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A Married Priest?–Part VI

I have sometimes felt embarrassment over my unstable religious history (described in last week's article). I have taken comfort, however, in learning that my own long and drawn out “two stage” conversion is hardly unique in its spiritual and theological progression. Others have followed a similar path: from a fervent “Bible based” protestant sectarianism to a more catholic and sacramental protestantism, and finally to Rome. The most famous example being Blessed John Henry Newman, the spiritual grandfather and guide of all us modern “clergy converts.” Here I will give a brief condensed account of the experiences and the struggles that first led me into the Catholic tradition. Next week, I will explain how it was finally determined that this catholic had to become a Catholic.
 
The Body at Prayer
           
I have no trouble recalling the inner struggle, in my early adulthood, which first consciously opened my mind and heart to the Catholic tradition. To speak simply: although I believed, taught and preached the Faith, I could not (would not?) pray, at least not with any order. I knew no discipline of prayer. Personal prayer escaped me. My inner life was something of a chaos. At a time when the struggle was acute, ambling through a theological library in London, I came across two volumes, written by Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925) – a religious philosopher, a leading Roman Catholic layman in England. A theme running through his essays was the crucial and necessary place of the body in religious experience, especially in Christian “spirituality.” Reading von Hugel was nothing less than an event for me. I was reading a keen diagnosis of the religious subjectivism, the inwardness, in which all my efforts to pray faltered. Suddenly I knew what C. S. Lewis meant when he said that many Christians make the mistake of trying to be “more spiritual than God” (“Incarnation”!). I came to see that I had been “chasing my own tail,” as it were, locked in a cylinder of my own would-be sincerity, trying to make myself somehow spiritually ready to pray. From von Hugel I learned a fundamental “Catholic” truth about the unity of the human person: even when the mind cannot bow in prayer, the body can. And, although the mind can and does lead the body to pray, it is also true that the body can lead the mind. This truth worked in me like a medicine; I stepped into the flow of the Catholic tradition of prayer. I began to learn to stop thinking, to simply enter the time and place of prayer, to speak the words placed on my lips, to “just do it.”
 
Grace in Time and Place (Real Presence)
           
One truth always opens up toward another. Truth is not a list; truth is a living organic whole. The truth about the spiritual dignity of the body leads inevitably to the sacramental nature of God's saving grace in Jesus Christ. The sacraments are the “body language” of God's love for us in Jesus Christ. At this point new experiences placed me in the middle of Catholic liturgical life, preparing me to receive this truth. Our community at Disciples House spent a week praying with thousands of young Christians gathered in London for a Taize sponsored prayer pilgrimage for peace. Shortly after that I began to go now and then (somewhat furtively) to week-day Mass at St. Dominic Priory Church. Feeling like a stranger, I sat on the back pew with the wine-os and the homeless. In the words and actions of the Mass, I heard the promise that God's saving grace comes down in time and place. We do not rise up by our piety to God; we receive God there, now, on the altar, before which our first act of worship is to dump our bodies (Rom. 12:1-2), that we may receive him bodily. My sincerity does not bring Him down, nor my righteousness. God comes down by Grace alone, to be received by faith (or rejected by unbelief).

The Church in History: The Communion of the Saints
           
It was Good Friday. For the first time ever I attended the liturgy of the Adoration of the Cross, at the same Priory Church, hiding on the back pew as always. It is not seemly to speak much about one's “spiritual experiences.” And anyway, I do not even know if this was one. What I can say is, I suddenly “saw” the Church of Christ. As the large mass of devotees filed down the aisle to kiss the Cross of Christ, from many countries, the poor and rich the clean and the dirty, the young and the old, I found myself in line with them, dragging my body with their bodies, toward the Cross that bore His Body.
           
And the Catholic way of prayer was deepened in me. I was coming to believe and to know that one never prays alone.


 
 
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