Through Deep Waters at Last

David K. De Wolf

(from Home at Last, ed. Rosalind Moss, Catholic Answers, 2000)

[This letter was written to my mother shortly after I converted.]

Dear Mom,

I confess I'm of two minds. How do I tell you more about why I took this step? On the one hand, I could explain to you why, in my own mind, remaining in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. was unsatisfying to the point of being wrong. That runs the risk of exacerbating the feeling so poignantly expressed in your letter-that my decision was a rebuke or a rejection of the life that you and Dad have devoted to the Christian ministry. On the other hand, I could express it in the form of emphasizing those things that appealed to me about Catholicism in a personal sort of way, along the lines of saying that the grass on the other side of the fence looked greener, trivializing the sense of compulsion that I felt in taking this step.

Caught in this dilemma, I will admit failure at the outset. I think I owe it to you to explain those things that drew me irresistibly to the Catholic Church. In expressing them I may say some painful things, which I do not mean to be hurtful, but which (despite my best efforts to avoid it) may turn out to be so. On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I am not without doubt about what I am doing. I have long asked myself whether this was just some kind of fad, a midlife crisis of a person whose taste runs to liturgy rather than to convertibles and the nubile receptionist at the office. Maybe I'll wake up at age fifty-five and ask myself, "Whatever possessed me to do that?" Even now, two days after the very joyous moments, I have a twinge of the unfamiliar, of a sense of finality, of doors having been shut, as well as a new one opening, the way it was on the day I married Priscilla. However happy that decision may be, it always carries with it the sense of loss as well as the beauty of all that it makes possible.

In your letter you drew upon our family tradition and my own growth through that tradition to the person that I am today. I took the liberty (I hope you will forgive me) of making a copy of the letter and sending it to John Jensen, the fellow in New Zealand with whom [my older brother] Charles and I have been in e-mail contact. John is an extraordinarily bright and deeply read man who became a Christian relatively late in life. He is now making a rather painful transition to the Catholic Church. Painful because he had been a founder and supportive member of the small Calvinist congregation to which he and his family belonged, and his decision to leave was pretty devastating to the community that his family had grown so close to.

John's reaction to reading the letter was to remind me how lucky I was to have been raised in a Christian home. I can't emphasize that enough in what I have to say. So much of what I now enjoy in my own spiritual life was made possible by the fruits that were planted when I was a boy. Some of it you explicitly planted in my heart and in my mind, through the many sermons and sermon illustrations that stuck with me over the years, through the Bible reading that we did. But it is characteristic of your own view of parenting that one has to raise one's children to be independent some day, and to your great credit I absorbed (through hymn-singing as much as anything) a kind of longing which was never fully satisfied.

I remember the tears that sprang to your eyes as you read a letter from Charles shortly after he had started his year abroad as an exchange student. He quoted the hymn How Firm a Foundation, and you got teary at the words "When through the deep waters I call thee to go." I always longed to be called to go through deep waters. I suppose it was in no small part my own prideful, ambitious nature that I didn't want to be a middling sort of Christian but wanted to reach for the brass ring, to be a disciple rather than just a follower. I wanted to be in the fast lane spiritually. I don't pretend that this was any great virtue on my part, any more than my desire to go to Stanford was any great virtue. I was given a great deal in terms of individual gifts and family and cultural tradition, and I always wanted to go the next step. Joining Volunteers in Asia, becoming a draft resister, Joining the meditation group-I was always in search of something beyond the comfort zone. Obviously I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I never gave up on the importance of continually striving to seek what is ultimately true, even if it is different from that which I have always believed to be true or which I find personally preferable.

Going to Gonzaga, a Catholic university, was of course not born of any conscious desire on my part to convert. I think I knew even before coming to Spokane for the first time in 1980 that there was much about Gonzaga that was post-Christian. I felt anomalous from the first, because I actually believed what many people had nominally agreed to but in fact had grown out of I think there was an influence over time from getting to know more people who were Catholics particularly priests, for whom I developed deep respect. There were others, of course, who were quite repellent. I referred to myself (even before coming here) as a "closet Catholic." I believed most Catholic doctrine because most of it is shared in the doctrine of both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches; only on a handful of issues (not well understood by most lay people, including myself is there disagreement. Where Catholic doctrine differed, I often found myself in sympathy with the Catholic position rather than the Protestant.

The real reasons I never made a move toward conversion were: I felt Catholicism was just another denomination, with as many flaws as any other denomination; I felt I could never be a real Catholic because I was too ornery to submit in obedience to the teaching authority of the Church; and it was too messy to make the change--if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

One strong argument for remaining Protestant is to think that each religion is like the different members of the single body of Christ. We all have a different part to play; we're single blocks of color in the grand mosaic that makes up Christianity. No one of them alone is true; each is part of a greater truth. One can distinguish between the visible Church and the invisible Church, the communion of saints.

But if you take this to its logical conclusion, it means that we are responsible for our own salvation, that we shop for churches the way we shop for a grocery store, based upon whether it is conveniently located, has a good selection of merchandise, and has friendly staff. I don't take orders from my church; I select the church that fits my own preferences. just as I am free to decide what is right for me, I have to recognize that others may see things differently and find a different liturgy or body of doctrine congenial to their disposition. Is there any absolute right or wrong? Are some churches that call themselves Christian in fact apostate? Well, they probably are, but that's not for me to judge.

Such attitudes epitomize the crisis of American Protestantism, and I found myself stuck in the middle of it. The PCUSA is split between those who want to make it more like the Presbyterian Church of America and those who are more like Unitarians with a Scottish accent. Please don't take offense at that crack. I have great respect for pastors like Jim Singleton and the fine fellow preaching at Lafayette Presbyterian Church. But the denomination is going through tough times.

Charles called me on it one day. He wrote, with apologies for the brusque tone, "Why are you still a Presbyterian?" I couldn't give him a good answer. The answers that came to mind were, "Because we have a good pastor at Whitworth Presbyterian Church." "Because I feel comfortable there." "Because I grew up in that tradition." But none of those answers is really satisfactory. I wanted to be able to say, "Because it is the true Church," but I couldn't. Is it enough to say, "Because it's a church, that because of my background and preferences, works for me right now"? I don't think so. It's the very thing I find so disheartening in our culture.

It's interesting that Calvinism itself wouldn't settle for such a definition. R. C. Sproul, my friend Bruce Gore's favorite Presbyterian scholar, is sympathetic to the Catholic position of saying that there is "only one gospel." Sproul believes that the Council of Trent forever marked the Catholic Church as a heretical church, deserving Paul's instructions in his letter to the Galatians that such should be anathema. Sproul thinks Catholics are wrong on the issue of justification by faith, but he's sympathetic to the insistence that you can't be partly right about such things; you're either right or you're wrong. Similar sentiments were held by the Reformed tradition.

Thus, I had three choices: I could be a loyal Presbyterian who thought this was the true Church; I could be a Lone Ranger Protestant, temporarily occupying a pew so long as I liked what was coming from the pulpit; or I could take seriously the Catholic claim that there was one true Church, and she was it.

Couple that with the sense of growing disquiet about that part of the Apostles' Creed that says, "we believe in ... the holy catholic Church." That word meant for me that I had some obligation to act as though we really were one body in Christ, not a bunch of Lone Rangers in a kind of spiritual co-op where we traded with one another to mutual advantage but were always responsible to ourselves first and foremost. I heard some tapes that talked about the church as a family, and about the Reformation as a divorce within the family of Christ. It really hit home. In response to one of the comments in your letter, I felt a sense of urgency on this point. We live in a world in which people too frequently find that they cannot bear to live together any longer and they will be better off living apart. I judge no man (or woman) on this point, but I felt compelled to strive for unity rather than for separation.

I often have said that being a Protestant is like being a wife who has left her husband because he abused her (or she thinks he abused her). There is no question that leaders in the Catholic Church sinned in many ways, leading up to the Protestant Reformation. It may even be that, at the time Luther and others left, Protestants as a group were better Christians than those they left behind. But that is no different from a woman who leaves her husband because of some sin he has committed and who then refuses to reconcile with him because he continues to fall short of her expectations of what a good husband should do. There comes a point at which the unwillingness to submit oneself in obedience to a sinful husband is unbiblical.

Paul exhorted wives to obey their husbands, and he didnít qualify it by adding "at least whenever he's right." (Of course, he also exhorted husbands to love their wives, and he didn't qualify it by saying "so long as she deserves it.") Obedience always carries with it the certainty that we are being obedient to a sinner, whose sinfulness is likely to be expressed at least in part in the instructions that he gives us. Similarly, the Church to which I have been asked to be faithful is composed of sinners who occasionally demand from me something that is probably a bad idea. Bishops in the Church (including the Bishop of Rome) have made mistakes in the past and they will make many in the future. But I believe that our obedience, precisely when we are right and they are wrong, will be blessed by God.

It took me a long time to get over the feeling that Catholics were born, not made. I still feel a bit like a fish out of water, because it's such a complicated religion that it's easy to miss out on some instruction or piece of etiquette and to do or say the wrong thing. But over time I have recognized that it's a little like going to the school dance in junior high: other people seem so much more natural than we feel. It is only with greater maturity that we recognize that everybody feels that sense of being out of place. Those who pretend that they are at home are in fact becoming at home by that very act.

I have even become adjusted to the criticism and in-fighting that accompany any family. I remember the story of a certain family whose major indoor sport was telling stories at the expense of other members of the family-that is, so long as the one telling the story was also a member of the family. Woe unto the person from the outside who thought that it was okay to join in the fray. I feared something of the same thing as I joined this complex and sometimes chaotic family. But I have also felt very much at home. In fact, on the occasion of my entry into the Church I have been welcomed by many people in a heartfelt way. For me it is a plunge into a deeper spirituality and sense of community.

I think there is a fear that by becoming Catholic one surrenders one's autonomy, or checks one's intellect or individuality at the church door. I have to confess that there was an aspect of Protestant autonomy that I found distasteful, and many Protest ants disclaim the kind of radical personal autonomy that has become the hallmark of our culture. In a New Yorker cartoon, the groom looks up at the minister and asks, "Forsaking all others?" Well, as a matter of fact, one's commitment to Catholicism is a similarly jealous one. One of the appeals of Catholicism was precisely the fact that it represents something more like marriage than, say, an agreement to co-sign a one-year lease. I wanted to graduate from the mind-set of the groom in the cartoon to the attitude of a man who couldn't wait to pledge to his bride that his love would be forever, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health. It is a fact that it might get uncomfortable down the road, that he might wake up in ten years and wonder if he'd made the right decision. But that very risk is what makes it so momentous and so blessed.

As a consequence I am reassured, when momentary doubt assails me, that just as God blesses marriage, he will honor this choice I have made. Thomas More on the scaffold was asked if he were sure that the executioner would be sending him to God. He replied, "He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him."

The last consideration was whether it was really necessary to do this. Rather than making such a drastic choice, couldn't I work from within, so to speak? How about reforming the good old PCUSA or else find another Protestant denomination, like the PCA or even some independent church, that would let me explore some of these feelings without crossing the Rubicon? Why offend your parents? I suppose part of the answer is that I was more and more drawn to this brotherhood and sisterhood in the Catholic Church. Quite frankly, I wanted to belong. It was like a lengthy engagement--one that leads either to marriage or to an end to the relationship.

One important belief that I came to hold is that the bread and wine during Communion actually became the body and blood of our Lord. I had always been moved by Communion, and the more I pondered it and read about it, the more convinced I became that this was not just a symbol of our Lord's body and blood, but actually became his body and blood. As I came to believe that, I came to want it for myself. Just as the bride and groom want full union with each other but must wait until they are joined by an act of will, so I had to await the consummation of my relationship with the body of Christ until I had joined the body of Christ through my own act of will.

This naturally raises the question of the standing of those who have not joined the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I am reminded again of Thomas More and his response to a question from the Archbishop about those who did sign the Oath of Loyalty to the Act of Succession. "I have no window into other men's consciences. I condemn no one. I only know that, as to myself, I will not sign."

God put it upon my heart that this was the next step in my journey toward Him. He spoke through a variety of people who, in different ways led me to the conviction that this was His will. I spent more than a year wrestling with the question. At many turns I met with obstacles, but in each case there was a grace that drew me onward.

I can only compare this experience to other conversion experiences in my life: I did not become a Christian in one night. I was converted on several occasions from a relatively shallow understanding or commitment to God to a deeper one. In Jim Singleton's sermon on Easter, he preached on John 20, and described Mary's turning around to Jesus when he called her name. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for conversion stories, and I always feel the desire to do it again. I felt him calling my name again this time, calling me--yes, through the deep waters. "But I will be with thee thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."

Love,

David

[David K. DeWolf said recently: "It seems like more than five years since this letter was written. Although I am still a few years short of fifty-five, I am more confident than ever that I will celebrate that anniversary with even greater gratitude for the grace which led to my entry into the Church. Though she remained neutral through my conversion experience, my wife Priscilla made her own journey the following year and joined the Church at Easter 1996. If anything, her enthusiasm and joy have exceeded my own. Three of our four children were received into the Church the following Christmas."--ed.]