A Calvinist Biker’s Road Trip to the Mother Church
Featuring Henry Jansen/
November 21, 2016
On May 15, 2016, two days before I turned 58, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in the parish of the Holy Trinity in Naarden, the Netherlands. On that Pentecost Sunday, I was confirmed and received my first Holy Communion. The story of coming home to the Mother Church is less a matter of doctrine and teaching than it is one of simple experience — although we can justifiably ask: When is experience ever simple? Even though I have a doctorate in theology, the move to the Catholic Church was not primarily the result of careful thinking and Bible study about certain doctrines that divided Reformed Protestants from Catholics. Rather, it was the conjunction of several events in my life, along with the confluence of several other influences.
I call my journey a “biker’s road trip.” While that title may sound strange to some, motorcycling figures into this story in a double way. First, simply on the basis of the facts. It was during a motorcycle trip that I became convinced that I should make the journey to the Mother Church. Second, motorcycling is a driving experience unlike any other. When cycling, one is more exposed to the elements than in a car. At the same time, because of that exposure, one is also more alive and responsive not only to the road conditions, but also to the environment. Sights, sounds, and smells are more present, more immediate. It is no wonder, then, that motorcycling often becomes a metaphor for life itself, for the need to become focused, for learning to move with the bike, responding instinctively to the changing conditions of the road. My journey home was also, in many ways, responding to the conditions of the road I was traveling.
I was raised in a conservative branch of the Reformed (Calvinist) faith in Canada. As I grew up, I eagerly devoured what was taught me in Sunday school and catechism classes, including the objections to the “apostate doctrines” of the Roman Catholic Church on the Eucharist, the use of images, and the “worship” of Mary and the saints. Later on, in my late teens (late 1970’s) I moved to a more liberal and open Calvinist denomination in a neighboring town, of which my future wife, Lucy, was a member. Nevertheless, the suspicion of the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings largely remained intact.
I finished college in 1981, and in May of that year, Lucy and I were married. In 1984, I was accepted as a student for the ministry, a calling I had felt off and on since high school. But the atmosphere at the seminary was open to different ways of expressing the faith, and it was here that I began to develop an interest in the Roman Catholic Church. A great deal of that had to do with the liturgy and its ritual language. Having majored in English during college, and deeply and profoundly impressed by poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot, I was interested in the “poetic” aspect of the language, not only for conventional aesthetic reasons, but also for the ways in which such language truly reflected and “caught” the reality of life and of struggling faith. I even took a course in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, a subject which intrigued me, and during my studies read various Catholics on certain issues and areas of theology. And I found myself questioning ever more what I had been taught.
For most of my road trip, I followed the road I was on and leaned into the curves I encountered. But every once in a while, I found myself looking down side roads and investigating alternate routes as I chanced upon them. The course on Aquinas was one of those side roads. I turned down it and found myself following other side roads as well.
At one point, Norm, a fellow seminarian and friend, and I were asked to prepare a chapel service. We decided to do a series of readings from the kantakia of the 6th-century Syrian poet and melodist, St. Romanos. Norm and I retired to a nearby monastery for a couple of days to concentrate on our translations of the kantakia. It was an Anglican monastery, and it was my first experience of the contemplative life. Even though we did not take part in all the Offices, I found the stillness and silence of the monastery both unsettling and impressive. I found myself fidgety at first, and the chanting of the psalms during the Divine Office struck me as unnatural. By the end of our two days, however, I was looking forward to the meditative quality of the chanting and found that my life outside the monastery seemed less real than my life inside it. Leaving it was something of a culture shock.
That experience, 30 years ago now, left a lasting mark on my life. On the one hand, I had moved away from the pietism of my childhood and youth to a more activist version of Calvinism. Much of my emphasis in sermons, academics, and pastoral work focused on that activism. On the other hand, my love of language and of the power of the liturgy called to another side of me. I was reluctant to leave the monastery, and I was never able to resolve the tension between those two sides of me. One part wanted the silence, the contemplation, the stillness of mind and soul. That part was the “Mary” side of me. The other side, the “Martha” side, grew impatient with too much silence. There was work to be done, wrongs to be righted, the poor to be fed and housed.
Nonetheless, during my years in seminary, I discovered I had considerable academic talent, and considerably less for the practical, pastoral part. I wanted the pastoral part, but the academic side was calling me. Rather than going into the ministry, I decided to pursue the academic path and perused graduate schools. I was eventually accepted at the VU University Amsterdam, previously the university of the Neo-Calvinist movement in the Netherlands. So in 1989, with two young children in tow, we moved to the Netherlands. It was an exciting time. I learned a great deal and wrote a good Calvinist dissertation, Relationality and the Concept of God (1995). Our third child was born two weeks after I received my doctorate.
After finishing my dissertation, I was hired for another three years for post-graduate study. When I completed that, I looked for an academic post, but they were hard to come by, so I fell back on my original plan and became a minister. I passed all the necessary requirements and was called to serve a small, local church in the northern part of the Netherlands in 1999. It was an enriching experience. Moreover, even though the church was conservatively Reformed, it also afforded two of the richest experiences with the Catholic Church I have had. Here as well, I followed a couple of side roads that I just happened across. They took me to places that gave me a wider view of spirituality and the Christian faith.
One of these side roads was a baptism. The church I served had many mixed Catholic–Reformed couples. One couple had three children, but they had never been baptized, since the couple could not decide in which Church to baptize them. I suggested an ecumenical baptism service, and they readily agreed. They contacted the priest who had originally performed their church wedding, and he agreed to participate. Thus the three children were baptized during a Saturday evening Mass, in which I was privileged to participate as representative of my Reformed congregation; I was accorded a minor role in the ceremony. The children were registered in the Catholic Church but also became guest members of my congregation. It was an extremely moving celebratory experience.
The other side road was that of a wedding, again involving a mixed couple. The bride wanted the Catholic pastoral assistant who had worked with her when she was a teenager to perform the ceremony with me. He declined but offered to ask the diocese for special permission to allow me to witness their marriage and have it be valid in the Catholic Church. The request was granted, and I was blessed to officiate at their wedding in the Catholic Church. This, too, was a rich experience. I felt connected to the worldwide Church; it became for me a reality instead of an abstraction.
After about five years in the ministry, I suffered a burnout. This was caused by some tensions in the congregation regarding the national merger of two denominations. I am by nature a people pleaser, and I discovered that pleasing everyone is an impossible task. In addition, some issues from my childhood began to surface. In 2005, I went through one of the darkest periods in my life. Declared ill and unfit for work, I was granted a temporary pension. We moved away from the village to the city where we now live, Almere.
We began attending the Protestant Reformed Church in our area, but it didn’t seem right for us. Our children stopped attending, and eventually my wife did too, although she is still a member. I restricted myself to pouring coffee after the service and teaching a basic course in Old Testament literary structures. But I couldn’t quite connect. It had nothing to do with the people; they were nice enough and we got along well. The difficulty was that, after my burnout, I found it increasingly difficult to listen to sermons, regardless of their quality. Most of what I heard from the pulpit struck me as irrelevant to life. And the songs I sang in church left me cold. Taizé songs were an exception; I suppose that was because of their strong meditative quality.
The other exception was the music of Bruce Springsteen. Long a Springsteen fan, I often listened to his songs in an apologetics frame of mind, because they are so rich in Christian imagery and language. But now I began to hear something more: suddenly those concepts and images that I couldn’t connect with in sermons made sense to me in his songs. They showed me that there is a concreteness to those terms that we often miss. For instance, salvation is ultimately about our salvation by God. But it is also in some way connected to the reconciliation between a man and a woman, the realization of a young person’s dreams, about the “hungry heart” we all have. Springsteen taught me to re-examine this language and to find a foothold in that language for my own life.
But even though that was going on, my faith was still at a pretty low point. I had stopped praying and was just going through the motions. At that time I met a woman at the gym where I work out and take martial arts classes. She is Catholic (and is now my godmother). Because she knew of my connection to the Church, we often talked about faith and church. I never told her that I had stopped praying, and one time she asked me to pray for a mutual acquaintance who was going through a difficult time. I agreed and began saying a short prayer every day.
At the same time, I was translating articles for a Catholic friend of mine. (I am now a full-time freelance translator.) This friend focused for some time on the material side of worship: the sitting, kneeling, standing, the actual location of where one worships. All that started to make sense to me. Protestant faith is a very spiritualized faith. It is all about one’s personal relationship to God, and the preaching of the Word, which is the center of the Protestant worship service, can be and often is a very intellectual approach. One is constantly thinking, constantly reflecting. That’s important, of course, but what happens when you can’t listen to sermons? I found myself often staying in the same position, staring at gray walls. I was not meeting God. Again I returned to thinking about liturgy and the importance of meeting God in the liturgy.
The road before me was branching off into another direction, and the sights I could glimpse looked exciting, so I leaned sharply into the turn and followed this new road. Suddenly, two things occurred. One, I started attending Catholic Mass, simply for the experience of the liturgy, simply to see if I could meet God there. I also started to pray more extensively. The short prayer I started with (for the friend at the gym) turned into longer prayers and then “proper devotions” as I read Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son.
Since this past Christmas, even before becoming Catholic, I have been praying the Rosary almost daily. This resuming of a spiritual life, which I thought I had abandoned, has, through prayer and the Rosary, both taught me discipline and enriched my life, making me aware of my shortcomings and the serious errors I had made in relationships. Yes, at this late stage in life, I’m still learning.
I felt pulled in the direction of the Catholic Church. In 2015, during Easter weekend, Lucy was in England with some friends. I decided I would go off on the motorcycle for a weekend to Belgium, find an old church there to celebrate Easter and see what would happen. The motorcycle trip was not a good idea in itself; it was freezing cold. After two or three hours of highway cruising, I reached Visé. My fingers were numb. Because Visé had a nice old church, I found a hotel. I went to the church to see what time the Easter Mass started, but instead found instead a notice on the door saying that the Easter Mass would be held in a local village nearby rather than here. Since I didn’t know the area that well, I decided I would simply ride south and maybe find another church along the way.
The next morning, however, I saw a sign with the name of the other village on it and decided to stop. The church was a modern building, but I decided to go anyway. The Mass was in French, but I was able to follow it on the printed liturgy. It was a beautiful celebration; I can’t say how exactly, but it was. At the end, I clearly heard God telling me that my life had to change. I knew deep in my heart that this was the experience of God that I had been searching for my whole life. Suddenly, in this small modern church, during a celebration in a language that demanded some effort from me to follow, I felt like I had come home. This was where I belonged. Furthermore, there was one specific issue that had to change. I have never heard God speaking to me in a Protestant service — not like that. As far that specific issue is concerned, while I still struggle with it, I have by and large been freed from my obsession with it.
After Lucy returned from her trip to England, I told her of my desire and plans. She was not at all surprised, since I had talked about my attraction to the Catholic Church often. She encouraged me to go ahead if that was what I felt called to do. For her own reasons, she has chosen to remain Protestant.
Since then, apart from a couple of Protestant services I had to attend because of prior commitments, I began to attend the Catholic church in Naarden on a regular basis, a trajectory which led to my being received in the Mother Church.
Sometimes people ask me if there are specific reasons for my decision to embrace and be embraced by the Catholic Faith. How did I know this was the right choice? What about my struggles with the doctrines and beliefs of the tradition I came out of? I don’t know if all those questions can be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. My decision to embrace and be embraced by the Catholic Faith is basically the story I have told above. I felt at home. In every Catholic celebration I have been in, I have felt something more than what I have felt in Protestant church buildings. I have felt the presence of God there in ways that I have never felt in Protestant services. The deeply impressive nature of the liturgy, of the texts and the actions, spoke to me more deeply than what I usually experienced in Protestant circles, even the more charismatic ones.
Even though, as I pointed out above, my embrace of the Catholic Church was less intellectual than spiritual or experiential, these experiences were not without their intellectual struggles. On the one hand, theological arguments had contributed to my burnout several years before, and since then I had avoided theology as much as possible. But I could not avoid certain fundamental issues.
From the beginning, I had to struggle with the place of good works in salvation. Because of its stress on sola fide, the Reformed faith rejects any notion of good works playing a role in salvation. One of its foundational documents, the Heidelberg Catechism, states unequivocally that we do good works because Christ is renewing us through His Spirit to be like Himself, so that “we may show that we are thankful to God” (A. 86). The reason for doing good works, then, is primarily thankfulness.
I began to grow more dissatisfied with this approach several years ago, while still a minister. The Epistle of St. James certainly gave a different view of the place of good works, one that causes theological headaches for many Protestants. But even Paul, who is the primary resource for the doctrine of sola fide, has a much more nuanced view of the relation between faith and good works than I was led to believe. For Paul, faith and good works are so bound up with each other that it is impossible to have one without the other. One can, of course, give to the poor without faith. But one cannot look upon the poor with compassion and respond to that poverty without faith. And one cannot be truly faithful without responding to the poverty. I found myself much closer to the Catholic Faith on this issue than to my Reformed background.
The most important issue for me, however, was that of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Here, too, Reformed Protestants are taught that the Mass is “a condemnable idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism A. 80). So what was I to do with this bread and wine in the Eucharist? The Reformed approach came to strike me increasingly as individualist and almost external, and to a large extent as “poor” in its content. As a minister, I found myself often struggling to give more depth, more latitude, more emphasis to the idea of how this sacrament draws us together, makes us one — of the calling and privilege it is to share in the Body of Christ. And there are very fine Reformed attempts to do just this. But somehow I kept running up against the Reformed doctrines themselves and becoming increasingly frustrated by my failed attempts to give more weight to what was essentially a “spiritualized” view of the Lord’s Supper.
What also began to bother me more and more was that, traditionally, Reformed churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper only four times a year. This practice started in the early Reformation period to offset the fact that, because there were so few ministers, some congregations never had the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. By prescribing in the Church Order that it be celebrated four times a year, Reformed Christians could at least celebrate the Lord’s Supper at regular intervals. Over time, this rule came to be understood in the sense that the Lord’s Supper was not to be celebrated more than four times a year because it was a special feast and should not be celebrated too often. Nowadays, some churches celebrate it every month, and some every week, but the rule remains four times a year. That practice seems, to me, to be an extreme result of the “spiritualized” view of the Lord’s Supper. Personally and theologically, I became more and more dissatisfied.
In the fall of 2015 I decided to go on a personal retreat to a monastery in the southern Netherlands for a few days to reflect on a certain number of things, one of which was this question. I reviewed the Protestant arguments for myself and wrote down some thoughts. These were not profound theological arguments. What I was principally concerned with at the time — and still am — is the feeling of enrichment that a particular view offers. While attending the celebration of the Eucharist in the monastery, it struck me that if any depth of meaning was to be found in the Lord’s Supper, it could only be in something like the Eucharist, in which Christ’s Body and Blood were actually present in the elements. Only this could give it the depth, latitude, and richness I had been looking for. We are not just symbolically bound together, but we are so in reality. Only in this way is the Body and Blood we share really a communion.
In this way, then, I came to be confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. During that confirmation, I was given the name Francis (Franciscus in Dutch), after St. Francis of Assisi. I chose this name because it was a nice way of combining the two sides of me spoken of above: the “Mary” side and the “Martha” side. On the one hand, St. Francis was a saint with great concern for the poor, for those who suffered because of their poverty. St. Francis points the way in this activist concern. On the other hand, there is his famous prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” One cannot pray this deeply contemplative prayer without being moved to action on all kinds of levels. One cannot be a true Christian activist, I believe, without a sense of the truth this prayer has to offer.
That’s the story of how I got here. I would now like to look more closely at what I experience in worship in the Catholic Church. After I was confirmed as a Catholic, I officially requested to end my membership in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. At the same time, I wrote a letter to my brothers and sisters, and also to Lucy’s family, about my decision and my reception into the Catholic Church. Most of my family were not only understanding but also supportive, wishing me the best as a Catholic. The same was true of old friends, some of whom had been my teachers in theology. Because of my background, this was not always the reaction I expected. The expected reaction did come from one brother-in-law, who warned me in no uncertain terms of the “apostasy” of the Roman Church, sending me reading material and urging me to reconsider my decision. I thanked him for his concern but stated that it was God who spoke to me in Belgium, and that I did not want to discuss this matter under the terms he set.
What struck me about what this brother-in-law wrote to me was the whole affair was once again being turned into an exercise in “intellectual” truth. My actual story was completely ignored. Everything was reduced to “true” vs. “false” beliefs. But what such an approach ignores is the very deep and personal way I learned to meet God. I had met God in the Catholic Church outside of the sermon.
I was in Bordeaux in September of 2015 for a conference and decided to attend Mass at the cathedral. Again, the Mass was in French, and no printed liturgy this time, so it was somewhat difficult to follow. At a certain point during the Mass, I looked up above the pulpit, on the opposite side, and saw the sun reflected on the gray walls through the stained glass windows. I looked at the people around me, their different nationalities, attributes, and occupations, their hairstyles and dress. Then I looked again at the different colors of the sun the stained glass windows cast on the gray walls. That led me to reflect on how God’s light shines through all of us. We all cast different colors, but it’s the same God shining through us. That was my sermon for the day.
In the Catholic church in Naarden, the central stained glass window has a lamb as its center surrounded by gold. And on a Sunday morning, when the sun shines through it, it is an overwhelming experience to be in the brilliant presence of the Lamb of God.
Another aspect is the building itself. As a Protestant, it was often my custom to greet people and engage in friendly chitchat while waiting for the service to begin. My godmother stressed to me how important it was to remain still before God. While I think that there are sometimes circumstances that require interaction, I have come to appreciate her point more and more. Often, before Mass begins, I will be quiet and let the atmosphere of the building work on me. It’s a calming, restful experience. That’s one step toward meeting God in the Mass.
And then there is the ultimate meeting with God. What I find fantastic in the Catholic Church is that, even if I can’t listen as well to the sermon as I might want to, I can still meet God — in the Eucharist! This was so, even while I could not receive the sacrament of communion until my confirmation. I could still meet God. Going forward, receiving the sign of the cross on my forehead and the priest’s blessing put me in touch with God. Yes, I could meet God!
During my confirmation, I knelt before Father Fabril, with the hand of my godmother on my shoulder. Through her hand, I felt the “fellowship of the saints,” the “cloud of witnesses” standing around me. It was a divine experience, a powerful moment as I came to fully appreciate my place within the Church of Jesus, the intrinsic connection not only to those around me at that moment, but to all who have gone before and all who will come after.
That is what affects me most in the Catholic Church, what I find most moving: through the reality of Christ in the Eucharist, through the concrete actions of standing, sitting, and kneeling, through the concreteness of the building and the play of light on church walls, I am put in touch with God. Not in a spiritualized way, but in the concreteness and reality of the body of Christ.
My reception into the Catholic Church is, on the one hand, the end of one journey — a long journey that followed many twists and turns. If I look back on my life now, the choices I made and the things I did not choose have all converged to bring me to this point. Because of the convergence of factors and influences, I am reminded of that nineteenth-century poem by Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him….
Despite my wanting to abandon faith altogether, God did not stop following me, tracking me down. He did not let me go. Every time I turned around, God was there in one form or another, changing and affecting the conditions of the road, the smells, sights, and sounds I was responding to in my biker’s journey. But God was not tracking me down to return me to a place I had come from. He was guiding me, nudging me in a new direction, a direction that I flirted with for years and finally embraced.
On the other hand, it is also the start of a new journey, a new road trip. The road goes on, and the biker’s approach is to respond to the changing conditions of the road, to lean into the curves and not to resist where the road wants to take him. While I know what the final destination of this journey is, I do not know yet what twists and turns and curves will appear. I do know that the ones I have been gifted to see and travel have more than met my expectations, and I am certain that the future turns and curves will satisfy my Catholic biker spirit.