I See Men as Trees Walking Part II: A Capacity for Wonder

I See Men as Trees Walking Part II: A Capacity for Wonder January 7, 2013

Dante Before Mt. Purgatory (Domenico de Michelino, 1465)
Dante Before Mt. Purgatory (Domenico de Michelino, 1465)

Others besides myself have described the journey from Protestantism to Catholicism as a “paradigm shift” [1]. It always distresses me when I describe something to myself in what I think is a unique way, only to find that someone else has used that very same description. I prefer to think I’m original, but occasionally need the reminder that other people have been there before; originality is an attribute of God alone.

As far as paradigm shifts go, I don’t find very many converts describing what the experience of one feels like. Some do. I shall have more to say about this another time. When still in RCIA, however, I had the terrific opportunity to listen to Dr. David Anders describe his conversion from Calvinism to the Catholic Church [2]. Dr. Anders was one of the first to articulate certain Catholic teachings, which I was still struggling with, in a way that made sense to me and which I could embrace. That was still a difficulty for me at the time: Certain teachings I could understand logically, but there’s an important difference between that and being able to say that you’ve crossed the bridge between having something in your head and having it in your eyes—the bridge between how you think and how you see. That’s one way of describing what a paradigm shift is. And as Dr. Anders pointed out to Marcus Grodi, “It’s not easy to undo a complete world view and rebuild it from the ground up. And my heart bleeds for people who have to go through that.”

Which is why many resist the beckoning of Christ. It’s scary. It feels so threatening, like an earthquake. It took me nearly twenty years, I still have a sense of mourning over time lost. But—and this really what I want to write about—my experience of paradigm shift over two specific Catholic teachings led to very different emotions than the ones that Dr. Anders is describing. The teachings I am referring to are the Real Presence and Purgatory. When the illusions of Protestantism fell on these points, I experienced moments of joyful epiphany that I hope will always be with me. That may sound strange with respect to Purgatory—that believing in its existence would give one joy—but I explain below.


how can a symbol be a sacrament?

The first illusion of Protestantism to go for me was the belief that the communion elements—the bread and wine (actually, grape juice, in many mainline denominations)—were merely symbolic of Christ’s body and blood, and that Transubstantiation was a bizarre medieval superstition. I seem to remember a sarcastic choking scene in Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides (unless it was The Lords of Discipline) that portrayed the Catholic belief in a fantastically ridiculous manner that led me to dismiss Transubstantiation with more guffaws than reason. When I did think about the subject with more than a modicum of reason, it seemed that I had all the authority of an English major on my side. Christ was speaking metaphorically. When he said “This is my body,” “this is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24), he was using a figure of speech.

And that is true, insofar as definitions of figures of speech go. In a simile, you draw a comparison by saying “x is like y.” In a metaphor, you draw a comparison by saying “x is y.” But in neither case do you mean that x is literally y. Robert Burns could have said, “My love is a red, red rose,” and been no closer to saying that he was in love with a literal flower than he was when he used the word like. And I was as confident in applying this analysis to Mark 14:22-24 as any English major can be confident in anything. And if you’ve known English majors like the ones I have, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. That was the beginning and end of my thinking on the subject.

But that pesky “Scripture interprets Scripture” formula of Protestantism can cut both ways. And it ended up cutting an unexpected tear through the center of my paper-thin delusion. The turning point was a question that I posed to myself one day when I had occasion to be thinking about the subject more deeply. The question was this: How can a symbol be a sacrament? In hindsight, I find it interesting that I did not question that the Eucharist was a sacrament. That’s not typical thinking for a Protestant; Protestant churches tend to be at best a-sacramental, if not thoroughly anti-sacramental. So it was an interesting way to ask the question, and God may have been secretly working in the far corners of my mind, implanting in me an intellectual framework that could begin to be receptive to Catholic teaching.

The point is this: Once the question is asked, and put exactly in those terms, it answers itself. A symbol can’t be a sacrament. They are completely opposite categories. So either the Eucharist wasn’t a symbol, or it wasn’t a sacrament. “If it’s just a symbol,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “then to Hell with it.” I knew I was in trouble.


damned if it’s a metaphor

When I arrived home from church that day, I decided to take another look at what I already knew was a key passage: 1 Corinthians 11:26-29. I’m going to quote from the King James Version because that was the one I used at the time [3]:

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation unto himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

Having reread this passage, I posed to myself—not another question, but this time an observation. Those are pretty strong words to use, I thought, if you’re only talking about a symbol. It was hard for me to imagine damnation depending upon one’s response to a symbol. It was hard for me to imagine the unworthy participation in the merely symbolic being of such importance that it makes one guilty of the crucifixion. Honestly—and I don’t mean to offend anyone here—but I’ve heard the Eucharist referred to, among people who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians,” as “a stinking piece of bread.” Does it sound to you like that’s what St. Paul thought of the Eucharist? He refers to it as the Lord’s body. To St. Paul, for someone to not discern the Lord’s body in the Eucharist is to “drink damnation.” Strong words. Contemplating this passage, I had a hard time picturing Christ sending people off to their damnation for the sake of a figure of speech.

If “Scripture interprets Scripture,” couldn’t it be said that 1 Corinthians 11:26-29 ought to prevent us from interpreting Mark 14:22-24 as metaphor? At this point in my line of reasoning, I did give vent to an unguarded figure of speech: I’ll be damned.

It is his body. I didn’t yet know how. But I could no longer accept it as merely a symbol.



matthew 3:11-12: pentecost or purgatory?

A year later, after I had been wrestling through some other points of Catholic teaching, I made a breakthrough about Purgatory that, at the end, left me in a similar frame of mind. As a Protestant, I considered Purgatory unnecessary because Christ took unto himself every punishment. His righteousness, if we were saved, was applied to us. Either you went to Heaven or you went to Hell. No pit stops.

To be honest, I can’t remember what exactly it was, in connection to Purgatory, that led me to consult John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 3:11-12. But here is what I read:

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

I was thunderstruck. But my thunderstruck-ness I articulated in the form of another question. (I was asking myself a lot of questions.) What, exactly, is this baptism with fire? Could it be, I wondered—and this was the only alternative possibility I could think of, which would allow me to continue to deny Purgatory—could it be a prophecy of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples like tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4)? That explanation seemed improbable to me, for two reasons. The first was that Pentecost was the baptism by the Holy Ghost, and John spoke of that as distinct: “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” [emphasis mine]. They are two separate baptisms. The baptism by fire is another, and it is described as a rather unpleasant process. It is a “thorough purging”—which sounds not at all like a description of the first Pentecost. In fact, I thought that the use of the word “purge” was important. What John is describing is a complete and thorough cleansing of the soul very much along the lines of how Catholic theology describes Purgatory.


malachi 3:2-3: does he declare us righteous or make us righteous?

I continued to “search the Scriptures,” which any Protestant will encourage you to do. And the passage I found was none other than this one, from the prophet Malachi:

But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3)

Quite inconveniently, there was that “purge” word again. And what I noted in Malachi was that the process was described as something done to us—not something done on our behalf. In other words, the “righteousness” that is attained, in the passage from Malachi, isn’t the result of God declaring us righteous, but rather of God making us righteous. And this process is described in the language of purgation. Malachi, like John the Baptist, suddenly struck me as very Catholic.

“Well,” I said—the unguarded figure of speech returning—“I’ll be damned.” God does not declare us righteous. He doesn’t impute it to us. God is not a liar, and he doesn’t cover up dung with snow and say, “Look everyone! Snow!” He makes us righteous. He turns the dung into snow. Epiphany.

I said something else too: “If the Catholics are right about Purgatory“—Purgatory had been a very significant bone of contention for me—“what else are they right about?”


conversion and the capacity for wonder

In his conversion story Suprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes himself as “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all England” [4]. Joy came later; initially, conversion was “checkmate.” He felt defeated. He was that prideful in the rightness of his own reason.



Conversion is that way for a lot of people—it certainly was for me, at moments. But that’s not how I felt when I began to crack open the real arguments for the Real Presence and Purgatory. The process was much more complicated than I’m making it sound—necessarily for the sake of space. I’m describing merely single, key moments in a 20-year process, and there will be more to be said later, in a more specifically conversion-story context. But my point is that when I noted those things that I have described, I felt elated. I felt joyful. I felt a surge of enthusiasm for having solved a seemingly insoluble intellectual difficulty. I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning, who was so excited he couldn’t keep still long enough to shave without danger of cutting himself in a thousand places; he was dancing the whole time. It was an epiphany. It was “Eureka!”; it was “a ha!”

My whole conversion wasn’t like that. In fact, very little of it was. Which may be why I look back on these particular moments with such fondness and joy. I know it sounds unusual for one to describe himself as joyful over the discovery that Purgatory exists. You have to understand, however, that part of the whole process was a discovery not only that Purgatory is real, but that it is a purification rather than a punishment. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—“Even so, sir.” [5]

I am deeply conscious—I certainly was during the last year or two of my conversion—how full of sin and filth I am. And someone who is aware of being dirty, and who is an adult about things, wants desperately to be cleaned up. He doesn’t want to be lied to and told that he is clean simply because someone else is. Someone who is an adult about things would be embarrassed to stand before a King all filthy. If there’s no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first. I look forward to Purgatory. Not because I think it will be pleasant. But because I know I want to stand before a King. I want that epiphany above all others.

I do often wish that the process of conversion could be easier than it is. I have had the blessed opportunity, after becoming Catholic, of meeting others who are on the journey, and I have seen and been moved by how difficult it is for them. When your eyes are opened to the truth, sometimes you feel threatened and immediately want to close them again. Like the patient that Annie Dillard described, many converts cry out: “No, I don’t want this. I’d rather tear my eyes out.” But by God’s grace, these same people—having shut their eyes for a while and then finally reopened them—also have those moments when they say, like the other patient, “Oh God! How beautiful!” And they’d cut themselves shaving for the inability to keep from dancing.

Again, I don’t want anyone to suspect that I stopped thinking about the questions of the Real Presence and Purgatory when I reached the stage in my conversion that I described above. But surely, when the wise men saw Christ in that first Epiphany, they did not have a fully-developed Christology. But they knew who he was. Epiphanies, after all, are not entirely intellectual moments. And sometimes you just have to surrender to joy. No one is sadder than the one who has lost his capacity for wonder. Sometimes you just have to accept the happy experience of seeing men as trees walking.


You can read Part 3 here.



[1] See, for example, Jason Stellman’s conversion story here, specifically his comment #492, where he uses the precise phrase “paradigm shift,” as opposed to variations on the word “paradigm” which appear throughout the article.

[2] Dr. Anders’ first appearance on “The Journey Home,” on 8 February 2010, can be found here; his second, on 6 December 2010, here.

[3] I wasn’t a King James Onlyist in the sense that I believed that the translation was necessarily 100% accurate, or the only acceptable translation for English-speaking Christians to use. That belief struck me then, and it strikes me now, as ludicrous. But I did believe that the KJV was the best rendered English translation, and even today most other translations strike me the same way as nails on a chalkboard. That’s the English major in me. I do, however, get a mischievous sense of delight when I consider radical King James Onlyists contemplating an individual who became a Catholic through the King James Bible. It’s also the English major in me to enjoy that kind of irony.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt, 1955, pp. 228-229.

[5] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Harcourt, 1963, pp. 108-109.


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