“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
Featuring Peggy Gibson/
Background: Episcopal / Anglican/
April 28, 2014
This question concludes one of my favorite passages from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (book IV, chapter VIII, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”). In the “tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way … but I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t…. We hear about those as just went on.” Is my own life being crafted by my Creator with the same care that Tolkien took with his tale? My hope is kindled in the best Book; there I find one of my favorite titles of God: Jesus is “the author and finisher of faith” (Heb 12:2, Douay-Rheims). Each of our lives is a heart-stirring story that can resound with the glory of our Creator.
My story began as a cradle Anglican, which means I have been surrounded by beautiful words of prayer my whole life. As long as I can remember I have come into God’s presence on the Lord’s day, praying, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy Holy Name.” Each week we approached Holy Communion, praying, “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (Book of Common Prayer).
With such a rich patrimony, it seemed my pilgrimage had been well supplied with food for the journey. But as the recent history of Anglicanism has shown, when we as prodigals leave our generous Father’s home, no matter how rich the inheritance we take with us, our wealth will be exhausted, and we will one day know our hunger and long to return to His table.
The Meaning of Suffering
My family of origin rejoiced in the love of our parents and the gifts they both brought to their marriage. However, we struggled with the consequences of my father’s illness. For the last several years of his life, until his death at forty-two, he and my mother tried to support his health in the midst of the demands of professional and family life. Losing a parent in childhood set my heart on my invisible Father: I was convinced that what is invisible is even more real than what is visible. Our family is quite close; my mother and three siblings are all thankful for the gift of faith and are active in their church communities, both Anglican and nondenominational.
My husband, Jonathan, and I both renewed our commitment to discipleship as young adults; we met during our undergraduate studies in music and were married in 1984, before undertaking our professional degrees. He was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1988, and I graduated from medical school in 1989. My first hunger for deeper Catholic truth came after our first child was born in 1992 with a rare, sporadic genetic disorder that included a lethal, congenital heart malformation and a developmental disability that is an obstacle to independent living. We were loved and prayed through our son’s open-heart surgery at the age of six months, and he is now a healthy young man with a love of life.
Despite the blessings of his “happy ending,” I was left wrestling with the meaning of suffering, particularly what Paul meant by the words, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). Many well-intentioned friends offered the comfort that one day we would understand God’s purposes … but what about our son? What about the meaning of his day-to-day experience of limitations and isolation? The potential intellectual satisfaction of understanding was a faint glimmer compared to the radiant joy of Paul’s incarnated fellowship in Christ’s redemptive suffering. Was that joy meant for all believers or just the Apostle? Turning elsewhere in Scripture for comfort, I took solace in knowing that the sword of Jesus’ suffering had pierced His Mother’s heart (Lk 2:35), and so I was not alone on my journey. Even before we knew our son’s diagnosis, we had named him Thomas, the disciple who knew the Lord through the privilege of touching His wounded Body. Reading the meditations of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier on disability was like water in a desert. I still love John Paul II’s thoughts, as quoted by Vanier: “Disabled people are … living icons of the crucified Son. They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death” (Message of John Paul II on the Occasion of the International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person).
How could we truly complete Christ’s afflictions as members of His Body and manifest His beauty? Around this time, a dear Catholic friend from medical school gave us a beautiful, hand-carved crucifix. The mystery of participating in God’s ongoing work of creation through sharing Christ’s sufferings became precious to me.
And so, God was still graciously giving me food for my journey: the joys and busyness of family and professional life were still deeply satisfying. We welcomed a healthy daughter, Elspeth, in 1996 and delighted in the unique way in which she too reflects the beauty of her Creator. A Catholic friend and I invited each other to be godmothers to our second children.
Desire for Unity
My husband and I dearly loved our parish, and it grew into a life-giving community, where many felt they encountered God in Word and Anglican sacraments just as the disciples had done on the road to Emmaus (see Lk 24:13–35). It was as though we lived in the joy and peace of Tolkien’s Shire, but there were dark clouds gathering on the Anglican horizon. As we matured as a family and a parish, we began to take seriously the need for faithful leadership on the larger stage of national and international Anglicanism. Theological and moral dissent was threatening the ability of local congregations to proclaim the Word and faithfully administer the sacraments by undermining the trust between pastors and their bishops.
As the Anglican Communion approached the once-a-decade meeting of all the world’s Anglican bishops at Lambeth in 2008, it became clear that Anglicanism as we had known it was in crisis. Rather than honoring Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17, bishops in North America were reinterpreting Scripture in order to bless relationships that could not reflect the “great mystery” of Christ the Bridegroom’s union with His Bride the Church (see Ephesians 5). Consequently, many bishops would no longer share Holy Communion with the revisionist bishops or support a meeting that did not take the need for unity seriously.
As a family, we planned pilgrimages to Great Britain to affirm God’s faithfulness in bringing us the Gospel through our Anglican roots despite all the storms of history that have battered that family tree. In 2008, we explored how the Christian faith had come to Britain through unknown Roman citizens and began to put down roots and bear fruit. Beginning in 385, the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain led to the breakdown of cohesive governance. We were particularly drawn to the witness of the Celtic church, which through strong monastic communities had effectively evangelized many in the midst of the social upheaval. We stood on the holy Island of Lindisfarne, where St. Cuthbert lived and prayed, and knew that nothing could separate us from the love of God. St. Cuthbert had presided over the Celtic monastic community on Lindisfarne in 664, when they accepted the authority of Rome at the Synod of Whitby, requiring reform of their traditions. Their faith inspired the “Father of English History,” St. Bede, and survived the Viking raids of the ninth century and the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. We stood in St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford and read the plaque marking both Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century as members of one community. In Westminster Abbey, at the tombs housing the remains of Elizabeth I and Mary I, we prayed for the unity hoped for in the inscription on Elizabeth’s tomb: “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection.”
We thought we had fallen into a story like that of the Celtic church: we were entering a storm of dissolution, and with our little community we needed to work for the reestablishment of the larger Anglican Church’s stability. Were we called to live through a period of ecclesiological chaos by faithfully witnessing to the Gospel with our local community? We did not yet discern that the true storm was the English Reformation itself, which had separated the English church from its true roots. As in the Celtic church, only by welcoming reunion with Rome would we know the full joy of God’s faithfulness. It would not be a revitalized Anglican via media (Latin: “middle way”) between Protestantism and Catholicism, but Roman Catholicism that would again offer the unshakeable foundation on which Jesus intended His Church to be built.
In 2010, we traced the roots of our favorite stories: The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. We had the privilege of visiting Oxford, in the ancient kingdom of Mercia, which is depicted by Tolkien as the Shire, and Northern Ireland, the landscape that shaped Narnia. We hoped that our lives would resemble these great stories: that despite the temptation to turn back in the face of darkness, we might grasp the chance to persevere and take our place in a “tale that really mattered” and to travel “farther up and farther in” to our true home beyond this world.
Without realizing the significance of July 12, we were in Belfast on Orangemen’s Day, when Northern Ireland Protestants celebrate the defeat of the Catholic pretender to the throne of England. We realized the truth of Tolkien’s observation on C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity: “Lewis would regress. He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland Protestant.” The unimaginable depth of hostility between the communities shocked us and made us realize how far Lewis had come by embracing sacramental reality to the extent that he did.
“The Weight of Glory,” a sermon delivered by C. S. Lewis from the pulpit of St. Mary’s Oxford, is a breathtakingly beautiful exposition of the things that “God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). His wisdom seemed to witness to the integrity of the Anglican Church, and yet now we wondered whether “mere Christianity” was enough.
The next summer we were visiting with my faithful Catholic friend and updating her on our ecclesiological struggles. With a mixture of sympathy and exasperation, she pointed out (not for the first time) that I was her “most Catholic friend,” and why weren’t we Catholic? In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI had announced Anglicanorum Coetibus, an Apostolic Constitution that invited Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. By 2011, the structures were starting to be put in place for Anglican groups to come into full communion and retain elements of their worship tradition, such as those well-loved prayers that really were lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin: “the law of prayer, [is] the law of belief”). Our friends had heard a radio interview with a former Anglican priest who had been ordained within the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II’s Pastoral Provision; it seemed obvious to them where our future lay. But at the time, we explained our hopes for Anglican renewal and confidence in conciliar government rather than the Petrine ministry. Their persistent welcome to us lived out paragraph 819 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That passage acknowledges the “many elements of sanctification and of truth” that are to be found beyond the “visible confines of the Catholic Church” and that the Lord uses other Christian denominations as a means of salvation, drawing on the power of “the fullness of grace and truth … entrusted to the Catholic Church.”
One of the most respected international Anglican leaders declined the “gracious offer” of Anglicanorum Coetibus, but as an alternative expressed his vision for Anglicans to live out “reformed catholicity.” I decided that if we were to grasp “reformed catholicity,” I needed to have a firmer grasp of how Anglicanism grew from its Catholic roots. Week by week, Anglicans affirm their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, but what did it really mean to say “I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church”?
During that same visit in 2011, my friend recommended Scott Hahn’s Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots. Perfect! I thought; when we got home, I found that, while the title my friend had recommended had been checked out from our public library, they did have the same author’s Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith. Being an avid reader, I thought I’d get a better sense of Hahn’s point of view if I read more than one of his works. And so I unsuspectingly brought home a book that would change the direction of our quest.
Hahn’s book of apologetics not only covered the familiar grounds for conversion to Christ, but also boldly made the case for conversion to the Catholic Church, including exegesis of Matthew 16 that pointed to Isaiah 22. I had never before encountered the scriptural underpinnings of the keys given to Peter: that they represent not just his confession of faith, but also the office of the Davidic steward. Disconcerted, I checked the many study Bibles in our home and could find no cross-references to Isaiah 22.
The absence of references to this compelling exposition of Jesus’ solution to the problem of authority within the Church was unsettling — why was this not being taught in our Anglican tradition with its high view of the sufficiency of Scripture? Our consciences were formed by the sixth of the foundational Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion found in the Book of Common Prayer (1662): “Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” The Articles go on to recognize the need for the Church to exercise “authority in controversies of faith” (Article XX) and for the Church to give her authority publically to those sent to minister in the Lord’s Vineyard (Article XXII). But who was giving the Church her authority?
We had a pressing need for a rock on which to build our house! In John 17, Jesus promised that it was unity amongst His disciples that would witness His love to the world. And yet it was becoming painfully obvious that, even with the formation of a new North American Anglican province in 2009, Anglican ecclesiology was no closer to the creedal marks of being “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic,” as differences remained in sacramental theology. Could it be that we were living in the time when Lewis’ hope that the “tragic farce which we call this history of the Reformation” was being healed by “mature and saintly disputants”?
Throughout the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012, I read voraciously, participated in online forums, and regularly prayed in the Catholic perpetual adoration chapel near our home. Being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament was enough to convince me that transubstantiation was true; the Real Presence I had been taught by the Anglican catechism was only part of the truth. I was trying to work out whether I could truly accept that Jesus had gifted the Petrine office with the authority that would allow me to say, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
I needed to work at reforming my conscience to recognize that the Church, which had grown from a mustard seed to a great tree (Lk 13:18–19), had been led into truth (Jn 16:13) when she promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Anglicans regularly pray the Magnificat in Evening Prayer, and I truly wanted to “call [Mary] blessed” (Lk 1:48). Marian dogma at the time of the English Reformation had not been captured in the Book of Common Prayer, and so there is a wide range of belief and practice within the Anglican Communion. Some Anglican churches continue to bless “Mary, ever Virgin”, but increasingly, this devotion has fallen away from common worship. As for the Immaculate Conception, our estrangement from the See of Peter meant we were missing the centuries of discussion and exegesis that had led to its promulgation. Hadn’t Thomas Aquinas himself contested the doctrine? Why was it now taught as dogma?
I rejoiced in the generosity of God that could have granted the Virgin Mary freedom from our first parents’ fall. But could Mary’s seemingly effortless holiness, as depicted in popular piety, really make her the model disciple (Lk 8:21) or help her be a mother to God’s fallen, struggling children? Could God not have rendered the Holy Child immaculate in the Blessed Virgin’s womb and given her the grace she needed minute by minute: to mother Him and to battle the impulses of a fallen heart? It was when I began to contemplate the meaning of Mary’s Immaculate Heart that light began to dawn, and with St. Augustine, my belief in the Church grew into understanding of her dogma: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.” Mary’s Immaculate Conception gave her the freedom and strength to truly guard the door of her heart against the whisperings of Satan who stalks all the decisions of our lives (1 Pet 5:8) with these haunting words: “Did God truly say …?” (Gen 3:1). Her holiness was not effortless. She clung to God’s grace, so that she was truly full of grace; we see in her question, “How can this be …?” (Lk 1:34), the habits of a strong and practiced holy heart. Her lifelong experience of cooperating with grace prepared her to say, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) and to become a spiritual mother to us all (Jn 19:27, Rev 12:17). The beauty and power of her self-giving became like the burning bush: a radiant, unconsumed witness to God’s longing to see holiness brought to birth once for all in Jesus and in the ongoing incarnation of His Body, the Church.
Blessed with Hope
By 2012, on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25 (the day Tolkien had chosen for the destruction of the Ring), both my husband and I had become convinced that the Catholic Church is who she says she is. We were incredibly thankful that, through all the reading and heartache of discovering the inherent tension between the founding tenets of Anglicanism and biblical ecclesiology, we were given the grace to walk together on this new journey. We were received into the Catholic Church on July 18, 2012, through the Anglican ordinariate in North America (Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter), the community sharing the liturgy shaped by Anglican tradition that has been constructed at Pope Benedict’s invitation.
The heartbreaking work of sharing our conversion with our friends and family is only recently behind us. In John Henry Newman’s autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua, he described the years of conversion as “the ‘infandum dolorem’ [Latin: “unutterable grief”] of years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out.” I am certain that there were prayers of many in the communion of saints, some of whom I will never know, who lightened that journey and sped our steps. The metaphor of stars again brings Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee to mind, as he labored through doubt and exhaustion on his quest:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. (The Lord of the Rings, book VI, chapter II, “The Land of Shadow”)
While our lower heaven darkened, we were taught how to offer up our sufferings and were blessed with hope.
There is a dreamlike quality to becoming Catholic as an Anglican. As the darkness of loss fades and the light of faith dawns, it is like waking up in the house I’ve lived in all my days and finding that there is so much more life in it than I have been shown. A bit like going through the wardrobe to Narnia. The “stately home” of creed and liturgy is familiar, but is becoming so much more vivid; it’s as though long-loved statues and paintings can now come to life and speak and move to reveal so much more of their Creator’s heart. All the prayers I have treasured are found in the ordinariate’s Liturgy of the Eucharist, enriched with the full Catholic truth of the eucharistic sacrifice and Real Presence. What seemed to be “private interpretations,” such as my cherishing of Colossians 1:24 as a key to suffering, is no longer a simple tune I hum to myself, but the theme of great symphonic variations such as Pope St. John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris. We are so thankful for the faithfulness of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis to Jesus’ commission to “strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32). The new depths of sacramental grace and the full communion of saints will sustain us as our story continues to unfold. We are only beginning to explore …
And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1–2, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)