“What can I do but trust God?” I said that aloud when I was 10 years old, as I closed the Bible I was reading. What happened to me that night was a defining experience in my life.
The Trunk of an Old Tree
My sister and I grew up in Houston, Texas. Our parents were nominal Methodists. My Grandfather Knickerbocker had been a Methodist minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church (South). He died before I was born, but family members spoke of him with great respect.
I remember my Grandmother Knickerbocker, who arranged for one of my Grandfather’s brothers, also a Methodist minister, to come to Houston to baptize my sister and me. The baptism took place in the living room of our home, with several family members present. I was five years old, and I remember it well.
My earliest memories of a church experience were of St. Luke Methodist Church, a new congregation that was meeting in Lamar High School. When I was ten, I went through a Membership Training Class and was given a Bible at the conclusion of the class. The only class I remember was conducted by the pastor. In that class he drew the trunk of a tree on the blackboard and said it represented the Catholic Church. He drew branches on the tree and said they represented various Protestant denominations. This impressed on me the fact that the Catholic Church was the original and largest Church.
We seldom attended Sunday worship services. My father would take my sister and me to Sunday school, leaving us at the door and picking us up when Sunday school was over.
While my father was not an active Methodist, there are two things he had internalized from his Methodist family background. One was a strict morality. I remember him saying a number of times, “There is no degree to honesty.” The other was a love of family. Over the course of his life, he took care financially of his father and mother, provided some financial help and much personal attention to one of his brothers and his wife and one of his sisters and her husband. My Grandmother Knickerbocker died when I was 16. The last two years of her life, she was in a nursing home, and my father visited her every day on the way home from work. This emphasis on family has had a profound effect on me.
From an early age, I asked “why” questions. For example, “Why does God allow people to suffer from natural disasters?” My parents would respond by saying, “You’re too young to be thinking about those things.” I now realize that my questions made them uncomfortable. But I still wanted answers to important questions.
Although we were not active Methodists, when I was lying in bed at night, I would sometimes think about my Grandfather Knickerbocker. I would say to myself, “A man would need to be very sure about some things before he became a minister.”
When I was in the fifth grade, that defining experience happened to me and is a vivid memory to this day. I was a shy, introverted boy and was picked on from time to time by other boys. On this particular occasion, I was having relationship problems at school. I decided to begin reading the Bible that had been given to me at the end of the Membership Training Class. I read it in bed at night and began with the Gospel of Matthew. The night when I closed the Bible and said, “What can I do but trust God?” a powerful Presence swooped down, and I experienced a peace I had never known. Then the Presence began to dissipate. Because my parents had never answered my “why” questions, and because we were only sporadically attending Sunday worship services, I did not talk about this experience. In the Membership Training Class, we had never spoken of being “born again” or of a personal experience of the Holy Spirit or of a personal relationship with Jesus. However, I knew that someday I would need to know more.
I believe that the grace of my Baptism, the gift of the Bible, and the prayers of Grandmother and Grandfather Knickerbocker were behind this experience. But it was some years before I reflected on this. I now believe that the experience of the Presence leaving me was God calling me to follow Him into the future.
Because I thought I had been a disappointment to my dad during my junior high and high school years, when I went to college, I was determined to change that. My dad had been an athlete and a good student, and I was neither. Consequently, when I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, I joined a fraternity, played on the soccer team, and learned how to box. By my junior year, I realized I had not been very successful in changing my life, and I suffered a period of depression. I talked with the Methodist minister in Lexington and the minister at St. Luke’s in Houston. What they said did not resonate with me.
I majored in Economics because my father was an investment banker and wanted me to go into business with him. Because I was on the BA track and not the BS, I was able to take three Bible courses, two semesters of philosophy, six history courses, and a course in the classics. In retrospect, that was my real education. What I learned in philosophy about the relationship of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics has influenced me the rest of my life.
While at W&L, I was in ROTC, and the summer after my junior year, I went to summer camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This was a good experience for me, because I met guys who were from a variety of backgrounds, and I could be myself, free of family expectations.
When I graduated in 1960, I received a BA in Economics and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the US Army. My orders specified that I would be on active duty two years, ready reserve three years, and standby reserve one year. I was assigned to the Air Defense Artillery and required to report to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on September 28, 1960. This assignment proved to be life changing. While I was there, I made a commitment to Jesus as my Lord and Savior and met the girl who would become my wife.
My father’s secretary and her husband knew a couple in El Paso who had a daughter attending Texas Western College. They told their friends about me and suggested I call their daughter and ask her out. I put off doing this until February 1961, calling her on a Saturday. She was very polite but said she had a boyfriend. However, she invited me to come to Sunday school and the worship service with them the next morning.
They picked me up at my Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ) and took me to Trinity Methodist Church. The class we attended was for college students and other young adults. I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday, and I was with about 40 people my age. A young couple taught the class, and they had a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The class was like no other I had attended. All the students were committed followers of Jesus. In the worship service, the pastor unapologetically preached Jesus Christ. After the service, three guys invited me out to lunch and showed me around El Paso. When they took me to my BOQ, they invited me to come to the evening service.
My life would be entirely different if I had not gone to that service. The college class formed the choir, and they led us in singing several hymns. As I sat in the congregation, I noticed the choir members I had met that morning. But I also noticed a girl I had not previously met. She was wearing a blue sweater and a blue plaid skirt, had auburn hair, and even at that distance I could tell that she had beautiful eyes.
After the service, several college students invited me to join them at an after-church gathering called an “afterglow,” a social time for members of the college class, so I followed them to a home in the suburbs. When I walked in the door, one of the guys I had met that morning said, “Knick, there is somebody I want you to meet.” I turned to my right, and there was the girl in the blue sweater and plaid skirt who had such beautiful eyes. He said, “Knick, this is Sandie Hargraves.” As I write this, we have been married 60 years.
Getting to Know Christ
Meeting Sandie made me seriously consider my commitment to Jesus Christ. I began to get answers to some of my questions. Sandie helped me understand what the Lord was doing in my life, and the Sunday school class at Trinity became my community. Also, Sandie’s family members were committed Methodist Christians, and I saw what it was like to be part of a Christian family.
My experience of God when I was ten had been theocentric; this second experience was Christocentric. The difference was that, with Sandie’s help, I understood who I was experiencing, and I became a committed follower of Jesus Christ. One evening, as I was driving to pick up Sandie, the Lord spoke to me in the words of St. Paul: “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”(Galatians 6:7). I realized Jesus was saving me from the bad seeds I had sown and helping me to sow good seeds. Later, I understood He was making me a new person in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I should say it has not been a smooth ride. My Old Adam still tried to manage my life, and I thank the Lord Jesus for being patient and faithful to me.
Sandie and I dated from February until September 1961, when I was deployed with my unit to Okinawa. I left my car with Sandie, and the night I boarded the troop train for San Diego, I gave her an engagement ring. We agreed we would write every day and marry when I returned the following September. But on the ship to Okinawa, I wrote to ask her to marry me in January at the end of her junior year in college! She said Yes, and I returned to El Paso on leave for our wedding on January 28, 1962. Sandie then accompanied me to Okinawa, where we spent the first months of our married life.
As we prayed together about what we would do after I was released from active duty, we concluded that I had a vocation to the ordained ministry in The Methodist Church. Consequently, I applied to several Methodist seminaries and was in contact with the Board of Ministry of the New Mexico Conference (like a diocese), which included El Paso and a large part of west Texas.
In September 1962, I was released from active duty and began to study at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. We spent three years there, and I graduated in June 1965 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree, majoring in Biblical Theology.
We returned to El Paso. I was ordained a Methodist minister in the New Mexico Conference and was appointed Methodist Campus Minister at Texas Western College. My primary duty was teaching in the Texas Bible Chair program that allowed churches to offer elective courses for credit in state colleges and universities. I taught both Old and New Testament courses and Comparative Religion. In the process, my vocation became more specific, and Sandie and I were convinced that the Lord was calling me to earn a PhD and teach religion in an undergraduate school.
The most important event in our lives while we were in El Paso was the birth of our son, Jon. He has been a delight for us and is now married with two children.
In September 1968, we returned to Emory University, and I began study for a PhD degree in Church History. I had decided not to study for a degree in Biblical Theology, because I had become disenchanted with the historical-critical (“higher criticism”) approach to Scripture. In retrospect, I realize that higher criticism allows its epistemology to determine its metaphysics, whereas metaphysics should determine epistemology. In other words, the nature of that which is known is the primary determinant of the way we know that which is known. This means, as St. Augustine and St. Anselm teach, that we have faith in order that we may understand. Higher criticism, conversely, seeks to understand Scripture without faith that God reveals Himself in Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ.
I had originally applied to doctoral programs in Systematic Theology, thinking this would prepare me to teach religion and philosophy in an undergraduate school. One of the systematic theology professors recommended that I request my application be transferred either to New Testament or Church History. I had already ruled out Biblical studies, so I asked that my application be transferred to Church History, even though I did not think this would be the best preparation for teaching religion in an undergraduate school. In retrospect, Sandie and I can see the Lord moving in this, because studying Church History and Historical Theology were good preparation for becoming Catholic.
In September 1971, our daughter, Amy, was born. She is now married, and she and her husband have a daughter.
We were at Emory five years this time. I received my PhD degree in 1972, and we remained in Atlanta in the 1972–73 school year while I taught Western Civilization part time at DeKalb Community College and took a post-doctoral classes.
Teaching positions in higher education were difficult to find, and I thought I might need to serve a congregation as a Methodist pastor. However, in the early spring 1973, a retired Methodist pastor, who was teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary, contacted Emory, asking them to recommend a graduate from the PhD program for a new full-time position on the faculty of the seminary. The position was the instruction of Methodist Studies and Church History. There were several Methodist students from the Memphis Conference attending the Seminary, and the Conference had voted to partially fund a faculty position at MTS. The professor who had directed my PhD dissertation wrote MTS recommending me. I interviewed for the position that spring and began teaching at MTS in September 1973. I remained on the faculty until June 2005. The seminary and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church became like family for us, and they saw me through a move to the Episcopal Church and Episcopal priesthood and then to the Catholic Church, all the while allowing me to continue to teach at MTS. I will be forever grateful for their wanting my orthodox theology to be represented on the faculty.
In October 1974, the president of the seminary said he wanted me to learn what spiritual formation is and teach the seminary community about it. He said Roman Catholic Seminaries, after Vatican Council II, were applying for accreditation in the Association of Theological Schools, formerly a Protestant accrediting agency. Once accredited, seminaries have input into the standards for accreditation. Catholic seminaries had introduced into the standards the concept of spiritual formation.
A Decision to Make
In carrying out my commission, I came in touch with the great Catholic spiritual tradition. My study of Church History had prepared me for this. In Lent 1976, I discovered the writings of C.S. Lewis, and he helped me understand spiritual formation as theosis. This is what St. Paul writes about in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
In our early years in Memphis, Sandie was the Administrative Assistant to a Methodist District Superintendent. I was on sabbatical leave in the fall 1980 and had written a book directed toward Methodist seminary students. Sandie read the book over the Christmas holidays and said the book was too Anglican to appeal to Methodists. I was trying to claim the Anglican roots of Methodism, but Sandie was right. The Methodist Church, now The United Methodist Church, was becoming a combination of Protestant Evangelicalism and social action and was de-emphasizing its Wesleyan/Anglican roots.
In January 1981, the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee had its annual convention in Memphis at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. The diocese invited other Christian communions to send ecumenical delegates as observers. The District Superintendent for whom Sandie worked was invited. He could not go, and Sandie asked him to invite me to be the ecumenical delegate for The United Methodist Church.
I went to St. Mary’s Cathedral on a Thursday evening to participate in the opening celebration of the Eucharist. The ecumenical delegates were seated in the front of the nave on the ambo side. We processed into the Cathedral, and I will never forget being swept up by the magnificent music and the visual ambiance of the English gothic cathedral with its magnificent stained-glass windows and high altar.
That year, the diocesan delegates were voting whether to divide the Diocese of Tennessee into three dioceses, with Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville being the see cities. In his homily, the bishop addressed this decision and repeated several times, “You have a decision to make, and if you keep your spiritual eye on Christ, whatever you decide will be acceptable to the Lord.” As I listened to the bishop, I heard “You have a decision to make” and realized that the Lord was presenting me with a decision about whether to stay in The United Methodist Church or join the Episcopal Church. When I told Sandie about this, she said she had suggested to the District Superintendent that I be the ecumenical delegate to the convention because she knew it was difficult for me to make decisions. She had seen my growing attraction to the Episcopal Church and thought that I needed a little help in making the decision. She also said she had been ready to move to the Episcopal Church for a while. Sandie and I were confirmed, and I was ordained an Episcopal priest on April 23, 1983.
During my eleven years as an Episcopal priest, I continued to teach at Memphis Seminary and for two years was also Vicar of St. Paul Episcopal Church. Sandie was the full-time lay ministry coordinator and Director of Religious Education there. The parish was in a changing neighborhood, and we were there to help it transition to mission status. Our children, Jon and Amy, were confirmed in the Episcopal Church, so our family was being formed together in a communion with a magnificent liturgical tradition.
In 1992, Sandie and I spent the spring and summer of my sabbatical leave at St. Clement Episcopal Pro-Cathedral in El Paso, Texas. I worked on a book to instruct Episcopal seminary students and assisted in the liturgical ministry. We had begun praying the Rosary and had been led to an increasing interest in the Virgin Mary thanks to Fr. David Knight’s book, Mary in an Adult Church. We had met Fr. Knight when he was teaching a course in spiritual formation at Memphis Theological Seminary. While in El Paso, Sandie and I also studied The Woman and the Way and Our Father, Our Mother: Mary and the Faces of God by Fr. George Montague, SM and Mary at the Foot of the Cross by James Cardinal Hickey.
At St. Clement, we participated in their interdenominational Charismatic Renewal Sunday evening prayer meeting. Our experience of the Holy Spirit deepened our understanding of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
During our time in El Paso, our daughter Amy, who was a student at the University of Memphis, called to tell us she was going to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. At her request, she had attended Immaculate Conception High School, and when she entered the University, she became involved in the activities at the Catholic Student Center. At Immaculate Conception, she had excellent Catholic instruction, and this continued at the Catholic Student Center. She told us she would wait until we returned in the fall to be confirmed.
As we were preparing to return to Memphis in August, Sandie and I decided to make a discernment retreat at the Franciscan Retreat Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. While we were on the retreat, Sandie was led to ask the question, “Where is the fullness of truth?” which she understood to mean, “Where is the fullest expression of Jesus Christ?” We realized then that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church.
At Tiber’s Edge
After we returned to Memphis, Amy was confirmed at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in October by Fr. David Knight, who had been praying for 19 years that we would become Catholic! Sandie and I began RCIA that fall at Sacred Heart Church. Sandie was confirmed by Fr. Knight on Holy Saturday 1993. It was difficult for me to surrender my priestly ordination in the Episcopal Church. However, I finally did so and was confirmed on November 19, 1994.
On the way to Sacred Heart to be confirmed, I presumptuously said to God, “OK, I’ve been faithful to give up Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, and I expect you to deliver.” Indeed, He has delivered! Our son, Jon, and his family were eventually confirmed as Catholics. Amy married a fine Catholic man, and they have a daughter. So, thankfully and joyfully, our entire family is being formed together in the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church.
As a result of the grace from my Confirmation, while Sandie and I were participating in a Life in the Spirit seminar in February 1995, I began writing Catholic poetry. The Holy Spirit has continued to give me the gift of poetry — about 3,000 poems to date. In August 2005, I heard God’s call to offer myself for the Catholic priesthood. I was ordained a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision on January 28, 2009, at age 70, by Bishop Michael Pfeifer, OMI, in the Diocese of San Angelo in Texas. He ordained me on our 47th wedding anniversary. This is in keeping with a ministry Sandie and I were led to begin in the summer 1995, called “The Household of the Holy Family,” a ministry encouraging Catholic marriage and family life.
On our website, proclaimingtruth.org, you can read my book, Families are Forever, a complete account of our conversions and the Catholic truth gleaned from my 32 years of teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary; my book of poetry, New Eden; the Litany of Loreto in poetry, and many other poems, plus links to seven years of monthly articles we wrote for our diocesan newspaper.
Again and again, we have experienced the Providence of God. Thanks be to God for His merciful hand in our lives!