I Found Jesus in a Graveyard
Featuring Joshua Bowman/
Background: Episcopal / Anglican/
December 29, 2014
My journey of faith began in the Cub Scouts at the age of eleven, working towards my religious medal. While the priest was explaining the Episcopalian theory of the Eucharist, I was daydreaming, my fingers doodling in the plush, cream-colored carpet. It would be an understatement to say that my soul did not burn for my faith. During one of these sessions, my father asked the priest a series of increasingly pointed questions about the hereafter. Some years earlier, my father had been rushed to the hospital and experienced a classic out-of-body experience. Both the priest and I had great difficulty understanding what my father was getting at, but I think it was ultimately the question of whether we can see God in the first moments after death. My father was clearly unsatisfied with the priest’s explanation — it was around this time he stopped going to church with our family.
In my early teens, we stopped going to church at all. Perhaps my mother grew tired of dealing with my misbehavior. Perhaps she was weary of explaining to the other parishioners why my father no longer attended services (repeating frequently that, no, they had not divorced). Perhaps it was because of rumors that the newly-appointed female deacon was a lesbian. Or, perhaps it was because the organist had recently installed a rank of trumpets, which were altogether too loud for the small nave of our church. Whatever the reason, I didn’t complain. As a foolish child, I just thought of church as a boring and annoying interruption to the weekend and I was all too glad to be rid of it.
Expanding my mind
By my junior year of high school, as we studied Greek philosophy, the Crusades, and the Enlightenment, I became more and more skeptical of Christianity.
I remember shocking my humanities teachers when I theorized that Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed were all the same person reincarnated in different places at different times. During this time, while pondering the nature of God, I would stay up late at night visiting Internet chat rooms frequented by Wiccans. They were very accepting people and they seemed to be excited about my theories uniting the mythical Star Wars universe with the life-force of mother earth. In the end though, they found my theories a little too unorthodox — even for neo-Pagans — and I fell away from their conversation circle.
At one point, I got into an argument with my mother about whether miracles could happen. At the time, I believed that God did not interact personally with the day-to-day affairs of mankind. Rather, in the clockwork view of the universe, the impersonal Creator-God has some distant and indirect influence in the world, which might imperceptibly cause certain events to arise over time. Above all, I knew with absolute certainty that we were masters of our own destiny. My mother was saddened by this, and said, “You may think that now, but when a miracle happens, you’ll know.”
In my last year of high school, I quit the marching band and joined the school choir for my arts elective. Like some latter-day Martin Luther, I taped a list of my grievances with the band director on the door of our classroom for all to see. With nothing to do after school, I would take long solitary walks around the artificial lakes of Fairfax County in the rain and cold without a coat and nearly lost my shoes in the mud many times. While other kids at my school were experimenting with sex and drugs, I was channeling my inner Thoreau and standing on the precipice looking over the mists of time like Friedrich’s faceless Romantic wanderer or some ascendant übermensch conquering Nature and the Universe — or at least the small part of it in the back of a suburban subdivision behind my friend’s house. Like any teenager, I was an invincible individualist, determined to break from the past.
God amidst rebellion
When I matriculated at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, I had become thoroughly anti-Christian. My roommate had attended a Catholic military academy because his parents couldn’t discipline him. He was even more of a troublemaker than I was, and so we pasted pictures of Pope John Paul II and Hitler and the Ayatollah and Chairman Mao on our door. We used to mock the Campus Crusade for Christ volunteers — although never to their faces. Later, I sought out arguments with evangelical Christians and said many terrible things to them. Like any college student, we had thoroughly embraced the culture of secular liberalism, but despite many moments of anger and doubt, I could never renounce the existence of God. There was always a gentle tugging on my soul, which prevented me from going any further astray.
I continued to sing in the choir in college. This was the first time I was exposed to the Catholic Mass — albeit only as St. Paul says, “as through a glass, darkly.”
In studying and singing the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner,and Mozart, I learned the words of the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei. In Bach, Handel, and Mahler, I discovered the sublime. By participating in the vocal expression of this transcendent music, I came to understand something greater than our human existence. However, as a thorough Deist, I did not really grasp the deeper importance of the sacred words I was singing.
I once challenged an old friend from high school, who was raised Catholic but was then dabbling in Buddhism, that I could prove the existence of God by relying on the inexpressibility of the number π (pi). We are absolutely certain that the value of π exists, is fixed, and is real. If something undoubtedly exists but cannot be expressed or comprehended by man, how did it come to be? Certainly we mere humans did not invent π. It existed long before we conceived of it. The only answer left is God. God is infinite. God knows everything. God is everything. God is the only thing that can contain π. My friend countered that this was compatible with the idea of Zen as a state of mind outside of reality, which can be achieved through rigorous meditation (this was disappointing since I had hoped that he would attempt to disprove the existence of God).
The Problem of Evil
In all of my life up to this point, I had never really faced evil. I remember during the summer of 2001, there was a parody bit on the radio singing “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” to a game show theme song, but nobody was laughing on September 11. My crisis of faith culminated as I struggled to understand what had happened on that terrible day. For the rest of my college years, I kept a journal as I read the philosophy of Bentham and John Stuart Mill and critiques of religion by Carl Sagan. I read Atlas Shrugged during one summer. I wanted to believe in the goodness and perfectibility of man, the essential premise of liberalism. I needed to believe that the perpetrators of the attacks were not really human, that they were not like me, that something had gone terribly wrong. Of course, it was not mankind that had failed, but my philosophy. The recovery from my error was not quick or easy, but this was the moment when everything began to change.
In the spring of my senior year, I would take long walks home after class through the agricultural section of campus. One evening as I passed through a grove of trees in the lengthening shadows, a feeling of peace came over me. It had occurred to me that this world in which we live is a miracle. Through all of the wars, all of the disasters, and all of the crises of human history, the earth has gone on without ceasing. The world does not need us. God did not put us here for worldly things. We have a higher purpose. When I was young, I thought that man was superior to the natural world, but now I began to see that the beauty of God’s creation surpasses any contrivance of human industry.
Challenging my views
The year after graduation, I was starting to get bored with my frequent long solitary walks, so I decided to get involved in politics. Politics is a good way to meet people. I was more interested in economic issues and foreign policy at the time and my Whiggish views most naturally fit with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. As a social liberal, I began attending meetings of a pro-choice Republican group. It was easy and popular to say I was a Libertarian. Libertarians are cool. Republicans are not.
In the summer of 2004, I joined a few liberal friends at a pro-choice march to show that right-thinking and open-minded Republicans sided with the cause of “reproductive freedom.” However, two things left a lasting impression on me. The first was a speaker from the Sierra Club who got up on the stage and said in his remarks, “We don’t want fewer abortions. We want more abortions,” to loud cheers from the crowd. The second was seeing graphic images of abortion for the first time. I had never really considered what abortion was, but, after seeing those images, this was certainly not something I wanted more of. At the time, I shrugged it off, but it was something that unsettled the back of my mind from then on.
After the election, I helped clean up the campaign offices. In one of the cubicles, I found a paperback copy of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. The history of conservatism begins with the Whiggish Burke; ironically, I started reading the book as a Whig and ended it as a conservative. For the first half of the book, I was horrified and disgusted by the ideas that formed the consciences of our Founding Fathers, but by the end, I was eagerly turning through the pages and dog-earing my favorite passages. This, combined with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, awakened in me a new appreciation for the importance of Christianity in American life.
Joined with all humanity
A year later on the night of All Saints’ Day, I went to go see an old friend sing evensong at the Episcopal parish of St. Paul’s Rock Creek in Northeast D.C., which is located in the middle of a large cemetery. In the middle of that dark night in the dimly lit church surrounded by generations of the deceased, the deacon gave a sermon about the Communion of Saints, and I could not help but think of Burke’s “democracy of the dead.” Then we recited the Nicene Creed and I remember thinking to myself, “I do believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Chills went up my spine as I finally considered the significance of these words that I had said so many times before. As Christians, we are part of the Body of Christ and are united in the heavenly Communion with all of the saints, and even the Old Testament prophets. When we share in the Eucharist, we are joined with God and with all of humanity. So too, when we hurt other people, we injure the whole human family. This night finally answered all of the questions about death that had first (through my father) opened the breach between myself and the Episcopal Church so many years earlier.
After that, I began occasionally attending the Episcopal parish near my house and started identifying as an Episcopalian again, but I was not really committed. One spring day, I took a friend who was new to D.C. to see the National Cathedral, which is an Episcopal house of worship. As we walked around the neo-gothic vaults and went down into the crypt, I felt very proud of the Protestant contribution to American history. This was the place where presidents came to honor God and to seek consolation in times of great national tragedy. We came upon a small votive altar in a side chapel and I was suddenly moved to light a candle and say a prayer for all those who had died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was the first time I had ever really asked anything of God.
Through the connections of conservative politics, I started to meet more Catholics. Over time, I began to question the differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism. The immutability of Catholic teaching was one of the main attractions. Unlike the divisions, which have since uprooted my former Anglican parish, the Catholic Church does not hold a vote on what is to be believed. The continuity of belief is unbroken. As the Creed says, the Church is one, holy, and apostolic. The entire Catholic Church can trace an unbroken line to Jesus Christ Himself. The laying on of hands forms not only a spiritual, but a physical connection across the generations to the Son of God, the Word made Flesh.
I once asked a Catholic friend if there could ever be unification between the Anglicans and the Catholics, and we discussed famous Anglican-to-Catholic convert Bl. John Cardinal Newman and the Oxford Movement. He also sent me the text of Pope Leo XIII’s bull Apostolicae Curae, which states the reasons why Anglican orders are not recognized as valid by the Catholic Church. I also learned about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and my heart was broken. We had never learned about any of this in Sunday School.
That winter, I was in Indiana visiting my grandparents and we went to a Christmas Eve service at their Methodist church. I had been to Methodist services before, but this was the first time I had done so after my newfound interest in Catholicism. Many familiar things were missing; most noticeably, there was no communion — even though it was Christmas Eve. When I returned home, I asked my Catholic mentor about this. “Let me put it this way,” he said, “the Catholic Church has Mass every day of the year except for Good Friday.”
A friend from the campaign days loaned me a copy of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and I eagerly read it. On many nights out drinking in the bars of Georgetown, one of my friends would often remark, “that’s very Brideshead” and I was curious to know why this book was so important to many of my Catholic friends. As I read, I did not at first understand what all the fuss was about, but the closing words made a lasting impression on me, which I often ponder:
…A small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
The immutable “red flame”
I witnessed the entirety of the Catholic Mass for the first time at the wedding of the friend who had loaned me Brideshead Revisited. As I entered the Cathedral of St. Matthew, I was struck with awe at the richness and intricacy of the architecture and decorations. This was truly a holy place. I was the first to arrive, so I stood in a sort of reverie in the narthex, taking in this marvelous scene. I had never crossed myself with holy water before, but I did so then without even knowing the significance of this sacramental renewal of my baptism.
One splendid evening on a back porch in summertime, I was discussing with a group of Catholic friends the difference between the Episcopalian and Catholic views of the Eucharist, which had been so thoroughly uninteresting to me so many years before. As my faith had reawakened, I desperately yearned to know what I really believed. My Catholic mentor, who had been so helpful in previous discussions, once again provided the missing piece that I needed to grow in my understanding. He asked, “What if at the Last Supper, Jesus performed a new kind of miracle? What if He, as the Son of God, created a new kind of food for us?” This was a revelation. By partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we nourish our bodies and souls in a way that no earthly food can ever do — and how hungry we are for this nourishment!
Right after the 2008 election, I met for the first time the woman who would later become my wife. She was Catholic, and after we started dating, she insisted that I start going to Mass with her every week. This was what I needed. Everything up to that time had prepared me to truly experience the Catholic Mass.
The parish we attended was built in the 1960s, so the decorations were very plain with little artwork or stained glass to contemplate. On the few occasions that we attended weekday Masses, there was not even any music. I was somewhat taken aback by this at first. However, in that silence and the sparse surroundings, I finally began to understand what those closing lines of Brideshead Revisited were really about. Tastes and fashions change — and not always for the better — but the flame and the Real Presence do not. The defining features of our Faith are those things, which are unalterable and immutable, because God does not change.
After going to Mass for six months, I started the process of initiation in the fall of 2009. During our classes, I was continually astonished that the teachings of the Anglican Church were so similar to those of the Catholic Church. In truth, I had never really learned what I was supposed to believe as an Anglican. We studied Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church and it finally began to dawn on me how perfect Christianity is. Everything is connected. As Saint Augustine said, “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you might understand.” During Lent as we prepared for the Sacrament of Confirmation, Father met with each of us individually to see if we had any doubts or concerns about entering into full and visible communion with the Catholic Church. I was happy to be able to say that I had no reservations at all; I was ready to swim the Tiber.
Telling my family was a different matter. My father surprised me. He said that he had attended Mass for a while when he was in college and was very encouraging. My mother was more skeptical. She asked me if I really supported the “harsh views” of the Catholic Church and told me of her Catholic college roommate who used to pray for her soul, because she was a Protestant. I replied that just because I was becoming Catholic, didn’t mean that I thought my family was going to Hell. My Methodist grandparents were thrilled about my reawakened faith in Christ, while my Presbyterian grandparents were somewhat more ambivalent.
A few weeks before Easter, our RCIA class went on a Lenten retreat at a former monastery high in the Blue Ridge Mountains nestled between the apple orchards and vineyards of Clarke County, Virginia. We had studied the Faith well for several months and it was now time to discern if we were ready to enter the Church. I knew I was ready, but I had to make my First Confession. I was truly afraid. What a litany of errors this would be! As I looked out over the serene alpine meadows and contemplated my life, I had to make notes to be able to remember the sheer enormity of my sins. That faceless wanderer in the sea of cloud and fog of so many years before was now coming home in the clear air of springtime. I nervously took my seat across from the priest and stared blankly at the floor as I began to recount the sordid details of my past in a low and trembling voice.
Father was very kind. He listened and nodded in perfect patience and silence as I confessed all of my transgressions. He did not scowl or interrupt. As I continued, I grew more confident and my voice grew stronger. The weight of all those years in the grasp of evil was already being lifted from my shoulders. The wounds of my soul were being cleansed. After I finished, I walked along the cloister towards the chapel to do my penance with my head held high and my heart was full. As I knelt to pray, I closed my eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer and I was truly at peace. I stayed in the chapel for perhaps half an hour marveling at the tabernacle. Jesus was welcoming me with the love that only the repentant sinner will ever know. The paradox of this infinite love is that every time we go to Confession, this love grows even deeper. Like π, it cannot be expressed by mankind, but it undoubtedly exists. Only God can contain an infinite love, which also grows.
A few weeks later, I was received into the Catholic Church, and since then, my conviction in the Catholic Faith has only grown. The convert’s zeal for God is the ultimate rags-to-riches story. Five years on, I am starting to remember details from past Scripture readings. There is so much richness to absorb. The Liturgy of the Word is spiritual food, just as much as the Eucharist. As I recount this story, it is hard to imagine what I was thinking for all of the time that preceded my conversion. “What is wrong with us?” Saint Augustine said. “Unlearned men are rising up and storming Heaven, while we with our teachings that have no heart in them, here we are tumbling about in flesh and blood!”
As a convert, the challenge now is to share this richness with the world. Like the fig tree on the road to Jerusalem, we as Christians are called to bear fruit both in charity and in evangelization. French Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard said, “To be a witness … means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” I think of this often as I struggle almost daily to discern what I can do to better serve the Church and glorify God with my life. In Virginia, I sang in the choir, and in Ohio, I joined the Knights of Columbus. Thanks to the patronage of my good friend Thomas Peters, the American Papist, I am a regular contributor to the CatholicVote project. I want to share my faith with the world, now that I am home in the arms of Mother Church, after struggling for so long.
The Christian life is not easy, and I do not imagine for a moment that I have even begun to achieve the smallest part of what God has in store for me. This is not cause for despair, but for great joy. In my youth, I believed in the perfectibility of mankind, but in truth, this would be the worst thing. It is because we are imperfect that there is always more to learn and more to do — and this is what makes life worth living. Christ is the true vine, and as long as we remain in Him, we continue to grow and bear fruit. The struggle is never easy, but the whole Church sings joyous Alleluias every year at the Easter Vigil for those who have finally found their way home, and who are joined with us to Christ in the New Creation of His Death and Resurrection.
Joshua Bowman grew up in Northern Virginia and attended Virginia Tech. He was raised Episcopalian but drifted away from his faith during college. After halfheartedly returning to Anglicanism, he joined in full and visible communion with the Catholic Church in 2010. Joshua is currently an information technology professional in Alexandria, VA. He recently took the first degree of the Knights of Columbus and also writes for CatholicVote.org. Joshua hopes that by sharing his story, other Protestants will find the courage to return to our mother, the one, true, and apostolic Church which is Christ’s gift to us and our greatest consolation in this vale of tears. He will be a guest on The Journey Home January 19, 2015.