A Peek Behind the Door 🚪
To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing — that is enough for one person's life. - T.S. Eliot
Update: I’ve decided to make this piece public, mostly so I don’t have to extend more bandwidth to rewriting another version. Comments are only for paying subscribers, though, so if you have something to say, do consider supporting my work! Thanks so much. xoxo, Tsh
This newsletter — and the community of supporters (you guys) that make it happen — are meant to be my safe place to write vulnerable words and ideas. I created it so I could connect with you more personally, without the clanging cymbals of social media or random internet passer-byers that don’t know me or have my best interest at heart. I want to honor the purpose of this space today. I want to show my gratitude for your support by sharing with you first, here, something important.
It’s Ash Wednesday today, the first day of Lent, and I’ve decided to fast from being Protestant.
Yes, this is my ridiculous attempt at humor to bury the lede, so let’s just get to it. Our family has become Catholic. On February 6, we were welcomed into the Church via the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter* in a stunning cathedral in Houston — there were just the five of us in attendance, plus Haley and Daniel Stewart with their oldest son, and our priest, Fr. Jonathan. It was achingly simple and beautiful.
Yep… after having been raised a non-denominational evangelical my entire life, then becoming Anglican five years ago, we are now fully Catholic.
Depending on how you know me, I’m guessing your reaction is one of four: you’re either confused about this news and are wondering why I’ve chosen to go to the side full of barnacles and superstition; you’re curious about my decision because while it’s not for you it’s interesting that it’s for me; you’re cheering because your prayers are finally answered; or you’re confused how this is even news because you thought I already was. (Or maybe five — you don’t really care because none of this is interesting to you. If this is you, feel free to skip the rest of this essay.)
We left our confirmation earlier this month with a sense of relief more than anything — there wasn’t overwhelming jubilation, but there was truly a sense of being home. I’ve read that over and over in other peoples’ stories of becoming Catholic after a lifetime of being Protestant — that it feels like coming Home — yet I wasn’t sure it’d feel that way to me. Lo, it did. We drove home from Houston and we kept saying to each other with goofy grins on our faces, “We’re …Catholic.” I had an insatiable yearning to be in nature; I’d have given anything to be instantly apparated to the middle of some woods overlooking a lake instead of watching strip centers crawl by on the freeway. Something in me craved a connection with creation as a natural response to what just happened in our life. We settled for a hidden ramshackle rest stop with a babbling brook behind a weedy hill. The only explanation I can think of for my insatiable need for nature is beauty. I needed to be surrounded by some semblance of beauty.
How did we get here?
This was not a rash decision (the coming into the Catholic Church thing, that is — the pulling over to a rest stop decidedly was rash). I’d been drawn to liturgy and old stone cathedrals and Gregorian chant since my 20s when I finally admitted that those things are, in fact, beautiful. I remember wandering churches in Italy, gaping at all the miraculous art done in the name of Christ and wanting to take off my shoes, followed by gawking at the relics of ancient saintly bodies on display and being freaked out. It all compelled me. What did millions of Christians spanning thousands of years get that I didn’t yet?
I can now look back and see that even when I was going through Anglican confirmation a few years ago, deep down I heard a quiet voice whisper, “One day you’ll become Catholic.” I didn’t quite know what to do with that whisper at the time, but I’ve kept it in my back pocket all these years, researching and reading, asking my long-suffering Catholic friends so many questions, and quite honestly, praying desperately that I wouldn’t be strayed into something that was untrue. This phase lasted about two years. God bless these friends and my eighteen-jillion questions.
Not quite one year ago — about two weeks into the global shutdown, actually — I gingerly asked Kyle one morning, “Since we won’t be going to church for a while anyway… Want to maybe explore the Catholic Church with more focus?” He immediately answered, “Yes. Let’s do it.” Up to that point, he happily let me explore and learn and was content to let me do most of the research. I was pleasantly surprised by his eagerness.
Our year-long process is best left for a future letter, and I’ll share more specifics if you’re interested (and what a pandemic memory it is for our family!). This little update here is in no way meant to be an exhaustive explanation, nor is it a form of apologetics to convince you to follow my path. There are many little things I don’t have space to share here (or can’t fully articulate yet, for that matter), and it’s also deeply, deeply personal. This is purely descriptive, not prescriptive, and it’s definitely not to create a dividing line between myself and my Protestant friends and family, whom I love dearly.
Ultimately, I simply want you to know about this leading in my life. I talked with Fr. Jonathan the evening before our confirmation about fear, that even though I typically think of myself as somewhat confident and pragmatic, I’ve been besotted with a strange stronghold of fear about this whole thing for a long while. Fear of what my extended family would think out of confusion, what our friends would think out of bewilderment, what readers and listeners might think out of judgment or quick assumptions. Believe you me, if I were to tell my 16-year-old evangelical youth group self what happened a few weeks ago, I’d be Very Concerned and would immediately put myself on a prayer list.
For now, let’s just say that the more I’ve come to learn about the Catholic Church, the more I’ve come to realize how misinformed I’d been most of my life about it. It’s just what the Venerable Fulton Sheen, a 20th century American archbishop, once said: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” This was me to a tee growing up.
I’ll continue to share more if you’re interested, yet there’s so much to say and also still so much I’m still quietly listening to. I will say with confidence that it was beauty that finally drew me in and wouldn’t let me go.
You’ve probably heard me write and speak quite a bit about the classic trifecta of truth, goodness, and beauty. For centuries, these have been the amalgamated priority of the best thinkers, artists, writers, and theologians; everyone from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan to Flannery O’Connor has used their talents to create work that points to beauty, which then points to goodness, which then points to truth. I’ve been captivated by this process and this posture for many years. It makes complete sense to me, then, that it was the Church’s display of beauty that finally drew me in, which then, in turn, drew me to its goodness, which then finally drew me to its truth.
This isn’t to say the Catholic Church isn’t led by and full of fallible humans — it absolutely is, which means it’s an imperfect Church with an imperfect history. But the Church has placed a sizable amount of emphasis on the idea that beauty matters and this simple idea kept me listening.
What beauty, exactly?
Consider the beauty of the natural world and how God hints at heaven with wild blackberry bushes and spiral-horned kudu and Japanese maples so red you swear God’s just showing off. The very planet where we dwell is a cathedral, and yet it’s seen as good and right that we humans should also join in the work of creation with our own manmade cathedrals. God leads with beauty. Our modern human sensibilities merely relegate it to the sidelines as a convenient extra in life, and in doing so we also make truth unintelligible and goodness undesirable. These three ideas work in tandem, but take beauty away as the core enticement used by God to draw humans closer to their original humanity, and we’re left with a wobbly, two-legged footstool. Beauty is the one true thing God keeps using to keep me from running away and vainly venturing to build my own shoddy excuse for a cathedral. By definition, beauty has to be something bigger than myself.
Consider the beauty of the liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI noted in Sacramentum Caritatis that the very existence of the Church’s liturgy is to reflect the beauty of God, that “like the rest of Christian revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty […and] is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery” and that “the beauty of the liturgy is part of the sublime expression of God's glory and a glimpse of heaven on earth.” Our liturgy — “the work of the people” in its purest definition — is doing what it’s meant to do when it leads with beauty. Medieval theologian St. Bonaventure says that in Jesus, we contemplate beauty and splendor at their source. That’s what the liturgy does. Beauty is why it’s even there in the weekly Masses: because it contemplates Jesus, the very source of beauty. That’s astounding to me.
Consider the beauty of its emphasis on unity within the Body to the point that its very existence rides on the idea that Christ actually commissioned one Church to exist on earth as one entity, not as thousands of factions with different ideas. There is a holy beauty found in submission to Christ’s idea that we live as one universal Church and bring with us our various cultures, languages, customs, and backgrounds to the table while still agreeing with core doctrine.
Consider the beauty of Eucharistic theology and its emphatic trust that the Eucharist really is what Jesus said it was to his apostles — his actual body and blood — and that to partake of it regularly is the source and summit of communion with him. There’s sacred beauty in the trust that this mystery makes absolutely no sense, and yet neither does following a poor Jewish man from a nothing town who walked on water and claims to be the Son of God. There’s consecrated beauty in the trust.
Consider the Church’s emphasis that beauty is not an extra idea, it’s actually at the very crux of who God is and how he loves us. Unlike my American evangelical upbringing, which (and I know this is a broad brushstroke, but it’s been my experience) largely treated beauty as a convenient bonus at best and a pointless excess as norm, the Catholic Church sees both natural and manmade beauty as the supreme paintbrush God uses to compel us to want to make our lives as beautiful as the beauty around us.
And yes, there is absolutely beauty found outside the Catholic Church, as well as goodness and truth, so I won’t argue I found the one and only source of it all. Michelangelo’s Pieta is exquisite, but so is the Great Barrier Reef, sipping a glass of Brunello di Montalcino while overlooking a Tuscan sunset, the creak of a screen door, and the first time a baby giggles. Yet I’m thankful that the Catholic Church historically doesn’t deny these works of beauty, and in fact defends them as core mediums God uses and are therefore necessary for the fullness of the faith.
There is more than just the beauty of it all — after all, it was beauty that then led me to goodness that then led me to truth. I’ll share these thoughts …eventually.
For now, I’m glad you know about this. I’m so glad to be Catholic, even though I don’t fully understand it (nor ever will, let’s be honest). I’m so glad God has found a spiritual home for me and my family this side of heaven. I’m so glad to be among a giant, diverse, peculiar family of believers around the globe.
I do plan to share more publicly soon when I have the clarity about how to better cross my Ts and dot my Is. Seth and I both plan to share our “conversion” stories on the podcast sometime this year. I’m grateful for the eventual opportunity to power through my fear and trust in the goodness of God and of other people.
Some of you asked about my janky, ongoing doc full of links that I’ve bookmarked during this season of exploration — here you go. I’m warning you, it’s kind of a mess. Hopefully you find something helpful in it, though.
Grateful for each of you,
* This is a unique diocese originally created to welcome entire Anglican parishes into the Catholic Church, but now also serves the body by providing a path for Anglican individuals and families to be welcomed. There are currently only three Ordinariates around the world — one is for the U.K., one for Australia, and one for North America. The North American one just so happens to be based in Houston, about a three-hour drive from our home. Here it is if you’re curious.