22 January 2007

Drawn like a magnet

In 1967 I was a seventeen-year-old college freshman, living away from home for the first time. I was raised in a Methodist household, and had been very active in the local church: Sunday School, followed by the eleven o’clock service, and then back on Sunday evening for the weekly meeting of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. When I had packed my things and gone off to begin my college studies, it wouldn’t have been possible to have appeared any more solidly Methodist than I did. But it was the sixties, protest was in the air, and this was my time to be rebellious. On my first Sunday morning away from home, I made my decision. It was brash… almost devilish, I thought. I decided not to go to the Methodist Church. Rather, in the free spirit of protest, I headed off to the Presbyterian Church. I suppose I was what might be called a rather conservative rebel.

I tell this story because my path of protest was actually Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey. The Presbyterian Church was several blocks away, and to get there I had about a thirty-minute walk. On the way there, I would have to pass St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Up until this time, all I knew about the Catholic Church from the part of New England where I had grown up was that an awful lot of Italian and Portuguese people seemed to belong to it. I had been in a Catholic Church only once, as a very young boy, and I didn’t remember much about it except for a very large, very pastel statue which I imagined was staring at me.

But now, here I was, a young man of seventeen, hundreds of miles away from home, feeling slightly naughty for shunning the Methodists, and now seeing a Catholic Church just ahead on my right. Crowds of people were pouring in. Whatever the Catholics were accustomed to doing on Sunday mornings was about to begin. I had to step a bit sideways to try and get by the stream of people, but unsuccessfully. I’d heard of people getting swept along by the crowd, and now it was happening to me. As I got further up the walkway towards the front door, it struck me: this was, perhaps, my punishment for neglecting my Methodist duties.

There I was, right on the threshold and so I decided not to resist. I went with the flow of people right into St. Paul’s Catholic Church. What greeted me astonished me. Statues, votive candles, dangling rosaries, kneeling people. Something was beginning. There was chant, there was the whiff of incense, there was mystery. It would have been in Latin, I suppose, although I can’t say that I noticed. I was overwhelmed. And all the time I couldn’t take my eyes off the veiled tabernacle, marked by a hanging lamp.

What it was, I did not know at the time. But what it was touched my heart in a way that it had never been touched before. I suppose, in a sense, I was following in the steps of my spiritual forebear, John Wesley, whose “heart was strangely warmed.” But rather than being, as he was, at Aldersgate, my “heart was strangely warmed” in St. Paul’s on Nassau Street.

When it was over I walked outside and went off to the later service at the Presbyterian Church. What the preacher said there I don’t remember. All I could think about was what I had seen, and what I had experienced, and that I didn’t understand. After that, every time I passed St. Paul’s, my feet carried me inside. And although I couldn’t admit it to myself then, nor could I begin to explain it to myself, every time I went inside I felt like I was somehow “meeting Christ,” and those feelings would lead me out of the Methodist Church into the Episcopal Church after transferring to another college, and then finally – years later -- home, to the Catholic Church.