“It’s — it’s a magic wardrobe. There’s a wood inside it, and it’s snowing, and there’s a Faun and a witch and it’s called Narnia; come and see.”
— Lucy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Wardrobe to Narnia
Since my childhood, I always loved C.S. Lewis’ stories about the adventures in Narnia. It was stories like the ones about Narnia that helped me realize that this was the way we usually come to understand the real and true things of life. As I began to wonder about who God is, I got introduced to characters such as Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, and Lucy. Through stories told creatively and beautifully, I came to not just know but also love the goodness and truth concerning God.
During my first eighteen years, I grew up in a family that taught me to love Jesus and His Word. I found Jesus to be like Aslan in the Narnia stories: someone who always surprised and captivated me. I was never bored hearing about Jesus. He not only saved me from my sins through His death and resurrection, but also desired to lead me, encourage me, and commune with me. My family also encouraged me to grow in Christian community at our Bible church in eastern Long Island. This became Narnia for me. I fondly remember the great love and service the community shared with each other and anyone who had need. Songs were lifted to God in praise of His Son Jesus. The pastors through the years taught the Bible with great compassion and grace. There were dinners shared, friendships formed with other young Christians, and trips for service and spiritual growth on a yearly basis.
My childhood was not all love, joy, peace, and happiness, though. I struggled to seek deep friendships and was often ridiculed for my Christian beliefs at the public schools I attended. It turns out that being a born-again Christian was not the way to become cool and popular. High school was especially difficult. I had trouble figuring out how to be a Christian and still relate to my classmates at a public school. Coupled with my inclination to be socially shy, I would usually be the one who would sit by myself during lunch. The Evangelical mindset was that people were either saved or not saved. So, how can you be friends with those who are not believers? How can you “be in the world and not of the world”?
The stories of Narnia provided a tale of people from our world becoming more alive in another world. This story matched my experience growing up as an Evangelical Protestant. It spoke to a longing to want to escape from the difficulties of this world and have an adventure or take a holiday in another.
First Encounters with the Catholic Faith
Narnia was a children’s story. It had clearly defined and often symbolic characters that represented key themes from Scripture. Jesus was represented by Aslan while the devil was portrayed as the White Witch who had cast a spell on Narnia, making it “always winter, but never Christmas.” Just like the main child characters that visit Narnia, there is a time to grow into an adult and have other adventures. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Church at Corinth: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (13:11-12).
My first encounters with the Catholic Church did not occur until I was beginning high school. That might sound as if I had a sheltered life. But, if you were to ask many Protestant Christians they would likely express a similar experience. Sadly, the Catholic and Protestant worlds often do not have regular points of contact.
I primarily became acquainted with the Catholic Church through the ways in which it was portrayed in the media and from the few friends I knew who were Catholic. Many times when I would drive by a Catholic church, I would wonder to myself: What is going on in there? In general, though, the Catholic Church was something totally other.
A Dim View of Hobbits
Everyone outside the Shire seemed to have a low view of Hobbits. They are oddly mannered and even more oddly shaped. They have weird customs and names. They are considered, by the rest of Middle Earth, as small and insignificant. In a similar way, some in the Evangelical world have a dim view of Catholics.
Overall, my perception of the Catholic Church was not a favorable one. The Bible church I attended up through adolescence provided occasional caution about the Catholic Church. The offenses raised were directed toward both what it was thought Catholics believed and how they lived the faith. Here are a few examples of things I heard growing up that formed my perception of the Catholic Church:
“Catholics believe that the Pope is sinless.”
“Catholics teach their people to confess to a priest instead of Jesus.”
“Some Catholics worship and pray to Mary.”
“The Catholic Church has added works to the message of Jesus’ gospel of salvation.”
“The Catholic Church teaches useless tradition that distracts from the simple message of the gospel.”
“Catholics follow a man-made religion.”
Based on the depiction of Catholic Faith and practice, you would think our church community considered Catholics our enemies. Actually, the common understanding was that many Catholics were Christian, despite being Catholic. It was accepted that some people who were Catholic were “born again Catholics.” The assumption was that, in spite of all the false and wrong things the Catholic Church taught, some Catholics were miraculously saved by Jesus “from” the Catholic corruptions of the Faith and “into” a relationship with Jesus.
On the Border of Middle Earth
As I began college, my awareness of the Catholic Church began to grow. I had grown weary of the public school setting and desired to attend a school that would nurture and strengthen my Christian faith. I attended a historically-Baptist college in southwestern Ohio that placed a strong emphasis on Christian development and community. We had chapel every weekday with time spent singing and being taught the Scriptures. Friendships were developed and campus leadership encouraged students to pursue ministry and service opportunities in nearby local churches.
It was also at this time I first encountered Tolkein’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. The movies were announced right before I started college in 2001. I sought out the books and perceived that the imagery spoke to something deeper about the Christian Faith than the stories of Narnia. There were vivid and strange characters, epic quests, battles, and sublime beauty. The question naturally began to arise: what informed Tolkein’s writing of The Lord of the Rings? I would not discover the answer to this question for another seven years when I finally discovered the deep Catholic faith of J.R.R. Tolkein.
Another major impact that college had on me was that it instilled a growing awareness of the Evangelical Christian world. It was here that I first became aware of “Protestantism” as an historical movement and began to notice that Protestant Christians, while sharing some common beliefs, also had some major differences in their beliefs and practice. For most of my life, I assumed that what I was taught at my small Bible church on eastern Long Island was what Christians were taught all around the world. But, after four years at a college with students coming from hundreds of different Protestant denominations, I quickly learned that this was not the case — and it bothered me.
My first inkling of something amiss was on the teaching regarding water baptism. In my small Bible church growing up, water baptism was not practiced and was dismissed because it was viewed as an outward action that diminishes God’s inward work of grace that occurs in the heart. It was thought that this action caused people to begin to rely on their own action for salvation, instead of the total grace of God’s work in our salvation. Basically, the belief was held that the practice of water baptism brought in a subtle suggestion that “we did something” to attain our salvation. We had to “do a work for it,” and this struck at the heart of God’s free gift of salvation.
For twenty-five years this sounded very reasonable; a collection of verses were shared from the Bible to support this belief. Baptism was seen as an old holdover from oppressive Catholic teaching that demanded works from people to attain God’s favor and salvation. This was all built off the assumption that water baptism was just an outward symbol and work of man. I was willing to accept that there were some slight variations in how this belief was expressed, but I was certain that since this was dealing with teaching directly related to our salvation that there was little room for much variation. But, then I arrived at college and learned how thoroughly wrong I was.
A Helm’s Deep of Troubled Waters
As the story of Hobbits, the Ring, and Middle Earth progresses into The Two Towers, we witness the episode of the attack on Helm’s Deep. As Sauron’s armies of darkness march across Middle Earth, the men of the region of Rohan seek refuge in a bunker-like fortification. Surrounded by massive walls, the people of Rohan seem secure. But, a flaw is discovered and exploited by the enemy. This great barrier wall has one weakness: a small entryway that allows water to pass into the enclosure so people may survive.
As it turns out, the belief espoused by my Christian faith community back in New York was not the consensus of Evangelicals after all. In fact, I soon discovered that my community’s beliefs were an extreme teaching without historical precedent throughout all of Christian history. This awareness of abnormality aroused a deepening curiosity that had been idling in my heart since adolescence. At my historically-Baptist college, there were a handful of beliefs held by the students which each of them brought from their own home churches. Some students held that water baptism was, as the school taught, a symbol of God cleansing us from sin when we profess belief in Jesus. The conviction was that it was a way for Christians to outwardly testify about their interior acceptance and faith in Jesus Christ. So, in a sense, it was not a work required for salvation, but a work that testified in response to God’s work. Baptism was often compared to a wedding ring in marriage: something that outwardly testifies to an inward commitment — not essential, but helpful.
Not essential, but helpful? This was quite a difference from what my home church essentially taught; that water baptism was both not essential, and possibly harmful to our faith. Baptists gave the rationale that Jesus commanded His disciples to go into all the world and baptize, and we are called to follow His instruction. My home church instructed that Jesus laid aside outward forms of worship with the old covenant. This was a conflict. Two Christian groups were saying that Jesus had two different intentions. Both groups, though, did share a common conviction: that water baptism was a responsive act of man and not something that God does on the soul at the supernatural level.
If it were merely these two positions on this teaching, then the path ahead still seemed manageable. But, these were not the only two positions. I soon discovered that in Evangelical Protestantism there were potentially four or five “views” about Baptism. Convictions were numerous both in what water baptism was and how it should be practiced. Infant, or adult, or both? Pouring, sprinkling, or full immersion? This did not even bring into consideration what Catholics taught about Baptism. There was an enormous elephant in the room that was (consciously or unconsciously) being ignored.
Saint Augustine was Gandalf in My Life
Gandalf is often believed to represent the prophets that arise throughout all of Scripture. He is the voice of faith and reason throughout the Middle Earth saga. He calls characters out of complacency, casts light in darkness, removes evil influences, and is pretty much the main catalyst for many of the events that transpire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The first time I heard the name Augustine was during my third year of college. One pastor who came to speak at our chapel recommended reading Augustine’s Confessions. So I did. It did not take any extensive research to discover that Augustine was a Catholic bishop in northern Africa during the fourth century. As I read more and more of his writings, I became a little concerned.
It seemed that Augustine and his contemporaries believed something very different about the Church than most Protestants today. The early Christians believed in Scripture and the Sacred Tradition handed on from the Apostles to their successors, the bishops. They believed that what distinguished the Church was its unity of teaching, and what distinguished the heretics and false teachers was their division from the successors of the Apostles. The early Christians practiced confession to priests, prayed for the dead, and believed that God works through the sacraments to apply His salvation and grace into our lives. They recited written prayers. They spoke of Christ’s purification of Christians through something called purgatory. They testified that Mary was free from original sin, called her “the New Eve,” and wrote prayers, which called on Mary to intercede for them in prayer. As I read more and more of these writings, I became unsettled and wondered if all the things about which these early Christians wrote were still going on in their totality in any church today. This became yet another elephant in the room: the continuing authority and apostolicity of the Catholic Church.
“I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened.” — Frodo Baggins, speaking to Gandalf in the mines of Moriah.
Finishing college, I laid aside the concerns I had about the lack of congruence I began to see between the Church throughout history and the Protestant church today. I had attempted to ask my church community back home about the teachings I had found in the early Church, but the reply I got was a pamphlet of verses along with their interpretation of these verses. They did not offer any historical support for their interpretations of Scripture. I tried to explain that there were many groups, both Christian and non-Christian, that can use passages of Scripture to support a belief they had, but the lines of communication coming from my home church quickly went dead.
I began studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to prepare for Army Chaplain ministry. While there, I made it a purpose to take classes specifically focused on the early Church. At this point, I was becoming more and more hungry for the truth, but at the same time I did not want the Catholic Church to be the Church started by Jesus. I was still saying to myself, “Let it not be so.”
Samwise Gamgee: A Fateful Meeting at Army Chaplain School
Just as there was a Gandalf in my journey of conversion found in the fourth century Catholic bishop, Saint Augustine, so also there was a Samwise that had a pivotal role on my decision to enter the Catholic Church. Samwise was told by Gandalf to accompany Frodo on his journey to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring.
In May of 2005, after four years of school and serving at a Baptist church on internship, I was ready to complete the last phase of my Chaplain ministry training with the Army. I was to spend eight weeks of my summer at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. About halfway into the summer, I was invited by some friends in my platoon to a dinner at a house off base. A Catholic seminarian who was also attending the chaplain school was invited to the same dinner.
The Dinner Conversation that Changed My Life
In a group of Christians from many different Evangelical denominations, the Catholic seminarian caught my attention. During that evening’s discussions, the Catholic had a lot of insightful things to share about Scripture and the history of Christianity. The major turning point in my life came a few days later when this Catholic seminarian invited me to attend the Catholic Mass on the base where we were training. After experiencing the first Catholic Mass in my memory, I immediately began to realize there was something different about the Catholic Church. At Mass, I noticed that the Bible I had known my entire life came alive in ways that were only hinted at in Protestant worship services.
I began to earnestly read both the writings of the early Church and also stories of other Protestants who converted to Catholicism, many whom had now been Catholic for close to twenty years. I was encouraged to read the Bible, think critically, and use reason. One of the striking things I was told was to not just go back and read writings from the early Church, but to also go back and read the first Protestant leaders, including Luther and Calvin. My Catholic friend gave me a challenge regarding the teaching that Catholics have about the Eucharist. “Michael,” he said, “go back and read what both Luther and Calvin taught regarding the Eucharist and ask yourself: ‘Do any of the Protestant churches you have been a part of in your life still teach the same way Calvin and Luther taught concerning the Eucharist?’” I took him up on his challenge and I came back to him and admitted that I had never encountered any Protestant Evangelical church that was still teaching what was taught by the first Protestants. It was then that I finally realized what I needed to do: I needed to seek communion with the Church that our Lord Jesus started and still sustains to this day: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
“There and back again”
For both Bilbo and Frodo, the journey began in the Shire; in a comfortable home in the ground. They traveled to distant lands and experienced things they would never have dreamed of. They left the known and ventured into the unknown. It took courage and it took faith. They both returned to the Shire, but neither one of them was ever the same.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
I returned back from chaplain training knowing I needed to become Catholic for the sake of the truth. The Catholic seminarian suggested I talk to some local priests back in Grand Rapids about the process of becoming Catholic for adults known as RCIA. I knew that taking this step was going to have enormous implications for the rest of my life. The relationship I had with my parents would become strained and I would lose some of the friends I had made at the Baptist church I had been serving at in Grand Rapids. Everything I had been preparing for over the past four years to serve as an Army Chaplain would come to an end. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the most difficult experience in my life. I went through and read thousands of pages from early Christian writers and spent days reading about the teachings of the Catholic Church. I wanted to be sure, because, at the end of the day, the truth mattered more than anything else.
On Eagle’s Wings to the Father’s Arms
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, when things are at their darkest point, Frodo and Samwise are in grave danger. The One Ring has been destroyed by being cast into the fires of Mount Doom. But, as they flee, the volcano erupts and lava is pursuing them down the mountain. When it appears they are about to meet their end, from the sky come the eagles, which draw them up out of danger.
Jesus has surpassed my expectations. The Catholic Church — Christ’s beloved bride — has been a joy, a refuge, and more than home. Is the Church perfect? No. It’s full of sinners like you and me, just as Middle Earth is full of a variety of noble and ignoble characters. The Lord said to His people: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jermiah 29:13). This has been most true since becoming a Catholic Christian.
I have been Catholic for five years now and could spend many more pages sharing the amazing experiences I have had. Please keep me in prayer as I am currently in Catholic seminary preparing to hopefully become a priest of Jesus Christ. Some may wonder if becoming Catholic is really worth all the struggle and loss I had to go through. I think Augustine may best convey why I believe it is worth it:
There are many other things which most properly can keep me in the Catholic Church’s bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called “Catholic,” when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house. (St. Augustine, Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation,” 4:5 a.d. 397)
I hope my journey might inspire you to seek to passionately, fully, and earnestly experience the Catholic Church. Consider what she teaches, see how people live out their faith, and consider whether the fullness of Christ’s Gospel continues to resound from her throughout the world!