“This is not Middle Earth, this is not Middle Earth,” I kept telling myself. But how else could I make sense of the towering cathedrals, the Tradition and the Scriptures, the real evil to fight and the real good to defend? It was the spring of 2014. My wife, Brittany, and I were about to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and we were just trying to take it all in.
We still are.
The Church is the Middle of the Earth, the beginning of the new creation. Chock-full of sinners saved by grace, she is a Kingdom outpost in the “already/not yet” of God’s mission of redemption. The mission is still happening. Christ has not abandoned us to a book and every man’s whimsy. He has promised the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (Jn 16:13), not just some truth. The Church — the social continuity of the Incarnation — is still proclaiming “the faith delivered once for all” (Jude 1:3). She is still hanging pearls of Christmas lights against the black night.
Yet, Catholicism is “not of this world,” in the Pauline sense of the word. More out-of-this-world beauty can be found here than anywhere else. Peter’s See, a two-thousand-year succession dropping straight into our generation, like slow lightning. The martyrs, robed in otherworldly red. Mary, dressed in a beautiful blue and white. Free-roaming sheep graze these pastures, feeding on Word and Sacrament, as the shepherds of the Shepherd keep watch.
If you would have told me three years ago that today I would be a youth minister, I would have nervously chuckled and looked for the nearest exit. If you would have told me that I would also be a Catholic, I would have stiffened, as if by corset, and fainted Victorian-style.
I was a hipster and an Anglican living in Uptown, Minneapolis. My wife, Brittany, and I felt called to plant an Anglican church in Minneapolis, to form a liturgical community of praise and grace in the heart of the city. Brittany wanted to teach high school math, and I wanted to be an Anglo-Catholic, slum priest. Together, we were going to do nosebleed high liturgy with on-your-knees urban ministry.
Now we live in the boonies of Wisconsin. Brittany’s arms are full of our newborn son, Timothy Augustine, and I have a cinderblock office in a sprawling wing of a large Catholic parish. It’s still hard to say it without doing a double-take, but we’re a Catholic family in the suburbs.
The journey has been a long and winding one, full of late night watches and tears, exciting epiphanies, falling in love with Christ all over again, a holy renaissance in our marriage. The discernment of the last year, especially, has been unexpected; yet as we look back, we have been on the “road to Rome” a very long time. Our conversion was not like the blinding light that struck St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but something more like a treasure hunt.
Searching for beauty
Growing up, I was able to dive into different ideas of what Christianity is all about. For my entire childhood, my family went to John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. It was there my lasting humility before Scripture was first nurtured. I went to a small fundamentalist elementary school. But in the third grade, I came home crying and telling my parents that I hated being a Christian. Anne of Green Gables would put it this way: there was no scope for the imagination. So, by junior high, I was attending the local public school instead. Throughout my adolescence, I attended a mega-church in the suburbs, Wooddale Church. I lived and breathed Wooddale and even helped start the youth group’s worship team. My first sweethearts and closest friends were at the huge church. I eventually grew dreadlocks and worked at an organic foods co-op, and by the time I was seventeen — the year was 2001 — I was a “covenant participant” at Doug Pagitt’s Solomon’s Porch, a colorful emergent, postmodern community. Around this time, I started attending a unique high school dedicated to the fine arts, to study guitar for my junior and senior years. The school was packed with lesbians and liberals, tattooed thespians and young rappers, and it was there that I started my modest music career (it was more of a hobby, really, but for years I loved writing folk songs, producing albums, and stomping my feet and blowing into my harmonica).
Although I beheld much of the behind-the-scenes wonders of the modern art scene, I didn’t learn much at the arts high school, and knew it. So in 2002 I ended up going to, of all places, Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, a school on the opposite end of the political, moral, and educational spectrum. No one seemed to care about fashion or entertainment; everyone was talking about books and ideas. I was shocked to discover in my first semester of a classical education that our Western culture is not something we recently made up. Whether we like it or not, we are the recipients of the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage. Also while at Hillsdale, I stumbled into the ugliest, tiniest, most ordinary church I had ever seen: Christ’s Church, a small Anglican church. It was there I first encountered Christendom’s beautifully weathered prayers, historic liturgy, and creeds. I witnessed a small band of Christians living together in love in a daily life rooted in Word and sacrament. My faith, I discovered, did not consist of only me, my Bible, and my hip church floating alone in outer space. I didn’t know it at the time, but that humble and homely little Anglican church launched me on a journey. When I moved back to Minneapolis to paint houses and write books, I became a member of Church of the Cross, another Anglican church, eager not even to retrieve a golden age, but to love God more and to know Him better.
My wife’s conversion
My wife Brittany’s journey of coming to faith was not one that centers around a grand “ah-hah” moment — even though she often wished it would happen that way. Instead, it was more like a series of little “ah-hah”s or thresholds, that led her toward the Lord.
Brittany was baptized as an infant, but after her Catholic father passed away a few months later, her mother had a hard time believing in God. Her mother remarried a few years later and they raised her in a decidedly secular household that was nonetheless rooted in values of love, forgiveness, loyalty, and humbleness. In middle school, she went to a church camp with a friend for three summers and every year felt drawn to this message of Jesus Christ, but never had the support or chutzpah to make the faith a part of her life.
In high school, Brittany started getting into philosophy and politics. In those impressionable years she thought she was “learning” about Christianity…but all of her information was coming from the newspapers and her Marx reader. She remembers being dumbfounded that so many people could fall for what she saw to be a bastion of pigheadedness and hypocrisy.
Looking back, she can’t believe she thought that mass foolishness was more plausible than her own utter ignorance about the teachings of Christianity. But she did, and in 2007 when she began studies at the University of Minnesota and befriended two kind, intelligent, and grounded students, she was shocked to find out that they were Christians. Their strong faith intrigued her, and even though she kept going to Atheist Club, she couldn’t help but finish her freshman year of college thinking that the most important thing she had learned that year was that she could trust and respect Christians. Their patient example of what it’s like to live in Christ called her to push past the mediated representations she had uncritically accepted, and to start asking questions about their God.
It was not an easy process. Over and over again, she found herself confronted with what seemed to be impassible barriers — Why would God allow evil? What about people who’ve never heard of Jesus; what happens to them? What about science and evolution? — at many points, she declared that it simply wouldn’t work; she would never be able to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But she kept coming back, answering her old questions and coming up with new ones. A few patient friends guided her through this tumultuous time, and she thanks God that He kept them in her life when despair began to set in.
“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God” (Prov 2:1-5). This passage spoke to one of the greatest roadblocks Brittany encountered. At one point, in 2009, she got stuck in believing there to be a dichotomy between faith and knowledge. She threw up her hands and said, “I cannot bring myself to sacrifice my powers of intellect for a leap of faith!” She thought, “I don’t know how to believe in something; all I’ve ever been able to do is understand.”
Brittany began reading Dallas Willard and realized how profoundly un-Christian and in-human faith without knowledge would be. If we didn’t understand the things we believed in, pastors would turn into motivators, manipulating us through tricks of charisma and rhetoric. Since God calls us to know Him, He can handle our doubts. Once she started viewing her doubts as exciting points of departure leading toward deeper communion with God, it was only a matter of time until she came to find that the Christian worldview, quite frankly, makes more sense than any other worldview she had ever known — especially as it contrasts to the dominant academic narratives of fragmentation, displacement, and nihilism.
St. Matthew writes that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded until it worked all through the dough. Brittany saw that her coming to faith has been primarily concerned with the faculty of mind, but God’s yeast had already begun to spread to her heart and hands, and she knew that He would be kneading her soul, as she kneads His word, for the rest of her days.
Brittany and I started dating in the late summer of 2010. I was writing When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2013) and feeling called to become an Anglican priest. After Brittany graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2011, she moved to rural Mississippi to teach high school math, and I moved to Wisconsin to attend Nashotah House Theological Seminary to study. One year later, we were married. Brittany worked at a military boarding school while I parsed my way through Greek and Hebrew. We cooked dinners and went for long walks. And as the Sacrament of Marriage worked on us, we began to feel that something was missing.
Up until that point, we had been accidentally Anglican. We stumbled into the denomination unintentionally, mostly because it had good taste, and then found ourselves desperate to defend it. I felt called to the priesthood, but I did not know what the priesthood was. As I began my seminary education, I also began to discover the Scriptures and the history of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church — not as a slow corruption of a once pristine Faith, but as the living organism of Christ. It was not long before we found ourselves in front of the Catholic Church, asking ourselves this simple question: where are we?
Since our wedding day, Brittany and I have been on a long journey of repentance, discovering and receiving one Catholic truth after another — the Blessed Virgin Mary, transubstantiation, purgatory, the priesthood, the papacy, conjugal openness to life, even hell. We stopped using birth control. We met with a priest. We prayed. We read every Catholic book we could get our hands on, especially the Bible. We read Karl Keating and Scott Hahn and Stephen Ray, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Vladimir Soloviev, and the Catechism.
Brittany believed before I did. She just knew — the way you just know that the sky is high and that trees are beautiful and that apples will fall — that Christ established the Church on Peter and endowed her in Christ with every spiritual blessing (Matt 16:17-19; Eph 1:3). And her faith made her flower. I was close behind.
I was simmering, just simmering, but Gerard Manley Hopkins brought me to a boil. Then G.K. Chesterton and Cardinal John Henry Newman made me sing like a teakettle. The saints, the Scriptures, the Mass, the hope of glory…I was more than wooed: God had trampled me. It was not long before deep in my heart I knew the truth of the Catholic Church, nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The only trouble was, I had just spent the last half-decade pursuing the Anglican priesthood. I wanted to plant an Anglican church in Minneapolis. Letting go of Holy Orders was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I knew that Christ’s Church came before my personal sense of calling. So, in a moment of frightening vulnerability, Brittany and I offered up the vision of church planting and priesthood to God.
“Lord,” we prayed, “where would you have us go?”
A Wake Up Call
“I don’t buy it,” my seminary friend said.
“What don’t you buy?” I asked.
“The papacy!” he said.
“It’s not for sale,” I said.
For us, conversion to Catholicism was the painful, beautiful process of leaving the religion of God-on-my-terms, and entering the religion God-on-God’s-terms. Contrary to the intellectual simony so prevalent in Protestantism, we were beginning to see that truth is not determined by whether or not we buy it.
It is not fun for me to point out the unbiblical and theological problems of Anglicanism, because I respect so many kind and loving Anglicans. For my spiritual formation, for their friendship and love, I owe them a debt of gratitude; but seminary was a wake up call.
I was pursuing Holy Orders, interning at an urban church-plant, participating in a prison ministry, and finishing my canonical exams, all the while realizing that mine would be an ordination into disorder. The vague, piecemeal, “conciliar” ecclesiology of Anglicanism — that incoherent club of English diaspora — cannot identify Christ’s will about even the most basic policies of the Kingdom: birth control, divorce and “re-marriage,” women and the priesthood, homosexuality, the number and nature of sacraments, purgatory, justification, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, how many councils were ecumenical, how many were not. It cannot even convene an ecumenical council.
The creeping separateness and theological inconsistencies in Protestantism left us lonely and confused. With a baby on the way, we had to decide sooner rather than later: were we called to Lone Ranger it in parched pastures, or were we called to be received into the family of God, the living Body and Bride of Christ, the Catholic Church? Into what world would we baptize our son?
Surrendering my passion to be a priest was the hardest thing I have ever done. In the end, though, it was not a question of personal vocation, or “Rome vs. Anglicanism,” or “the grass is greener on the other side,” but of love and obedience. We fell in love with the Church Christ Himself established. We knew we were called to embrace the fullness.
We do not want to be make-it-up-as-we-go kind of people — at least not when God’s in the mix. God does not reveal contradictory truth. The Bible is not enough. And Tradition is not a grab-bag to justify whatever interpretation of Scripture you’re buyin’.
A Vision Glorious
The Trinity is reigning. God has established His Kingdom, what He calls “my Church” (Matt 16:18). Jesus is the new King David (Lk 1:32) ruling the nations (Rev 12:5) as “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). As the new messianic King, He has a Queen, Mary, the Mother of the Church, the Queen of Heaven. As the new King, He treats His mother with at least as much honor as Solomon and all the other Davidic kings treated their mothers (1 Kings 2:19-20; Rev 12:1). The Church’s suffering is indeed light and momentary compared to what is foreseen in this eschatological icon, Mary, this “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).
As the new King David, Jesus instituted, not only a cabinet of twelve ministers (1 Kings 4:7), the Twelve Apostles (Matt 10:2-4), but also a Prime Minister (Is 22:15-25), St. Peter (Matt 16:15-19). As King, Christ promised to be with us “to the end” (Matt 28:20). Jesus ascended into the heavens and left His apostolic Church to finish the mission because He is bringing glory to His Father in heaven — and He wants us, empowered with the Holy Spirit, to join Him.
So the Church is not invisible and private, but visible and public, the family of God on earth left to continue Christ’s visible and public ministry. She has a visible and public unity as the Holy Spirit leads her into all truth (Jn 16:13). And this is why, quoting Isaiah 22, Jesus names Simon “Rock,” and gives him the keys to the Kingdom in Matthew 16. From here — point zero — all distances of Christ’s Church are measured. Centrifugal spokes of light. A city on a hill. The papacy centers the Church; it is its beating heart. The Office is a compass, a way to know where you are. It is also, as Christ said, a rock, a word with theological implications. Surrender to God’s permanence and immutability, it whispers. Truth does not change with the time of day and season. It does not sway with the jetsam and flotsam of fashion. Truth stays the same.
G.K. Chesterton says: “How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos.”
In the winter of 2013-2014, I withdrew from my postulancy for the priesthood. We enrolled in RCIA. We prayed with priests and Catholic friends. We started getting involved at our local parish. We spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament. We had never been so alone. Yet, Christ and His Church had never been so close.
It was a 60-degree spring day and the world was green and decorated everywhere with sunlight when we were received into the Church. Brittany and I were taking turns holding our newborn son, Timothy, and so grateful to at last participate in the sacrifice of the Mass. A month later, our son was baptized. A month after that, I began my new job as a youth minister in a Catholic parish. The hammer of a higher God had fallen.
We were once runaways. We were once pickers and choosers. But, by God’s grace, we were invited to come home. We are no longer separated brethren. The only appropriate response to a Christianity where we don’t get to pick and choose which parts we like and which parts we don’t like is: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” The only appropriate response is falling to our knees in gratitude and praise of the most adorable Trinity. God has forgiven even us, lowly but penitent sinners.
A Holy Ambition
The road has been a stepping out “not knowing whither,” but all along the way God has graciously and unexpectedly opened doors for us. We are so excited to begin youth ministry! Our prayer is that we would be able to shepherd these young adults into a deeper devotion to our Lord and His Church and to help them cultivate a Kingdom love that would last a lifetime. May our family be a platform for righteousness, a table of hospitality, a retreat for prayer, and a trumpet of praise! We are so grateful for the beautiful community at our new parish, so grateful to be a part of this mission.
What is the mission? To borrow a phrase from the Catholic convert Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ created the Church to give God “praise, reverence, and service; to give Him glory.” The goal is glory: the family of God enjoying and sharing the glory of God. The apostolic succession is a living sign of Christ’s unending mediation as “the one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). By grace, the Church is Christ’s mystical Body; by love she is His glorious Bride. She is “his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:23). She is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9).
The Catholic Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) because she is led by the Holy Spirit “into all truth” (Jn 16:13). She is built by Christ on the “rock” that is Peter (Matt 16:17-19), built as a City with “twelve foundations, and on them the names of the twelve apostles” (Rev 21:14), “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:20), built on the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). The Catholic Church is “built as a city that is at unity with itself” (Ps 122:2), because the goal is the supreme exultation of the most adorable Trinity.
The mission is salvation — not because we’re kind-of-a-big-deal, but because God is a big deal. As Catholics, we are finishing the mission. God is bringing glory to Himself through His Church, and we are called to be a part of it.
Catholicism is the kind of place that makes you realize the triune God is so much bigger than you can ever imagine. At first, it looks like the wind blew the tide backward. But soon you realize it’s just the angle of the light — the light of Christ who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). The Good Shepherd left His sheepfold to find us and to bring us back, fat and happy, feasting on Word and Sacrament.
I repeat to myself: “This is not Middle Earth, this is not Middle Earth.” But how else can I make sense of what St. Cyprian called “the bright army of the soldiers of Christ,” or what St. Ambrose called “God’s Kingdom, which is the Church”? The mitered bishops in apostolic succession, a bright ribbon coursing through time? The Tradition and the Scriptures? Real evil to fight and the real good — like, really good — to defend? And still the spires slash toward the clouds, every steeple crowned with the contradiction and stumbling block of the ages — the cross.
Humbled, challenged, and grateful, Brittany and I are just trying to take it all in.