January 25, 2020

Damaris Zehner: The Crossroads

Annunciation, Fra Angelico

Annunciation, Fra Angelico

First posted in June, 2011.

Last month, at Easter, my family and I joined the Catholic Church.  Each of us would phrase our reasons for doing so somewhat differently, but here are a few of mine.  I offer them not to preach or gloat, just to share a decision faced by quite a few of us in the post-evangelical wilderness.

When my husband and I told Chaplain Mike, who is an old friend, that we had begun going to the Catholic Church, Mike said, “Well, I’m glad you’ve found a place that feels like home.”  My husband immediately responded, “No, we’ve found a place that feels like church!”  Our parish gathers in silence and prayer, focuses on the Bible and the Eucharist, and conducts itself with joyful solemnity through the liturgy.

I like the liturgy of the Catholic Church.  Liturgy means “the work of the people.”  Liturgical worship is not the work of the leader; it is not a spectator sport, or a concert, or a pep rally.  Liturgy reminds us of our place in the scheme of things.  I am not in charge.  I am a servant and an heir to the faith that has been handed down to me.  The priest himself is the servant of the liturgy, not its boss.

So my family and I feel security in knowing that a new pastor is not going to change entirely what we had known as good.  There will be changes, but the essential things will remain the same.  We did not experience this security in the shifting world of evangelicalism.

Noli me tangere (detail), Fra Angelico

Noli me tangere (detail), Fra Angelico

I like the universality of the Catholic Church.  Universality doesn’t just mean that the mass will be the same anywhere on the planet, although that is true.  It also means that we joined the Church, not a church.  Our parish of several hundred people is the Catholic Church.  It’s not a part or fraction of it; it’s not a local franchise of it.  Each parish is fully the whole Church. The best analogy I can think of is that the Church is like the ocean.  Each community knows a particular bay or beach or bank, but the ocean is still the ocean in its entirety wherever we experience it.  Certain other understandings of church, the Baptist one, for example, suggest that congregations are more like discrete islands.  In some cases they are even different countries where people require visas and change of citizenship to move among them.

I like the incarnational theology of the Catholic Church.  I can’t say I fathom the depths of what happens in the Eucharist or in any of the sacraments, but they match what I know of God.  The astounding, central fact of God’s relationship with us is the Incarnation.  God became man.  He took on human flesh and dwelled with us.  He was fully human and fully divine.  Evidently matter can be imbued with divinity, not changing the substance of either the matter or the divinity.  As a Christian, I believe that that happened once, in the person of Jesus.  As a Catholic Christian, I also accept that that is God’s regular mode of revealing himself to us.  If Christ can be both matter and God, then through him so can bread and wine.  Water can be both water and new birth.  Oil can be both oil and blessing.

What a rich world incarnational theology opens up for us!  Matter reveals the Immaterial.  The beauty of creation around us, properly seen, is not a distraction or temptation — it is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins put it.  When our desires are rightly ordered, we are not faced with “either/or” but always “both/and.”  God gives us both himself and his creation, his saving grace and his common grace.  Everything has meaning, and everything points us to God.

I like the balance of Catholic theology.  Some Christians hold that all the work — and therefore responsibility of salvation rests with God alone.  I can’t entirely reconcile that view with the commands and exhortations of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels.  Others claim that man has the power to commend himself to God in his own strength.  I cant reconcile that view with St. Pauls epistles.  The best summary of the dual nature of our salvation is in Philippians 2:12 and 13: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purposes. I trust the Catholic understanding of the ongoing nature of salvation and the necessity for both grace and work.

I don’t think that the Catholic Church is perfect, either in its parochial or universal aspects.  Not all of its doctrines commend themselves to my understanding, at this point at least, nor do all of its practices commend themselves to my taste or even my conscience.  And I wish that, in addition to the crucifix displayed in every church, there was also an icon of the Resurrection.

But it feels like Church.  It smells like Church.  It has been Church for so long.

This is what the Lord says:  Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.

• Jeremiah 6:16

• • •

Postscript, October 2014:

I am still regularly attending our parish church.  We have a new priest, who has changed the flavor of the Mass slightly, but I still find a mix of silence, word, and music, of abstract and concrete evidence of God’s love.  While I haven’t made a huge effort to research specific Catholic doctrines and practices, I continue to find that the more I know about the Church, the more it makes sense to me.  The clichés that many Protestants advance as criticism of Catholics (worshiping saints, piling on guilt, oppression of women, ignorance of the Scriptures) are in my experience either untrue or limited to a small minority of people.

I also have grown in my appreciation of the social aspects of the Catholic Church.  Almost anywhere on the planet, there are Catholics caring for the poor, teaching children, running hospitals, guest houses, and orphanages, and being the face and hands of Christ.  Generally the Catholic schools and the Catholic hospitals have the best reputation.  I was born in Holy Family Hospital, the best one in Dhaka, Bangladesh, delivered by nuns trained in medicine.  In West Africa I met priests and brothers who ran the best school in our town, one of the best hospitals in the capital, and the clean and friendly guest house we stayed in on our way to Timbuktu.  In contrast, Kyrgyzstan, following Soviet policy, did not allow Catholics to enter, and there were no viable options for healthcare and few for education.  (The Turkish Muslim Lycee was reputed to be good, but only boys could go.)  Much of this worldwide outreach is made possible and effective by vows of celibacy.  The married Protestant missionaries we knew, ourselves included, had divided time and energy; the priests, monks, and nuns we’ve met have been able to devote themselves entirely to their charitable callings.

There are plenty of culture warriors in the Catholic Church, but I’ve learned to avoid the extreme rhetoric and instead appreciate the holistic political view that embraces the dignity of all life.  My views on abortion would seem to put me in the Republican camp, for example, but my attitudes toward the poor and disenfranchised make me seem more like a Democrat.  I have found many Catholics who share my sense of being a political misfit in today’s climate and who yet have a coherent and ethical approach to civic life.

So thank you for asking:  my family and I are still Catholic, not disillusioned or regretting the change at all.  We still go to Orthodox Pascha whenever it doesn’t conflict with our Easter services, and every chance we get we join in Protestant gatherings that heartily sing the old camp-meeting gospel songs.  Despite the people I meet who insist that Catholics aren’t Christians – many of them my students at community college – I feel part of a greater cloud of witnesses than I ever did.  Thanks be to God.


  1. “…I feel part of a greater cloud of witnesses than I ever did. Thanks be to God.”

    You are part of that great cloud of witnesses.

    Anyone who says that you are not, has just heaped more judgement upon themselves.

    And is ignorant of the faith which they profess.

  2. A quibble about a popular (we heard it a lot in the EO Church) but probably misleading meme (like the also misleading idea that the church is the “called out [of the world]” people, similarly based on what I believe Carson calls the “root fallacy”):


    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      I think the proper name is the “genitive fallacy”, although that comes from Silva, not Carson. But you are right about “church”. Although it seems to have developed a technical definition within the pages of Scripture, in contemporaneous literature it just means “assembly” or something similar. It does seem to connote a group with something in common, so one might use it for the Rotary club, but probably not for the food court at the mall.

      • From Carson (Exegetical Fallacies, Second Edition):

        1. The root fallacy

        One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of ????????? (apovstolos, apostle) is ????????? (apostell?, I send), the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent”? In the preface of the New King James Bible, we are told that the “literal” meaning of ????????? (monogen?is) is “only begotten.”3 Is that true? How often do preachers refer to the verb ?????? (agapa?, to love), contrast it with ????? (phile?, to love), and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that ?????? (agapa?) is used?

        All of this is linguistic nonsense. We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thiselton offers by way of example our word nice, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.”4 Our “good–bye” is a contraction for Anglo–Saxon “God be with you.” Now it may be possible to trace out diachronically just how nescius generated “nice”; it is certainly easy to imagine how “God be with you” came to be contracted to “good–bye.” But I know of no one today who in saying such and such a person is “nice” believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the “root meaning” or “hidden meaning” or “literal meaning” of “nice” is “ignorant.”

        … I hasten to add three caveats to this discussion. First, I am not saying that any word can mean anything. Normally we observe that any individual word has a certain limited semantic range, and the context may therefore modify or shape the meaning of a word only within certain boundaries. The total semantic range is not permanently fixed, of course; with time and novel usage, it may shift considerably. Even so, I am not suggesting that words are infinitely plastic. I am simply saying that the meaning of a word cannot be reliably determined by etymology, or that a root, once discovered, always projects a certain semantic load onto any word that incorporates that root. Linguistically, meaning is not an intrinsic possession of a word; rather, “it is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign.”14 In one sense, of course, it is legitimate to say “this word means such and such,” where we are either providing the lexical range inductively observed or specifying the meaning of a word in a particular context; but we must not freight such talk with too much etymological baggage.

        The second caveat is that the meaning of a word may reflect the meanings of its component parts. For example, the verb ??????? (ekball?), from ?? (ek) and ????? (ball?), does in fact mean “I cast out,” “I throw out,” or “I put out.” The meaning of a word may reflect its etymology; and it must be admitted that this is more common in synthetic languages like Greek or German, with their relatively high percentages of transparent words (words that have some kind of natural relation to their meaning) than in a language like English, where words are opaque (i.e., without any natural relation to their meaning).15 Even so, my point is that we cannot responsibly assume that etymology is related to meaning. We can only test the point by discovering the meaning of a word inductively.

        Finally, I am far from suggesting that etymological study is useless. It is important, for instance, in the diachronic study of words (the study of words as they occur across long periods of time), in the attempt to specify the earliest attested meaning, in the study of cognate languages, and especially in attempts to understand the meanings of hapax legomena (words that appear only once). In the last case, although etymology is a clumsy tool for discerning meaning, the lack of comparative material means we sometimes have no other choice. That is why, as Moisés Silva points out in his excellent discussion of these matters, etymology plays a much more important role in the determination of meaning in the Hebrew Old Testament than in the Greek New Testament: the Hebrew contains proportionately far more hapax legomena.16 “The relative value of this use of etymology varies inversely with the quantity of material available for the language.”17 And in any case, specification of the meaning of a word on the sole basis of etymology can never be more than an educated guess.

        • Eric, you must have had a cup of coffee with Chaplain Mike. A few days ago he was pointing out that it’s usage, not etymology, that determines meaning.

          The Latin nescius for “ignorant” comes into Spanish as necio, essentially dropping the final “s”, which is pretty standard in Spanish. It means “fool” which is pretty close to the Latin “ignorant.” I don’t know how English ended up with “nice” but it may have something to do with our habit of euphemizing mental conditions. Think of “insane” which should mean “unhealthy,” but doesn’t anymore.

          I’d like to point out that etymology really does enhance our understanding of words. One quick example before I have to get to the dinner table—a while back our pastor asked what the word “encourage” meant to people. I was able to say from my limited French that it can mean “to strengthen the heart” or “to hearten.” We don’t use “hearten” much these days, but we do use “dishearten,” the opposite of “encourage.”

          Anyway. Fun stuff. And a few years ago I learned just enough Greek to be dangerous too. Beware people with a little knowledge.

        • EricW — Interesting quotation. Thank you. I have to say, though, because of my profession and background, that I am almost always conscious of the etymology of words. To me words are chords, not single notes — sometimes whole symphonies. It’s true that people can get silly about dredging up lost meanings and trying to force them into modern contexts — but still: the whole glorious history of the language is packed into every sentence, to those who care to look. I defend etymology.

          • Damaris, I’m glad you’re a fan of etymology too.

            I learned from Chaplain Mike during his visit that your name is stressed on the first syllable, not the middle as I had assumed. So now I’m more convinced than ever (by the Algonquian etymology) that you’re a Mainer at heart—from a place of many alewives (river herring).

            Or, if it’s Italian etymology, the town could be named after you: Damariscotta, or “cooked Damaris.”

            Way off topic. Great article you wrote.

          • Apparently, Ted (or gift of God?), it comes from the Ancient Greek for “heifer.” While that’s not a great meaning, I prefer it to the “abundance of fishes” that was the version of Damariscotta I heard.

          • Oh, I don’t know, the Song of Solomon likes comparing parts of a woman’s body to sheep, fawns of gazelles, towers, goblets, pools, etc. In Orthodox poetic song, the Virgin Mary is called a heifer. In one of the Akathists, it says of the Virgin Mary, “Rejoice, O heifer that gave birth to the unblemished calf for the faithful.”

            So, being called a heifer is to compare you to the Virgin Mary! 🙂

            Mind you, my wife has threatened me if I were ever to use any of the above appellations on her.

          • Bless you, Fr. Ernesto! I’ll remember that.

  3. As to being Catholic….

    ^ what Damaris said, except raised Catholic, mucked around in college, and have remained devoutly and thoroughly Catholic since 1980.

    @Damaris…..thank you for your lovely and eloquent exposition of our Faith!

  4. Mrs. Irvine my next door neighbor growing up and her husband where and are some of the nicest people on the planet. Mr. Irvine gone now for quite awhile. Everytime I see her she has a smile for me and as I come into her presence I experience such beauty. You see Rose goes to her Catholic church on a regular basis and I know she prays a lot. My Grandmother of 11 children all still alive today even into their mid 80’s went to the Methodist church across the street. Again one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. My aunt Violet my dad’s mother’s sister brought us Christmas presents when we were little as my family was poor. I am pretty sure she was Lutheran. My sister gone now went to AOG and then to a Lutheran church I even got to speak at a men’s breakfast which ended in some speaking in tongues. Totally blew me away.

    The point being these women when I came into their presence changed me. They didn’t even have to say a word it just poured from them. The beauty of God shining so brightly. I don’t think a one of them would be anything but at home with the others. For me it surely was the same spirit and some of the most beautiful things in my life. We will see the coming across and the grand pulling together in our precious Lord it surely is happening even as I type.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience, Demaris.

  6. Damaris, I like your analogy of the Church being like the ocean. Thanks for your update, as well.

  7. Damaris, beautifully written, as always. Thank you for expressing your thoughts so eloquently. May God richly bless you and your family.

    In your closing sentence you wrote,

    “Despite the people I meet who insist that Catholics aren’t Christians – many of them my students at community college – I feel part of a greater cloud of witnesses than I ever did.”

    I believe I read on one of your previous posts that you teach writing. Many Evangelical students, especially from home schooled environments, attend a community college either right after graduation or while still in high school. Many of these come to us with a sincere desire to defend the faith and will do so at every opportunity they get. My experience is that writing courses are the principal avenues for expressing their feelings. I am confident that you will treat them fairly and kindly and, besides showing them how to make a good argument, you will help them understand that Christianity is a bigger ocean (to use your own metaphor) than the shallow pool they were taught to think it is.

    PS: If you ever move to the Albuquerque, NM area please buzz me; I’m always on the lookout for good composition professors.

    • Calvin,

      Thank you for your kind words. I try to deal kindly and objectively with my students. They are often misinformed, as you imply, but in general they are excited to learn new things. I love my classes.

      As far as your offer: who knows? If it keeps raining in Indiana, I may take you up on it!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Many Evangelical students, especially from home schooled environments, attend a community college either right after graduation or while still in high school. Many of these come to us with a sincere desire to defend the faith and will do so at every opportunity they get.

      i.e. They “get obnoxious”.

  8. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    This. All of this.

    It is in the lives and faith of devout laypersons, both cradle and convert, that I see the most hope for the union of our two Churches. I don’t know if I would think the same way if I lived in Bosnia or Ukraine. I doubt it. The situations there are far more polarized. Nevertheless, I cross myself when I pass one of Rome’s parishes. For all our bellyachin’ and posturin’, it is helpful to remember that we are only trying to call Rome back to an earlier version of herself, a version we can see clearly in the face of her faithful.

    I appreciate Rome because Rome is engaging Modernity. Your mention of the number of Catholic hospitals and schools is an especial rebuke to the Orthodox. It would be one thing if we were founding more monasteries, but we aren’t. In the end, we will probably be known for our pirogi festivals. 🙁 It is still anybody’s call as to whether Rome will absorb, digest, and transfigure Modernity or be devoured by it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “I appreciate Rome because Rome is engaging Modernity.”


      “It is still anybody’s call as to whether Rome will absorb, digest, and transfigure Modernity or be devoured by it”

      Likely it, as everything else, will eventually be consumed and shrink wrapped.

      But at least it will have been a spirited fight, preferred to hiding in the corner.

      • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

        But at least it will have been a spirited fight, preferred to hiding in the corner.

        I wouldn’t say the Orthodox are hiding in the corner. Vis-a-vis Modernity, they’re agin’ it, seeing as how nothing good ever came from it, not in 1721, nor in 1812, nor in 1917, nor in 1941. Seeing as how the Orthodox Church is pretty close to being a nuclear power, this is probably the wrong approach to take.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          I was thinking more about my experience with the Protestant/Evangelical sects. Most of whom, despite their numbers just don’t matter. Even the mega-church in my city I am convinced could close up shop and next to nobody who is not directly affiliated with them would ever notice; they are institutionally irrelvant. A very sad state for a group of thousands of people who can afford a multi-million dollar campus, IMNSHO.

          Maybe standing in the distance with smug disdain would be a better word picture that “hiding”. They wouldn’t want to sully themselves by becoming engaged with the world.

          Aside: I know from experience that there general Political mood contributes to the same stand-offishness. I suspect these two memes are entangled, but how can one “know’ such things.

          The RCC is the only traditional church to have much of a presence here. My personal experience with the Orthodox is exactly zero.

          • Faulty O-Ring says

            It depends on the country. Orthodoxy tends to be closely involved with the politics and culture of most countries in which it dominates, for example. Although generally a conservative, reactionary force, it is not entirely consistent, as seen e.g. in its attitudes towards the EU. (They complain about its human rights policies or associate it with the antichrist, even as they happily take money from it.)

            The Catholic Church is not just one thing, despite being centralized to some degree, and you’ll find all kinds of different aims and strategies, some of them conflicting. For that matter, modernity is not just one thing either, as Shmuel Eisenstadt points out.

  9. Christiane says

    thank you, DAMARIS, for this thoughtful and clearly-written piece

    . . . I particularly appreciate your description of the incarnational theology which is very present in the Mass. When I think of it as you describe it, I see how this theology ties so much together in meaning, especially with regard to the Eucharist.

    How much of this theology was retained after the Reformation by our Protestant brothers and sisters? (thinking primarily about Anglicans and Lutherans, here) And in what forms? Surely something substantial was retained of meaning.
    These thoughts (and others) come to mind.

    Your clear writing provokes much thought. Thanks for shining light on our liturgy for the sake of those who may know little about its meaning and its great beauty.

  10. This is my observation from visiting two non-denom type evangelical churches in the last month or so: in the absence of sacrament, or a strong emphasis on sacrament (and I’m referring here to the breaking of bread), churches are prone to default to ‘mission’ and specifically the great commission , as the emphasis. I call these “get busy” churches.

    I hope that doesn’t come across as too harsh, I have a lot of respect for those who lay down their lives in ANY fashion, but I’d be curious to hear your take on this , Damaris.

    • Oh: forgot to add that I now go to a church that strongly promotes the sacramental approach, and is still busy at social causes, but it does not feel as wretchedly urgent.

    • Greg r,

      Every denomination and congregation has to think about what they are supposed to do in church (except the silent-meeting Quakers). When they reject tradition, they have to have something else to fill the time. I think you’re right, that missions is often the default. A mission focus is great, but people have to have something to be invited TO. I remember the one time I volunteered for a political campaign, when I was a young adult. The campaign manager asked me to come into the office — and call other people to volunteer to come into the office to call other people to . . . It seemed a bit circular to me, and I didn’t come back. I’m afraid that some churches risk falling into the same pyramid scheme/chain letter trap — all invitation, no party.

      • I’m afraid that some churches risk falling into the same pyramid scheme/chain letter trap — all invitation, no party.

        That, or a perpetual holding-the-carrot-before-the-donkey by always announcing “the next move of God” just before the people realize that the last such announcement didn’t pan out.

        Or an every-few-years “change of direction.”

        Evangelicalism often seems to be fad-driven, and the charismatic movement, or whatever has taken its place, seems to be (so-called) prophecy-driven.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …in the absence of sacrament, or a strong emphasis on sacrament (and I’m referring here to the breaking of bread), churches are prone to default to ‘mission’ and specifically the great commission , as the emphasis. I call these “get busy” churches.

      The original IMonk would have called them “Wretched Urgency” churches.
      I call them “Amway with Fire Insurance instead of soap.”

      • Interesting you would bring up Amway; Both of these ‘get busy’ churches were friendly, one of them extremely so, but I could not shake the feeling/belief that it was tied to there mission, like a salesperson is friendly to close the sale. I know that’s a very subjective (and perhaps judgmental) kind of impression, but I could not shake it.

        The follow up letter from one of the churches was…… a very friendly form letter: hmmm.

        • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

          I have never been in an Evangelical church where I wasn’t hustled for Amway, or Vision Telecom, or Herbalite, or Veema, or some other mine-your-emotional-connections-for cash multi-layer-marketing scheme.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And from the other end, Amway/Herbalife/whatever deliberately patterned their high-pressure rallies on high-pressure Revival Meetings, Wretched Urgency and all. “HAVE YOU ACCEPTED AMWAY AS YOUR INCOME’S PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOR AND UPLINE?????”

  11. Damaris, Thank you for your beautiful summary of the Catholic Church. This is exactly why I became a Catholic after many years in evangelical church’s. Along with the dignity of life, the sacraments, and being a part of something that is so much bigger than my individual wants and opinions I have finally found my home. It is so vast that I could get lost for years in the rich traditions and biblical training I have received. Don’t get caught up with those who would question if you are a Christian and who are mean spirited. Keep your heart open and the love of Christ will shine through as you become an example to others.

  12. I am fascinated by the Catholic Church myself. I love the smells and bells and the history and the mystery. But, for me, the Good News is that God’s grace fully and completely accounts for my salvation. This will, I think, always keep me from crossing the threshold into the Church.

    “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves” – Ephesian 2:8

    But enough of that. We could trade verses all day I’m sure. Regardless, I am happy for you, and I view Catholics as my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to walk through the same door as you, but I fear this and a few other matters will forever keep me from doing so.

  13. I was raided in the Catholic Church, attended Catholic schools for 12 years, and still have a warm regard for the organization (that is what it, ultimately, IS), but in the times that I ruminated about returning I found that the very things that drove me away are still very much a part of that organization.

    I also found that same thing in the Orthodox tradition. Neither are a fit for ME, but I just wish that my Nazarene church practiced the Eucharist more than it does. Maybe the Anglicans…

    • Your third word scared me, Oscar — I’m hoping you were raised in the church? 🙂

      No question that there is not a perfect expression of worship in the world. I’ve moved a lot and now am going to stay where I am, with God’s grace.

  14. “and conducts itself with joyful solemnity through the liturgy.”

    An interesting juxtaposition of “joyful” and “solemnity”.

    I think many would have difficulty seeing one leading to the other.

    • Mike,

      The music of Johann Sebastian Bach perfectly illustrates the concept of joyful solemnity or, if you prefer, solemn joy.

  15. Thank you, Damaris. Like Mule, I resonate with all your points, and I agree with his further analysis.

    I experienced a lot of “Catholic guilt” growing up, and I think that had to do as much with my personality as with anything that was coming my way from the Church. The proximate cause of my leaving was that, like Luther, I needed a huge amount of Assurance, and that’s what I glommed onto in Evangelicalism. One thing that sustained me in all my years as a Protestant, ironically, was the answer to the catechism question I learned as a 7-year-old: “Why did God make me? God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” For all the Assurance I received in Evangelicalism, I couldn’t find an answer that satisfied me to the question of my very existence….

    And years before I began to investigate Orthodoxy, I began to understand just how important the Incarnation was and is. In my new awareness of it, I was taken aback that I could barely find it anywhere in Protestantism except in the version of “let’s move into an impoverished neighborhood.” (Which is certainly a commendable thing, and as I saw it, underpinned by a lot of love.) I think that deepening underlying awareness hooked into the the main constant of my life, Worship, and those undercurrents opened something in me that generated more questions and sent me searching for what I first found in N.T. Wright, and later in its fullness in Orthodoxy.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I wonder if the appeal of Orthodoxy is it’s Alienness.

      It’s not a major player in the American Christian scene, and it has an aura of being Exotic and Foreign. Whereas it’s Western Church equivalent (the RCC) is too familiar. An alternative RCC that’s as different from the RCC as you can get. As alien and exotic as Hare Krishna, but still within the Christian fold.

      • I think its appeal is similar to the appeal of the Catholic Church in its adherence to the ancient traditions and the teachings of the Church Fathers.

        But why many converts choose Orthodoxy over Catholicism I think has to do with their examining church history and feeling or concluding that the Roman Catholic Church departed from the Tradition and the Eastern Church adhered more closely to it.

        I don’t think Jaroslav Pelikan chose the Orthodox Church because of its alienness. It certainly wasn’t why we chose it over the RCC.

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        Are they really competing with the Hare Krishna for the same converts? Maybe a little, but the biggest group in the USA seem to be evangelicals in search of certain answers and stable church organization, and might otherwise have joined neo-Calvinist churches or something. Another group consists of former mainliners who are dissatisfied with their churches’ social policies (e.g. on gays), and prefer Orthodoxy over Catholicism because (a) no pope, and (b) no liberal wing. Many cite the patristic emphasis and/or the aesthetic dimension, although you hear the same thing from Anglicans.

      • HUG,

        I agree with Eric W on this.

        Having grown up RC, the externals in the praxis of the Orthodox church weren’t alien at all to me; I could “speak” that high liturgical language with the more complex worship, icons, incense, etc.

        I didn’t revert because 1) I didn’t believe one particular bishop was to be over all the others – the Catholic arguments for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome just didn’t work; 2) in the Orthodox Church it is very explicit that God loves all of mankind all the time, and I didn’t find that in my experience of RC theology, no matter how attractive I found Nouwen and Merton; 3) theologically, the Orthodox view of “original sin” – and what God did about it and why – seemed to be more consistent with God being Good, God as Love, and the teachings of Jesus – who appeared on the scene in 2temple Judaism and was addressing Jewish views that are not always explicit in the bible but are echoed in Orthodox theology as expressed in the texts of worship.

        A little later, I found the work of Philip Sherrard, particularly “Church, Papacy and Schism,” wherein he makes explicit some things I knew in my gut about RC, but couldn’t articulate, and unfolds some things about EO that again seemed more consistent with what the Apostolic Fathers expressed. What Sherrard expressed was something that rang true with me in both my RC and EO experience. The Filioque is merely a presenting issue; the root problem is much deeper.

        On my journey, I kept going back to the Apostolic Fathers. I think how “the next generation” of Christians interpreted things would be an indication and a following-on of how “the first-century church” interpreted things, and that we should really pay attention to them, especially since it was clear from the various lists of “canonical” NT books that those works were thought to be valuable and were read by Christians (not the various non-orthodox groups that simply liked some Christian ideas). Those writers come at things from somewhat different angles, but there is a consensus – a consensus that I have found holds into the Cappadocians and from them into the rest of the Eastern Church. That consensus was shared by the Western Church into about the 9th century but then dissolved over the next few centuries under various influences. As Eric W wrote, I’m one of those that think the Eastern Church held the course. But it was also more than that for me.


        • “2) in the Orthodox Church it is very explicit that God loves all of mankind all the time, and I didn’t find that in my experience of RC theology, no matter how attractive I found Nouwen and Merton …”

          An aside: you often write about this point, and I am always fascinated by it. To me, it seems far and away one of the best and most fascinating streams in Orthodox thinking.

          Many of my personal, weird little hang ups relate to trying to think or emote my way around bits of theology that seem to assert the limitedness or specificity of divine of love.

      • I don’t doubt for a moment there are real, solid, and substantial reasons that most people convert to Orthodoxy. I also suspect that one-year process it takes to join helps give people time to think over what they are doing. It’s too drastic a move for a person to do in a trance.

        But I’m curious what you all think here – isn’t there a touch of truth to what HUG is suggesting? It seems to me that the evangelicals might be motivated to take a first “pass” by Orthodoxy because it claims to be the One True Original (which calls out to evangelicals’ primitivist leanings). Also, because it is catholic, but might seem less scary or at least different than Roman Catholicism. Also, because it allows one to slip some of the Catholic-Protestant wrangling and theological categories. And does it not help boister this hope, that westerners have long imagined the East to be exotic, a keeper of secrets, and a paradox? Or that Orthodox parishes hail from different cultures, and that it can be hard to distinguish the sensation of crossing cultures from time traveling? Do you have concerns about Americans converting while still a bit ‘dazzled’?

        I’m perhaps influenced a bit by Franky Schaeffer here. His (terrible?) book on Orthodoxy, which he wrote after his conversion, came into my hands in high school and was my first introduction to the subject. And so far as I can tell, Franky was spoiling for a fight, fresh out of the culture wars, and seemed to want something that was more Fundamental and Pure than fundamentalism, in order to have better ammo. By the time he wrote the book, he’d concluded it was not enough to win a factional war in the West: no, the whole West was the problem. (It’s almost like he was one upping his father: Francis Schaeffer put the “line of despair” at Kant, with the first shocks appearing with Thomas Aquinas; Franky countered by dating the demise of the West to Augustine!) In short, it seemed to me like Franky was basically accepting of all the arguments you allude to, but he was thinking and feeling and appropriating through a very ‘evangelical’ lens. In fact, I’m totally dumb-founded by the book’s name. It was “Dancing Alone.” Dancing alone is what Franky has always wanted to do – be singular, and the fighter of causes. It is also a very American and rather evangelical fantasy. But is it an Orthodox one? I’m not sure how that book was received in Orthodox circles, but I’ve long suspected it to be the least Orthodox book available on Orthodoxy… three-quarters evangelical, and a quarter Orthodox.

        • I heard and met Frank Schaeffer in early 2005, I believe, at a Festival of Orthodoxy in Dallas that also featured Clark Carlton and the late Peter Gillquist. I bought a copy of Frank’s book, which he signed. In conversation afterwards and/or maybe in response to a question I asked him, he said that if he had the time he would probably rewrite about half the book. I think he was implying that he was too angry in that book.

          OTOH, based on what he’s written since then, as well as his present attitude toward the Orthodox Church and its teachings (though he still attends), I’m not sure his attitude has changed much. He’s coming to Dallas in a couple weeks to speak at a friend’s church per his latest book about why he’s an atheist who believes in God (the title – subtitled How to give love, create beauty and find peace). Not sure I’d learn much more by going than I already have from his books and columns.

        • Actually I tried several Roman Catholic Churches before I decided to give the Orthodox Church a visit/try. I had gone once to an Orthodox Church (a vespers service, I think) and found it drab and boring, but not necessarily alien. On the other hand, my several weird and offputting experiences at the local Catholic churches didn’t help make them attractive to me, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with/by the various Protestant-to-Catholic converts’ books and stories I had read.

          I was actually reluctant to visit the Orthodox Church, thinking it would in fact be too alien, too ethnic, too liturgical, etc. But I warmed up to it pretty quickly and so did my wife, much to my surprise.

          Attracted by its “alienness”? No. Attracted by its being about the furthest thing possible from the charismania we were fleeing? Probably somewhat.

          • “I think he was implying that he was too angry in that book.”

            That pretty much sums it up.

            The trouble I have with Franky’s writing aren’t really his concerns (I understand his journey from culture warrior to convert to liberal all too well) or his arguments (although I disagree with some of them). Rather, it’s his aggressiveness. He’s always spoiling to burn something to the ground, but can’t make up his mind on what the target is. First, it was liberals and secularization. Then the West. Then his father’s legacy, and also Republicans. I like him, and I sympathize with him, but I don’t trust the mania. I will be curious to see if his tone shifts at all in the latest book.

            “Attracted by its being about the furthest thing possible from the charismania we were fleeing? Probably somewhat.”

            Yes, that makes perfect sense. And in a way, Orthodoxy is the furtherest thing from “charismania”, but has a ‘charisma’ of its own. I’m not sure if that is the right way to put it. It’s too unfamiliar to me for me to ever be sure if my perceptions are correct. But there’s part of it that seems the most high church thing possible, yet there’s another part that is almost pentecostal. The analogies I just used aren’t quite right, though. I’m verbally circling something I can see but not describe.

          • Danielle:

            I think I understand. We were in the EOC for 3 years. Our convert priest was very rigorous and dedicated, and though it was and is one of the smallest EO churches in the metroplex, the church probably had the most services of any of them. So we had lots of opportunities to experience all the feasts, fasts, services, liturgies, occasions, etc.

      • I don’t think that’s really it, HUG. For one thing, if you grew up Evangelical and you’re just looking for the “Other”, wouldn’t a Catholic traditional Latin Mass community be even more strange and exotic? For another thing, and this is entirely anecdotal, I’ve known a fair number of converts to EO now, and not a one of them was the type of person just looking for an alien experience. Rather, most of them were reading lots and lots of patristics… I dunno, do you know anybody that went EO because its exotic?

      • “I dunno, do you know anybody that went EO because its exotic?”

        I don’t qualify to answer because I’m not a an EO convert, but to an extent I do feel my response to EO containing an element of that impulse. I might be unique in this. And I doubt it would be enough to motivate me or anyone else by itself, and its not shallowness. It’s just an element that is in the cultural air that affects perception – the way the West thinks about the East; the habit of the industrial revolution’s middle class to get super hyped up on handmade items, Arts & crafts style decorations, high church anglicanism, and all things oriental; the ability to see that which fascinates us, but is not yet overly familiar, as the canvas against which to project our hopes and terrors — a la Franky’s quest for the Fundamental thing. Spy vs. spy stories are sexier when your adversary is Russian instead of German. Although Germans can nail the whole brooding gig pretty well. :p

        Ultimately, going EO in the US is so unusual that I think almost everyone who does it as thought it over in an unusually intense way – my question is just born from the fact that I am still fascinated by how people imagine and perceive things.

        • Danielle, i think it is entirely possible to make a strong case for Orientalist interpretation of the Orthodox churches – not least because of British and French presences in parts of the Middle East post-Ottoman Empire. I think that underlies the appeal of Anglo-Catholicism for many, right along with the art, the often dazzling vestments, the music, the incense (which is not at all appealing to me, as it makes me sneeze), etc. It is all SO different than white bread-style low church American Protestantism, and i do think this has more influence on converts than they might realize and/or be willing to admit.

          Mind you, i’m from a liturgical church myself, so all of that makes sense to me. It certainly is a feast for the senses, and i think Orthodoxy has something going for it with its emphasis on icons rather than statuary as well. I know that sits better with me, for many reasons, as much aesthetic as anything else. (Though the stylization of most icon painting is a bit too unrealistic and flat and “dematerialized” for my taste.)

          • Meant to say “Orientalist as in Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism'” above.

          • “Mind you, i’m from a liturgical church myself, so all of that makes sense to me.”

            Oh yes, I can totally paint myself into the picture.

            “Meant to say “Orientalist as in Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’” above.”

            I was thinking of Said. Also Christopher Lasch’s “No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture.”

            I often get the idea we’ve read the same books – by chance, did you go through a history grad program? Do you work in art history?

          • Danielle, yes, I’ve got a grad degree in art history, and an undergrad one in studio art. But I’m not wearing either hat at present

            Have always loved history (of all sorts). And the arts.

          • btw, i know Lasch’s name but have never read anything by him.

          • numo, cool! My grad degree is in American history. My area is American religion. I know very little about art, however – I just envy people who know about art.

  16. Thank you for sharing this Damaris.

    It would appear the Catholic blog-sphere is ablaze with the recent release of Relatio Post Disceptationem. Some are urging for calmness, others scream schism is coming. Much rhetoric it would seem is flying from both sides. It would appear change is coming, but then again maybe not?

    I’m curious to what your thoughts regarding the Synod’s publication might be (I recognize it isn’t final)? Especially in lieu of your comment ” but the essential things will remain the same. We did not experience this security in the shifting world of evangelicalism.”

    And for that matter the thoughts of any other RC readers?

    • Good question, Donaldski. Once again the general media misapprehends and miscommunicates. Many headlines seem to imply that ideas offered as discussion points in a year-long process are ex-cathedra statements of faith. I read an article yesterday, I believe in BBC News, that attributed a quotation to Pope Francis as a declaration that was actually, according to Catholic News Service, spoken by Cardinal Erdo in the midst of a discussion. I’m afraid that conservative Catholics are as quick to misapprehend as gay-rights activists. I’m not concerned about the future of the church for several reasons: I don’t see that the church is denying or unraveling the historic faith that it has held for 2,000 years even if it alters wording or focus; the motivation behind the discussions seems to be love, as it should be; and neither the hardliners nor the advocates of change are realistic about the the speed that change can happen in the church. Those two groups seem to me like people standing on either side of The Queen Elizabeth II shouting, “Quick! Turn this way! Right now!” The ship of the church has a far wider turning radius than extremists want or fear.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Those two groups seem to me like people standing on either side of The Queen Elizabeth II shouting, “Quick! Turn this way! Right now!” The ship of the church has a far wider turning radius than extremists want or fear.

        That wide turning radius (“large tactical diameter” is the nautical term) is a feature, not a bug. It acts as a shock absorber, as it takes a lot of consistency over time to cause a course change.

        Imagine steering a course by instant-feedback Twitter polls (and the loudest throats), jerking from hard left rudder to hard right rudder every few seconds. Instead of dodging an iceberg, you’d plow right into it as the hard left and hard right kept cancelling each other out.

    • I’m not Catholic, so I have the luxury of sitting in the peanut gallery and dropping objects on people while they try to puzzle out the meaning of “Relatio Post Disceptationem.”

      From where I sit, my impressions are three:

      – “Relatio Post Disceptationem” mostly contains statements one would expect to see, along with 3 or 4 that are genuinely surprising. They are surprising not because they suggest a move toward any “new” Catholic teaching, but because they are distinct shifts in tone – and even go so far as to venture the notion that even in relationships the church does not sanction, there is some good. That idea is not alien or new, but it’s always notable when someone high up says this out loud. There is also a lot of language about pastoral care for people who are not in compliance with Catholic teaching, and meeting them where they are, so to speak, in order to bring them toward Catholic ideals.

      -The surprising statements say much less than Catholic liberals or hopeful outsiders (like me) would wish. However, that these statements are being discussed at high levels is interesting. I wonder if these ideas will disappear in later documents, or how they will transmute.

      -The shock and dismay of some Catholic commentators to these very small steps is to be expected, but it has the effect of making me gloomy. It would help if more arch conservatives sounded like Francis.

      • Christiane says

        thing is, many of these so-called ‘Catholic’ conservative commentators have long since abandoned the Church’s ethos of mercy towards the poor and compassion for those who are ‘wounded’. You will remember that even the Catholic bishops of our country REJECTED Paul Ryan’s ‘budget’ proposal as punitive towards the poor.

        I think these commentators are more radical than traditionally Catholic. . . they mirror the extreme right wing fundamentalist-evanglical mantra towards gay people and they fail to support much of Catholic social doctrine which wants the poor guarded from abuse and exploitation, and wants for ALL human beings, regardless of sex, faith, or sexual orientation, to be treated with DIGNITY as human persons made in the image of God and possessing a God-given soul.

        In short, as Papa ten Boom once said, ‘just because a mouse is in the cookie jar doesn’t make him a cookie.

        Catholic people at the core of their faith understand compassion and mercy, and if these commentators have lost their connection with that core, they will no longer wish to follow the Church’s guidelines on social doctrine that demands we respect the innate dignity of all human persons. .

    • I’m not so sure that this as much of a “nothing to make a big deal about” event… the Relatio is, of course, not a final draft or a magisterial document. But the way it was released, and the reaction of many cardinals (who are giving outraged interviews to the media) seem to me to be indicative that something’s rotten in Denmark… ie, I’m not sure what’s going on is as much of a “synod” as it is a carefully choreographed push for an agenda. Cardinal Burke told an interviewer that is “past time” that Francis make a public statement reaffirming Catholic doctrine…anyone here, Catholic or otherwise, recall another time in recent history that a cardinal saw fit to publicly call out a sitting pope like that?

  17. Christiane says

    what I got from the report was a more open expression of Christ-like compassion for those in families that are ‘wounded’ . . . all ‘kinds’ of families included

    . . . . and something more: an open recognition that for the people who live with ‘partners’ and care for them unselfishly in time of need, their compassionate caring is something to be commended as valued in the eyes of the Church . . .

    BTW, this was a ‘preliminary’ conference . . . a greater one will come in future, and at that time, perhaps we will have some more light shed on the Church’s plans for ministry to the many who now live within ‘wounded’ families. These days, that’s a LOT of people.

  18. Damaris, it is wonderful to read your essay again, along with your update. I’m glad you still feel like you are home, and rooted somewhere you can flourish.

    Everything you say about incarnational theology resonates with me. I’ve benefitted greatly from moving into a sacramental Protestant tradition, and from reflecting on how the Incarnation is both a singular event and also (as you wrote) “God’s regular mode of revealing himself to us.” The faith that the ordinary stuff of life becomes a means of grace gives me a very, well, tangible way of thinking about God’s presence. It provides a way of talking about what is good in the ordinary, in what is all around us. It acknowledges the brokenness of the world and our experience of that brokenness, and legitimizes our attendant grief. And it longs for a redemption that is hopeful, yet not escape and not a hatred of what “is.” Yet it does not limit God to what “is,” either, or to any one cause of set of experiences. In fact, it relieves the burden of always looking for some kind of pure inner experience, which is elusive, and balances reflection and work, mind and body, faith and service. As I’ve deconstructed and reconstituted faith and theology for myself, this has been so helpful, and a source of comfort as well.

    • Danielle,

      Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’ essay “Transposition?” It’s a profound consideration of the capacity of “lower” things (in the Platonic sense) to carry higher meanings. That and Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World are great reads on this topic.

      • I have not read them. [Well, perhaps Transposition, but it would have been long ago…]

        I’ll check them out.

  19. “Despite the people I meet who insist that Catholics aren’t Christians…”

    I’ve met Catholics that were Christian and other who weren’t. Nonetheless you get that in every church and denomination. I love all the reasons you gave for joining the Catholic church. I wish those same characteristics were found in protestant churches. Especially the universality and the incarnational aspects you mentioned. I don’t know the doctrines of the Church however the ones I do know, or at least have seen practiced, I am very leery of. I’m sure you’ve heard this before. But, I question the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. I question praying to the saints who have died and have gone to be with Jesus. Also, the position of the Church that only those in the Church will be saved in the end. I don’t believe this is the witness of the Apostles or the early church fathers.

    The Catholic Church has a rich tradition going back to the beginning. She has kept well the texts of our faith, the history, and relics. I respect the Church and will always welcome her people as brothers and sisters in Christ.