Stratford Caldecott – Gnosis and Grace

if only in a small way, into their hands. I had had faith in the God that Aquinas was talking about long before I ever read Gilson, but never before had I encountered that God outside myself. The Absolute had always loomed on my interior horizon as the source and goal of my thinking. But it was only in the Church that this interior God approached me from outside and invited me to trust him as absolutely as God ought to be trusted. In the teaching of the Church I recognized the God of my interior horizon: ‘the greatest of all goods, and more proper to each than anything else can be, because he is closer to the soul than the soul is to itself’ (Aquinas). To reject the invitation of that God would have been to deny my true self.

As soon as this conviction had grown upon me, a sense of urgency also descended. I felt I had to be baptized as soon as possible, preferably on my twenty-seventh birthday, which was coming up in November 1980. I had not expected this. I had intended not to ‘fall in love’ but simply to test Catholicism for its persuasive power, and then break the news gradually to my family, completely prepared in advance to answer all the inevitable objections. Indeed, although I had discussed my latest conversion to some extent with my mother already (who was, as ever, a great support), I was now obliged to tell my father so late in the day that he would have no opportunity to try and dissuade me. I had been right to fear the consequences. He took it as a slap in the face, as though I had rejected everything he stood for.

For him, a pacifist with a considerable knowledge of history, Catholicism was worse than apartheid: it was the moral equivalent of the Third Reich. Thumbscrews may be temporarily out of fashion, but they were no doubt being kept well oiled in the Vatican for future use on those who dared to think for themselves. I had had no idea that his hatred of the Church ran so deep. I had expected disagreement, but not to cause him such pain. For a while, for the first time in our lives, we were not on speaking terms, and were obliged to write long letters back and forth. My father was right about one thing – and righter than the priest who was giving me instruction (’Don’t worry about anything that happened before Vatican II,’ he told me. ‘It’s a new Church now’.) The Church I had converted to was the same Church that had existed at the Council of Trent, and before. If thumbscrews had happened still to be in use today, or if the Vatican was being turned into a brothel by a corrupt pope, I would still have joined it. The Church would still have been the sinless Bride of Christ, simply because the all too evident sins of her members are constantly being washed away by the ever flowing blood of Christ. The Church as institution exists to preserve the sacraments, which are the actions of Christ. It is these which cause the Bridal Church to be born on earth, again and again. In us, she has only a flickering existence, no sooner visible than almost immediately covered over by old vices. For example, I myself was now baptized. When I renounced Satan during the ritual of the baptismal promises, I felt a distinct weight fall from my soul. The sacrament washed me clean, and ‘created a pure heart within me’; but whatever became of my heart after that was clearly my own responsibility. I did not become incapable of sin, just capable of not sinning. Like all converts, I soon found that was not protection enough. But there stands the sacrament of penance, precisely to restore in us the innocence of baptism – until the next time.

Neither then nor in the years that followed have I been able to discover any objection to Catholicism that would stand up to close examination. I tried to explain things to my family, but it is surprising how little even people who love actually listen to each other. My father eventually concluded that since I was evidently still thinking for myself I must be a heretic, and the Church would eventually find me out. In this way he reconciled himself to my Catholicism. I wish he had lived to hear the Pope in 1998 (in Fides et Ratio) exhorting ‘philosophers – be they Christian or not – to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing,’ and warning that ‘Truth and freedom either go hand in hand or together they perish in misery.’ As for my father’s fate, I was never able to discuss these questions properly with him, even when he was dying of cancer. But as I prayed alone with his body, I believe I was granted a glimpse of the battle for his soul, and I knew that he had been victorious.

Two years later, Léonie was also received into the Church. Her prejudices had been different; so therefore was her journey. Her own conversion was intimately wrapped up with two things: first of all, the hunger for eucharistic participation in the Body of Christ; secondly, with the personal influence of a Vietnamese woman who was to allay her doubts by the use of what she called ‘universal logic’ (the kind of thinking advocated in Fides et Ratio). We moved to Boston, and there a whole world of Catholic community and intellectual life opened up in front of us. It was there that we really started reading Newman, Chesterton, Balthasar. Up until that point, I had still believed at heart that all religions were equal, with Christianity being merely more appropriate in my case than any other. Ideas like this had led me to the Church; but they could not survive long immersion in the Catholic tradition itself. Léonie’s own strong sense of the sacraments had first given me the inkling that there was something more going on, some fuller kind of presence here. The overwhelming reality of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament now more than made up for the relative lack of ‘gurus’ in Christianity. Priests were there to bring Christ to earth, and the Holy Spirit of Christ was everywhere present.

I began to realize that no matter how much grace is present in the other religions, it is only Christianity that knows the secret of how grace enters the world. Without the cross, no ‘religion’ would suffice – were it founded on the Beatitudes themselves. Christ came not primarily to teach, but to do. He came to die for us (as Chesterton points out eloquently in The Everlasting Man).

It was through the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) that I finally came to understand what it was that truly makes Christianity different from any other religion under the sun. Sure enough, it is the sacramental principle – but that only makes sense in connection with the Incarnation, and the Incarnation reveals the Trinity. The fact is that Christianity is not to do with states of consciousness at all, or with liberation to be attained through enlightenment. I had once made the mistake of thinking that that was the only thing a religion could be about. Christianity is about salvation, not enlightenment; an ontological change, a change in the substance of reality itself, brought about by the sacrifice of the Son of God. In fact you might say that the Asian religions would have been correct on all counts, as true as true can be, if Christ had never been born or died on the Cross. They describe with perfect accuracy the nature of reality and of awareness as it would appear to us without the revelation of God’s love. The world would indeed have been an image in a mirror, and nothing more, if God had not in person stepped within that image and made it real with his own reality. If God had been merely One, the creation of the world would have ended with the mirroring of that unity and its eventual reabsorption in God. But because God is also Three, the divine nature can be given; it can become gift. If it can be given by the Father to the Son, it can also be given to us in the Son. The world that is a natural reflection of God can become a true creation, can be filled with the substance of reality, can be ‘deified’, as the Orthodox say. But in order to be deified it must first be saved.