Ten months later I was face to face with decision.
I had read dozens of books, by Catholics, by Protestants, by non-Christians. I had listened to many tapes. I had talked with dozens of people, many of them on the Internet. I had progressed through several stages of relationship to my own people.
Three weeks after I emailed Mark Shea, during which time I think I had hoped it would all prove a sort of brainstorm that would pass over, I spoke to my wife. I was terrified of speaking to her, and she was distressed and angry at “yet another John Jensen hare-brained idea.” In October we went to Communion in our Reformed church, but I was nervous doing so. I had spoken to no one other than to Susan, not even our children.
In December, 1993, Communion time was due again. I was seriously studying the Catholic faith. By this time I had concluded that so far everything I had studied or thought was in favour of its truth, nothing against it, and that there was no conflict with what I had always believed as a Reformed Christian. I knew that the time might come when I would have to decide to become a Catholic. We asked Roel to come over and to talk with us about whether I could properly come to Communion or not.
I thought that, before I talked to Roel, I must talk to my children. One evening a few days before Roel was scheduled to come over, at dinner, I told them what was happening to me, and that I might find myself obliged to become a Catholic. The shock to them was very great. The younger ones were grief-stricken at the thought they might lose friendships. Everyone was concerned at the possibility of strife with the elders of the Reformed church. And all were deeply exercised at the issues themselves. We talked for over two hours. It was the first of very many long discussions, sometimes battles.
I told them at this time something that may have shocked them even more. I said that the issues involved in this were so serious, and that they themselves were of sufficient age (their ages at the time were Johnny:18; Helen:16; Eddie:13; Adele:11) that they must make this decision for themselves. I said that if I were to become a Catholic, anyone who decided to stay Reformed would have my support. I would do my best to support them emotionally by attending Reformed services with them, if the Catholic Church would permit me (I didn't know at the time whether it would) and would do whatever else I could to ensure that each could follow his or her own conscience. I think I have always been pretty controlling, and this degree of freedom was not a little disturbing.
Roel came and I told him what I had been doing. I said that I did not see how to answer the Catholic claims, and that if I could not find my way through to a confident rejection of Catholic beliefs, I would feel obliged to become a Catholic. I said I had no intention at present of becoming a Catholic, but that I was seriously examining what the Church taught.
I asked him if I should withhold myself from Communion, or speak to the Session (the body of elders). He said that he could see no need of that. He would gladly start reading the books I was reading, and would give me books to read. I was surprised at his complaisant attitude, but was glad of it, as well. I should have been more concerned. We discovered, a year later, that he had not at all understood the seriousness of my interest, thought that I was basically only trying to learn about Catholicism, and he was horrified when I eventually said that I must become a Catholic. But of this I had no inkling at the time.
The next six months very nearly unmade me. If our family did not quite become a battleground, at least the ferment over Catholicism was such that no other topic could be discussed. We talked and argued about the Catholic Church endlessly. We ceased to be a normal family and had become a debating society, with ever the same topic to argue about.
Roel and I had agreed to swap books. He seemed disappointed in the books I lent him. He said, for instance, that it was a pity that Newman had had only Kingsley to counter him. Other books I lent him he thought shallow, or confused. I, on the other hand, was disappointed with the books he lent me. They seemed all aimed at one thing: to demonstrate that the Catholic Church could be considered Christian, as though Roel thought what I was concerned with was merely not to be forced to reject Catholics as brothers. He was extremely busy during all this time, and right until the end of September, so we were unable to meet. We had agreed not to mention this matter to anyone in our church (and indeed had hardly mentioned it to anyone at all except for Internet friends), so that virtually everyone we knew personally was ignorant of what was happening.
The Internet was where most of our conversion to the Catholic Church really took place. I debated matters with Catholics, with Protestants, with non-Christians, with anyone who would take an interest. I brought home hundreds of pages printed from email sessions, Usenet posts, and Web pages. Internet friends sent me books about the Catholic faith, books against the Catholic faith, tapes. I re-read many of my Reformed authors. I read through the New Testament asking the question “is this Catholic?” I read dozens of books from the library.
I was very troubled by communications with Jim Jordan. I had perhaps three letters from him, beginning at the start of the year. The third one seemed to me brutal. In it he said that, though he was patient with persons raised Catholic, never having been taught the truth, I had no excuse. I knew the Reformed faith, knew it to be true, and was guilty of “high-handed treason” against Our Lord. The reason for this was idolatry. He quoted to me the First Commandment:
“I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
By bowing to images, and ’specially to that one Image above all that all Catholics do not venerate merely, but adore, worship, and offer as Sacrifice, I would bring God’s curse on my children to the fourth generation. There could be no question of invincible ignorance in my case. I knew God’s gracious and loving requirement – and despised it. Jim forbade me to communicate further with him until I had repented.
This was hard. This was very hard. I memorised the ten commandments straight from the King James Bible and meditated on them each morning as I walked to my ’bus. I thought and pondered the injunction against idolatry. Eventually I came to a conclusion. It is, I believe, substantially what St John of Damascus teaches. The strong command against images – not absolute, of course, as the cherubim and the brazen serpent demonstrate – was intended, like the fierce commands against Sabbath-breaking, as a stern schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. It is perfectly possible today to be guilty of despising the Sabbath. Many, alas, consider weekly worship as less important than rugby, or even than sleeping late on Sunday morning. But the fullness of the Sabbath is rest in Christ, and therefore we no longer stone to death those who gather sticks on the Lord’s Day. Likewise, idolatry is commonplace and terrible. The commonest form of idolatry in our day may be connected with that Other God the Almighty Dollar (cf. Colossians 3:5). But we no longer need condemn the use of images in worship, because the express Image of God unmarred has come into the world. The counterfeit images cannot compare with the glory of the True.
Nevertheless, I was pummelled about in my mind by this dread. Was the Catholic Church true? Then if I remained a Protestant I might go to Hell. Was it false? Then if I became a Catholic, I might go to Hell. How could I decide? What would be the consequences if I became a Catholic? Would I lose my wife, my children, my friends, all joy in the Lord?
In June of 1994 I had to attend a conference on behalf of the University where I work. I took a ’bus in the middle of the morning to the conference venue. I have suffered severe allergies through much of my life that cause me great distress in breathing, and at this time I had had for some days great difficulty breathing through my nose. That morning on the ’bus I was extremely upset over the issue of the Catholic Church. My nose became absolutely stopped and I could not move any air through it. I was filled with terror. I thought I would die, choke, perhaps, be unable to breathe, and suffocate. I imagined God in Heaven telling me, in a fiendish voice, “Which is right? Is the Catholic Church true or not? Come on, decide! Decide! Decide now! And whatever you decide – will be WRONG! You will go straight to Hell! And I, God Almighty, will laugh at your predicament!” I had an image of God Himself holding my nostrils shut, depriving me of breath and life.
I became extremely disoriented, could not remember what I was doing on the ’bus or where I was going, even, perhaps, who I was. I decided to get off the ’bus. When I tried to speak to the driver, I could not.
I got off the ’bus and sat down on a bench in the winter sunshine. I managed to relax, to regain some semblance of self-control. I prayed a little. I thought. Finally I made a decision.
I decided that I would not believe in a God like that. I decided that if that were what God was like, He was nearer to the Devil than to any god worthy of worship, and I would not worship a Satanic God. I decided that I would believe in a God Who, if I sought Him as sincerely and genuinely as I was able, would let Himself be found by me. What did I want? “Lord, that I might gain my sight.”
It was a turning point. I began to read and to pray again with some hope. I had read many writers, and had re-read both Newman’s books by then, his religious novels and poetry (“Callista,” “Loss and Gain,” “The Dream of Gerontius”), had read Waugh, modern writers such as Peter Kreeft, Sheldon Vanauken, Frank Sheed.
I am a horn player. Through July I rehearsed with a show orchestra for a two-week production of “The King and I.” This was fairly strenuous as I am up early in the morning to go to work. At the end of July I was to travel to Wellington for a few days to attend a University-sponsored training course, and return to travel straight from the airport to play in the opening of the show. I was ill again, this time more seriously, with sinus infections added to my allergies. The flight to Wellington was agonising. More precisely, losing altitude was agonising. As the ’plane ascends, one’s sinuses lose pressure. When the ’plane descends again the pain of air trying to get back in is extreme, blinding. When we arrived in Wellington, it was a good twelve hours and quite a lot of drugs before I was reasonably right again.
I had taken with me to Wellington a book by Ronald Knox. It was entitled “The Belief of Catholics.” I nearly did not read the first half of the book, because it covered material that I thought I already knew: belief in God, in Jesus, in the Bible. It was fortunate that I did read it, however.
Many Reformed Christians are very suspicious of reason. Reason is fallen. The world is fallen. If there is such a thing as natural law, it is not trustworthy. We will only follow our own lusts and desires and call the results “natural law.” We must rather begin with the Scriptures, believe them to be the Word of God because they say so, and go from there.
Knox taught me that this was nonsense. He taught me to believe in God on the basis of reason. He taught me, as had C. S. Lewis, to believe in Our Lord’s divinity on the basis of the historical facts about His life. And he taught me the links in the chain from Jesus through the apostles to the Church.
I finished reading the book by Knox on the ’plane returning to Auckland at five o’clock on the 29th of July, 1994. I finished it and knew that the struggle was over. I closed the book and I prayed. “Lord,” I prayed, “I know enough. In the past nine months I have read materials on both sides. I have studied the issues. I know that I will never dot ever ‘i’ or cross every ‘t.’ Nonetheless, I know that, if You were to tell me that I must die tomorrow, I would want to be received into the Catholic Church tonight, to receive absolution for my many sins, to receive You, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. I want to be a Catholic. If You don’t stop me, I am going to become a Catholic.” I was miserable. I feared the future. I thought I could never be happy as a Catholic. I still thought the Church probably filled with unbelieving priests and profane Catholics. I knew that I must nonetheless become a Catholic. The flight brought me down to Auckland International Airport, sinuses pounding, nose stopped up, heart gripped with pain, a most unhappy convert. A cold, wet, rainy evening at the end of July, when I had to rush off to play show music until 11 o’clock at night, and get up at 5 the next morning, seemed an inauspicious start for my life as a Catholic. Nonetheless, a Catholic I was.
When Susan picked me up, she looked at me. I had said nothing yet. She said, “You’ve decided, haven’t you?” “Yes,” I said. “You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” “Yes.” She wept, and I wept. We spoke little driving to the show venue. “How ironic,” I thought, “that I should be playing in ‘The King and I.’”