In the story I am recounting here, while I am preserving the core narrative and conversations, enough details about the actual person have been altered to make certain no particular person is identifiable.
Over 20 years ago, I knew a gentleman who had converted from atheism to the Catholic faith. He was a very bright man, a successful professional, a dilettantish philosopher of sorts and was filled with great passion for his newfound faith. In fact, I believe he was one of the most creatively articulate apologists for the Catholic position I have personally met, which was remarkable since he had not been Catholic more than a few years when I met him. And he was married.
Then he had an affair.
Deep in the midst of the affair, he came to me to talk. What was clear to me as we spoke was that he was in great inner turmoil, filled with fear for the repercussions of his choices and was looking for a way out that would leave everyone unhurt. He just wanted it all to “go away.” But, of course, that was no longer possible.
Then he made a series of decisions that secured his estrangement from his wife and children. But, for a time, he still felt himself in the good graces of the Church.
After that initial meeting I had with him, he began to avoid me. Finally one day we ran into each other and I, with a forthrightness rare for me, confronted him on the irreconcilability of his decisions with the man of faith I had previously come to know. Then he said something very revealing:
“Well, the problem is the Church and I are having a bit of a, well, we just see things differently, that’s all.”
I said to him,
“Remember, there was a time that whenever you said ‘we,’ you just meant the Church, because that’s who you were. And don’t you see that defending your bad choices hasn’t just broken your relationship with the Church? It has alienated you from yourself—you are a Catholic. It’s like starving yourself to death and then saying, as you suffer its ill effects, ‘Human nature and I, well, we just disagree on some things.'”
What was striking about the shift in his language of “identity” was that it so clearly revealed precisely how his choices had estranged him from the Church. This man who once ardently defended his faith, the Church’s faith, would always use the words “we believe” when he spoke so boldly to his work colleagues or his family or to anyone who was willing to listen to him speak in defense of the Catholic vision of life. Suddenly, he found himself inwardly divided and estranged, unable to profess the unity that is the essence of Catholic identity.
That’s obviously what all sin does in all of us, especially and most tragically when we obstinately refuse to suffer the truth of our failing and falling from grace, our infidelity. His story is, with different details, our story. All of us have our cherished affairs with strange gods. But refusal to repent of those affairs is the death of the soul. It’s what Scripture calls hardness of heart. And it’s what St. Isaac of Nineveh means when he says, “The purpose of this life is repentance.” We are all called to heal within us what C.S. Lewis famously called “the great divorce.”
This man continued to practice his faith for a time, but those who knew him noticed at once a significant change: he lost his apologetic fire and eventually ceased defending the Church’s views and stopped attending Mass. He said later said to someone, “I’m just picking up where I left off before I became Catholic.”
Faith’s beauty emerges from the unified harmony of a symphonic whole. If one particular element of the symphony is changed, with a section of an orchestra choosing to play their own self-crafted score, the intrusion of willful dissonance causes the beauty of the unified symphony to become disharmonious, distorted, and ugly. To stretch the analogy, the core of holiness, which is always the manifestation of the well-proportioned and arranged beauty of Catholic faith, is cheated of its integral beauty if even one portion of the score or one instrument in the orchestra is scripted and played apart from the inner logic of the whole. The word Catholic comes from the Greek, kath’ holou—kata, “about,” and the genitive of holos, “whole.” It’s about becoming whole.
In 108 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch made this same point to priest-presbyters in his letter to the Church at Ephesus:
“Hence it is fitting for you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your noble presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as the strings to a lyre. And thus by means of your accord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. Form yourselves one and all into a choir, that blending in concord and taking the keynote of God, you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, that he may hear you and recognize you through your good deeds to be members of His Son. Therefore it is profitable for you to live in blameless unity, that you may always enjoy communion with God.”
They believe…I believe
Conversion at core means to make the faith of the Church, which we believe to be the revelation of the mind of Christ, our faith. When I profess the Creed every Sunday, I don’t just mean this is what Catholics believe (“They believe in one God…”), but I publicly pledge, under oath, this is what I believe, this is how I see the world, how I see God, how I pray, and so how I live. Of course, all of us live betwixt and between “they believe” and “I believe,” and none of us, this side of Paradise, perfectly synthesizes the two in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Only the Virgin Mary and Our Lord lived perfectly harmonized lives. But it is our calling to journey toward this saintly synthesis that is effected by the cooperative interplay of grace and our daily choices.
This New Year, resolve that your daily prayer and work conspire to make of your life a Christ-symphony, a faith which creates beautiful harmonies and opens in you a space for Jesus to sing in sync with you (cf Matt. 26:30). Pray also for the courage and humility to daily disown, disavow, and renounce all that is contrary to faith in Christ so that you might own, avow, and announce Christ in your life.
Daily say Credo with gusto!
Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make my heart like unto Thine.