Because I Awoke from a Long, Bad Dream

For a long time I was mystified by several friends of mine. Each was born and raised Catholic, then fell away from the Church in their late teens or early adulthood. What could have caused this, I wondered? I was often critical of these friends. How could they not see the beauty of the Church they were born into? Then I realized that the same thing had happened to me.

I used to refer to my boarding-school years as the best educational experience of my life. Now, I see them differently: as the beginning of a nightmare from which I am only now waking up. When I went off to school at the ridiculously unformed age of fifteen, I was like some of my raised-Catholic friends; I was a devout little Episcopalian altar boy. I am not being ironic. I loved serving at the altar, and during those mid-teen years I even thought seriously about becoming an Episcopal minister. Dear old Dr. Bassage, the revered senior minister at our church, had written my recommendation for boarding school, and I could see little better in life than to follow in his path.

Then I went away to school. Things happened there that I am still trying to sort out, but the end result was that three years later, I graduated a self-satisfied agnostic liberal railing against my father because he supported the war in Vietnam. I was destined not to return to church, as a regular devotion, for nearly 40 years. By then, my father was my best male friend.

What happened when I went away to school? I succumbed to the tyranny of my peers. While the school faculty was supposed to act in loco parentis, there was little in the way of authentic adult authority, except for “Dean Bob,” who threatened punishments from “restricts” to the ax. Our dorm master during my first two years was ridiculed by every student who lived on the floors he supposedly ruled; during senior year, I lived in a house where the benign master, beloved by the fifteen of us who lived above his ground-floor quarters, blithely ignored the odd, smoky odors emanating from upstairs. The school minister, known with genuine affection as “The Rev,” was the closest thing we had to a spiritual authority, but the times being what they were, his message had to be so rounded off at the corners, for reasons of ecumenism, that it had little edge. I do not remember much talk of Jesus Christ.

My peers taught me how to be an adult. A fifteen-year-old kid who was just learning to shave showed up at a dorm one day and, for purposes of survival, quickly kowtowed to the common mentality of the “buttroom” (where we smoked), the classroom, and the athletic field. The central characteristic of that mentality was a deep cynicism about all forms of authority, combined with an absurd self-satisfaction that was only punctured when, as occasionally happened, someone got seriously sick or injured, or a friend threatened suicide.

I ask myself how I could possibly have given up so completely my Christian faith, and the only answer I can come up with is this tyranny. To survive socially, to be accepted, and probably to counteract unspoken feelings of homesickness, I fell asleep to my real needs, my real nature. And so began a long, bad dream.

By the time I became a Catholic 30 months ago, I had sent my two children to boarding school. I make no judgment about them here; they are bright, successful, happy young adults, and each is following her own sincere spiritual journey, one of which has led to the Catholic Church. But if I saw the world as I do now when my wife and I faced the decision of where to send our daughters to high school, I would have thought twice about it.

I am a Catholic today because I finally awoke from that experience. What wakes a person up? Not himself. An alarm clock, maybe? I think the Church would call it grace.

  • Terry Fenwick

    Scary to look back, isn't it Webster? You look pretty normal to me today – laughing – as I am seeing directly opposite this post comment box – your smiling face. It is good to know that you were never alone during all those days at boarding school. I was 70 before I knew the power of the mark of Baptism. You were obviously Baptized in the Anglican/Episcopal Church and thank GOD they do Baptize on the forehead and in the Name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit as it is, indeed, GOD who does the Baptizing. I had no idea, NO IDEA AT ALL, that Baptism IS what GOD does NOT what man does or we do. So that little mark on your forehead – must be on the forehead – those few drops of water – and the right names in the blessing – work! Ah who would believe that? I DO AND SO DOES THE CHURCH. They totally accept that Baptism when you crossed the street from the Episcopal to the Catholic. But your final comment at the end, Webster? Grace. Yep – that one I always knew. Coming from the Lutheran background you do know the word Grace. I learned the acrostic for it early in life and it is God's Riches At Christ's Expense. You were not ever out of the sight of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit – not ever. I am thankful for that. Nice knowing you, nice man. Thanks for transparent sharing!

  • Jan

    Great story, Webster.

  • Terry Fenwick

    Have you read C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy? Boarding School Days and everything you will remember. He died the day President Kennedy was shot and had he lived? We can believe he would have crossed over with you.

  • Mr. DeCleene

    The prep school setting and the boys in the tree remind one of the Knowles novel A Separate Peace, but the WWII setting led that generation down an entirely different path than the one we Baby Boomers travelled. Sigh. The Jesuits in my Chicago high school cheered the counterculturalists on. One even got arrested in the Democratic Convention riots.

  • Anonymous

    OOH I wish I had read this before I had the good fortune of meeting you at the Heather King lecture in Manhattan last tues. Thomas Merton writes about his experience in college in Seven Storey Mountain in such a way that resonates with all of us in any age. He identifies it in the biblical sense of the world verses the kingdom of God. The world , if we listen to it and believe its lies beats the snot out of all of us. The Church is the ultimate truth-telling institution. Merton learned to disdain the lies and seek Christ where He may be found-Thanks Webster, I doubt you'll see this but oh well-Regina