I wrote this account of my conversion in 1981 and, in one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, the editor at the time of the National Catholic Register, Francis X. Maier, published the entire thing as a special insert to the paper. It attracted a certain amount of attention and several people suggested that I expand it to book length. I made a stab at that but never could quite get a handle on the best approach; I did not want to write an intimate confessional, and yet I did not consider myself intellectually equipped to write philosophically and theologically. The project languished and was dropped. I wrote occasional opinion columns for the Register throughout the ‘80s but never seemed to quite find my groove in that form and eventually gave that up, too.
Upon reading this piece for the first time in many years in preparation for putting it on the web, I found myself wanting to edit it here and there to reflect changes in certain of my views. I would, for instance, if writing this now, assign less blame for my errors to the times and assume more to myself. And I am very tempted to add comments on my relationship with the Church over the past twenty years. But as regards the first of these I believe I will let it stand as I wrote it in 1981; to edit it substantially from my present point of view would be like an old man painting gray hair on a picture taken in his youth. And as regards the second I have added an epilogue. I have made a few minor corrections in the area of grammar and punctuation, but otherwise the piece is as it appeared in the Register.
When I wrote this testimony (I am indebted to my friend Reuben Sairs, a Mennonite minister, for assigning it correctly to that genre), I gave it a title which I cannot now remember. It was Fran Maier who titled it after the great Bob Dylan album. At the time I didn’t particularly care for his choice, but now it seems pretty close to perfect.
August 8, 2004
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I grew up in rural Alabama just across the Tennessee River from a town called Decatur. In 1965 I was a junior in high school and was dating a girl who lived in Decatur. She was unfortunately not nearly as fond of me as I was of her, but though our evenings turned out less and less happily as time went on, I always loved driving home across the dark peaceful river.
Naturally I always had the radio on. One night I heard a song so strange and beautiful that I almost drove into the river as I reached to turn up the volume and strained to hear the words. I was swept by a great longing; I felt that I was being called away to a world whose existence I had never suspected, yet which seemed like a lost homeland. It was the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,
Play a song for me.
I’m not sleepy and
There is no place I’m going to.
It seemed to me that this was my story. And all across America, several million unhappy and alienated kids like me heard the same story and responded in the same way.
Not sleepy. No place to go. That was the way our whole situation appeared to us. We were living proof that the human heart will never be satisfied by the things of this world, for it seemed to us that America offered us everything except what we could not live without: a purpose. Some of our perceptions were accurate, some not, but it is not really my intention here to make that judgment. What I am attempting is to describe what was going on in our hearts, in my heart at any rate, and to look at the rebellion of the 1960s as one who was in it and now appears to be entirely removed from it. I was a hippie then and now I am a militantly orthodox Christian. But there is a thread which connects those two positions, and I am trying to follow that thread.
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How, then, did the world appear to us in the mid-’60s? Threatening, perhaps, but the world has always been threatening. More importantly, it seemed futile. No place to go. This seemed literally true when we thought of the threat of nuclear war. It wasn’t so much that we were afraid of our own deaths as that we seemed to be staring at a steel door beyond which the human race itself would never pass. This war, we were constantly being told (whether accurately or not, we had no way to judge), would be the end of the whole human episode.
I think that the fact that we were the first generation never to have known life without this shadow of extinction has been underestimated in attempts to explain our aberrations. Lacking strong religious beliefs, we tended to feel that there was little point in living as if the future mattered. (This feeling seems to me to account partially not only for the conscious nihilism of the punk fashion in music and appearance today but also for a certain ruthless quality in the ambitions of many young people who appear to be quite conventional. But perhaps this is only my imagination.)
What about religion, then? I had been intensely religious as a child (and later I found this to be true of many of my bohemian friends), but at the age of fifteen or so I declared myself an atheist. To many of us the religion we saw around us seemed only a social convention, in importance somewhere above good grooming and below athletics. Many adults seemed a little embarrassed by the actual content of religion; men especially seemed to see it as a sentimental business, something for women and children and anyone else not strong enough to face the world as it really is. And even for those who came from strong religious backgrounds, the omnipresent secularism of the mass media was really much more important in defining basic assumptions than were the teachings of Church and family. It was (and is) not even necessary that Church and family be attacked—it was enough that they were either ignored or sentimentalized into absurdity.
It was thus very easy for a teen-ager to develop genuine intellectual doubts about his childhood religion. I was old enough to ask questions to which I got no satisfactory answers. And I might not have accepted them if I had, because the thrill of rebellion soon became sweet in itself. I quickly discovered that peculiarly nasty vice of the modern intellectual: a love of shocking the middle class. And I didn’t recognize that it was founded on the basest of emotions: contempt.
For a short time I played at being a scientific materialist. But that was impossible for a boy who hoped to become a poet. An important turn came when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. I was of course delighted by Russell’s sneers at Christian hypocrisy but happened upon a passage (in the famous “Free Man’s Worship” essay) which made me thrust his whole philosophy from me as one might thrust away a piece of rotten meat:
…even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideal henceforward must find a home…man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving…his origin, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collactions of atoms.”
Everything in me rejected this idea. It contradicted plain realities. A universe operating on such a principle could only have been dead and ugly, whereas I knew it to be alive and beautiful. But though I rejected Russell’s opinions I could not refute them. After all, he was a great philosopher and he spoke with the authority of the great god Science, and hadn’t we all been taught—not in so many words, but implicitly by the assumptions of a secular society—that what Science does not perceive, does not exist? The phrase “accidental collocation of atoms” remained in my mind for years like a death’s head, a negative light source shooting spears of darkness into every aspect of my life. I clung stubbornly to a vague notion of spiritual reality, but in my heart I had succumbed and believed that Russell was right.
A lot of silly things have been said about the idealism of the youth of the ‘60s. I never saw that much of it myself—except among a few young women who were quickly divested of their ideals by monstrously callous young men and who are now militant feminists. What I did see, though, was a hunger for ideals. It seemed to many of us that if America had a philosophy it was pragmatism or utilitarianism. Virtue seemed taught not as a thing “lovely in the sight of God” but as a merely prudent aid to earthly success. Truth was mentioned only in the context of scientific fact, and wisdom seemed only a higher cunning. This perception led not to idealism but to bitter cynicism. And into this vacuum came the moral absolutism of radical politics, on the one hand, and on the other the colors, music, and incense of the hippie phenomenon. It was the latter which attracted me.
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In the spring of 1967 I was a college freshman. Whatever it was that had been happening in Haight-Ashbury became, for me and millions like me, a myth even as it was fizzling out in lunacy and violence. It was the revelation of a new, albeit a bogus, religion. I never went to San Francisco; I never felt that I needed to. I had the message: peace and love. I had the music. I fell in with a group of bohemians and we all began slavishly to imitate the California trend. We sat around in dingy apartments listening by candlelight to the strange new music and professing our pathetic excuse for a faith. And it really seemed, for a month or two that spring, like a new world. The flowers were brighter, the new leaves greener, because a darkness had lifted. There were other people in the world who felt as I did. We were finding each other, and soon we would change the world or perhaps build another, where the strange haunting joy that seemed to hover near us would come to rest and be ours.
The lovely bubble burst almost immediately. It became clear very quickly that for the most part the hippie movement was not at all interested in peace and love but rather in drugs and sex. Whatever attempts it made at philosophizing came to little more than a belligerent repetition of various unsavory intellectual developments of the past century, from Nietzsche to Artaud, or shallow rereadings of Eastern thought. Very soon, too, the movement came to be composed predominantly of people with whom I had little in common—most of them simply hedonists, some of them people who would have been called in other times ordinary hoodlums.
I say that I recognized all this, and yet I not only remained with the movement but became more frantically attached to it. This was in part because I was too confused to really know my own mind, in part because I was proud and stubborn, and in part because I simply didn’t know what else to do with myself. The world of industrial capitalism seemed a spiritual prison; and if the world of bohemianism was equally or more menacing, well, at least I had a few good friends there. I felt that this community was all I had.
I turned increasingly nihilistic. I held a hodgepodge of more or less pantheistic, vaguely Eastern religious beliefs, but they had no power to lift me into the light. How could they? There is no essential distinction between the One of Eastern contemplation and the Abyss of Western nightmlare; the difference is that the Eastern mind attempts to respond to nothingness with a smile, while the Westerner wants to scream. I tried to appropriate the Eastern response; I succeeded at times but could not sustain it.
There were glimpses of light. Many of them came from the popular music that I loved. I grant at once that most rock music is poison, but for those of us who grew up with it, the best of it can be very beautiful. Its howling intensity served us as a sort of anchor to emotional reality in a world which seemed to be disintegrating into disconnected abstractions.
I was particularly indebted to a group with the silly name of The Incredible String Band. They weren’t a rock group but practitioners of a weird amalgam of English folk and Eastern influences. Their songs were filled with mystical poetry which for a time became my only link with religion. They were not Christians, but the name of Jesus, along with a great deal of imagery borrowed from medieval Christendom, seemed to turn up rather often in their lyrics. In their hearts they were far closer to Christianity than either they or I knew. And so was I. But our minds were firmly prejudiced against it.
So there we were, all of us for whom the great rebellion was the expression of a furious and only half-conscious yearning to see the face of God, a hope which seemed to be, if not denied by, then at least irrelevant to the great scientific and industrial enterprise of the West. How could we ever hope to find what we sought when we were too cynical even to believe in its existence? And how could we begin to understand the way of the Cross when we had adopted self-indulgence as our only ethical principle?
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By 1969 or 1970 a nice liberal intellectual had dignified our movement with the term “counter-culture,” and it had reached the height of its mass appeal. But it was no longer much more than a community of drug users and (mostly) dilettante revolutionaries. I have said little about either of these pursuits because I was, compared to most of the people I knew, not heavily involved with them. I talked about revolution and participated in demonstrations, but my motivation was more nihilistic than reformist and I always thought that the people who really believed in socialism and communism were crazy. I took various drugs now and then but tended to shy away from them because I found them as likely to lead to nightmlare as to beauty.
In the summer of 1970, following Kent State, the estrangement of the counter-culture from the rest of America had reached its widest point. We were totally adrift, most of us cut off from our families, dropping out of school, living hand to mouth by odd jobs or drug-selling. We despised the American way of life and were in turn despised by those who lived it, and it looked as though we would never go back. But it was early in that summer that something happened to me which put a sudden end to my contempt for ordinary hard-working people.
A friend and I were hitchhiking from Miami to Tallahassee. Somewhere in central Florida we got stuck in a small town. It was getting dark and starting to rain, and we had begun to despair of getting a ride when a car pulled over. The driver hadn’t stopped out of kindness; he was a redneck probably more given to harassing than helping longhairs like us. But he had been drinking and had a long way to go and wanted one of us to drive. I got behind the wheel. In a little while he perked up and started talking, and while my friend dozed in the back seat he told me the story of his life. It hadn’t been a particularly easy life, or a particularly virtuous one. He had been born poor and had had (if he wasn’t exaggerating) more than his share of bad luck. He was struggling to attain and hold on to the level of middle-class prosperity which had spawned my friends and me and at which we sneered.
Staring into the warm, rainy darkness and listening to him I began to feel ashamed. I realized that it was we who were contemptible. His ambitions, dull though they seemed to us, were nobler than ours, for he wanted to make a better life for his family. His middle-class culture might have been in some ways ludicrous, but its foundations were saner than those of our increasingly demented alternative. That night was the point at which my growing sense of dismay and hopelessness about “the movement” became focused, though I didn’t part with it until sometime later.
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The early ‘70s seem to have been a period of stupor for many of my generation. All the flamboyant activity suddenly ceased ; we became quieter and more withdrawn. Yet, speaking for myself only, a battle was joined in those years which would decide the course of the rest of my life, certainly in this world and perhaps in the next.
I found myself falling toward Christianity yet resisting it mightily. I appropriated more and more of Christian philosophy in my effort to make sense of the world. Unnerving things happened. I looked for a way of thinking about politics which could refute the absolutist claims of the modern state and set rational limits on its power. I found Maritain’s Man and the State, which not only gave me a fully satisfactory description of the state’s subservience to a higher power but also the name of that Power, though I was unwilling to accept the latter. I looked for a theory of aesthetics in which art would be, as my common sense said it should, more than a game and less than a god. I found Eliot’s essays. Everywhere I found Christian thought putting something in its proper place, making neither too much nor too little of it. I proudly reached what I thought to be new conclusions to many questions only to realize that Christianity had reached them hundreds or thousands of years before—I came to believe, for example, in an idea not much different from the traditional doctrine of the Fall, because nothing else seemed to account for our condition.
I found myself agreeing with almost everything Christianity had to say about this world and man’s place in it, yet I was unable or unwilling to believe in the supernatural foundations upon which all the philosophy rested. What had happened was that I had become a modernist Christian, though in my naiveté I didn’t know that it could be legitimate to believe as I did and still call oneself a Christian, so I seldom did so. I am inclined to think that modernism can never be more than a stop on the road to either atheism or orthodoxy. One may reasonably argue that Christianity could someday disappear but not that modernism will replace it; modernism is essentially an intellectual’s plaything and can never satisfy the human mind and heart in the way that a real religion, even a false one, can.
I base this opinion on my own experience. My syncretist hodgepodge was an interesting intellectual venture, but it gave me no help at all where help was most important: in the war between good and evil. It left me with no way of making moral choices because it gave me no solid reason even for choosing good, much less for deciding what was good and what not. It seemed in many ways plausible enough to think of God as the ground of all being, or the spirit of all there is. But what does that sort of God have to do with how one lives one’s life? Does a man obey and worship the ground of his being? No, not if that is all he thinks it is—the very phrase implies that he is superior to it. He will view it as something which is there for him to stand upon while he does what he likes. I made a wreck of my personal life; my religion gave me no reason not to.
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In 1976 I was living in a small house in the country. I remember looking out the window late one winter afternoon, watching cold white clouds move across the blue sky. Naturally I would have had nothing but patronizing chuckles for the idea that the sky had anything more to do with God than the floor of my room did. But for a moment that afternoon there seemed to be a connection. Abruptly the thought came into my head: “Your sins can be forgiven”. I don’t say that God spoke to me. But I don’t say that He didn’t. At any rate I was made aware that I had sins which needed to be forgiven, and I felt touched by a Power which had not only the love but the authority to forgive them.
I began to attend an Episcopal church, still something of a pantheist, still not certain that I was willing to believe in the supernatural as Christianity described it: a God who was in some sense a Person; His Son, who was a man and yet somehow also Himself; the death and especially the resurrection of the Son. I’ll never understand how people can say that it isn’t important whether Christ rose physically from the grave or whether He was truly the Son of God. To me these facts remain all-important because without them, Christianity is only a philosophy or a mythology to be ranked among others of its kind—the finest of them, perhaps, but possessing no more authority than any of the rest. I was no longer interested in such an approach to religion—I would either believe or not believe.
In the end I believed, because I ran out of reasons not to. I never heard it proved (except with tautologies) that Christ was not the Son of God or that he did not rise from the dead. I was not a materialist and so could not reject these ideas out of hand. And it seemed more and more that most of the evidence was on the side of belief. I read the Gospels as if for the first time and was surprised by both the wildness and the sanity of Jesus. I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles and my resistance to the idea of supernatural intervention in the world crumbled. Somewhere along the line I stopped fighting.
My movement from liberal Anglicanism to Catholicism has been simply a continuation of the movement from non-belief to belief and is so similar that it needs little elaboration here. Again I put up the rationalist’s resistance to a claim of divine authority; again there was the puzzle of confronting something which seemed wiser than anything around it and yet marred by strange superstitions such as transubstantiation and the infallibility of the Pope. And again there was the slow realization that things which appeared to be deformities were absolutely essential to the structure of the whole, and that things which appeared to be irrational were in fact the foundations of rationality, without which reason itself would wither and die. The Catholic Church began to seem as different from other churches as Christ from other men, and it won me just as He had done.
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Many of my generation look at the world with a strange mixture of cynicism and gullibility. We thought we had seen through all the world’s hypocrisy, and we sneered at everything it tried to tell us. Yet our skepticism was itself the product of the deathly chill at the heart of 20th-century civilization, and we fled from it as well as from what it showed us. At our worst we ran into terrible delusions, and some of us died of them. But we were after something real. We loved music and color and stories filled with wonders and marvels but rejected out of hand the notion that the real world was anything but meaningless. We were gullible without being innocent—had we been innocent we might have noticed that our favorite book, The Lord of the Rings, was written by a devout Catholic. And we might have learned from him that the truth of the universe is actually not less but more beautiful than our most beautiful dreams.
Some of our more perceptive critics have noticed that for many of us our rebellion was fundamentally conservative, radically so. It is a strange twist words have taken which has made the term “conservative” applicable mainly to the partisans of industrial capitalism. Many of us—the wandering religious fanatics, the agrarians and communitarians, the artists—were part of a movement so conservative that there was no longer even a name for what we sought, at least not in the vocabulary of secularism. We wanted a world in which fundamental realities—spirit, earth, light, death—would be visible in all their simplicity, obscured as little as possible by the phantasmagoria of vanity which is generally referred to as “the real world.”
Somewhere in our hearts—never mind how our words and actions belied it—we believed in a God of peace and love, and we dreamed of a civilization in which even the trivial events of daily life would acknowledge His presence and our dependence upon Him. In short, we longed for a sacramental life. And our ideals resembled more closely than anything else the half-forgotten ideal of Christendom. Above all, we were certain that there is a spiritual reality which rules the material, little knowing that this was an obsession we shared with the popes of a thousand years ago.
So we marched off to war and fought for the wrong side, giving good service to the enemy. But our army scattered in the night, some of us suspecting the truth about our general and others simply tired or afraid. Now I find myself at the gate of an old fortress, one of those we had attacked and which we had thought to be a place of darkness—it had looked so grim in battle—and I find it alive with light and music, banners flashing on the towers and bright tapestries on the walls inside, heroes and heroines watching at the gates and stories of others being told around the table. Though treachery is common and the castle seems always on the verge of being taken, its inhabitants are oddly serene and confident (almost reckless, it seems, when one considers their danger), and they take me in without fear. It proves to be the castle of the King, the Lord of love and beauty, the Prince of peace, whom I had wished to serve all along.
It is not always easy to see that vision of the Catholic Church, what with the dull liturgy, rebellious priests, feminist nuns, and the gray mold of modernism sometimes threatening to cover everything. But if the Church is never perfect she is also never lost; even now she is blessed with one of God’s true knights as her head on earth, and sometimes I wonder why all the ex-hippies in the world aren’t flocking to his service. In fact I think that some of them will—not all, probably not most, perhaps not even many. But some. And for those of us who have seen the vision it will be the labor of our deepest love to show it to others.
Epilogue, Twenty Years On [top] [prev]
It is, indeed, "not always easy to see that vision." It is with real sadness that I compare my closing paragraph above to a remark I made to a friend a few years ago: that my relationship to the Church is now like an unhappy marriage. That is putting it perhaps a little too darkly, but it’s accurate with regard to one aspect of that relationship, which is the liturgy. I have a deep and intense need for liturgical worship that is rich, dignified, and mysterious. Although I found quickly enough that I could not remain in the Episcopal church for doctrinal reasons, the Book of Common Prayer (those parts which have not been made drab by modernization) and the Anglo-American hymn tradition comprise the most powerful expression of Christian worship in the English language; certainly it is the most deeply affecting to me.
I am not going to dwell here on the problems with the Catholic liturgy and especially with Catholic music. They have been discussed until every one involved is bitter and exhausted and unspeakably sick of the subject. The comparison to a bad marriage is very applicable here, specifically to the stage when the combatants have ceased to expect anything at all of each other.
This may seem a frivolous complaint, and perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if I were indifferent to liturgy or never had any trouble in my life. But when trouble comes and there is no comfort to be found in the place that is not supposed to fail of comfort, dessication of soul follows. (Yes, of course, there is sacramental grace, and no doubt that has kept me afloat; I’m speaking of the subjective experience.)
Moreover, I have not found, humanly speaking, an especially comfortable community in the Church. This is not the Church’s fault, but rather a function of my own eccentricity. Nevertheless it is a fact, and an unhappy one. And then there is the fact that the Church is so divided, so that those of us who believe the faith more or less as it was traditionally believed and taught find ourselves in continual combat with those who would have the Church revise its doctrine along the lines of liberal Protestantism.
In sum, I regard the Church as having, at bottom, two reasons to exist: to maintain doctrine and to worship “in spirit and in truth.” And when one feels that one must struggle constantly to find these things in the Church, is it any surprise that the temptation to abandon ship is strong at times?
But in spite of all this I can say with some assurance that I will never leave the Church. I still believe everything I believed in 1981, and more. The fact that I have not found the road to be smooth and pleasant does not mean that it is the wrong road. There is, simply, nowhere else to go. “Lord, to whom else should we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” I can imagine ceasing to be a Christian—and a few years ago in a period of serious depression I was in some danger of doing so—but I cannot imagine becoming a Protestant. (Orthodoxy would be a possibility, at least from the doctrinal point of view, but I don’t believe I could ever give myself to it as I have given myself to the Catholic Church.) If I ever cease to be Catholic, I will cease to be Christian.
Nor, despite my disappointment and my grievances, have I ever regretted for a moment that I became a Catholic. When I look back at my life thus far it often seems like a long string of sins, mistakes, and missed opportunities. But my adoption of the Catholic faith is not in this list. If there is any thing I’ve ever done that I believe was unquestionably the right thing to do, it is this.
As I take stock of what I have said here, casting about for a final summation, a couple of lines from a more recent Bob Dylan song come into my mind and assume an unexpected significance:
Summer days, summer nights are gone
I know a place where there’s still something going on