Putting my foot on the path of the Catholic faith.

This is almost verbatim the letter I submitted to begin the process of becoming a Deacon in my Church.

 

Putting my foot on the path.

   Growing up I had loving Christian parents, but I was a marginal Methodist at best.  I knew that I loved the quiet aspect of religion, but I didn’t know if the Christian faith had much of that.  Instead, the one thing I got from my faith was a strong sense of social responsibility.  People who knew me in college are almost always amazed that I converted to Catholicism, and wonder how a Buddhist interested, quasi-socialist ended up in the world's largest religion.

The answer comes from an interaction I had with a Buddhist in Raleigh North Carolina. He was a little guy that ran an import store, and we would talk about Buddhism and faith. One day he told me that he thought that what I needed was to go to Church and find a community.   He felt that it would be easier to use my native Christian beliefs to achieve peace than to adopt new cultural views to find what I was looking for. Add to that I had voiced to him that was frustrated with the several Buddhist groups in Raleigh that seemed to me were loaded with people far more interested in the cultural trappings of the faith than to the actual teachings of it (a problem that still bothers me in Catholicism). After thinking about what he had to say I was forced to ask myself whether I left my Christian past because I didn't like Jesus and his teachings or whether I had been turned off by my experience of Christians. The answer was clear....I loved Christ it was his followers with whom I struggled.

 

    So next thing I had to do was figure out what to do with this revelation. I had every intention of finding either an Episcopal or Lutheran Church that had a sort of contemplative dimension to their spirituality and to merge my previously held meditative practices with my Protestant upbringing. To do this, I sampled a few services and went to some starter classes, and much to my surprise kinda liked Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Its contemplative dimension runs very deep but at least in the places I sampled it, the Church was almost entirely ethnic where I visited in Raleigh and the second church I visited had a priest that confused me on several issues. 

 

    The Episcopal Church at this time seemed like a natural conduit (and I have thought several times about hanging my hat there).  It has a love of liturgy, and there are many prayerful individuals such asEvelyn Underhill, but it felt as if the denomination is perpetually on the verge of splitting apart.  I needed a Church that was more self-assured in its identity.

 

    About this time in 2002, I remembered visiting a shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa on almost a whim.  It wasn't for any reason other than to see an icon I thought was pretty.  There was an old woman there that had asked if she could pray for my conversion to Catholicism.  I smiled and said yes and didn't think much else about the visit.  Apparently, she prays very well because a year later I saw where a local Catholic Church called St. Andrew the Apostle in Apex NC was having a class for inquiries.  I had known the Roman Church to have a social justice doctrine, and I also knew that it was the home of the seamless garment principle so I thought maybe I should go ask a few questions.  Once I got a couple of issues out of my system, I could get the unlikely exploration of Catholicism out of my system and be on my way.  Well, it turns out that Catholicism is a lot deeper than it is portrayed in the media, I loved the nun leading the class and immediately took a liking to the priest who was a guy by the name of Fr. David E. Fitzgerald.  He was a brother of the Atonement which is a religious order that in some ways specialized in ecumenical relations with other groups.  I remember going to see him and telling him I couldn't be Catholic because I had a problem with the Church.  His response was gentle and classic, "Only one?" he asked me.  I remember being so bold back then, " yes that I can think of".  Well, then you are already Catholic because the rest of us have way more than one problem".  The brilliant answer disarmed me almost immediately.  From here I would move to Greensboro North Carolina where I would meet another group of Franciscan friars and one, John Frambes particular, would open my eyes to the world of contemplative Catholicism.

 

    This contemplative dimension to faith is where my belief is grounded.  While on the one hand, I don't look like a contemplative I believe it is how God speaks to us.  Father John took me under his wing from 2002 until 2005 teaching me how to doLectio Divina, and that would change me forever.  He also taught me that everyone has their path and once they find it they should walk down it.  My conversations with Father John eventually brought me to a strange place.  Up until this part of my spiritual journey (2004), I mixed and matched what I believed.  Father John was able to explain to me the contemplative path within my tradition and the need to make progress down one path instead of trying to straddle two or three he brought me to a place where my faith changed.

 

    I have been frustrated with my faith several times, but I think the breadth and spirituality that Father John gave me has in some ways assured that I would remain in the Church and this brings me to where I now see religion in general.  I believe that while I know where the Church is I don't know where it isn't.  If some view this as a cop-out that's fine, that's their problem then not mine.  That being said I think the wells of the great traditions of the world are deep and I have real reservations as to whether or not the modern tendency to pick different pieces of faiths to best suit the practitioner prevents anyone from ever going deep enough into a tradition to find the jewels that are there.  To me, the Christian faith is unbelievably amazing, in its breadth and scope.  The idea that man screwed up his ultimate destiny and needed the great prophets to sort of get back in line with the divine plan just feels right when you see the state of the world, it's probably also pretty believable that we would ignore some of those prophets to our peril.  Then the message that the almighty cared enough to step in for us and return order to all of creation is amazing on a cosmic scale.

 

    I say all of this to reveal some of the truths that I have discovered.  The Christian faith has a deeply held contemplative and spiritual vein that has largely been shoved aside in the West since the Enlightenment.  We need to go out and reclaim our tradition so that we can make it great again.  Two, commit to the practice, there is a Japanese proverb that I opened with which is chase two rabbits catch neither.  I love Christ Church because it has taught me how to pray.  It has shown me that proper grounding in the Eucharist allows us to handle whatever is thrown at us at a truly deep level and that God stands beside us.  When I share this with people, most think that my deep spirituality and sense of mercy is in spite of my Catholicism and I hope to one day be able to show them as a representative of the Church that I'm this way because of the faith not despite it.

 

    My relationship with God is one that is grounded in reaching out to those that feel marginalized in their journeys and equipping them with the gifts that he has given me.  I don't want to sound as if I find nourishing a relationship with the divine particularly easy.  The Catholic faith, in particular, is incredibly deep and often misunderstood from within and without.  Part of the reason I got my Masters in Pastoral Theology was to make and effort to understand what I believed and who God was calling me to become.  When I began my journey, I was drawn to the social practices of the faith and what I found was a spirituality that would be grounded in the depth of the Almighty.  

 

    I owe where I am mostly to my wife, who is unbelievably patient with my spiritual inquiries.  My marriage is the sacrament I spend the most time with and from the beginning it has transformed me.  Several years ago when she was battling cancer I knew how scared she was, and yet I would see her in the Church before the tabernacle asking for Gods help, and she proved to be an example that I can only wish to follow.  She often has no idea how strong she is and demonstrates a humility that comes naturally for her but is almost non-existent for me.  To be sure just being around her makes me a better man.

 

Father John Frambes was important in demonstrating both the contemplative dimension of the Catholic faith and also the organic nature in which faith unfolds.  For him loving creation in the tree’s and the stars unfolds naturally in the care of other humans and the unborn, and it gave me a sense of a non-political faith for the first time.  He showed me that each individual's faith is unique to them and we need to take the time to get to see them for who they are to nurture them.

 

Finally, the youth that I was ministering to taught me honesty.  Rather than try and create a one size fit all youth experience.  I decided to meet each one where they were and to take into account their life experience as opposed to mine.  While this method of faith formation is often exhausting, it has also lead to lifelong friendships that found their source in the faith.

 

    I hope that my future is one of service to the Church.  She has taught me how to love and pray.  To reach out to those that are scared and offer them shelter.  I would like to continue to show people the contemplative prayers that have been shared with me to nurture in them the same love that has been giving to me.  The truth is that I love the Church and almost every single event in my adult life have been made better because of her making Christ present to me.  Every life I touch as an individual is because she taught me how to offer comfort and presence, whether through the catechism or prayer I want to take what she has offered me and help others.

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Johnson