My father was an officer in the Army. Like all military families, we were transferred every few years, forced to plant new seeds just as the old ones were beginning to sprout. This transient life shaped me in more ways than I can imagine. Religiously, we had to find a new church each time we moved. We tasted a variety of denominations, but the churches we finally claimed as our own were chosen based on how welcoming they were. Questions of truth were secondary to the quality of the organ music, candlelight Christmas Eve services, and the warmth of the pastor and congregants. Although we would go to church one or two Sundays each month, my family was only nominally Protestant and, therefore, I received little religious formation.
When I was about ten years old, my mother told my sister and me that we were going to be baptized that following Sunday at the Methodist church. I can’t remember if I knew that I wasn’t already, but the thought of being baptized had no meaning for me. After we circled around the font with a few other families, I was sprinkled with the water of regeneration. Rather than being a significant moment for me, I recall thinking to myself, “I just want to go sit down. I wish all of these people would stop looking at me!” Such was the thinking of a ten-year-old boy.
Wanting to belong
We moved to Lawrence, Kansas just as I entered those bewildering teenage years (Lord, have mercy). I became friends with two boys, Kyle and Ben, who, I would later learn, went to church together and had a set of friends whom I did not know. My jealousy raged (Christ, have mercy). I was hurt that I was excluded from something precious that I did not share with them. As we were walking back to my house one day after playing golf, I asked Kyle if I could go to church with him that Sunday — not because I wanted to grow closer to God, but out of selfish desires (Lord, have mercy).
Despite this inauspicious beginning, I fell in love with the Southside Church of Christ. I immersed myself in all of the youth activities and quickly gained a close group of friends, no small victory for an awkward teen who was nine inches taller than all of his peers. Within the year, I was baptized a second time, because I did not consider my first baptism “legitimate” as I had not made a “true” conversion to Christ. Such was the thinking of a thirteen-year-old boy.
Things fall apart
While I was basking in the afterglow of my newfound love for Christ, Southside imploded. Just a few months after my baptism, there was a division among the congregants about some ecclesial matter that, to this day, is unclear to me. About 75 people — including Kyle’s family and most families with children my age — broke away to form the Wheatland Church of Christ. Despite my zeal for Southside, I left.
It would be unfair of me to say that this division alone caused my turn away from Christ. I wonder if I had fully given myself to Him. I wonder if I simply had felt invigorated by the charisma of those who embraced me. I wonder if the dread and despair of my teen years inevitably crushed whatever small devotion I had. I don’t know. Although I continued to go to our newly formed church until I left for college, my faith had evaporated.
In many ways, my teenage years were cliché. I felt jaded and disaffected by the world and all of its empty promises. I spent my nights playing the same Pink Floyd songs over and over again until sunrise trying to imitate David Gilmour’s guitar licks on my Telecaster, never quite getting them right. My new friends were far from exemplars of integrity. But, then again, so was I. One Saturday night, when I was about 15, we were wandering around with no particular aim in mind. Heading back to my friend’s house, we spotted a Ford Mustang in his neighbor’s driveway. We opened the door, climbed in, and saw a Pioneer tape deck in the dashboard. Egging each other on, we swiped it and ran. What were we going to do with a tape deck? None of us drove our own cars. We certainly weren’t organized criminals who could sell it on the black market. Alone, I would not have done it. I only wanted to be part of something…anything.
A spiritual itch
I came to Chicago for college percolating with anticipation. I had no idea what I wanted to study, or whom I wanted to become. All I knew was that I wanted. Desperately. Fantasies of losing myself in the blues scene beckoned me, and fantasies of a woman losing herself in me fogged my imagination. Neither happened.
At the end of my sophomore year, I took a comparative religions class. I knew nothing about different religions, but they fascinated me. We studied many traditions, but it was Buddhism that called my world into question. It could not be placed on the spectrum of Western thought (as I understood it), and I was compelled to learn more. The following year, I enrolled in a course on Buddhism and, by the end of it, knew that I needed to get my degree in religious studies and spend my time asking the great questions of life: How do we know what we know? Is there one Truth, or many? Does God exist? I took classes on every religious tradition I could, but the questions outnumbered the answers.
During my studies, I came to know a group of professors who had a profound impact on me. I had met many intelligent scholars at DePaul, but these men were different. While the breadth and depth of their knowledge of ethics, psychology, and Sanskrit overwhelmed me, the wisdom they possessed drew me towards them. Although they knew different religious traditions well, they had placed their lives in the hands of the Catholic Church. I was mesmerized by how they had successfully navigated the waters of the intellectual life and, somehow, had not run aground on the shores of a facile relativism. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be them. It was irrelevant to me, however, that Catholicism was their refuge. What they proclaimed as truth was less important to me than that they proclaimed any truth at all. While I was only open to their insights about the complexities of life, nevertheless, a Catholic seed was planted and began to grow, though only gradually.
My senior year, I decided to write my thesis on the function of music in the Catholic Funeral Mass. Part of this thesis mandated that I spend the next six months observing the Mass, which, like many people encountering it for the first time, I found distasteful. I had no idea what was going on and, because many songs were sung and prayers were offered from memory, it felt like an exclusive club that did not welcome outsiders. I banished this thought to the back of my mind because I was less interested in the Mass itself and more interested in the music and what the music conveyed about the meaning of death (as if these three ever could be separated from each other). It was largely because of this thesis that I realized I was not ready for graduate school. So, I joined the Peace Corps.
The Postmodern man
I was sent to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania where I taught English for two years at the Lycée d’Aleg. The Peace Corps was a powerful experience that tattooed its mark on me. I witnessed overflowing generosity from those with very little, and the strength of the human spirit in a seemingly hopeless situation. I also witnessed crippling poverty, the debasement of women, and slavery. But, while I was immersed in foreign languages and foreign customs in a foreign land, I realized how foreign I was to myself. Who am I? What do I believe? Why am I here? These questions haunted me, and I finally surrendered to the call that I needed to spend my life chasing answers.
I enrolled at the University of Chicago Divinity School and began to study Christian theology, becoming absorbed in the pamphlet wars of the 16th century between Protestants like Luther and Calvin and Catholics like Erasmus and Sadoleto. They wrote with such urgency about salvation that I became transfixed with rapt attention. Personally, however, I told myself that this was only an academic exercise; these debates had no bearing on my life because, long ago, I ceased to recognize Christ as fully human and fully divine.
While in Hyde Park, I learned a vocabulary that described my worldview that I had had since I was a teenager. I came to understand that I was the quintessential “Postmodern” man. I believed all the hallmarks that this intellectual trend of our age proclaims: the certainty of uncertainty, suspicion of authority, the rejection of universal truth, relativism, disdain for all rules, self-generated meaning, skepticism, the deification of the individual, perspectivism, and, what I like to call, the “democracy of truth.”
Ironically, the University of Chicago (that Temple of Postmodernity) brought me closer to the Catholic Church in two ways. First, like forcing a child to smoke a carton of cigarettes so that he will never want to look at another cigarette again, I became sick on the “dictatorship of relativism” and needed to purge myself of that poison. Second, Luther and Calvin had convinced me of the necessity of grace because of the weakness of humanity. I did not know, however, that this Protestant understanding of grace derived from the Catholic Doctor of Grace, Augustine of Hippo. I ached for grace, because “what ought to be more attractive to us sick men, than grace, grace by which we are healed; for us lazy men, than grace, grace by which we are stirred up; for us men longing to act, than grace, by which we are helped?” (St. Augustine, Ep. 186, xii, 39)
But, I had no idea where to find grace.
I moved to Washington, DC and began my Ph.D. course work at The Catholic University of America, because I knew from my time at DePaul that a Catholic school would provide a much healthier atmosphere. Over the next few years, I sat at the feet of the Church Fathers — especially Augustine — and soaked in the teachings of the Tradition. My studies pulled me to the door of the Catholic Church, but more than an intellectual ascent was needed to bring about a conversion of the heart.
When I was in school, there was nothing I wanted more than to be a mystic. I wanted a direct experience — a direct union — with God. I rejected mediated experiences of God as shallow and flawed because they are always culturally constructed. The Bible, for example, was written in Hebrew and Greek, but at the time I could only read English translations. I knew that this linguistic barrier caused a disconnect between my understanding of Scripture and the fullness of what God had to say.
I believed what Pseudo-Dionysius, the great 6th century Byzantine mystic, said about the only way that one can truly know God: “leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, strive upward — as much as you can — toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be lifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.” Such romantic words made me swoon.
Anyone who knows me, though, would tell you that I don’t have a mystical bone in my body. I thought, however, that I could do the next best thing. I read all the notable mystics of the Christian tradition, such as Henry Suso, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Margery Kempe. But, while reading them, I always thought to myself: “I have no idea what you people are talking about!”
I don’t know when it happened, but I came to realize that mediated experience was not to be shunned in favor of the mystical. Rather, our relationship with God must be mediated through materiality and the culturally constructed avenues that speak to us. I began to seek out every physical experience of God that I could encounter: God — mediated through the smell of the incense that tickled my nose in the cathedrals of Europe; God — mediated through the haunting melody of Amazing Grace; God — mediated through the grittiness of the ashes that were spread on my forehead at my first Ash Wednesday Mass.
And so, the radical message that the immaterial God became material in the person of Jesus Christ finally began to make sense to me. I came to understand that God became physical because this is how we relate to Him.
Painfully, though, I still felt a divide between God and me because even Jesus was culturally constructed, but in such a way that did not communicate to me. He was a first-century, Jewish, Aramaic-speaking, manual-laborer. I am none of those things. How am I supposed to relate to such a man?
As if speaking directly to me, God answered: “fine, if Christmas isn’t good enough for you, I will go one step farther; I will become the food you eat, removing all barriers between us by entering you through that which you need most.” God chose to join Himself to us through the physicality of the Eucharist, and, in doing so, nourishes us spiritually. By this spiritual nourishment, He gives us life.
What finally pushed me over the threshold to Catholicism, and into the Church at the Vigil of 2011, was not any theological argument, but a longing for the grace found in the Eucharist. I had been going to Mass for many years yet, each week, remained seated while Catholics received the Blessed Sacrament. At first, the dissonance I felt observing everyone approach the priest, while I sat in the pew, seemed to be a fitting symbol for my relationship with the Church — strangely, the discord brought comfort. Slowly, however, I came to feel in the depths of my being that the bread and wine truly, really, and substantially become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Comfort was replaced by a yearning to consume Jesus, so that Jesus will consume me.
Taste and see that the Lord is good
During the Mass when I received my first communion and confirmation, I approached Fr. O’Connor, who had walked with us each Tuesday evening during our RCIA journey, and he said “Augustine, the Body of Christ” as he held up the Host. The young Jesuit looked me in the eye as he said my new confirmation name. This caught me off guard. Did he forget my name? I later understood that my new name told me that I was leaving my old identity — my old life — behind. I was no longer only the son of Steve and Marti; I was receiving the completion of my baptismal grace and becoming more fully bound to God. I was His adopted son, just like Augustine himself, like Newman, like Merton, and like the cloud of witnesses whose names were echoing through the nave as the choir sang the Litany of the Saints.
Offering a deep bow, I gave a resounding “Amen.” I had been anticipating this moment for a long time and was finally ready to receive God, and let Him wash over me. As I tasted, the first thought that came into my mind was “Wow, this really does taste like cardboard.” I had heard Catholics say this many times, but I never gave it much thought. I wasn’t expecting anything magical, and I knew that I wouldn’t be healed of all my wounds, but I was disappointed that I did not have a more refined reaction to such a significant moment in my life. Is that the best I could come up with?
I pressed the Host to the roof of my mouth until it snapped, just as my sins had done to His Body 2,000 years ago on the cross.
After Mass, a reception was held in the church basement that evolved into a dance party. What else could we do on this night other than dance? The next day, I went to my friend Barbara’s house for Easter dinner and shared a meal with my new Catholic family. During the meal, the thought popped into my mind: “the Host tastes like cardboard.” Once again, I dismissed the thought as irrelevant. On Easter Monday, the thought came to my mind: “the Host tastes like cardboard.” Why can’t I get this thought out of my head? All week long, this same thought repeated in my brain.
I realized that the stale taste was teaching me. Other Christian communities will gather once a month and have a pot-luck feast as a communion meal. This type of communion meal twists the theology of what Christ was telling His disciples in the Upper Room. When you leave such a meal, you are physically sated, often with a warm wine buzz. But, this implies that physical satisfaction is the ultimate goal of the Eucharistic meal; or, that the creation of a community through table fellowship is all that matters. The empty taste of the wafer was pointing me to the full meaning of the Eucharistic meal: this bread will not physically satisfy; it is the food that nourishes the soul.
A few months ago, I went to a funeral of a miscarried baby lost by two high school friends of mine, who are not Catholic. Although the service — led by a Unitarian woman at a funeral parlor — was pleasant enough, something was eating at me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Later, I realized that what bothered me so much was the absence of the Eucharist. The service felt sterile to me because God was not made manifest. Through this funeral service, all we were being told was that we were in the presence of death. God — first coming to us in the physicality of Jesus Christ, then coming under the guise of bread and wine — was not there to assure me that, even when death reigns all around us, we live because Christ is resurrected.
I have never craved the Eucharist more than I did that night.