To Recapture the Faith of My Youth

The joint was jumping as I entered the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Saturday, April 17. The nave was filling for the 2010 Boston Catholic Men’s Conference, and I was attending for the first time. I didn’t expect a rockish sort of band singing faith songs in front of a video screen that flashed the lyrics or hundreds of men on their feet, sort of swaying, sort of clapping, depending on their age and level of inhibition. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself beside Dick from Foxboro and wonder what had happened to my faith when I turned fifteen.

I learned Dick’s name only later. What I was first aware of was a guy in a New England Patriots slicker, somewhat older than my 58 years, on his feet, bobbing his head, clapping his feet, and definitely totally into it, singing something about loving Jesus. I was momentarily embarrassed for Dick. Then, for quite a while longer, I was embarrassed for myself and brought up short by my embarrassment.

The music was good, the lyrics inspiring, the temperature rising—and yet there was some kind of reserve wedged between my heart and a mind that had grown skeptical, then cynical during my boarding school years. Before I left home at fifteen, I was an Episcopal altar boy thinking about becoming an Episcopal minister. By the time, three years later, that I had completed “the best educational years of my life” (as I’ve always considered them), I had been led away (e-ducatus) from an innocent faith to a sophisticated agnosticism.

What had done the trick? The 800 boys, each of whom thought he was smarter than his neighbor? The religion classes that were really an indoctrination in existentialism? Or just the wise-guy, butt-smoking smart-aleckness of teenage kids, with no parentis in loco and little available in the way of a faith experience? Our daily “chapel” was really an assembly without the pretense of devotion. Maybe we had an invocation, once, at the beginning of the year, I don’t remember.

It strikes me that becoming Catholic has turned my world view, and my self view, butt over teakettle. Because I understand now that the same seductive cultural forces that we Catholic parents worry about when we think of our children in today’s world were working their magic, 1960s style, with me, just when I thought I was getting the best education money could buy, just when I thought I was so smart.

I’m probably not shocking anyone by writing this. Unless you were raised in a strongly evangelical setting and went to a Christian college, you probably had a similar experience of adolescence. The amazing thing is that I ever recovered. Because I was an insufferable wise guy by the time I went to college, reading Camus (pictured) with a Marlboro hanging off my lip, reciting Beckett while trucking around campus with my hands thrust deep in my pockets, thinking that Kafka must have been an amazingly cool guy, mostly because I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote.

In college began my long and winding path back to the church, stretching through 35 years of midlife, my “prime working years.” I’ve documented that path before in this space. But right now, I’m back beside Dick from Foxboro wondering about that reserve, the residue of doubt and skepticism that is often (always?) still there, a lasting legacy of my Exeter years. How do I grind that doubt away? How do I fully reopen my heart and silence the agnostic in my mind, so that next year I can be on my feet from the opening bell, clapping and singing along with the guy in the Patriots slicker?

I have been asking myself these questions all week long.

  • EPG

    Good questions, Webster. I don't know if the test is whether you can be on your feet, clapping and singing, though. I don't doubt the sincerity of the guy from Foxboro. But I've been to places where there is a lot of clapping and singing, and a whole lot of phoniness behind it. Some of us are more introverted. Some of us may be looking for the small quiet voice of God, and find that a lot of clapping and singing gets in the way. Some of us may associate a "happy clappy" worship environment with a neglect of the vertical dimension of worship, and a reinterpretation of worship as merely "a gathering of God's people," and no more (and, yes, I am talking about my own experience). Perhaps the better test is whether I can accept the guy who is clapping and singing, and not look down on him, whether or not his particular expression of faith is mine.Because the first part of your question is right on. How does one "grind away the doubt"? How does one open the heart, and stop thinking of one's self as the smartest guy in the room, just by definition?I don't know the answer, but I think that part of it lies in recognizing that some are going to sing along and clap, some are not, but you can't measure the faith of either group by their whether or not they do.

  • Webster Bull

    I'm with you all the way, EPG. Good comments, from a smart angle.

  • Lucy

    I grew up in a Catholic charismatic communinity with lots of singing and hand-swaying and speaking in tongues. Now we attend the Tridentine Mass where no one dares to look around and my veil shields my eyes. Can faith be found at both places? Yes. Can phoniness be found at both places? Yes. Can a holier than thou attitude be found at both places? Absolutely!Ultimately, I think it is the sincerity of the heart that will matter more than any outward gestures of the faith (although I am learning about the depth of meaning and beauty in the traditions we have neglected in the Church since Vatican II). I believe God sees through it all and if we have a sincere love for Him and our neighbor we are on the right track. With that said, I also believe that a certain reverence for the Holy Tabernacle naturally makes us uncomfortable with music and postures which are not sacred. This link gives a great explanation of the difference between sacred and secular music: In Christ,

  • Allison

    @Lucy: So good to hear from you. I love that video and passed it along to my parish listserv. I am blessed to live in a parish where we are reviving chant, singing polyphony, observing vespers, Corpus Christi procession, May Crowning etc.. etc. That said, I distinguish between music used during liturgy and music used during worship "events," such as the one Webster described. As long as the lyrics are orthodox, I think it can be a way to deepen one's faith life. to you.

  • Warren Jewell

    I have enjoyed the-singing-Baptists services, and was just as glad to leave them behind just outside their doors. Like Lucy, I have to wonder just how they fit a sanctuary with the Blessed Sacrament enthroned.But, too, like EPG, count me as introverted – all that rousing seems to make for a looseness of worship I can't abide. I just want to listen, quietly and nearly silently, for my Lord's voice. I don't want what is just distraction for me. The Gospel it ain't.Okay, surely, I love the old anthems of our faith as helping to lift the heart with the mind and spirit, that one can get closer to that voice from the One. I really miss the old Latin Glorias and Credos. All else can be played on YOUR car stereo. I can't say that I look down on anyone for their taste in music, wherever. I am too aware of being a sinner for that. But, I sure don't have to like the distractions. If the king of Spain or Belgium visited would we play such stuff? Don't think so. So, why play it before the King in His sanctuary palace, on His tabernacle throne?My docs tell me that I am going slowly but surely deaf. It seems to be a family genetic trait – lotsa Italianate relatives going 'HUH?!' around. However, I consider it a blessing from God. Sooner or later, it will all be an ignorable smear of vague sound . . .

  • Lucy

    When we started to attend the Latin Mass, I felt like an alien, but our kids grew up with it, and they feel like aliens at the Novus Ordo. Their palates have been cultivated to appreciate the sacred, and they are the ones who pulled us to Latin Mass, because they like the reverence. (We resisted for a number of years.)I really loved going to adoration years ago, with Michael John Poirer playing his guitar and singing while facing the Eucharist. The altar was covered with candles and the church was dark. Yet, somehow I know that human beings being as they are, without rubrics, can easily go from tasteful and reverent, to tacky and sloppy. I guess I feel that music in front of the Blessed Sacrament should be different from music at a concert, where the audience can feel free to "get into it". I think that contemporary music has brought a more casual attitude with it that can easily slide into swaying and clapping without a concern for the reverence due to our King. It's hard to find a church where there isn't alot of talking before and after Mass, and it has become as if we are preparing for a concert, with clapping for the "performance" at the end. I think that a worship service of this kind, which isn't bad in and of itself, might be better suited to a meeting hall. We also enjoy contemporary Catholic music (with orthodox lyrics) at home, where they provide relaxation and meditation. I just think the Holy of Holies should be treated as such, and that in doing so, we might return to a better understanding of the real presence.Also, Webster's regrets about his loss of faith in his early adulthood reminds me so much of Brideshead Revisited. If I remember correctly, Evelyn Waugh said that it's as if we are cast out into the world as on a fishing line. Then God waits patiently as we wander, until we finally give the line a tug, and he reels us back in. (or something like that :) ) As usual, this is a great discussion, which is why I really like this site. :DIn Christ,

  • Webster Bull

    To all, thanks for your comments. To EPG and especially to Warren and his "singing-Baptist services," I would say that perhaps I didn't make my point fine enough. My issue is not Latin Mass vs. Novus Ordo, or Should Catholics Sing and If So How Loud, my point is the skepticism that wedged its way into my own heart from mid-adolescence and still shows its traces today. At the Men's Conference, I came up against this, the message borne ironically, maybe, by Dick from Foxboro. But the post is not about him, or you, or how you worship, but all of us and what stands between our hearts and the faith of "little children." At least that's how it seems to me this morning. Thanks again.

  • Anonymous

    I don't know about the clapping, rocking music being a distraction. As Lucy said, you can find God in both places and I have encountered and been led to Him many times through these kind of songs that many consider to be noise/ distraction. I too sometimes just need the silence but sometimes I also need help to get to Him and then, these songs really lead the way. As I've said before, the beauty of the Catholic Church is that it allows various forms. The 'what' and the 'why' is clear, the 'how' varies from person to country to culture.Webster, praying for you to find the answers to your questions and the grace to act accordingly. Rose

  • Anonymous

    Webster,May you find your Separate Peace.Angel

  • EPG

    Good morning, Webster. I did think I got the main point of the post, but _did_ have the impression that you were drawing a link between a certain form of religious expression and the abandonment of doubt, reserve, and skepticsm. Like you, I drifted from the faith during adolescence. I then dropped any pretense during my college years. The road back started near the end of college, but its been a long and winding one, with some unfortunate detours. We Anglicans (at least in my experience) don't do much with the notion of patron saints, but if we did, I think mine would have to be St. Thomas the Apostle. "Doubting Thomas" came through in the end, so there is hope for all of us.

  • Lucy

    I'm sorry we got so off track, Webster! I can completely sympathize with your surprise and dismay at lingering skepticism that rears it's ugly head when you least expect it. St. Ignatius Loyola talked about demons who circle us like an army circles a castle, looking for weak spots to exploit. It sounds like your education was geared towards a prideful self sufficiency–"Knowlege puffs up." 1Cor 8:1 These people formed you in the worship of superior knowledge as a false God. So this will be the weakness that Satan will focus on when he whispers in your ear that "this is really lame".My formation focused on vanity. My Dad was the leader of the community we were involved in, our family had to always "look good", and girls in our society are naturally formed in the ways of vanity. So my assigned demon focuses on that weakness. Even though I had declared my desire to be a saint, went to daily Mass, said my daily rosary with heartfelt devotion, I would get that twinge of embarassment and my arm would feel like lead if I tried to cross myself before praying in my car. I felt sure everyone was looking at me! How silly. How can this be? I came to the realization that this was just a part of the process of total conversion and this was an area that still needed God's grace. St. Therese said that we shouldn't be surprised by our weaknesses just as a toddler learning to walk isn't surprised about falling down. Many years later now, my arm feels light and I feel secure making this small gesture in public, but sometimes I hear that whisper, "people are going to look at you". I've come to expect this struggle and accept my learning process.I don't know that we can completely get back the simple faith of our youth. I think we can slowly become more like the child in our trust of God, but our faith will now become a tested faith, which has faced the trials of our demons and won.In Christ,

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Lucy. I like the term "assigned demon." In another spiritual tradition that I favored for a long time, it was said that each person has a "chief feature"–the one thing that most kept them from a better state of themselves. We never talked about demons or devils, but by whatever name, they do get in our way and they are persistent, aren't they?

  • Lucy

    Yes. The Spiritual Exercises seek to find our root sin, and of course The Screwtape Letters described how our "assigned demon" studies us and waits for the right moment and angle to attack.

  • Duane

    I believe faith changes and matures over time. The older I get (and I'm only in my mid 30s) the more I begin answers with "it depends…" While I firmly believe in objective truth I increasingly admit that I comprehend only a sliver of it.Like Webster I spent my college years certain about many things, among them that faith was irrelevant to modern life. I've come full circle but when you look back at your younger self of 10 or 20 years ago and you see a fool it necessarily makes you judicious about what things are certain.I'm confident now that my faith is sure, but I also think doubt is normal. How we respond to it is what matters. As long as I see Christ living in the lives of others I will know that He too can live in me.