Like a theme in a movie heard only occasionally, but evoking a pregnant sense of importance when it occurs, echoes of the Catholic faith have recurred throughout my life. Often I did not recognise these at the time for what they were. Now I know what the music was about. In order for the rest of my narrative to be understood, I must here suspend my story in order to describe some of these.
When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I borrowed a three-volume novel from my mother’s books. I still have the set. It is ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Undset.
‘Kristin’ fascinated me. The world of the book fascinated me, and that world was certainly Catholic. Nevertheless, my interest was not specifically religious.
When I was 22 or 23 I discovered, in the University of Hawaii library, that Sigrid Undset had written another long novel set in mediaeval Norway. It was titled, in English translation, ‘The Master of Hestviken.’ It was in reading this book that I first understood what the central claim of the Christian faith was. When I read the scene in which Olav, the protagonist, contemplates the crucifix in an unconsecrated Franciscan church, and sees the empty altar as an image of his own unshriven soul, then it dawned on me: Jesus of Nazareth believed Himself to be God incarnate dying on the Cross for the sins of men. Olav recalls the Scripture from Lamentations 1:12: “Behold, all ye that pass by, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” I had never before had the slightest idea of why Christians believed Christ’s death was important (nor had I had any interest in the question).
Reading Undset’s novels had an additional important result for me. I became interested in history. I had in fact always despised history. It seemed to me that the past was dead and irrelevant. What mattered was the present and present experience and what that could lead to in the future. Undset’s novels began a process which has not by any means come to a conclusion. I began to read history. I read pretty much indiscriminately, and still do. This was of importance later, when I became a Christian, for I was unable to believe that true Christianity ceased with [the Jerusalem Council/Constantine/the Seventh Oecumenical Council – name your point of corruption!]. Newman says that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant [ref?]. Undset has always been important to me spiritually. She also inoculated me against the most virulent form of anti-Catholicism, that based on deep ignorance. I am quite sure also that my life-long love for the wonderful writings of J. R. R. Tolkien is deeply embedded in a matrix of mediaeval Catholicism of which Undset is a principal part.
In my first year as a Christian, I discovered C. S. Lewis. I don’t recall exactly what I read, but during 1970-72 I am sure that I read at least “Surprised by Joy,” “Miracles,” “The Problem of Pain,” and “Mere Christianity,” and certainly many others of his writings. I devoured every book by Lewis that I could find, for in him I found sources of hope and joy that I had never imagined possible coupled with a beauty of writing that filled me with delight.
But Lewis was not a Catholic! This is true, and important. Nonetheless, Lewis was very close to the Catholic Church in what he believed. In the essentials he was not Protestant. His doctrine of grace was very like the Catholic teaching of infused grace (see the final section of “Mere Christianity” and Lewis’s “good infection”), his doctrine of salvation was far from “faith alone,” and his reading of Scripture is incomprehensible without a knowledge of the Catholic tradition and of the natural law. C. S. Lewis has remained one of the Christian writers I love most deeply.
When later I became a Calvinist and member of the Reformed church, I knew that Lewis was exceedingly unReformed (and he considered Calvinism an unpleasant and distasteful aberration of Christianity [ref.?]), and my Reformed teachers were deeply suspicious of him, but I kept on reading him, returning to him at intervals of a year or more when I was parched with thirst for grace, though I felt guilty in doing so. Even now, when someone without any Christian background wants to know about Christianity, I always recommend a trilogy of Lewis: “Miracles,” “The Problem of Pain,” and “Mere Christianity.” Through Lewis I read many other non-Reformed writers, including Chesterton, Charles Williams, George MacDonald, and many others.
The unlikely may be the most certain thing about life. The most direct Catholic influence in my life and the one without which I might never have become a Catholic was a Reformed writer who, on my becoming a Catholic, personally excommunicated me and pronounced me under God’s curse against idolatry. His writings were important in the journey to Rome of quite a number of Calvinist Christians, including Scott Hahn.
James B. Jordan was a part of the Theonomic movement that included such men as R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North. Theonomy is the teaching that the Law of God is still as applicable to the lives of Christians as it was to the lives of Old Testament believers. Because the concept of natural law, law not deriving directly from the Scriptures, is often rejected by Reformed thinkers, Theonomy often means an attempt more or less directly to impose Old Testament legislation to modern life.
I met Jim Jordan in Tyler, Texas in June, 1980, having read some of his writings during the year or so before that, and was excited by many of the things that he seemed to me to be saying. I read his books and newsletters and listened to his tapes avidly over the succeeding fifteen years, called myself his disciple, him my mentor, corresponded with him about my personal life, and distributed copies of his output to as many persons as I could. I became an apostle and evangelist for Jim Jordan.
I wish to be careful here not to misrepresent him, as he certainly thinks I am guilty of a grave fault in becoming a Catholic. Be it understood that in what follows, when I say “Jim said…” or “Jim taught…,” I mean “I concluded from reading Jim’s writings…” I am sure that many of the other men he was associated with then may disagree with some of what he seemed to me to teach then, and he himself has de-emphasised, if he has not repudiated, some of these points.
What I understood from reading Jim Jordan and from listening to his talks was that the modern churches of the Reformation had failed to follow the Reformation. We had abandoned a great many of Calvin’s insights and recommendations. The Reformation churches, and particularly the ones of the Calvinist Reformation, were the true lineal succession of the Catholic Church in the world. But the modern churches had become a pale shadow of this.
There is not space here to list even a tithe of the ideas I had from Jim. Here are a few:
• Clerical vestments.
• Chanting of the Psalms.
• A return to a liturgy like the Mass (but of course without the sacrificial aspects of the Mass).
• The possibility, under some circumstances, of a reunited Christianity with a Pope, primus inter pares.
• The possibility of the use of the Sign of the Cross.
• The possible use of religious images in church (but not their veneration).
Anyone familiar with Reformed worship will easily see how startling, revolutionary, and radical these ideas are. Although some of these ideas and practices are found in Calvin [ref.?], I have been told many times by Reformed persons that the ideas are Roman – and wrong.
Overshadowing the above were five emphases which played a decisive rôle in my becoming a Catholic. They were:
• The necessity of baptism to be considered a Christian.
• The necessity of submission of life and doctrine to visible church authority, subject to conscience. Jim includes a weak but real doctrine of apostolic succession in his idea of authority.
• Visible catholicity of Communion – those who are baptised and in submission to a church should be able to commune.
• The right to weekly Lord’s Supper (the term “Eucharist” is avoided in Reformed circles because of its implication that the Supper is a Thank-offering and therefore a sacrifice). He believes in a real, though purely spiritual, doctrine of the Real Presence, as did Calvin (see the excellent “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament” by Ronald S. Wallace, 1982 (1953) Geneva Divinity School Press, Tyler, Texas.) He even believed in a sort of sacrificial character to the Eucharist, not that the minister is offering a sacrifice, but that in Communion we the communicants are partaking of the Sacrifice offered by Christ on the Cross.
• The right of baptised persons of any age to commune (in the Reformed churches, governed by vote, communion implies government and is normally entered into only at the beginning of adulthood).
These five ideas appear to me to constitute a claim that a visible, Catholic Church exists, and that central to its life and identity are the two great sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I have never lost my conviction of the truth of these claims. I have found their fulfilment in the Catholic Church.