Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 7 of 7: Home in the Catholic Church

Hungering for God

All of the supernatural experiences I’ve described took place in two weeks.  After that, I was on my own, and would have to learn and come to believe in the faith because God had not infused me with detailed knowledge of His ways.  The revelation of God’s love and the reality of demons had shown me that most of my understanding of the world was wrong.  Since I had been so wrong before, I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.  From now on, my conversion experience would be my rock of truth—the means through which I would rebuild my understanding of human life.  The reason was simple: my conversion experience stood apart from everyday experiences, and it wasn’t just the supernatural aspect.  The experience was of a different quality; it was unusually vivid and struck the mind as simply undeniable and unshakable.  It appeared as uniquely true, more real, than even familiar facts like ‘two plus two equals four’ or that July 4th is Independence Day. 

Now God had given me very little knowledge of Himself that you could put in the form of statements or written sentences—what philosophers call propositional knowledge—and so I couldn’t have said much if someone had asked me, “Who is God and what is He like?”  But God had left me with a different kind of knowledge—an experiential knowledge, a sense of who He was that resisted our ordinary words, almost like a taste, or an aesthetic of Himself.  Think of it according to an analogy—a silly example using strawberries.  If you had no knowledge at all of strawberries, and one day someone quickly plopped one in your mouth sight unseen and with no explanation, you would always know what a strawberry tasted like and its texture and smell, even if you didn’t know its name, its color, origin, or how to grow them.

So you couldn’t say much about the strawberry other than things like that what you ate was sweet and you liked it, but you would certainly know them in some sense: the unique experience that makes a strawberry a strawberry.  And this would be shown when you tasted or smelled them again.  Well that was where I now was with God: I tasted the strawberry, knew of it, was now hoping for more and I knew I didn’t want blueberries, blackberries or cherries. 

My first step in exploring the Christian faith was to open a Bible an evangelical had given me, and compare it to the God I had just come to know.  I opened to the “Gospel of John” with a fear of disappointment, a fear of not finding my beloved God.  I had remembered the skeptical arguments of modern scripture scholars, and I wondered whether the Gospels were a faithful account of Jesus.  After only a handful of pages, my fear subsided.  How Jesus was portrayed and what He said, the sense He gave you of Himself, was true to the God who had rescued me.  And even better news; the Gospels contained an enormous wealth of insights into God and the Christian life.  Now there were insights that initially left me puzzled, but once I reflected on the God who saved me, once I re-visited his touch upon my soul, I realized it all made sense.  So I read the Gospels day after day, and ignored my dissertation.  I also wanted nothing to do with theology, or any writings that did not convey the simplicity, humility and charity of Jesus.  My intellect had led me so far astray, and so I craved the simplest Gospel possible—for God WAS simplicity itself, a purity and living oneness of love.  I was so fearful of losing my sense of God, and going too far a field from my sense of Him through lines of argument and thought, that I even steered clear of St. Paul’s epistles and the Old Testament.  But I eventually needed more reading material—my heart yearned to hear more of God and His ways.  I stumbled upon the medieval book, “The Flowers of St. Francis”, and was overjoyed to find that St. Francis of Assisi and his simple companions were true mirrors of Christ.   They were humble little Christs, and I delighted in reading of their adventures and sayings.  St. Francis was a kindred spirit—I understood why St. Francis had also wanted nothing to do with theology at first.  But I soon realized, that like St. Francis, the time was coming to trust again in the intellect.  And so I picked up St. Francis De Sales “Introduction to the Devout Life”, and since I studied and was comfortable with the history of ideas, I began reading the early Church fathers.  And finally I also began easing into the rest of the Bible.

St. Francis and companions petition Pope Innocent III

At the same time, I felt a need to worship on Sundays along with other Christians.  But which church should I attend?  At that point I had attended the evangelical Presbyterian church half a dozen times, and I certainly was impressed with the zeal and kindness of the members.  During the service, couples would sometimes give very candid witness testimonies, and I found them to be credible and courageous.  But something was missing.  Yes, the music and preaching were also good, and the Bible and faith classes were excellent, but the service was too congregation-centered—like it was produced by us and for us.  I wanted to face toward the Lord and adore and rest in Him.  I yearned to feel His presence again.  In short, I needed traditional liturgy. 

I was also troubled by the historical gaps in the protestant narrative.  If Christ did not leave me an orphan, but generously guided me, then he wouldn’t have left humanity in darkness for fifteen hundred years—the time between His death and the time of the Protestant Reformation.  But the apostolic churches did not have such a historical gap.   I knew that throughout the ages—despite the rise and fall of many empires--there were impressive Catholic and Orthodox monasteries, churches, sacred art and music, as well as council documents, theological treatises, prayers and liturgies.  And so I resolved to make a Sunday visit to a Roman Catholic parish.

A Medieval English manuscript of St. John's "Apocalypse"

Unfortunately I did not have a happy memory of my experience as a Roman Catholic as I was coming of age in the 1980s.  Like so many fallen away Catholics of recent decades who had now found Christ after they left the church, I was upset that the full truth and beauty of my beloved God was not presented to me when young.  There was an absence of beauty and the sublime at the typical Sunday service.  There was a casual, commonplace feel to the mass by all parties—as if nothing particularly different or important was about to happen there.  It was also congregation-centered like the evangelical service, and the music was always about ‘we’ or ‘us’.  But what of the mystery and beauty of God, and what of the ‘us’ that is the Church throughout the ages—those saints—ordinary and extraordinary people--who have gone before us and care for us from above?  There seemed to be an historical amnesia back then: centuries of sacred art, architecture, music, devotions, processions, and the lives and writings of the saints were all strangely absent.  Once our ancestors in the faith were forgotten or ignored, we lost their sure example, and so we only received a partial Gospel from the pulpit and in religion classes; a kind of feel-good social gospel that was identical to the message we received in our secular public schools.  It was the spirit of the age—a movement for earthly peace and justice but not on Christ’s terms, not through His grace—as if many in the Church were content to make a separate peace without Christ and His saving Cross, without the narrow way that alone is the way of truth and can complete us and satisfy us.

Back then I was a youth who needed a source of hope and meaning, who needed to know that suffering was not meaningless.   I needed to know that grace could transform suffering and my own broken humanity, so as to offer the lasting peace and joy of Christ.  In short, I needed the Gospel.  When I compared my life to what I heard and saw at church, the genial vision of peace that was preached there always seemed to be a false peace since the ‘we’ and ‘us’ that we sang and talked of couldn’t even secure peace in my little home, much less our community, our country or the world.  Since there was nothing to really hold on to at the local parishes, nothing to found my life on, and certainly nothing to counter-balance the tremendous temptations of modern life, I left the Church as a teen-ager.

But I also remembered a very different kind of Catholic parish, with a very different celebration of mass.  My father wouldn’t go to the local parishes, but he would go to the parish across town that had a traditional Latin mass with chant and other sacred music, and so we did that for a few months.  I also remembered attending the parish mass twice for a medieval humanities field trip while I was at Reed College.  I remembered every student—Jews, hippies, atheists—everyone thought it was remarkable.  No one mocked it afterwards—it had a kind of authenticity that young people respect.   One of the younger professors, who was from Ireland, mentioned that he went to the mass all the time, and I asked him with real curiosity whether he believed in what happened at the mass; that the bread and wine truly became the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.  For some reason I was disappointed when he said “No”, and then he explained that he went because it was, “one of the last places to find high theater.”  By which he meant, in part, that it was presented as a very serious thing—the most important thing there was. 

Heaven meets earth at the Holy Mass

The whole experience challenged you to think in different ways and in different terms.  The mass was focused on and trustingly offered up to an unseen God, and it had a kind of ancient beauty that is rarely seen in an age like this.  I also remembered that the preaching there was different—the hard sayings of Christ and his apostles were taken seriously, and the grace of God was understood to be the real source of change—where the real action and hope of sinners resides.  This very different, unworldly aspect of the parish—for God’s ways are not our ways—gave me hope that I might find the dwelling place of the one, true God in the Catholic Church.  I decided to attend the Traditional Latin Mass or what Pope Benedict has called the “Extraordinary Form of the Mass”, and if that didn’t feel like home, then I was going to look up the Eastern Orthodox.  In retrospect, I find it very sad, as will most of my readers, that I wanted nothing to do with the regular mass and parish experience, but it took some time to move past the bitter memories from my youth.   I would later find many regular parishes that were faithful and dependable, and I would especially come to enjoy daily mass in the Ordinary Form, but that was yet to come. 

So I searched online for local traditional Latin masses in the area, and found several options.  I decided on St. Josaphat’s in Detroit—a beautiful old parish built by Polish immigrants.  Before mass I was nervous.  I held the Latin-English missal and wondered what I was doing there: “Is this a good idea? Am I going to be able to follow along?”  Then a bell rang and I stood along with everyone else.  Then the congregation and the cantor hidden behind me up in the loft began to sing the “Asperges Me”.  All it took was the chanting of the first two words, and I knew that I was in the house of God, all the sights, smells and sounds—and a feel of the sacred beyond the mere senses—everything was coming up strawberries, and I was finally home.

Thank you for reading.  May you know the peace of the Lord.  

Holy Mass at St. Josaphat's  Church in Detroit


  1. What a beautiful story. Thank you so much.

    P.S. I finally found part 7. :)

  2. The sharing of your experiences was absolutely riveting. I truly enjoyed every part of it. In fact, when I read to the end of part 6, I immediately went on a search to find the ending chapter. I new that there must be more. Thank you for your witness to the incredible graces of God. Maryann

  3. Thank you for sharing! What a wonderful and unique story you have. I read every word and want to share it with others.

    1. Thank you Lindsey. I've been amazed at how the story has spread even to unlikely places like Russia and Singapore. God is good.

  4. You have an extremely powerful story. I was riveted all the way through. I can't wait to read what you write next. You have been truly blessed. God has a plan for you and your life. May you continue to cooperate with His plan.

    1. Thank you Marcy. I'm sorry to say that I won't be posting any new writings in the near future, but I will post a video version of my conversion story so people can listen to it while doing housework, etc. I've learned much of my Catholic faith while listening to talks/homilies/conversion stories while doing work around the house.

  5. Your story is beautifully written. It's touching to experience, through your life, how near of us is our loving God, how patiently He shows Himself to us, through people and situations, waiting for the moment in which our heart starts seeking Him and bitting for Him... I'd like to have it in a book, so more people knows it and then it's translated into Spanish language (I'm from Spain), and then my family and friends can enjoy the wonders of the grace of God.
    God bless you and your family

    1. Thank you for the lovely thought. God is so patient with us. I don't know if I'll write a book-length version of my story, but God will make His will clear soon enough and then I'll walk through whatever doors He opens!

  6. Thank you, Scott. I was thrilled about your story, seen how the grace works in your life (and in all of us). You write it in a wonderful way. God bless you and your family. María-Mar


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