Why I’m Becoming Catholic – Jesuits & C.S. Lewis

After graduating with a B.F.A. in Theatre and Psychology from New York University, I moved to Baltimore to enter a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Loyola College in Maryland. As evidenced by the name, Loyola is a Jesuit college (soon to become a university). During orientation, we were introduced to the concepts of cura personalis (care of the whole person) and Ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God), two of the mottoes of Jesuit education.

Loyola was the first Christian school I had attended. I had been accepted to Wheaton College in Illinois outside of Chicago for undergraduate work, which is where my father, grandfather, and a number of cousins had attended college. I had loved Wheaton, and had been in awe of its existence as an intentional Christian community of scholars “for Christ and His Kingdom,” as Wheaton’s motto goes. However, I also wanted to study to become a professional actor, and Wheaton did not have a theatre major, much less a professional training program. As a matter of fact, there did not seem to exist a Christian college of Wheaton’s faithfulness and academic caliber that also provided professional arts training. (This gap is one I hope the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s C.S. Lewis College can fill.) The other school to which I had been accepted was NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which has one of the top undergraduate theatre programs in the country. I asked my dad, who I knew was pleased that I had fallen in love with his alma mater, for his advice. He said:

“What do you want to do?”

“Become an actor.”

“Then go where they do that best. In this case, that’s not Wheaton.”

So, I went to NYU, filled with great excitement at having been chosen for a spot, but part of my heart still belonging to Wheaton. I don’t regret that decision, because I received an excellent practical education and gained friends who are very close to my heart, but many times I wish I had not been exposed to the profane and lascivious content that made up a significant amount of the curriculum.

The dirt and filth that ran thickly through the veins of NYU’s artistic culture sullied my spirit enough that I gladly welcomed the refuge of a small Christian college, with grey stone statues of saints lining the walkways of the grassy quad. On the south end of the lawn stood the large stone chapel, with a cross rising on a pinnacle above its main door. I attended a couple services in that chapel, but while I always felt welcome, I always felt separated, and a little embarrassed, because I knew I was a Protestant worshiping as a guest within Catholic space. (I had applied to the Psy.D. program at Wheaton, but, though interviewed, was not accepted. I’m glad now of it, because I think that I would no longer be comfortable in an Evangelical Protestant atmosphere. That, and I would not have wanted to disappoint Wheaton by possibly leaving clinical psychology partway through the first year, as I did at Loyola.)

However much I felt out of place as a Protestant, though, I always felt part of the mission of Loyola as a Christian. I loved being in an academic environment in which I could trust that the faculty and staff, and the majority of my fellow students, shared the same basic worldview as I did – which was definitely not the case at NYU, in which the religious worldview, much less the Christian, was in the minority among the faculty, and became less prevalent among the students in my program as the semesters went by. It was nice to have allies again.

Sadly, though, I left Loyola after only a semester. I loved the school and the faculty, but I realized that the practice of clinical psychology was not for me. I loathed doing psychological testing, and didn’t trust it, but it was about half the curriculum for the first two years. I decided that I was not willing to put up with it for that long, partly because my conscience rebelled against it, and I took a leave of absence to decide whether I would transfer to the pastoral counseling program, or another program at Loyola or elsewhere. In the meantime, I went back to acting, and that became my career after I withdrew from Loyola and did further career discernment, which has lasted for two years (and which you could say is still going on).

When I decided to take a leave of absence, I signed up for an Ignatian silent retreat held in January at the Loyola Jesuits’ retreat center in southern Maryland, on the banks of the Potomac River. I hoped to spend the week in discernment about my future academic path, hopefully with a decision made by the end of the retreat (hah!).

Well, I ended up failing miserably at the silence requirement, to the (charitably unexpressed) annoyance of my spiritual director and some of the other retreatants, but I learned three very important things from that retreat:

1) My prayer life was that of an absolute beginner, and I was not nearly so advanced in the spiritual life as I had thought myself.

2) I was chockful of pride, and rebelled against obedience to spiritual authority. Every time my spiritual director gave me suggestions on how I should spend my time at the retreat, I bristled, gave him reasons why they wouldn’t work (and inwardly thought, “He just doesn’t understand me and how deep my thought really is,”), and did what I wanted anyway.

3) C.S. Lewis’ theology was a lot more Catholic than I realized.

Next up: C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.

Read part 1 of my multi-part series on my journey to the Catholic Church here.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – The Beginning

On Monday, May 11th, 2009, I decided to become a Roman Catholic.

The pin-pointing of a particular date and “conversion moment” may sound a little Protestant (even evangelical) of me, but it was far from a road to Damascus experience. It was more like the road to the Whipsnade Zoo. If I may be permitted to reference the conversion story of our beloved C.S. Lewis:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

Surprised by Joy

Like Lewis, I was on a relatively unimportant car trip, mine from home to my job as an actor with a touring children’s theatre company. It was about 7:00 in the morning, and I was just at the start of my 20-minute drive. Rolling down a gentle, forest-shaded road near my Baltimore apartment, I was thinking about states in life, vocations, and what I could and could not do if I joined the Church. I had the thought, “Well, I’ll just wait and see what I decide about joining the Church. Option A is open to me if I determine the Church has the authority it claims to have, and Option B is open to me if I determine the Church doesn’t have that authority.” My next thought was, “Wait. I already believe it has that authority.” It was at that moment that I realized that my spirit had already submitted to the claim of the Church upon me some time ago, and was simply waiting for the rest of my mind and heart to catch up.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination. I was baptized around my 14th birthday, at the same time I was confirmed, because the church we attended in Texas when I was a child practiced adult baptism only (I don’t remember its denomination). In confirmation class, I remember learning about total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (the five points of Calvinism, i.e. TULIP). The idea of limited atonement (that Christ died only for the elect, not for everyone) didn’t seem quite fair to me, but my pastor gave me what I now know is an Arminian understanding of atonement and of predestination. (He basically said that God is like a parent who knows that, given a choice between peas and carrots, you will choose peas, because he knows that you hate carrots. He doesn’t make you choose the peas, he just knows that you will.)

I love my church (especially the bagpipes on Heritage Sunday!), but it always bothered me a little that the Presbyterian Church and other Protestant churches came out of schism. I respect the reformers for taking a stand on conscience, but there were also reformers who stayed in the Church and worked from within, and since the Body of Christ is meant to be whole, it always made a little sad. But I had never even thought of leaving my church until I came to Loyola College, a Jesuit institution, as a doctoral student in clinical psychology.

This is Part 1 in a multi-part series of my journey into the Catholic Church. Next up: Jesuits and C.S. Lewis.

“A Zoo of Lusts”

I’ve fallen behind in my reading plans for Oxford, but that’s okay, because none of them are required. I’ve finished re-reading the Gospels, and will move on to re-reading the rest of the New Testament. I haven’t read any new theology books on my list, but next up is Davies’ and Rogerson’s The Old Testament World. I plan to start in on my Greek textbook exercises this week. Chapter 1 is learning the Greek alphabet.

My current reading is not academic, but rather spiritual. On the suggestion of a priest I talked to last week, I’m reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I fell in love immediately. As a friend of the author writes in the Introduction, Merton is a born writer. I’m at the point now where he is at Columbia College and becoming a Communist. His descriptions of his soul, looking back at himself, remind me of one of Lewis’ statements in his own spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

Merton, too, speaks of examining himself after leaving Cambridge, and finding “the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called ‘the world,’ in every age, in every class.” But he didn’t yet recognize these festering abcesses in his soul as such, and blamed his flaws on his upbringing in a relatively well-off socioeconomic class and in a capitalist society. It was only later that he was to recognize them as spiritual failings, and submit himself to God for their remedy.

At church the other week, we were discussing how every time we feel as if we have finally conquered some sinful inclination, God allows us little to no time to revel in the victory before revealing to us another deeper and harder battle yet to be fought within our own souls. If we take the time to examine ourselves truly and fully, asking for the grace to see with God’s sight into the depths of our hearts, what zoo of lusts will we find there? I know I’m terrified to make a full inventory of my particular menagerie. Spiritual autobiographies like those of Lewis and Merton are comforting, I think, because we realize that, alone as we feel in our sins, there are others who have been just as terribly ashamed – and yet how completely were they redeemed when they gave themselves up to God, for Him to do as He would with them!

We will never know what good we gave up each time we sinned, but thankfully, God can make each sin a felix peccatum that is the occasion for grace, and that can be used for both our good and for the good of our neighbor. Merton says that the selfish rebellion into which he descended as a youth ended up being good for him, because God let him see what a mess he made of his life when left to his own devices. It enabled him to see how much he needed God. And Lewis’ atheism helped him immensely as a Christian apologist. Besides giving him credibility with many outside Christianity, it also enabled him to understand how someone could not believe in God, and how to speak to that person. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been better for Merton, Lewis, and us if they and we had never sinned, but since they and we have, the only remedy is to let God use the sin for good. And that means submitting to His will for our lives, and living with the consequences of the sin. And that, I think, is the most difficult part. I know it is for me.

I really didn’t mean to write a sermon when I started, I promise! I meant to write a paragraph or two on Merton’s book. But as you can see, The Seven Storey Mountain inspires spiritual self-examination, which I’ve only touched on at a shallow level. I’m going to sign off so I can get back to reading it.

Btw, I’ve linked to a few books in this post. If you’re interested in purchasing them, especially Surprised by Joy, please consider doing so through the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s online bookstore, run through Amazon.com. That way, a percentage of your purchase will go to support the Foundation’s activities.

Also, Diana Pavlac Glyer, whom I mentioned in a previous post, has now written her own post about her two-week sabbatical at the Kilns. Read it here! You can also get her book, The Company They Keep, at the Foundation’s bookstore. It examines the Inklings (especially focusing on Lewis and Tolkien) as “writers in community,” and the different kinds of influence they had on each other as members of a writing group. I read it last year, and highly recommend it, especially if you’re a writer, or are interested in the Inklings’ creative process.

Choice of college

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my Oxford application process, particularly in regards to my choice of Oxford college. When you apply, you apply to a particular college, not to the University itself. I was overwhelmed by my choices. In addition to the dozen or so colleges that offered Philosophy and Theology, the course for which I was applying, there are several Permanent Private Halls (PPHs), which are religious institutions each based in a particular Christian tradition. After looking at each college and hall’s website, I decided to apply to St Stephen’s House, which is the Anglo-Catholic Hall. I chose St Stephen’s because when I attended a week-long seminar at the Kilns last July, I was introduced to the Oxford Movement, which created a renaissance of Catholic practice in the Anglican Church. I wanted to learn more about Anglo-Catholicism, and enjoyed the several services of that kind I attended while in the U.K. I have been increasingly drawn over the past couple of years – ever since attending graduate school for a time at a Jesuit college – to actions of reverence in worship, such as the sign of the cross and genuflecting. As a clad-in-the-plaid, bagpipe-tuned, baptized-under-the-cross-of-St-Andrew Presbyterian boy, I’m sure Calvin must be rolling in his grave. However, I think that those Protestant churches that place almost sole focus on reading Scripture and very little on the nature of the Sacraments are missing something very important about the Christian life. Don’t get me wrong, reading Scripture is vital, and I don’t mean to diminish its importance. However, there is something miraculous about the nature of the Sacraments, in which the Supernatural is made visible to us through the natural elements of bread and wine, oil and water. As much as I love the Church in which I was raised, I’ve come to realize I don’t believe in T.U.L.I.P, sola Scriptura, or the theological desirability of a bare sanctuary. I’m even re-thinking consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation.

O.K., back to colleges. I chose St Stephen’s because it seemed to best fit my changing theological beliefs (which are tending toward Catholicism, but aren’t all the way to Rome yet), my liturgical comfort level, and my academic interest in the Oxford Movement, out of which the House sprang. Also, St Stephen’s is located in the former home of the Society of St John the Evangelist (a.k.a. the Cowley Fathers), which is where C.S. Lewis made his confession every week. (How many American Evangelical Lewis fans know that Lewis went to confession?) Finally, I wanted to be part of an academic community that studied Christianity as believers.

However, I asked the advice of a friend of a friend, who is a staff member at an Oxford college. He recommended I not attend a Permanent Private Hall, as I would not get the typical undergraduate Oxford experience, especially at a small Hall like St Stephen’s which focuses primarily on training candidates for ordination (which I am not seeking). Instead, he recommended I apply to Keble College, which also came out of the Oxford Movement. He also recommended I add Harris Manchester, the college for mature students (i.e. students over 21), as my second choice.

I therefore applied to Keble. Shortly thereafter, Oxford e-mailed me to let me know that I could add a PPH (but not a college) as my second choice. I immediately added St Stephen’s. I received a reply e-mail from Oxford informing me that, while adding a PPH should not affect my chances at gaining a place at Oxford, it could take me out of the running for consideration by another Oxford college should neither my first-choice college nor the PPH offer me a place. I read this statement as saying that while my chances probably wouldn’t be affected, there was a chance they could  be, so in the interest of maximizing my chances at my greater goal – a place at Oxford – I dropped St Stephen’s from my application. I thought Oxford was a longshot anyway.

Keble was oversubscribed for my course (i.e. they had quite a lot of applicants), so they pooled my application to Harris Manchester, which is the college that offered me an interview. The interview consisted of a 1-hour philosophy test (critical thinking, not knowledge-based) and a 1/2-hour phone interview (since I couldn’t afford to fly to England for the interview days). Unlike a typical American college interview, this interview was not primarily about my background and interest in the University and the course (although they did spend a couple minutes on that). Oxford interviews are a test of your on-your-feet reasoning ability. 20 minutes before the start of the interview, the Harris Manchester Admissions Tutor e-mailed me my interview passage: the story of Christ stilling the storm, with the version from each of the three Synoptic Gospels side-by-side. The first half of the interview was with the Theology tutor, Dr Eric Eve, who grilled me on the differences in language between the three Evangelists. The second half of the interview was with Dr Sophie Allen, a Philosophy tutor. We discussed how I could know whether I was really sitting on a chair, and other questions of epistemology.

At the end of the interview, Dr Eve asked me two standard questions. Since I had already received my first undergraduate degree, I was applying for Senior Status, which meant I would skip the first year of the three-year course, as well as Preliminary Examinations, and go straight to the second year and Final Honours Course. Dr Eve asked if, should the College judge it prudent, I would be willing to take the full three-year course. I said yes. He also asked if they were to offer me a place to study the single subject of Theology (instead of both Philosophy and Theology), I would accept. I again said yes. Of course!

A few days after Christmas, I started hearing online that other applicants had started receiving their decisions. I had been visiting family and friends out-of-state for two weeks, so I called my roommate and asked if any letters from England had come for me. Sure enough, one had. As he read my acceptance letter – for a place reading Theology at Harris Manchester with Senior Status – I leaped into the air, literally jumping for joy. The odds were roughly 1 in 3 that I would get a place, so I had already started mentally preparing myself for a rejection. I was ecstatic.

Of course, a week or so later, my anxiety hit. What if I didn’t like Harris Manchester? After all, I had never been there. It also didn’t have the tradition I was seeking, being heavily influenced by the Unitarians. I was concerned that I would be learning Theology with a Unitarian bent, and that I wouldn’t feel at home in my college. Numerous students online reassured me that everyone comes to love their college, and I was looking forward to being in the smallest college (only 150 students total), albeit the poorest. Apparently HMC also had a reputation for serving the best food in Hall. I also liked the fact that HMC had Formal Hall twice a week, in which students are required to wear gowns. (The pomp and circumstance of Oxford academic dress and tradition was one of the draws for me.) But what if I hated it?

I got so anxious that last week I almost e-mailed the head of St Stephen’s House to see if I could transfer, what’s called “migrating” at Oxford. Migration is almost never allowed, and is generally reserved for students whose colleges have decided not to offer their course any longer, or students who have become handicapped and whose current college is not accessible, or for similar reasons. Migration is not approved for the sole reason that a student thinks a different college would be a better fit.

Thankfully, though, my family, friends, and other students talked me out of it. I realized that there were aspects of “typical undergraduate Oxford” that I did want to experience, and if I feel the need to be a part of an academic Anglo-Catholic community, there are several around, like Pusey House. Plus, I will be living in an academic Christian community at the Kilns. Being part of a College in a different tradition will help ensure I don’t develop tunnel vision in my study of Theology. Most importantly, though, Harris Manchester has been good to me. I enjoyed talking with Dr Eve, who has already helped me with a list of basic readings in New Testament Greek and general theology to get me started before I come up. I’m looking forward to studying under him. And Harris Manchester has a reputation as one of the friendliest colleges at Oxford, another definite advantage to me.

As I thought about it, I realized I had made the decisions on my application that I did based on three criteria:

1) My own areas of interest

2) Advice from a dependable source

3) Prudent focus on my larger goal

All in all, I think those criteria are quite reliable ones. And then you have Providence – trusting where the movement of God places me. Trusting in Providence has placed me in pretty good stead in the past, and since Providence has guided me to Harris Manchester, I’m quite excited to discover what the Lord has waiting for me there.

The aptly-named first post

The First Week of Lent, 2009

Welcome and well met!

My name’s Cole, and I’m a blogger. I’m also an actor and arts administrator here in lovely Charm City, Baltimore, Maryland. I perform children’s theatre in schools, and am the office administrator for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, a collection of approximately 65 theatres and film companies and about 250 theatre and film artists in central Maryland. As of October 2009, I will be an undergraduate at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, reading Theology for a second BA. I will also be a Junior Resident Fellow at the Kilns, Christian author C.S. Lewis’ former home, now maintained as a study centre by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. As a Scholar-in-Residence, I will be living there my first year.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an account of one American student’s time at Oxford and at the Kilns. When I was accepted as a student and Scholar-in-Residence, I searched the blogosphere to learn more about the day-to-day life of an Oxford student, and a Kilns resident. While I found a lot of good information on Oxford and C.S. Lewis, I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. So, for the benefit of future Oxford students and potential Kilns residents and visitors, I’d like to provide a glimpse into day-to-day life at Oxford and the Kilns.

My residency begins in September, and my course begins in October, so in the meantime I’m going to be posting weekly about my preparation and local acting career. One of my goals before I start is to learn Biblical Greek. I was accepted as a Senior Status undergraduate because I had already earned a good undergraduate degree (BFA in Theatre & Psychology from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated 2006). Therefore, I’m skipping the first year of the 3-year Theology degree, along with Preliminary Examinations. The first year is generally when Theology students learn either Greek or Hebrew, so I have no scheduled Greek coursework before Finals in Trinity 2011. (The Oxford academic year is divided into three 8-week terms – Michaelmas, October to Christmas; Hilary, Christmas to Easter; and Trinity, Easter to June – with lengthy holiday vacations in between.) However, I have to be able to translate New Testament passages into Greek for Finals, so I need to learn it before then, and preferably before I start. I’ve got my copy of Jeremy Duff’s Elements of New Testament Greek, and my Greek New Testament, and 7 months to go. Oh, and my reading plan includes a theology book a week, plus re-reading the Bible. So far I’ve read David Brown’s Invitation to Theology, and re-read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Woohoo!

Oh, and on a side note, I recorded my commercial voiceover demo today. For the past two years, I’ve made my living primarily as a performing artist, so even though I’m moving to England in the autumn, I need to keep working on my business!

If you’ve gotten this far (and even if you’ve skipped to the last paragraph), thank you for reading! I love comments, ideas, and suggestions. If you have any questions, post in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to answer them. I plan to get a blogroll of online resources on C.S. Lewis, Theology and the Arts (my academic area of interest), Oxford, acting, the Inklings, theology, and other relevant subjects. So, if you have any suggestions for links, or want me to link to your blog or website, just ask in comments, and I’ll evaluate your suggestion.

Thanks again, and Dominus Vobiscum!