.

Rod saw it up close and personal as a journalist covering the story for years. As much as I am loathe to quote him, Nietzsche's insight cannot be denied: "And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." There is only so much horror one can stand, especially when the atrocities are committed by those who are supposed to bear the name of Jesus Christ.

If disillusionment and repulsion to the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and the ongoing corruption of the hierarchy was one reason for leaving, it was -- however dominant -- not the only reason. Dreher goes on to declare his intellectual rejection of the claims of the Church:
I'll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome's claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn't believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls.
And, in a further clarification :
I don't deny that reason played a minor role in my conversion. It was primarily emotional and psychological -- but I do deny that that minimizes matters. As I've said, a decade ago, I argued with a friend considering Orthodoxy and Catholicism that all that mattered was doctrinal truth. He said he worried about raising Christian kids in the mess that is US Catholic parish life. I dismissed those concerns, and said he should instead concentrate on the doctrinal arguments. Well, real life -- and having kids of my own -- showed me how brittle that position was, and is. Human beings are not machines. We all have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, between radical objectivity and radical subjectivity. I used to think that being a Christian was merely a matter of finding the most logical arguments, intellectually assenting to them and doing your best to live by them. It is far more complicated than that, and I found through the scandal my intellect humiliated.
Many an angry word has been exchanged by readers in response to Rod's conversion. Yet, there are a few Catholic bloggers who have offered some very thoughtful and respectful reflections to Dreher's rationale and consequent decision to break communion with the Church. It is to those that I'd like to turn . . .
  • Scandal and Bad Reasons, by Scott Carson The Examined Life October 14, 2006):
    Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments.
  • When a Catholic leaves the Catholic Church, by Alvin Kimel. Pontifications. Kimel had penned two responses to Dreher when he had originally heard of his contemplation on leaving the Catholic Church: Ten thousand scandals do not make one doubt (Pontifications May 8, 2006), and Dare we entrust our children to the Catholic Church? May 11, 2006. Both are worth revisiting. In his latest essay, he extrapolates from Dreher's experience the chief question:
    In light of Dreher’s departure from the Catholic Church, I only have one question: Was he in fact a Catholic? I do not have access to Dreher’s heart and soul, and I certainly do not condemn him for his decision. I regret that he has left the Catholic Church, and I grieve the sins of the Church that led him to renounce the divine authority of the Vicar of Christ. I pray that I may never be so tested.

    My interest at this point is purely theoretical. How are we to understand a person who enters into the communion of the Catholic Church and then departs from that communion?

  • Dreher Looks East, by DarwinCatholic. May 6, 2006 (responding earlier this year to Rod's initial admission that he was contemplating Orthodoxy):
    By his own description, one of the reasons why Dreher is currently finding it so hard to be Catholic is that initially, after his conversion, he expected so very, very much of it. It's tempting to think that Catholicism, or some little portion of it, is very near to perfect. And seeing as the institution Church is made up of humans, it clearly isn't.

    Perhaps it's easier to see this as both a cradle Catholic and a student of history, but it's always seemed to me that the proof of God's divine guidance is not that the Church is so sinless, but rather that she has remained wholly true to the deposit of faith despite being populated and occasionally run by some exceedingly sinful people.

  • In his own BeliefNet column, "Church of Sinners", Mark Shea counters Rod's apologia with a challenge:
    . . . I fear that the Orthodox communion will not, in the end, provide permanent sanctuary for Rod. For in the end, what Rod cites as unbearable in Catholicism is also true of Orthodoxy. For instance, he suddenly discovers that he cannot believe in Vatican I's dogma of papal infallibility because of the ecclesiastical politicking that led to the formulation of that dogma. Nevertheless, he accepts as sacrosanct the dogmas of the first seven councils of the early church (Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and so forth)--all of which settled crucial issues of faith and doctrine concerning Christ's divinity and humanity, and all of which are accepted by the Orthodox as well as Catholics. This betrays a historical naiveté that leaves him open to some unpleasant surprises when he learns how the sausage was made at those historic councils. Likewise, when Rod discovers the history of Orthodox sins that rival anything in the history of Catholic sins—such as a long habit of being in the pocket of the state to such a degree that many clergy and even some bishops in the Soviet Union were on the KGB payroll and routinely reported the contents of confessions to the Stalinist police--what will he do? When he discovers that the Orthodox have their own struggles with priestly abuse and episcopal cover-ups, how shall he find purity then? Will he content himself with the fact that his own particular parish is beyond reproach, so it doesn't matter what happens in the larger Orthodox communion? If so, how is that different from the Protestant sectarianism he left when he became Catholic?
  • "The doxing of Rod Dreher" Sacramentum Vitae Oct. 14, 2006: Michael Liccione notes the ex post facto nature of Rod's rejection of papal authority, but goes on to offer a stern warning to the clergy:
    . . . many Catholics who leave the Church do so either because the clergy haven't formed them properly or because the clergy betray their trust. Dreher's case is only one of the more public, and well-explained, examples. But in one form or another, his name is legion.

    Such facts are all the greater proof that nothing will improve in the American Catholic Church until the quality of the clergy, especially the higher clergy, improves significantly. In the last decade, it has improved only marginally; the majority of bishops, regardless of theology, are still more bureaucrats than shepherds. That's what has to change; if it does, all else will change with it, and for the better.

  • By way of Amy Welborn ("Dreher's Way" Open Book Oct. 15, 2006), Fr. Neuhaus' response to Dreher's conversion, which mirrors that of a number of Catholics:
    Yes, his decision is in large part reactive. But he is reacting to very real corruptions in the Catholic Church. I hope every Catholic bishop and priest will read his essay, and especially those bishops and priests who are inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we have weathered the sex-abuse scandal. And every Catholic engaged in the standard intra-church quarrels, whether on the left or the right, should take to heart what he says about Catholics being more preoccupied with church battles than with following Jesus.

    Dreher concludes his reflection with this: “Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all.” No Catholic should hesitate to join in that prayer.


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray

Father Dowd (Waiting in Joyful Hope) posts his reflections upon reading The Picture of Dorian Gray:

It had been said that there are, in fact, three phases to moral corruption: the tempation itself, the delectation, and the consent. When repeated often enough, the actual sins become habitual, and a vice is formed. This book is a record of one man's descent into vice, his conscience gradually shutting off until even his good resolutions are tainted with evil. More than this, however, the book is an example of the "delectation". People do not generally leap from gross temptation to gross sin all at once -- there needs to be an intermediate phase, in which the sin is made to appear attractive, and its negative consequences themselves negated (at least to the mind). Lord Henry is a master at this, sucking in Dorian Gray and, quite possibly, the reader as well.

Which, it would seem to me, is part of the intent of the author. While many hold that the book is an ironic indictment of the hypocritical immorality of the English aristocracy, I think it is more. The simple fact is that Oscar Wilde (the author) lived a lifestyle that, in many ways, matched that of his characters. I can see many people reading this book and actually agreeing with Lord Henry and his ideas -- because after all, it isn't he who pays for them.

The book does portray the possibility of repentence and forgiveness from God, but even this fails, in a most brutal and bloody way. It is as though the author is telling the reader, "Don't bother believing that stuff, it can't help you." The end result, of course, is an awful portrayal of final impenitence.

The twist is that the author of the story, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was himself a penitent "deathbed convert," holding a lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church in spite of his infamous reputation of being "Apostle of Aestheticism," personal decadence and a martyr for gay rights. For further details on one of most fascinating Catholic conversions, see Jeffrey A. Tucker's Oscar Wild: Roman Catholic (Cisis 19, no. 1 April 2001), and The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde, by Anddrew McCracken, which contains further background on Dorian Grey:

As for Dorian Gray and its connection to Wilde's eventual conversion, the novel sits at the intersection of several fictional and actual spiritual paths. The fictional Dorian is partly coaxed into his amoral aestheticism and self-regard by reading a "poison book," a yellow-backed novel written by a Frenchman. The book he had in mind, Wilde later affirmed, was a novel of the French Decadence published in 1884 entitled A Rebours (in English, "Against the Grain" or "Against Nature"). A Rebours chronicles the life of a fictional aristocrat who gives himself over to the most perverse pleasures he can dream of. A Rebours was a daringly new sort of fiction and worked powerfully on Wilde's literary imagination. He wrote, "the heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain." The fictional hero of A Rebours, as Wilde well knew, ends contemptuous of everything and unable to have faith in anything except -- perhaps -- "the terrible God of Genesis and the pale martyr of Golgotha. . . ." The novel ends with his prayer, "Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe. . . ." Seven years after A Rebours was published, its author, J.-K. Huysmans, sought out a priest. In 1892 he returned to the Church and in 1900 became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. His last three works were religious novels with Catholic settings. As for the sincerity of his religious faith, a modern editor of his work attests that he "put the doctrine into effect . . . in six months of atrocious agony, heroically borne, that preceded his death from cancer."

And for an in-depth treatment of Oscar Wilde's life and thought, see The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, a spiritual biography by Joseph Pierce. From the publisher:

Vilified by his fellow Victorians for his sexuality and dandyism, these days he is hailed as a sexual liberator. Yet this is not how Wilde saw himself. His lifestyle and pretenses did not bring him happiness and fulfillment: his art did. And this is where Pearce's search for the man behind the masks is centered. Rather than lingering on the actions that brought him notoriety, Joseph Pearce explores the emotional and spiritual search.

Joseph Pierce is himself something of an expert on literary converts to the Catholic Faith and I highly recommend his books. See, among others, his excellent Wisdom & Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc and Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (Ignatius, 2000).


The Pontificator Comes Home . . .

A little over a year ago, Fr. Kimel had asked his readers for their prayers, as he made the bittersweet announcement that his son had found his way to the Catholic faith:

. . . Early last week he called my wife and I and informed us that he had decided to become a Roman Catholic. Today he will be confirmed and will make his first communion as a Catholic. And from that point you, he will no longer be able to receive communion from the hands of his father.

My eyes filled with tears of grief upon hearing this news. Over a year and a half ago I had to counsel him to explore other Christian traditions. There is no future for you and your future family in the Episcopal Church, I told him. He heeded my advice and began to explore and read and pray. He is a serious Christian young man. And so today he begins a new chapter in his walk with our Lord.

I was struck by the significant of that action, to place loyalty to Christ above family ties (what struck me as a personal application of Luke 14:26). I was greatly impressed by Father Kimel's courage and integrity in doing so, and kept him in my thoughts (and prayers, when I could bring my slothful mind to remember).

Consequently, it comes as an especially great joy -- for myself, as for many of his Catholic readers at 'St. Blog's Parish' -- to read Fr. Al Kimel's announcement to his blog that a decision is reached: he will follow his son into full communion with the Catholic Church:

Last night I tendered my resignation to the Vestry of St. Mark’s Church, effective July 1st. It is my intention to renounce my orders as an Episcopal priest and to enter, for the sake of my salvation, into full communion with the Catholic Church. I freely affirm the Catholic Church to be the one true fold of Jesus Christ. It is also my intention to avail myself of the Pastoral Provision and to apply for ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

Please keep Fr. Kimel, his wife and family in your prayers, for as many a convert can attest, the journey is only beginning, and there will be trials ahead. I pray that the saints of Heaven watch over him, and let the venerable John Henry Newman, another great Anglican convert, be his guide and inspiration.

And, if it pleases the Lord, may Fr. Kimel once again have the joy of giving communion to his son.

Related Posts

  • Dr. Philip Blosser:

    . . . Your presence aboard the Barque of Peter is a welcome one, and your gifts are needed and the Lord will see that they are eventually put to good use. But don't be surprised if you are confronted by obstacles, indifference, or even hostility. Remember the warnings of Thomas Merton to converts: don't let the all-too-human side of the Church get you down. The amazing thing is that the Church has a divine side at all. But the truth about that, of course, is the little ineluctable thing that prevented us converts from putting off the hour of decision indefinitely. (As you put it: "For the sake of my salvation ...")

  • Dave Armstrong reflects on Fr. Kimel's decision and the meaning of conversion itself

    Conversion means we feel strongly about where we are going. But again, I want to reiterate the point that this does not rule out ecumenism or Christian unity. And on that note I would like to recall what C.S. Lewis (my favorite writer) said: that those Christians who are at the center of their own traditions are closer to those at the center of other Christian traditions, than to those in their own, who are more on the outer edges, or fringe. Thus, I feel far more kinship with a traditional Anglican than with a liberal Catholic (who, to be frank, drive me nuts); much more with an ecumenical orthodox Reformed who rejects the papacy as an ecclesiological necessity than with a so-called (radical) “traditionalist Catholic” who rejects the current pope, or who thinks there is no pope. I feel infinitely more spiritual kinship with a devout Baptist (which many of my longtime friends are) than with a nominal Catholic who makes little or no effort to learn or live his faith, or to avoid serious sin: let alone try to harmonize it with his thought concerning the larger culture, politics, ethics, the arts, etc.

  • Secret Agent Man:

    Catholics spend far more time and energy explaining what Protestants lost in the Reformation than we do about what Roman Catholicism lost. Al Kimel's blog -- Al Kimel's writing, perspectives, and thoughts -- is/was a perfect example of that loss. I'm very happy to see one gem returned to the treasury; I hope the Church will be properly grateful for it.

  • Update - 25-year Episcopal priest quits Johnstown parish to join Catholic Church, by Steve Levin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 21, 2005.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

J. Budziszewski - Another Refugee from Anglicanism

During the 1990s, J. Budziszewski rose to prominence as one of the leading intellectual lights among Evangelical Christians in America. A political theorist with a special interest in the natural-law tradition, he was highly sought as a speaker at conferences organized by groups such as the InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. A principal theme of his many talks to American campus groups is captured in the title of his 1999 book, How to Stay Christian in College.

For some Evangelical Protestants, then, it came as a jolt when, on Easter Sunday 2004, Budziszewski was received into the Catholic Church. After maintaining a public silence about his conversion for several months, Budziszewski agreed to tell the story to [Catholic World Report].

J. Budziszewski teaches in the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recently books are What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2004) and The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence, 2004).

"Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An interview with J. Budziszewski", courtesy of Ignatius Insight.

(Via The Seventh Age): Zenit News Service has a two-part interview with Budziszewski ("Natural Law in Our Lives, in Our Courts")

J. Budziszewski Knows That You Know What You Know, Even though you may not know it yourself. interview with Dick Staub. Christianity Today June 23, 2003.

Via Pontifications, who inquires:

I have googled him and cannot find a first name for him anywhere. He is always simply listed as "J. Budziszewski.” Is he hiding something? Is his name, like the Tetragramaton, unpronounceable? Or is his first name simply “Jay” and he is being economical?


Sunday, January 02, 2005

Towards a Critical Appreciation of Thomas Merton

A little more than a year ago, Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead voice their disappointment with the inclusion of Thomas Merton in the draft of the new National Adult Catechism in an article for Catholic World News (The New National Adult Catechism Revisited CWNews, Nov. 2003). Their article contained a blatantly slanderous and damning portrayal of Thomas Merton as an unfaithful Catholic:
. . . we now turn immediately to the very first "story" in Part 1, Chapter 1, of the draft NAC, and we find that, incredibly, the supposed "exemplary Catholic" featured in this first story is none other than that lapsed monk, Thomas Merton, a one-time professed Catholic religious, who later left his monastery, and, at the end of his life, was actually off wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality. Now it is true that Thomas Merton was a gifted writer, which in part explains why he continues to have votaries today; he wrote beautiful words about the needs of the human heart in its search for truth and grace. Some of these words are quoted here, and apparently were the pretext for featuring Merton in this chapter. The chapter is actually richer than that, though, and features at the end some wonderful quotations from St. Augustine.

But Thomas Merton was no St. Augustine. The latter, though he had sinned greatly, nevertheless devoted the rest of his life to the strict practice and promotion of the Christian faith. He was all the more effective in that he understood what the lack of faith entailed. Thomas Merton, on the other hand, converted when he was fairly young and only later, after he had incurred the solemn responsibilities that accompany religious vows, did he apparently give in to "itching ears" and went off "searching" in the manner of those modern seekers who will not be tied down by concrete demands of genuine religious faith -- especially the moral demands.

This chapter actually speaks about "those who have drifted away from the faith," yet does not see the irony inherent in the fact that Thomas Merton was himself apparently one of these. We do not take notice of this in order to judge him, but only in order to indicate that he can scarcely be considered an "exemplary Catholic." The very fact that the editors of the this text could have included him as such in their very first chapter immediately casts doubt on their understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and the needs of contemporary Catholics, especially in the wake of the scandals of other priests unfaithful to their vows. The choice of Merton here surely resembles the recent choice of the pro-abortion Leon Panetta as a member of the bishops' National Review Board on clerical sex abuse -- one of those mistakes that ought not to have been made. And this will undoubtedly be the reaction of many Catholics if this particular story is retained in the final NAC draft; it will likely be taken as one more piece of evidence that the American bishops still don't "get it."

Blogger and fellow member of St. Blog's Parish Bill Cork has recently defended Merton against the slander that he had "left the Church", pointing out that:

Merton was not a "lapsed monk," nor a "one-time professed Catholic religious," nor did he ever leave his monastery. He remained a faithful Catholic and a faithful member of the Trappists until he died; he is buried at Gethsemane as "Fr. Louis." He was not "actually off wandering in the East," but went to Thailand for a conference of Christian and Eastern monks, and had other dialogues with leaders of Eastern religions along the way; he died at the Thailand conference when he accidentally pulled an electric fan onto himself. This is simple history known to anyone who knows anything about Merton.

Unfortunately, Wrenn & Whitehead's critical article is now suspected as having contributed to the decision of the U.S. Bishops to replace the profile of Merton with American Catholic Elizabeth Ann Seton (the rationale being: "to provide more gender balance, because most of the other profiles [included in the catechism] are of men"). Merton's rejection has sparked protest of hundreds of Catholics, as reported by the Louisville Courier ("Hundreds want Merton back in Catholic guide" January 1, 2005) and monitered by Dan Phillips, who runs a popular website on all things Merton).

The International Merton Society has released open letter to Bishop Donald Wuerl, chair of the committee charged with writing the catechism, and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, questioning Donald Wuerl's claim that "we don't know all the details of the searching at the end of his life":

As for the "secondary" consideration ". . . we are aware of no reputable Merton scholars or even of careful readers of Merton who think that his interest in Eastern religions toward the end of his life, which led to his Asian journey and his untimely death, in any way compromised his commitment to the Catholic Christianity that he had embraced thirty years before. On the contrary, a reading of the major biographies by James Forest, Michael Mott and William Shannon, of The Other Side of the Mountain, the final volume of his journals, of his retreat conferences in Thomas Merton in Alaska, given immediately before leaving for Asia, and of his final talk on the day of his death, published in The Asian Journal, confirm that it was because of the deep grounding in his own Catholic, Cistercian, contemplative tradition that he was able to enter into meaningful dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions like the Dalai Lama, who has repeatedly said that it was his encounter with Merton that first allowed him to recognize the beauty and authentic spiritual depths of Christianity.

As Merton himself said in a classic passage in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (published two years before his death):

"I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."

If that wasn't enough to persuade Wrenn & Whitehead, let's hear a refutation from Jim Forest himself [photo, left], from a lecture given at Boston College (Nov. 13, 1995):

Because Merton was drawn to develop relationships with non-Christians -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists -- casual readers occasionally form the impression that Merton's bond with Christianity was wearing thin during the latter years of his life and that he was window-shopping for something else. It is not unusual to meet people who think that, had he only lived longer, he would have become a Buddhist. But as you get to know Merton's life and writing more intimately, you come to understand that his particular door to communion with others was Christ Himself. Apart from times of illness, he celebrated Mass nearly every day of his life from the time of his ordination in 1949 until he died in Thailand 19 years later. Even while visiting the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, he found time to recite the usual Trappist monastic offices. One of the great joys in the last years of his life was his abbot permitting the construction of a chapel adjacent to the cider block house that became Merton's hermitage -- he was blessed to celebrate the Liturgy where he lived. If there were any items of personal property to which he had a special attachment, they were the several hand-written icons that had been given to him, one of which traveled with him on his final journey. Few people lived so Christ-centered a life. But his Christianity was spacious. The Dalai Lama has remarked, "When I think of the word Christian, immediately I think -- Thomas Merton!"

Merton - Conventional Catholic and Otherwise

Whatever position one takes in the present debate, it must be recognized that Merton was anything but a conventional Trappist monk.

On one hand, Merton very much catered to such a portrayal as a "traditional" Catholic -- he wrote a spiritual biography heralded as one of the most influential religious works of the twentieth century (The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948); he produced lengthy meditations on traditional Catholic subjects like the Eucharist (The Living Bread, 1956), the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross (The Ascent to Truth, 1951) and the monastic calling (The Silent Life, 1957).

On the other hand, the latter period of Merton's relatively brief life did everything to call his portrayal as a "traditional Catholic" into question: he ventered into political activism in the 1960's (protesting the Vietnam war, racial segregation and the nuclear arms race); displayed a genuine interest in other religions and engaged in dialogue with their practicioners (including D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lhama) in a spirit that anticipated Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, and journeyed to Japan and India to attend conferences on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

There is no denying that the later Merton had changed to some degree in his thought and attitude toward the Catholic Church. In fact, according to Merton's friend Edward Rice, he went on to say

I have become very different than what I used to be. The man who began this journal [The Sign of Jonas] is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began is also dead, and what is more, the man who was the central figure in The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over . . . The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I had never even heard of." [The Man in a Sycamore Tree, p 101].

The remark can be interpreted on a number of levels. Rice interprets it as a sign of Merton's disappointment with Trappist life, that it did not bring the peace and contentment he had envisioned when initially becoming a monk. But perhaps Merton's statement can be read as well as a sign of his personal exasperation with Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled him into the public eye and branded him as a kind of "poster boy for American Catholicism" sought after by thousands of adoring readers -- not an easy situation for a Trappist monk attempting to live a life of solitude, seeking to relenquish his ego in the quest for God.

However much we may appreciate Seven Storey Mountain, one can also recognize an underlying current of pious revulsion at the secular world, a distinct attitude which laid the groundwork for further change -- as can be seen by Merton's account of his spiritual epiphany en route to the city of Louisville in The Sign of Jonas:The Sign of Jonas:

I wondered how I would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world. I met the world and found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps the things I resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now, on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep and mute sense of compassion . . . I seemed to have lost an eye for merely exterior detail and to have discovered, instead, a deep sense of respect and love and pity for the souls that such details never fully reveal. I went through the city, realizing for the first time in my life how good are all the people in the world and how much value they have in the sight of God."

The Universal Appeal of Thomas Merton

Jim Knight and Edward Rice, two of Merton's close friends, published an online recollections of their memories of Merton -- The Real Merton -- resisting the characterization of their friend as a triumphant Catholic ("a portrait that was unrecognizable, that of a plastic saint, a monk interested mainly in pulling nonbelievers, and believers in other faiths, into the one true religion"). According to Knight and Rice:

The Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us, was a different man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions, Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith. These are things the record needs.

For us Merton was one of the seminal figures of our time. He was deeply curious about all religions, all areas of thought and philosophy. Rice says: "The Church has not done right by him. In fact, the Church has wronged him, and continues to wrong him, by glossing over, by evading the universality of his thought. The Church wants to obscure his basic human nature, his reaching out to other people in a desire to create a common bond, not necessarily based on religion."

Edward Rice, who sponsored Merton's conversion, goes on to challenge what he calls the "Thomas Merton Cult":

"['The Thomas Merton cult'] presents Merton as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has his influence as Merton."

Granted, Rice's vision of salvation may be deemed more universalistic and non-traditional than most Catholics ("in Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn el Arab[i], Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Charles de Foucau[l]d, . . . "an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of all faiths, some with no faith at all"), and I am not altogether certain where such a "Thomas Merton Cult" is to be found (the appreciations I've read of Merton readily acknowledge his defects in character), but I believe he is nevertheless correct in challenging those who seek to claim Merton entirely as Catholic, who could only be appreciated in the context of Catholicism and denying his universal appeal by other religious, or even non-religious folk.

Merton's Interest in Other Religions - Two Closing Observations

It would be mistaken to assume that Merton's interest in other religions was a post-conversion manifestation of his disappointment with Catholicism, as alleged by Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead. I question this because Merton displayed an interest in the other religions (especially those of the East) from the time he was a college student at Columbia University.

For one thing, the young Merton was impressed by the spiritual conversion of Alduous Huxley (from materialism to mysticism recognizing "a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds . . . [as can be found] among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions"), and who was fascinated by Huxley's investigation of mysticism in the world's religions The Perennial Philosophy.

Likewise, it was at Columbia University, that Merton met a Hindu spiritual pilgrim -- Bramachari -- who first encouraged him to read St. Augustine's Confessions and The Imitation of Christ, and thus played a part in his journey to Catholicism. Both Merton's encounters with Huxley and Bramachari are described in The Seven Storey Mountain). According to Alexander Lipski (Thomas Merton and Asia: His Quest for Utopia), around the same time he met Bramachari Merton also was reading the Hindu scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (initially in connection with his M.A. thesis on William Blake).

Again, to borrow from Bill Cork, much of this is common knowledge to anybody who has studied Merton or has read Merton's biography. I suppose the real question here is not when did Merton begin to study Eastern religions, but rather to what degree did Merton's Catholicism inform and influence his post-Christian exploration of Eastern religions? -- Write and Wrenn have their own conclusions, but so do Robert Forest, Jim Knight, Edward Rice and a number of Merton scholars worldwide.

That said, Merton's later writings on other religions -- particularly those on Buddhism -- should nevertheless be read with great care and critical judgement by the laity. Raymond Bailey (curiously, a Southern Baptist minister who became Director of the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellannine College in the early 80s) goes into detail as to why this caution is necessary in his study Thomas Merton on Mysticism (Doubleday Image, 1975). It's a little long, but worth repeating in full:

Merton's writings on Eastern mysticism are tempered by repeated allusions to traditional Christian symbols. His diaries written in the last months he spent at the hermitage record his preferences for the Fathers for reading in the cottage and for the works of the Zen masters in the fields. However, his published works are not always instructive as to how the Zen experience can contribute to the Christian experience or how the study of Eastern religions or the practice of oriental techniques engender or complement the Christian experience. Some of his published works might well be interpeted as syncretistic and might leave the reader with the im pression that it does not matter what religious expression one's spirituality takes as long as it has broken through the facade of the illusionary self.

Published discourses excerpted from continuing dialogue between or among two spiritual masters do not always mean the same thing to the general reader as to the dialogue participants. Few Westerners are endowed with the ability to think "oriental" or to translate their Western experience into Eastern modes. Some are deluded by teachers who interpet oriental an occidental religious concepts as univocal when in fact the differences are profound [emphasis mine]. The casual reader might overlook the fact that Merton spent half his life disciplining himself and reaching a level where he could think and write in terms of the "universal" man and transculturation. Even then, he considered himself a beginnner who had much to learn.

The ease with which he accepted the potential worth of Eastern spirituality at this stage was undoubtedly due to his "Augustinian bent." Augustine refused to differentiate "truth," contending that all truth is of God, and th erefore, revelatory. An accurate impression of Merton or understanding of his thought cannnot be gained from any single work bearing his name. He is open to abuse and distortion by one using his writings as prooftexts for a position on almost any theological question. Because of the revelatory nature of his work, i.e, the record of personal dialectic, there is a certain danger in isolating any one work or phase of his work as definitive of him or his philosophy.

Should Merton be recognized in the new American Catechism?

When it comes to Merton, I find myself agreeing with Robert Royal, on why -- despite his apparent flaws -- we may regard Merton as worthy of praise:

Merton's true greatness lies in having engaged in person the whole range of challenges and trials of life in the late twentieth century and yet remaining essentially faithful to his Catholic inspiration. Many of those issues we still confront: poverty and war, the relationship of Eastern and Western thought, and especially how a deep religious life may be lived in contemporary conditions. As we near the end of the century, religion-even contemplative practices-have had a tremendous resurgence. Many of the paths religious people took during the 1960s are coming more and more to look like a dead end. But the attempt to bring a deeper spirituality to the public realm-to say nothing of recovering authentic spirituality-remains a burning necessity.

Merton is beyond doubt one of the great spiritual masters of our century. His personal turmoil and the misjudgments in his social thought notwithstanding, he is a forceful reminder that what may appear the most rarefied of contemplative speculations have powerful and concrete implications for the world. God dealt Thomas Merton a difficult hand. His greatness as a man lies not only in that he was able, more or less, to keep several different persons together in difficult times under the banner of "Thomas Merton," but that he provides an enduring witness to all of us much less gifted seekers who have to shore up our own fragmentary lives in quest for the "hidden wholeness." Requiscat in pace.

Does Merton deserve placement in the USCCB's Catechism for adult American Catholics? -- I'm inclined to think that Robert Royal might say yes for the reasons stated above, even with due respect to the concerns raised by Merton's interest in Eastern religions. I would answer in the affirmative as well, although I admit here to being a little biased in the matter, since it was through reading Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day that I discovered and was led to the Catholic faith in the first place.

I would also question (if the Louisville Courier-Journal is correct) Bishop Wuerl's justification that young people "had no idea" who Merton was -- as if he were an eclectic relic of the early 20th century better swept underneath the rug, whose life and thought simply had no relevance for Catholics of today. Judging by the staying power of Merton in bookstores and conferences on Merton attended by those interested in "the silent life" of contemplation, perhaps Bishop Wuerl underestimates the prevalence Merton has in the hearts of the laity, and his influence (even today) in leading souls to the Catholic faith.

Related Readings (Online and In Print):

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Religious Conversion and "Identity Construction"

Pondering the experiences of several Muslim converts, Bill Cork has a fascinating post on the meaning and psychology of religious conversion.

I'm also reminded of the work of V. Bailey Gillespie (e.g., The Dynamics of Religious Conversion), who sees conversion as part of identity construction (and therefore we shouldn't be surprised that it is particularly a phenomenon of the young).

Now, I see nothing in the articles I've skimmed or in my experience to suggest that men actually convert more often than women--quite the opposite, in fact. But men are more likely to tell stories about it. Perhaps people in "men's work" are right. Perhaps our society is lacking in male initiation rituals. Perhaps conversion tales are ways for men to describe their "hero's journey" or "vision quest." This would still place the phenomenon within the context of transition to adulthood, specifically the formation/integration of adult identity. Shawn, if you're reading, do you have any thoughts?

Looking back over the course of my own life, I've experienced a good number of "conversions" to one thing or another: answering an alter call at a Southern Baptist youth camp and "giving my life to Christ"; flirting with existentialism and nihilism in college; embracing the ideals of left-wing radicalism, pacifism and anarchism; losing my way in the mires of reckless hedonism; re-encountering Christianity by way of reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity; confronting, and ultimately embracing, the claims of the Catholic Church, with the blessed help of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and G.K. Chesterton . . .

Hardly what I would describe as a "heroic" journey -- I tend to think of it as rather a slow plodding towards the truth, the ultimate goal being, please God, not so much a construction of my own identity as the discovery of my true self in Christ. How far along I am I cannot say, although I often feel as if I've barely begun, taking one day at a time.

How many others can relate to Thomas Merton's prayer, expressing fear and hope as real to me today as they were when I read it a decade ago:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


Friday, June 11, 2004

Celebrating The Baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain

Yesterday, June 10th, was the anniversary of the baptism of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, an incredible couple who -- if any there were -- took the search for truth seriously. I find the story of their early years together nothing short of amazing, as accounted by Dr. Donald DeMarco:

Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882. He grew up in that city, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother. When he entered the Lycée Henri IV, he possessed no particular religious convictions. He enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France's rich and corrupt Third Republic, a time when rabid French anti-clericalism had turned the Church into an intellectual ghetto. The school's rigid empiricism had effectively excluded any respectful discussion of spiritual matters. One day, as Jacques walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girl friend, Raissa, the two made a pact that if, within a year, they could not find any meaning to life beyond the material, they would commit suicide.

That despair dissolved when they heard lectures at the Collège de France given by Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to discover the intelligibility of things through intuition. In 1905, Jacques and Raissa, now newlyweds, met a passionate Catholic named Leon Bloy ("A Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic'') who led them into the Catholic faith. 1

Gerard Serafin blogs Raissa's account of their spiritual conversion and baptism from their memoirs We Have Been Friends Together. In embracing the Catholic faith, the couple overcame many spiritual obstacles, not least of which was the material image of the Church itself:

"Although the speculative debate was ended for us, we still had many feelings of repugnance to overcome. The Church in her mystical and saintly life we found infinitely lovable. We were ready to accept her. She promised us Faith by Baptism: we were going to put her word to the test.

But in the apparent mediocrity of the Catholic world, and in the mirage which to our ill-seeing eyes seemed to bind her to the forces of reaction and oppression, she appeared to us strangely hateful. She seemed to us to be the society of the fortunate of this world, the supporter and ally of the powerful, to be bourgeois, pharisaical, remote from the people.

That Jacques and Raissa were able to look beyond their negative impressions of the Church, to consider its claims to truth and to seek reception in baptism, is a good lesson for those who find themselves in a similar position today.

In addition to the scorn and alienation of many of their friends and family, Jacques believed that upon entering the Church he would have to relenquish his pursuit of philosophy:

Our suffering and dryness grew greater every day. Finally we understood that God also was waiting, and that there would be no further light so long as we should not have obeyed the imperious voice of our consciences saying to us: you have no valid objection to the Church; she alone promises you the light of truth - prove her promises, put Baptism to the test.

We still thought that to become Christian meant to abandon philosophy forever. Well, we were ready - but it was not easy - to abandon philosophy for the truth. Jacques accepted this sacrifice. The truth we had so greatly desired had caught us in a trap. "If it has pleased God to hide His truth in a dunghill," Jacques said, "that is where we shall go to find it." I quote these cruel words to give some idea of our state of mind.

How fortunate for us, that Jacques would subsequently discover the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and continue to enrich the Church with his philosophical investigations. Catholics of many stripes have been influenced by (and lay claim to) Maritain's thought: "neoconservatives", progressives, traditionalists, Catholic Workers -- we can consider ourselves blessed. To echo Michael Novak:

". . . so many of us feel immensely indebted to this layman, perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Catholic laity in the last two centuries: this master of many wisdoms, this metaphysician, this philosopher at once humane and Christian (and able to speak in either of those languages), this ethicist and philosopher of history, this political philosopher, this saintly and childlike man.2

Related Links:

  1. The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain Faith and Reason Summer 1991
  2. A Salute to Jacques Maritain, by Michael Novak. The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989): 65-82.


Saturday, May 29, 2004

An Anglican's Conversion to the Catholic Faith

Canon Edward Norman, ecclesial historian and chancellor of York Minster, has converted to the Catholic faith, declaring in the online newspaper "There is a big hole at the centre of Anglicanism - its authority. I don't think it's a Church; it's more of a religious society," and ""Catholicism is what I have always believed, though I did not have the wit to realise it . . . You might call it a shaft of light before the sun sets."

In 2001 Canon Norman wrote An Anglican Catechism, which the Church Times praised as "coupling innovative sexual views with traditionalist church teaching, and which Richard McBrien described as "A very Protestant view of the Christian faith" in his review for The Tablet. This year he published Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors, which the telegraph described as "one of the most ferocious assaults ever launched on the Church of England," marking, in the space of 4 years, a radical development in his thought.

Apparently Canon Norman has been wrestling with the question of authority and an infallible teaching office for some time now. The Anglican blog Pontifications picks up the rest of the story, posting some choice excerpts from his 1998 lecture "Authority in the Anglican Communion". Well worth reading.


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